Whether an owner, trainer or bettor, horse racing is a roller-coaster, not for the faint-hearted and where stick-to-itivness is required. Albaugh Family Stables has the top-ranked horse in Gary West's first Kentucky Derby rankings. But getting to that tenuous peak has involved a couple of tumbles off the precipice.
Widely hyped, the Dale Romans-traine Dennis' Moment was squeezed shortly out of the gate and unseated his jockey in his debut. He then won by 19 1/4 lengths at Ellis Park, backing that up with a strong victory in Churchill Downs' Iroquois Stakes, the first qualifying race for the 2020 Kentucky Derby. Sent off the favorite in the Nov. 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, with the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old on the line, Dennis' Moment, breaking from the rail, stumbled badly at the start and trailed the field throughout at Santa Anita.
There's been brilliance and bummers, and nothing in between. So what better horse to give us a behind-the-scenes peek at trying to get a 3-year-old to racing's Holy Grail, the Kentucky Derby? In the three months leading up to the Kentucky Derby, Albaugh Family Stables and their representatives will be sharing their thoughts and feelings as they try to get a pair of talented youngsters to the starting gate on the First Saturday in May: Dennis' Moment, who makes his 2020 debut in Gulfstream Park's Feb. 29th Fountain of Youth, and 2-for-2 Thousand Words, a $1 million Keeneland yearling co-owned with Spendthrift Farm and who makes his 3-year-old debut in Saturday's Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.
To get us started, we hear from Jason Loutsch, racing manager and co-owner of Albaugh Family Stables, as well as son in law of Dennis Albaugh, the entrepreneur and philanthropist for whom Dennis' Moment is named. Loutsch and Albaugh live in Iowa, outside Des Moines. Loutsch recently spoke by phone with turf journalist Jennie Rees.
Give us an update on Dennis' Moment and Thousand Words.
“Let's start with Dennis' Moment. Nov. 1 seems like a long time ago. As long as we've been in the horse business, the excitement of the Breeders' Cup and the way he was training, going into the race, we'd never really been more confident. Not knowing we were going to win, but just that he was going to run well because he was training so good. To win the Breeders' Cup is so hard, and to be in position and to be a favorite in that race, it was just so disappointing that we never had a chance. It was a tough pill to swallow, but we regrouped. It's a long time to February 29th, but he's doing really well. He got a nice 30, 45-day break and came back and has been training awesome. He feels great and has grown up. Our confidence in him has not gone down at all. We still feel the same way about him and can't wait to see the real Dennis at the end of the month.”
When they stumble like that, horses often come out with at least a minor issue, a muscle strain or something. Did anything ever surface with Dennis?
“Never. He came back and went to WinStar Farm, and he was a little stiff. Just think how we feel when we get up in the morning and are a little stiff, and he's a 1,200-pound animal. But structurally nothing was wrong, which is a blessing. We never had to do anything to him, just a little R&R, which is great. Nothing really changed. We were going on to WinStar after the race, regardless. We were just thankful nothing came out of it as far as structural damage at all.”
Does it feel like you'll be holding your breath when he runs again? So far it's been either brilliance or disaster with him.
“I'm more a half-full glass guy; I'm positive and think we're going to see brilliance. The circumstances that he had in the two races are just unfortunate. They happen every day in racing. It happened to him twice, but he's a talented horse. It was just bad timing, bad luck. Going forward, I think we'll be fine.”
Do you think in terms of “hopefully we got all the bad luck out of the way at age 2”?
“That's what we're hoping. That's what we told ourselves. That helped us get through it, thinking we got rid of all the bad luck and this will be our year.”
So the Fountain of Youth will be his return race?
“Yep. He'll have four more works at Gulfstream Park every Saturday. He keeps getting better and better every work. Tammy (exercise rider Tammy Fox) is really excited, thinking he's taking that next step that we need to see from him.”
Would you look for Dennis' Moment's second start back to be at Keeneland or stay in Florida for the Florida Derby?
“If he likes the track like we think he does, he might just stay in Florida the whole time and make one ship up before the Kentucky Derby. A lot will depend on how he runs, and who is coming and going. But in the past, we were always dodging horses. We went into this year that we're going to change our mentality. If we're as good as we hope we are, we shouldn't have to dodge anyone.”
How hard was it watching the rest of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after Dennis stumbled so badly at the start?
“That was a long minute, 44 seconds. It seemed like it took two hours. The whole time I was just thinking, 'Just finish the race. Just come back sound.' I knew ultimately we lost the race from the start, that we weren't going to win it. Anytime you run in a Grade 1 against that kind of competition and you spot them that many lengths, there's no chance you're going to win. I was just upset. We'd been so excited. I wanted to win this race so bad for my father in law, because he's put so much into the game. I knew how much it meant to him if he could win. He had all his friends out there. We were hoping to have a special day, and it wasn't meant to be. But my first thought was for the safety of the horse. I just wanted to make sure he was fine, that's all I was concerned about. Things can turn in a hurry in this game. I knew what kind of talent he was, and that wasn't going to change just because he stumbled out of the gate. I just wanted him to come back sound, and our prayers were answered on that.”
