The initial objective for Irish You Well in Sunday's Grade I Haskell Invitational is to shock those who look at the nine-horse lineup for the $1 million race and dismiss any notion he could prevail.
But in the hours before post positions for the 11⁄8-mile Haskell were drawn at Monmouth Park on Thursday, a more substantial issue connected to the colt came to light. And if the chestnut runner manages a strong showing against some of the best in the 3-year-old division, it will hopefully be secondary to even greater news coming out of his camp.
Soldiering forward when adversity hits is a requisite for anyone in the Thoroughbred industry. Such resolve will be tested among the connections of Haskell entrant Irish You Well in the wake of news that his trainer, Wayne Catalano, was in intensive care as of Thursday morning at Saint Alexius Medical Center in Illinois with acute pneumonia.
Catalano, who has conditioned such notable runners as champions Dreaming of Anna and She Be Wild along with Room Service, this year's dead-heat winner of the Grade I Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, was admitted to the hospital Tuesday. Catalano's daughter Shelbi Hill posted on her Facebook page that her father — who turned 58 Thursday — "is paralyzed at the time being to help his lungs and body relax while machines support him."
"The whole Donegal family sends Wayne and his family the very best," said Jerry Crawford, president of Donegal Racing, which owns Irish You Well. "I've had calls from people all over the country today wishing him the best. So we will go forward with him in our thoughts and prayers."
Though absent in his physical presence, the essence of Catalano's horsemanship will be represented by the fact Irish You Well is set to be in the starting gate at all against the likes of Kentucky Oaks heroine Untapable. The 2-1 morning-line favorite, Untapable seeks to become just the third filly to win the Haskell when she breaks from post No. 7 — along with graded stakes winners Bayern, Albano, Medal Count, and Wildcat Red.
Purchased for $170,000 by Donegal at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale, Irish You Wish took nine tries to finally break his maiden, winning for the first time when he triumphed by 71/2 lengths going 1 mile and 70 yards at Monmouth on June 15.
It wasn't as if the colt was lollygagging his way around to that point, though. Having hit the board in four of his first six outings, Irish You Well had run well enough for his connections to try him in the Grade III Illinois Derby and Grade II Peter Pan, with him earning third-place finishes in each.
"He was and is a late-maturing colt," Crawford said. "He had a lot of sickness issues last year and it's taken him awhile to get in his groove. He has yet to do anything we didn't fully expect from him. We've run him in multiple graded stakes races as a maiden so that fact tells you we thought he was capable of making some noise."
Tonalist and Commissioner, the two horses who finished ahead of Irish You Well in the Peter Pan, went on to become the top two finishers in the Belmont Stakes. Even before his competition gained classic credentials, Irish You Well showed enough in the Peter Pan that his path to the Jersey Shore was already in the works.
Once he got his maiden victory under his belt, stakes company was the next level to conquer. That hurdle was cleared on July 5 when Irish You Well sat a stalking trip en route to a half-length win over Just Call Kenny in the 11⁄16-mile Longbranch Stakes over the same Monmouth Park surface.
"There are actually less than a handful of times have I fallen in love with a horse at first sight but this is one of the ones I did," said Crawford. "We just had to be patient and Wayne has done a phenomenal job bringing him along. He really blossomed in the Peter Pan.
"I've read all the comments about the other owners and trainers in the Haskell and I realize we don't have a chance in hell," he laughed. "But you know what, we're going to go anyway."
Irish You Well will dive into a deep pool of competitors when he breaks from post No. 4 Sunday. With all the early speed present in the form of Wildcat Red, Social Inclusion, Bayern and Albano, something has to give — and the right circumstances could at the very least land the colt a top-three effort.
Unbeaten and untested in four starts this year and fresh off a 91/4-length win in the Grade I Mother Goose, Untapable stands to prove that she is the best 3-year-old of either gender and the expected pace scenario should play right into her off-the-pace wheelhouse.
Ironically, Donegal has been one of the filly's staunchest supporters as she is a half-sister to Paddy O'Prado, Donegal's Grade I-winning earner of more than $1.7 million who now stands stud at Spendthrift Farm.
"This will surely be the first time we've routed against her," Crawford said. "I think it would be a heck of an exacta with the filly and us. I expect we'll be midpack and we'll just see how the speed merchants hold up."