No fanfare accompanied Take Charge Indy's arrival on the Churchill Downs backside Tuesday morning. Two turf writers; a couple of still photographers; and a pair of one-man camera crews. It seemed a sparse amount of interest for the winner of the Florida Derby (G1), a major prep for Saturday's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
“The trip from Florida was quiet,” said trainer Patrick B. Byrne. ” It began at 4 a.m. A 20-minute van from Palm Meadows to West Palm Beach International. Tex Sutton airplane – a direct flight to Louisville. Fifteen-minute van to Churchill. And here we are. Take Charge Indy's sharp, he's in top condition. He's ready to do something.”
Byrne, himself, appeared to be full of energy. He would like a post position somewhere between number two and number eight, he said (while fairly bouncing on his toes), adding that a well-prepared runner can win from any starting-gate slot.
On Wednesday afternoon, Take Charge Indy drew the three hole, and was accorded morning line odds of 15-to-1. He is a co-seventh choice, but may receive considerable wagering support by Saturday's 6:24 p.m. post.
Indeed, the dark bay/brown colt has the look of a middleweight prize fighter honed to perfection. Lean, strong, athletic, and formidable (Sugar Ray Robinson in his prime comes to mind). Take Charge Indy has other credentials, too, including the breeding for going classic distances against top-tier competition, and that Florida Derby triumph.
Take Charge Indy is by A.P. Indy, winner of the 1992 Belmont Stakes (G1) and Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) and Horse of the Year. Take Charge Indy's dam, Take Charge Lady, was three times a Grade 1 winner, including twice at the 1 1/8-mile distance.
A few generations further in Take Charge Indy's pedigree, one finds the Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew on the top and Secretariat on both the top and bottom. There are ancestors such as Buckpasser, Round Table, Tom Fool, Northern Dancer, Damascus, and Swaps. It is a family of exceptional sccomplishment.
In the Florida Derby, run at Gulfstream Park on March 31, Calvin Borel piloted Take Charge Indy to a one-length score. Horse and jockey completed the nine-furlong distance in 1:48.79, making it the third fastest Florida Derby in the past 16 years, faster than those run by Monarchos and Barbaro, both of whom went on to Kentucky Derby victories.
Borel, age 45, has won the Kentucky Derby three times, aboard Street Sense in 2007, Mine That Bird in 2009, and Super Saver in 2010. On Saturday, he will be shooting for his fourth Kentucky Derby win in six years. What Borel has already provided the race's lore is astonishing, and he is in a position to add more to it on Saturday.
For the 56-year-old Byrne, Take Charge Indy will be his first Derby starter. Originally from London, England, he is a fifth generation horseman, came over to the United States at the age of 22, and has been training Thoroughbreds since 1986.
Byrne's stable was largely populated by inexpensive claimers during his initial decade as a conditioner. But some stakes wins were mixed in: the Buckram Oak at Gulfstream with Diamond Knight in 1987; the Tremont (G3) at Belmont Park with Mr. Sea Sanders in 1988; the Cradle Prelude at River Downs in 1992; the Spicy Living Handicap (G3) with Suspect Terrain at Rockingham Park in 1994.
More notoriety was achieved with Ampulla, who won five stakes in 1996, the Long Island Handicap (G2) at Aqueduct, the La Prevoyante Handicap at Calder, and the Lexington (G3) at Keeneland among them. Byrne was making impacts at eastern and Midwestern tracks. And by the end of 1997, just about everybody seriously affiliated with the North American racing industry knew who he was.
That was the year Byrne sent out Joe Lacombe's two-year-old colt Favorite Trick to an undefeated eight-race campaign. Seven of the wins came in stakes, four of which were graded, including the Hopeful (G1) at Saratoga and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Hollywood Park. Favorite Trick was not only a divisional champion, he was Horse of the Year.
Also in '97, another of Byrne's horses, the two-year-old filly Princess Diana, won five graded stakes, including Saratoga's Spinaway (G1) and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1). Owned by a partnership headed by Richard Kaster, Princess Diana was champion of her division as well.
In a streak that commenced on the final day of Keeneland's '97 spring meet and extended through the opening 3 ½ weeks of the Churchill meet, Byrne saddled nine consecutive winners. He made starts in six Churchill stakes that spring, and won five of them, including a trio bearing graded status.
At Saratoga that summer, with Favorite Trick and Countess Diana, Byrne won five of the graded events for juveniles. In prior years, D. Wayne Lukas had twice won a four of them. But Byrne did Lukas one better.
The following January, Bryne agreed to train privately for Frank Stomach. One of Stronach's horses was Awesome Again, and with Byrne in charge the four-year-old colt was undefeated in six starts.
Awesome Again's victories included the Whitney Handicap (G1) at Saratoga, and he completed his campaign with a Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) win at Churchill – a race in which he defeated Silver Charm, Swain (Ire), Victory Gallop, Skip Away, and Touch Gold, among others.
But the Stronach deal lasted barely a year. “Everybody in that gang was on their own agenda,” Byrne said. “There were guys working on Stronach's farms who wanted to be where I was. They'd send me horses who weren't ready to be on the track, tying up badly. Some of the horses were overweight. There were accounting guys who thought I was getting too much of a salary. I had a target on my back.”
