Magic City seems an appropriate place for Derby Dreams to begin.
Magic City is a nickname for Billings, Mont., home to the owners of Frac Daddy, a colt that will likely go off at long odds when the gates open at Churchill Downs May 4.
But that's just fine with Carter Stewart and Kenneth Schlenker of Magic City Thoroughbred Partners.
Few gave their colt, Golden Ticket, a chance in last year's Travers Stakes, but at 33-1, the son of Speightstown dead-heated with 2-1 race favorite, Alpha. The Magic City colors were painted on one of two canoes in the Saratoga infield, denoting the Travers' winner(s).
The partners hope Frac Daddy can pull off the same kind of surprise in Louisville and be draped in roses.
“He's way under the radar,” Stewart said. “I know we're not going to be the favorite or anything, but he's getting better every day.”
Stewart and Schlenker only began pursuing their dream of having a Derby starter two years ago. While they had run horses at small tracks and county fairs in Montana, financial success in the oil business prompted Stewart to think bigger. In the spring of 2011, after having connected with trainer Ken McPeek, Stewart went to Kentucky looking for a Derby horse. On McPeek's advice, he bought a couple of two-year-olds at the Keeneland April Sale. One of them was Golden Ticket.
Stewart returned to Keeneland for the 2011 September Yearling Sale, and again with McPeek's guidance, bought a group of horses that included Frac Daddy. The son of Scat Daddy went for $50,000.
“Kenny (McPeek) likes Scat Daddy,” said Stewart. “So, he liked the pedigree, he liked the looks, and from what we've seen from Kenny, he's really good at picking these horses out. So, we let him do the short list and then come to us. And if he likes something, we try to accommodate him.”
Frac Daddy impressed in his debut at Belmont Park last October, finishing 2nd, 13 lengths clear of the third-place runner. In his second start in early November, he crushed a field of 12 at Churchill Downs, breaking his maiden by nearly 10 lengths. Three weeks later, he was beaten a neck by Uncaptured in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.
“I think this horse has got as good a chance as any horse I've had in my career,” McPeek said, when asked last winter about Frac Daddy's Kentucky Derby prospects.
But things looked dicey to start 2013. After recovering from lesions on his throat, Frac Daddy grabbed a quarter in his first start of the year in the Grade 3 Holy Bull, where he finished sixth. He followed that up with a 7th-place finish in the G1 Florida Derby. Stewart and Schlenker believed he needed the race, but now their Kentucky Derby hopes all came down to the Arkansas Derby in mid-April.
“This time, we got Victor Lebron on him, and Victor did a great job, and he said Frac Daddy did everything he wanted him to,” Stewart said.
In the Florida Derby, it appeared Frac Daddy didn't like getting dirt kicked in his face, so McPeek instructed Lebron to race wide at Oaklawn and keep him in the clear. Despite a four-wide run throughout, Frac Daddy stayed on well in the Arkansas Derby to get up for second behind Overanalyze, earning the colt 40 points and a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
“Our goal was to get one in the Derby, and we've got three different years of horses now, so we have more coming up for next year,” Stewart said. “We figured if we could spread it out over a three-year period, that would give us a better shot, and sure enough, here we go in our second year, we've got one in the Derby.”
Had the new Road to the Kentucky Derby points system been in place last year, Magic City might have had a Derby starter with their first crop, but despite a 2nd-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby, Golden Ticket fell short on earnings for the 2012 trip to Louisville. Stewart and Schlenker don't take credit for their remarkable early success chasing their Derby Dreams. They give it all to McPeek.
“Whatever Kenny tells us to do, we usually do,” Stewart chuckled. “He calls us up when it's race time, and we go have fun.”
While Frac Daddy is still showing signs of immaturity, his pedigree suggests he should like the Classic distance. His dam, Skipper's Mate, is a daughter of Skip Away, and her first foal won in England on the flat and over the hurdles at distances from 1 1/2 miles to two miles. Skip Away also produced a champion steeplechaser. Frac Daddy, with his gray coat and large frame, bears a resemblance to the 1998 Horse of the Year.
“I was around Skip Away when (trainer) Sonny Hine had him, and this horse reminds me of him,” McPeek said.
Frac Daddy is named for the oil and gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which has helped the Magic City partners make their money in the energy business. Fracking uses high volumes of water mixed with a small amount of chemicals and sand to create artificial cracks in underground rock formations, tapping into deep, previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves. It's a controversial process that has prompted protests over environmental concerns.
“I've been a geologist for 30 years, and I can assure you there's nothing wrong with fracking,” said Stewart. “It's a great thing for our country to help wean ourselves from having to depend on foreign oil. It's actually a godsend for the industry, and this horse is a godsend to us.”
Since their Travers win and especially now with a Derby horse, Stewart and Schlenker have become celebrities in Magic City. Schlenker, an investor in a downtown Billings brewpub, said Uberbrew will serve Frac Daddy beer on Derby day.
Even if their unusually-named colt doesn't upset the Kentucky Derby, the partners still hope to defend their title in the Travers and “sink the other canoe” in the Saratoga infield.
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