FLORENCE — To put it mildly, there are a multitude of factors that need to align in order to have a horse make it past the velvet rope and into the Kentucky Derby.
For Sam Herzberg, the happily shell-shocked owner of Grade III Horseshoe Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes winner Black Onyx, the moments of fate that contributed to his impending trip to Louisville include a postponed massage, a last-minute detour to New Orleans, and a most fortuitous trainer switch.
When Herzberg decided to get back into Thoroughbred racing a few years ago after dabbling in ownership during the 1970s and 1980s, his plan was to buy a couple "nice" yearling colts each year with hopes he might "get lucky."
The first colt Herzberg bought ended up being the first horse across the wire Saturday as 15-to-1 shot Black Onyx surged to the lead around the final turn and drew off to win the $550,000 Spiral Stakes by 11/2 lengths over Uncaptured at Turfway Park.
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With 50 points to his credit now on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" system that determines the 20-horse field, one of the first orders of business for Herzberg was to confirm he would pay the $6,000 late nomination fee due by midnight Saturday to make Black Onyx among the late Triple Crown nominees.
The second was to digest the fact that the horse he had to be talked into looking at during the 2011 Fasig-Tipton August yearling sale now has a guaranteed spot in America's most famed classic.
"I can't believe it, I'm still in disbelief," said Herzberg, who works in real estate in Florida. "I know he's a good horse but you have to have a lot of luck to win these races.
"It's funny, I remember (at the Fasig-Tipton sale) I looked at like 58 horses that day my trainer (Carl Domino) picked out and I said 'I can't look at any more horses, I've got a massage back at the hotel.' He said 'You have to look at this one last horse' and ... he was amazing, he was beautiful. I said 'We're bidding on him.'"
Herzberg landed his future Derby prospect for $125,000. And while Black Onyx, a son of Rock Hard Ten, won second time out for Domino on the dirt at Aqueduct last November, Herzberg opted to switch the colt to the barn of trainer Kelly Breen — whom he befriended during a last-minute trip to New Orleans where he watched Breen win the 2011 Louisiana Derby with Pants On Fire — following a fourth-place finish going 11⁄16 miles at Gulfstream this January.
"We celebrated that night and been friends ever since," Herzberg said of Breen, trainer of 2011 Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice. "I thought about it and said I think I want to make the move because I think he deserves to be trained by a trainer like Kelly."
Similar to his 11/4-length win on the turf at Gulfstream in his first start for Breen on Feb. 23, Black Onyx relaxed mid-pack Saturday and came with a huge run under a confident ride by jockey Joe Bravo.
As local favorite Mac the Man set early fractions of :23.74 and :48.30 in the 11⁄8-mile test with Giant Finish prompting him, Black Onyx had a clear path in fifth on the outside with Grade II winner Uncaptured sitting just inside of him.
When Taken by the Storm ranged up approaching the final turn to take over the lead, Black Onyx moved with him three-wide and was clear by half a length at the top of the stretch.
"Sam had Joe (Bravo) convinced he was going to win today," said Breen, who added that Black Onyx would ship to Churchill Downs and train up to the Derby. "He has a lot of heart, he outruns everything. When horses find ways to win, those are the kind of horses who go on to win big races."
Final time for the race over the Polytrack was 1:51.98.
Uncaptured, who was making his first start since winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill last November, held for second by 1 length over Giant Finish and will likely go on to the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in April.
"For him to run farther than he ever has in his first start in four months, he performed very well," said Mark Casse, trainer of Uncaptured.
My Name Is Michael, the 3-to-1 favorite, came home eighth. Mac the Man was eased but no skeletal issues were found and he scoped clean, according to trainer Jeff Greenhill.
"I know once he got in front he's not going to get passed," Herzberg said of Black Onyx. "That's the type of horse he is."