Florida-based trainer Michelle Nihei has not made a trip to Churchill Downs since the spring of 2013 but on Saturday, the former neuroscientist, hopes her journey to Kentucky will lead to a start in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (Grade I) with Royal Urn in the $150,000 Iroquois Stakes – a “Win and You're” in event for the Nov. 2 championship race.“It was just two barns across the way when I was last here for the Breeders' Cup with Prince Will I Am,” said Nihei, who is based in Barn 41 with Royal Urn. “I have some very fond memories here and I really hope to get back to the Breeders' Cup with this horse.”
Owned by Casa Farms I, Royal Urn broke his maiden Aug. 24 at Gulfstream Park at first asking under jockey Leonel Reyes.
“Florida racing is tough over the summer,” Nihei said. “We're holding our own and have some good horses down there. This was a logical spot to send this horse to try and get back to the Breeders' Cup.
“It's funny – this horse actually looks a lot like Prince Will I Am. They have very similar facial markings with spots on their forehead.”
Prince Will I Am raced at Churchill Downs five times throughout his 19-race career, most notably crossing the wire second in the Breeders' Cup Marathon (GIII) in 2010 but was disqualified and placed 10th due to interference.
Unlike many trainers, Nihei did not grow up on the racetrack and was actually a neuroscientist prior to taking out her trainer's license in 2007.
“I always rode horses as a kid and that had my interest growing up,” Nihei explained. “I grew up in a very academic family so I just always felt it was normal going through all of the schooling before starting my career. I was almost at a crossroads when I got out of school and was deciding if this was what I really wanted to do with my life.”
Nihei grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and worked at Johns Hopkins University for nearly five years before she joined the Todd Pletcher stable in 2003 as an exercise rider.
“I sort of stuck my foot in the sport and ended up diving right in,” Nihei said. “I love it.”
The 1 1/16-mile Iroquois, one of four stakes events on the first Saturday of the 11-day September Meet, is the first scoring race on the 2018-19 “Road to the Kentucky Derby” – the series of 35 races that will ultimately determine the field for the 145thrunning of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (GI) on Saturday, May 4, 2019. Points awarded to the Top 4 Iroquois finishers will be 10-4-2-1 as part of the 19-race “Prep Season” that showcases foundation-building races in advance of the “Kentucky Derby Championship Series,” which begins in late February.
The complete Iroquois field from the rail out (with jockey, trainer, assigned weight and morning line odds): Mr Wrench It(Euclyn Prentice Jr., Coty Davidson, 120 pounds, 30-1); Royal Urn (Reyes, Nihei, 118, 12-1); Drunk as a Skunk (Joe Rocco Jr., Doug Anderson, 118, 30-1); Tight Ten (Ricardo Santana Jr., Steve Asmussen, 118, 2-1); My Sixth Sense (Shaun Bridgmohan, Mark Casse, 118, 10-1); Tobacco Road (Julien Leparoux, Asmussen, 120, 6-1); Pole Setter (Florent Geroux, Brad Cox, 118, 6-1);Cairo Cat (Brian Hernandez Jr., Kenny McPeek, 118, 8-1); Manny Wah (Channing Hill, Wayne Catalano, 118, 8-1); Hog Creek Hustle (Corey Lanerie, Vickie Foley, 118, 10-1); Synthesis (Drayden Van Dyke, Keith Desormeaux, 118, 12-1); and Everfast(Robby Albarado, Dale Romans, 118, 12-1).
The Iroquois is carded as Race 10 at 5:26 p.m. (all times Eastern) on an 11-race card that begins at 12:45 p.m.
Other stakes races on Saturday's program are the 35th running of the $100,000 Locust Grove (GIII) for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles and the 10th running of the $100,000 Open Mind (Listed) for fillies and mares at six furlongs.
The four stakes, which are the last four races on the card, comprise an all-stakes late Pick 4 and are part of the late Pick 5 and Single 6 Jackpot sequence.
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