Byrne left Stronach's employ in January, 1999. And from there a descent began. In 2000, Byrne's Stonerside Stable trainee, Nani Rose, was the 6-to-5 morning line favorite in the Lake Placid Stakes (G2) at Saratoga. But Nani Rose was scratched because she received a pre-race injection of dimethyglycine (known also as DNG).
Dimethyglycine is a nutritional food supplement, not a performance enhancing drug, but the incident resulted in what Byrne still regards as “a witch hunt.” In an agreement work out by attorneys for Byrne and the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, he received a 45-day suspension.
Back in 1997, horses trained by Byrne won 18 stakes, 14 of which were graded, and they earned nearly $3.76 million in purses. In 1998, their purse earnings totaled in excess of $5.25 million.
Put the victories and purse earnings dropped sharply, and it was descent he could not reverse. In 2007, Byrne began a multi-year period of no stakes wins or placings. In 2010, his stable recorded a total of three wins (one in maiden company. the other two in allowance company), and $122,897 in purses. “I had a six-horse string at Tampa Bay Downs,” Byrne said. “That was it.”
He bought and sold some real estate in Florida, “with ocean views, and I made some pretty good money that way,” Byrne said. The income helped pay for the college expenses of his daughter, Devon, at the University of Vermont. But the good days in racing appeared lost in the past.
In June of 2009, Byrne received a phone message from someone he had never met – Chuck Sandford, who with his wife, Maribeth, lived in the small town Marengo, Illinois, 45 miles west of Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
The Sandfords own and operate Bag Makers Inc., which started out three decades ago with a $5,000 loan from Maribeth's father and a printing press, and now has 300 employees. “We print on bags, paper, plastic, the new woven ones,” Chuck said. “We do large orders and orders as low as a hundred.
“A few years ago, I had asked my wife, 'When are we going to retire?'” said Chuck . “She replied, 'How can you retire when you don't have a hobby? I'm not going baby sit you.'”
Chuck had been what he terms “a small, weekend bettor.” But he had an inheritance, and a notion that owning Thoroughbreds might be fun. He knew a little bit about Byrne's success in the pass, along with the fact that he was not training many horses at the time.
Byrne called him back on a Thursday. Then Byrne drove to meet him on Friday. “And by Monday, Maribeth and I owned a horse, with Patrick training him,” Chuck said. “Since then, he's not only been my trainer, he's become my best friend.”
Wholly and in partnerships, the Sandfords now have eight horses, all of them entrusted to Byrne. Their acquisition of Take Charge Indy came through the Florida-based pin-hooker Carl Bowling.
“In January of 2011, we purchased a 50% interest in him,” said Chuck. “After he broke his maiden by 6 ½ lengths at Arlington Park (at first asking on July 30 of last year), we purchased another 25%. And in January of this year, we purchased the final 25%. We're now Take Charge Indy's only owners.”
Chuck is originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Maribeth is from Louisville, “although my horse racing education has come entirely through Chuck and Patrick – my parents never took an interest in the sport,” she said. Including children and grandchildren, the Sandfords will have a party of 23 at Churchill on Saturday.
Overall, Byrne has a career win ratio of 20%, gained from 420 wins in 2,105 career starts through April 30 of this year. “I've never had a big stable,” he said. “I've got 11 horses now. Even during the days with Frank Stronach, I never had more than thirty.
“It has always been a numbers game,” he said. “And I've never had the numbers. Since the late 1990s, you've had guys like Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen come along. They get most of the business, which has made it a lot tougher for guys like me.”
At Churchill, Byrne's career win ratio is, 21.4%. At Churchill with Calvin riding, Bryne win ratio is 33%, but that figure is culled from a very small sample – 15 starts and five wins, none of them occurring in stakes.
One of the keys to Take Charge Indy's chances on Saturday might be found in the 1 1/16-mile mile allowance he ran in on January 29 at Gulfstream. He stayed within two lengths of the early pace, went to the lead on the far turn, was clear by daylight with a furlong remaining, and finished second.
“Calvin told me he was a little bit short that day,” Bryne said. But it was only Take Charge Indy's fifth career start, and his first this year, and it was the sort of move – with a seasoned horse – that often wins a 1 ¼-mile race such as the Kentucky Derby.
Last summer, Byrne and his wife, the television racing analyst Jill Byrne, divorced after a 23-year marriage. “We just basically grew apart,” he said. “She went her way, and I went mine. It was painless for us, been kind of hard on Devon, though.”
Devon graduated cum laude from Vermont with a bachelor's degree in environmental studies. “She's into sustainable foods, recycling,” Byrne said. “She's starting out her professional career in Loveland, Colorado. A beautiful place.”
Delray Beach, Florida, is now Byrne's home. But he did live and headquarter his stable in Louisville for many years. “Louisville remains special – I twice received plaques from the city,” he said.
And after starting at the bottom, ascending to the top, and experiencing the bottom again, Byrne has received what he calls “a shot in the arm,” courtesy of the Sandfords and Take Charge Indy. The Kentucky Derby winner's circle equates to the summit of Mt. Everest for a Thoroughbred trainer. Byrne might reach that summit on Saturday.
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