Having previously expressed a desire to dye his colt's white tail to match part of his silks, charismatic Dr. Kendall Hansen shocked no one when he let it slip this week that he had "a little bit of a surprise" planned with his champion charge Hansen in Keeneland's paddock for Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.
Upstaging whatever antics Dr. Hansen has planned could be a challenge for his fellow owners — which is why Jerry Crawford is going to leave it to his colt Dullahan to be the ultimate scene stealer.
Given all the speed that is expected to materialize in the 11⁄8-mile Blue Grass, Crawford and his partners in Donegal Racing have good reason to believe their late-running Dullahan will be the most talked-about topic in the race's aftermath.
While Hansen is the glamour in the 13-horse Blue Grass field — both in looks and ability — Dullahan earned his lone win in seven career starts over the Keeneland Polytrack when he captured the Grade I Dixiana Breeders' Futurity last October.
Dullahan has not visited the winner's circle in three starts since that breakout triumph, but, according to his connections, the son of Even the Score has taken many of the necessary steps toward peaking on the first Saturday in May.
In his season debut, Dullahan ran second to fellow Blue Grass contender Howe Great in the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf. Howe Great got the best of him by a length but the fact Dullahan was able to close over the speed-favoring course inspired good feelings.
Since Dullahan already banked enough graded earnings to lock into the Derby field last season, Crawford and trainer Dale Romans have had the luxury of letting the chestnut colt mature.
"We were able to sit down and design a schedule that was designed to win the Kentucky Derby," said Crawford, who helped found Donegal Racing in 2008 and watched their future Grade I winner Paddy O'Prado run second in the 2010 Blue Grass. "Dale has been very disciplined in trying to create a situation where this horse will peak on May 5.
"As much as we'd love to win the Blue Grass, and we'll be trying to, the goal is not to peak that day either. Ideally, we'd like him to do what Strike the Gold did (in 1991) and win the Blue Grass and the Derby. But if we have to follow the Street Sense path of second in the Blue Grass and win the Derby, we would settle for that."
The fact Dullahan is a half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird helped stamp him as a potential classic horse even before he made his first start. Though the colt has yet to win over a dirt surface, Crawford points to his effort in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile as proof the conventional surface will be Dullahan's best.
Lost in the 1-2 finish that Hansen and Grade I winner Union Rags provided in the Juvenile was a sneaky-good fourth-place run by Dullahan as he rallied from last in the 13-horse field and was one of the few horses making up ground in the lane.
"I don't think there is any doubt (dirt) is his best surface," Crawford said. "When you watch him train, when you watch the move he made in the Breeders' Cup ... we thought from the beginning it would be his best by Kentucky Derby time."
Dullahan missed a handful of training days last month because of a splint injury, but his bullet 5-furlong move in :57.40 at Keeneland last Sunday seemed to negate any concern.
The primary issue now is whether he can stay close enough in Saturday's race to capitalize on what could be a hot pace.
Both Hansen and Howe Great have done their running on or close to the front, but their ability to relax and take back could be tested if Southwest Stakes runner-up Scatman and Louisiana Derby winner Hero of Order continue their pattern of prompting the pace.
"How many times have you seen this where it looks like there is a ton of speed and then they go (the half-mile) in :50?" said Team Valor CEO Barry Irwin, owner of Howe Great. "This can be a very tactical race. Even though there looks like there's a lot of speed on paper, I think the field's gonna be within 7 or 8 lengths of each other."
Both Romans and Crawford say Dullahan has become tactical enough to be placed midpack, unlike his outing in the Breeders' Futurity when he was sitting third from last after the opening quarter.
Tampa Bay Derby winner Prospective could be among the off-the-pace runners trying to move with Dullahan with the lightly raced Ever So Lucky also figuring to be in the mix.
Hansen's blazing white frame will probably be the main target for Dullahan's closing kick. Should that transpire, Crawford warns that whatever pre-race paddock scene Dr. Hansen has planned will be dwarfed by his own creative contingent.
"Dr. Hansen isn't the only person who has a few surprises planned," laughed Crawford, who added he had more than 100 partners and friends coming in for Saturday. "Some people appear to be planning their surprise for the paddock, others are content to wait on the winner's circle."