Did you even know when the race was over who had won, or were you strictly watching your horse?
“I had no clue. My mind was in such a fog. I was in such denial. I couldn't believe it. The whole thing felt like it was a dream. I was hoping I was in a dream. Our plan was to stay Saturday. It was such an emotional day that I asked Dennis, 'Do you care if we just go home? I just didn't want to face the questions on Saturday. I didn't want to be a Debbie Downer and be out there not enjoying myself like I wanted to be. I just wanted to go home and be with my family and take a day away from racing. It was so deep in our stomach, such a tough race.”
But you remain undaunted.
“Oh yeah, you have to be thick-skulled in this game. Dale's always said the highs are high and the lows are low. That's the way it is every day in this business. You can't get too high, because it can turn in a hurry. The lows are really tough. There are races where you think, 'Why am I going this?' But the highs are so much fun, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.”
Let's talk about Thousand Words. Can you say, since you all own both, which is the more talented horse?
“Barry (Berkelhammer, who works with the Albaugh Stables' young horses before they go to the racetrack) said hands down that Thousand Words was one of the best horses he's ever had on the farm, as long as he's been in this business. And Dale Romans will tell you that if the horse is better than Dennis' Moment, then good luck to him. We've heard both sides of it. They both are training tremendously, have great skill levels. Dennis' Moment has a little bit better mind on him right now, I think. Thousand Words is still maturing, and he's only raced twice. In fairness to him, he's still learning.
“He got out to California, and he didn't right away show Baffert what Barry was seeing. So it was kind of like, 'Wow, what's going on?' But he got a little sick on us when we sent him out in June. The beauty is Baffert took his time with him, and he really turned the corner and grew up. He's doing what we thought he'd do. It's been really exciting to see. It's been a little slower process. But we're patient and wanted to do what was right for the horse, and Bob did a tremendous job getting him ready. And he's in position now to get to the goal. He won his first two races, he's training great. I expect a big effort on Saturday, and hopefully he'll cement himself as one of the Derby favorites.”
So Barry was around Dennis' Moment as a young horse, too?
“Yep, as babies. He told me after they worked (Thousand Words) the first time, 'We've got a Grade 1 winner here.' He was like, 'This horse is special,' and Barry doesn't throw that out. We go through it every year, how do you feel about this crop? And he's been spot-on every time. Dennis' Moment was his second-favorite horse in that crop.
“The thing that impresses me so much about Thousand Words is his stride is so long. He just strides so long, and it's so beautiful to watch. I just think the farther we go, he's going to get better. He's not a great work horse, but when the lights come on, he really seems to perform well. I just wish he'd take it more serious in the morning. Bob says he'll work and just kind of stays with his competition, he's not even blowing after the work. So I still think there's a lot more in the tank.”
What's your confidence level going into the Lewis?
“Obviously, he's the horse to beat, and if he runs his race, I think he'll be very tough. I respect all the horses. But any time Bob has another horse in the race, you know he's very good too. The thing is, and I learned that again the last race at Santa Anita, anything can happen. So I'm cautiously optimistic on everything right now.”
Do you know how many preps Bob is thinking for Thousand Words?
“Initially we were not going to run in this race. After he won the Los Alamitos Futurity (Dec. 7) race, I asked Bob what he thought. He said, 'You know, I think we'll just wait for the March race (San Felipe), give him some time and go there and the Santa Anita Derby.' I said, 'That's fine.' Then he called me about a week later and said, 'This horse is doing so good, I can't hardly control him. He's hopping all over the place. We might have to run sooner.' I said, 'Whatever you want.' So that gives me confidence. Bob said the horse is doing great and he wants to run him. That means he's doing well. Bob is not going to run him if he's not.”
Is there a story behind the name?
“Spendthrift named that one, so I can't take any credit for that one.”
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a win picture worth? A Kentucky Derby win picture?
“Exactly. Saturday is a big race. It's his third lifetime start, so it's a big race for him. I just want to see a little improvement, which I think we'll see. This horse has so much talent; I just want him to put it together. I'm just excited about the future of this horse. He's got so much raw talent. We put the blinkers on him (in his last start) to keep his focus, and I just hope he responds.”
You know you can never have enough good 3-year-olds when you're trying to get to the Kentucky Derby.
“This game is so hard. To have one horse is tough enough to get on the Derby trail. To have two is surreal. I can't believe that if these two horses are what we think they are that we could have two of the favorites for the First Saturday in May. You just never know what could happen, so to have two bullets in the chamber is great.”
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