Chester Thomas, the two-time Ellis Park leading owner from nearby Madisonville, Ky., had no plans to run his 3-year-old standout Mr. Money in the Breeders' Cup for much of the year. But plans changed after Mr. Money's streak of four straight impressive victories in Grade 3 stakes was tripped up in the final strides of Parx Racing's $1 million, Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby won long shot Math Wizard.
Thomas and trainer Bret Calhoun said they believed Santa Anita made appropriate changes to the racetrack to alleviate concerns about the rash of injuries to horses during the spring amid record rainfall. While the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic had been given some consideration, Mr. Money is headed to the $1 million Big Ass Fan Dirt Mile (for those not familiar with this corporate sponsor, the Lexington-based company makes really big fans for industrial, agricultural and commercial use).
“I think the mile and an eighth is well within his scope,” Calhoun said of the decision to run in the Nov. 2 Dirt Mile. “A mile and a quarter is definitely an unknown. Might be fine, but right now I don't want to be experimenting. I want to go with something we know.
“All year long, we've taken a certain course with this horse, been pretty methodical about it. It's worked out well. It was a tough beat in the Pennsylvania Derby. But honestly, the loss in the Pennsylvania Derby was one of the reasons we got pointed in this direction because we felt like we needed to win a Grade 1 on a big stage.”
In a race where no one else went out early, Mr. Money found himself on the lead of the 1 1/8-mile Pennsylvania Derby, the first time the 3-year-old colt had ever been in front early in a race. Jockey Gabriel Saez slowed down the pace but couldn't hold off Math Wizard at the end.
“It was obviously a disappointment to us,” Calhoun said. “I don't think it was necessarily him not being at his best. He got down on the inside of that track, which is not ideal there. He was really restrained for most of the race. I think it took a little bit of his advantage, which is a high-cruising speed. He tends to run them off their feet a bit. A couple of things here and there. I think he went into the race very good, was just unlucky that day, and he came out of it good.”
Thomas was on hand Friday morning when Mr. Money worked an easy half-mile in 48 seconds, ninth fastest among 80 at the distance at Churchill Downs, shortly after the track opened at 5:30.
The owner noted that cutting back in distance after a fifth place in the 1 1/8-mile to the Pat Day Mile, as Mr. Money embarked on his win streak.
“The horse has had five really good races, two 1 1/8-mile races. We're trying to save him for next year,” Thomas said. “The Dirt Mile just seemed like a logical place. Goldencents, his sire, won that race twice, as a 3-year-old and 4-year-old. We're thinking the horse will fit in there pretty well. The horse has earned his spot to get there. He's had a phenomenal summer and fall, really thriving. Bret and those guys have done an awesome job. The horse deserves the opportunity to go out there and run against the best. Hopefully we'll find out how good he is.”
Mr. Money started his career last year with a pair of seconds at Ellis Park before winning at Churchill Downs and finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. An untimely illness compromised his Derby prep schedule, but the colt rebounded from three defeats to blow through the Pat Day Mile, Churchill Downs' Matt Winn, the Indiana Derby and the West Virginia Derby.
Thomas called the subsequent Pennsylvania Derby defeat “brutal.”
“Are you kidding me? To get caught at the wire, they called it a neck, to get beat a long head,” he said. “But I could see it coming down the stretch. It's horse racing. It takes a lot of luck.”
Still, Thomas is extremely grateful for the year he's had. It started with By My Standards winning the $1 million, Grade 2 Louisiana Derby to give Thomas his first graded stakes triumph. By My Standards finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby and afterward went to the sidelines. But Mr. Money took over with aplomb and became a millionaire.
“It's been a phenomenal year,” Thomas said. “We're just pinching ourselves.”
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