Trainer Jeff Greenhill is the first to concede he's flying a little blind when it comes to this whole Kentucky Derby contender business — which might be part of the reason the former chemical engineer can relish the moment as much as he is right now.
It wasn't long ago Greenhill was taking an early retirement from his position with the Tennessee Valley Authority to try his hand at being a full-time conditioner, a journey that began with a job walking hots for Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and eventually resulted in the affable Greenhill building up a client base of his own.
When his stable star Mac the Man whipped off back-to-back stakes wins at Turfway Park this winter, it put Greenhill into what he has deemed uncharted waters.
However, for someone who claims he's on a crash course lesson plan for how to prep a leading 3-year-old, Greenhill has managed to put his charge one win away from an all but guaranteed spot in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Regardless who the favorite is Saturday, the Turfway-based Greenhill stands to have a significant local backing when he saddles Mac the Man against an expected full field for the Grade III, $550,000 Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes at the Florence track.
After nearly two decades carving out a living on the backstretch on his terms, Greenhill is having a little fun with the fact Mac the Man — whom he trains for his wife Sherri — is putting a dent in his under-the-radar status.
The bay son of El Corredor is unbeaten in three career starts at Turfway dating to last December including two visually impressive wins in January's Turfway Prevue Stakes and 96ROCK Stakes on Feb. 2.
With the Spiral worth 50 points to the winner in the new Kentucky Derby system that determines who makes the field, Greenhill has had to adjust.
That meant skipping Turfway's John Battaglia Memorial Stakes earlier this month to take aim at the race that has produced a Derby winner (Animal Kingdom 2011) and Derby starter (Went the Day Well, fourth in 2012) the last two years.
"I'm in uncharted waters, no doubt about it for me," Greenhill said during a national teleconference Tuesday. "So I tried to look at spacing on nice horses in the past. I was running him more like a $15,000 claimer, which is what I'm used to doing, so I thought it might be a good idea to back up a little bit and take a shot at the big race.
"I kind of like it under the radar, but if you're going to excel in this business I guess you're eventually going to have to find some spotlight. When I saw some of the people included in this teleconference, it occurred to me that if this were a gourmet meal, I'd be the parsley."
Pleasantly self-deprecating as he may be, Greenhill's handling of Mac the Man has been spot on since last fall. Two starts after the colt broke his maiden second time out at Presque Isle Downs, he ran a dismal seventh in an allowance race at Keeneland but was found afterward to have a tender left front foot.
"We lost about a week of training then, and since then we've gone to glue-on shoes up front," Greenhill said.
Since that minor setback, Mac the Man hasn't taken a step wrong, winning two 61/2-furlong races by a combined 121/2 lengths and taking the 1-mile 96ROCK by 2 lengths in gate-to-wire fashion.
Though the level of competition he beat those days was nothing special, Mac the Man will undoubtedly be viewed with more reverence if he can take down a field this weekend that is slated to include multiple graded stakes winner Uncaptured.
"What I would say about his Turfway races is they look good and he came out of them great," Greenhill said. "The big question is what has he beaten? I'm like everyone else: Is Mac the Man for real or has he just managed to win at Turfway and be another 3-year-old. I'm anxious to find out the answer to that question."
What: Kentucky Derby prep race for 3-year-olds
Where: Turfway Park
Distance: 11⁄8 miles
Derby points: 50 to winner, 20 for second, 10 for third, 5 for fourth
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.