When trainer Michael Pender looks at the company Jeranimo has kept in recent months, he sees a horse he believes could be worthy of a place in the Kentucky Derby.
When Pender looks at the calendar, however, he knows the son of Congaree is down to his last chance.
Saturday's Grade II Coolmore Lexington Stakes represents the final opportunity for 3-year-olds to earn a trip to Louisville for May 2, and the connections of late-blooming Jeranimo would love nothing more than to claim that last golden ticket to Churchill Downs.
In many ways, Jeranimo is the prototypical horse the 11⁄16-mile Lexington Stakes was designed for. Unraced at 2, the bay colt got his career rolling at Santa Anita Park in January and broke his maiden in his second time out going 61/2 furlongs.
Following a good second against allowance company in February, Jeranimo finished third in the Grade III San Felipe, beaten just 21/4 lengths by multiple Grade I winner and top Kentucky Derby contender Pioneerof the Nile.
"We're letting the horse decide for us what direction to go in, and since he's been stepping forward with each race he has naturally taken us here," said Pender, who began training in 2004. "We definitely try to let them grow up as much as we can before we start on them, but he was showing us a lot of talent even when he was still on the farm."
If momentum is contagious, Jeranimo might have a key factor in his favor. This year has seen a number of California-based horses shine after leaving the West Coast.
I Want Revenge emerged as one of the Derby favorites with his victories in the Gotham Stakes and Wood Memorial, and Papa Clem has also put himself on the radar after winning the Grade II Arkansas Derby.
"Obviously I'm biased, but I think you get a better bottom training out there on the synthetics in California," Pender said. "It does give us confidence to see (what other West Coast horses have done). It remains to be seen when you switch from synthetic to dirt, but we're hopeful if he does get that chance that he'll continue to move forward."
Owned by B.J. Wright, Jeranimo's situation leaves him no room for error on Saturday as he has just $24,000 in graded stakes earnings.
If he makes it through that window of opportunity however, he will get an 80-mile van ride west as his reward.
"This year, you pretty much have to win it (the Lexington) to go on," Pender said. "I can tell you this horse is very ratable. You can put him anywhere you want. Hopefully we'll get it done this year."