Part of being a trainer at Thoroughbred racing’s highest level is having enough faith in one’s ability to stick to a plan in the face of adversity.
When Brody’s Cause barely lifted a hoof while running seventh in his 3-year-old debut last month, Dale Romans had to remind himself why he believed the son of Giant’s Causeway was as strong a Kentucky Derby contender as he had ever brought to this stage. The pedigree was there. So too was the stamina-laden athletic ability.
In the stretch of Saturday’s Grade I, $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes — before a crowd of 20,848 at Keeneland — Romans finally wavered. It was an emotional quiver, brought on by the fact that the colt he had declared the “prototype Derby horse” was heading into the first Saturday of May just the way his trainer had drawn it up.
“The most difficult thing to do training a horse, when one comes into a race you think is going to run so well and then runs so bad, is to not do things different,” Romans said. “The biggest thing was don’t panic.”
After testing his connections’ faith in his seasonal bow, Brody’s Cause rewarded their belief when his late turn of foot launched him to the lead midstretch en route to capturing the 1 1/8 -mile Blue Grass Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths over My Man Sam and stablemate Cherry Wine.
The rousing celebration that broke out amongst the contingent of owner Dennis Albaugh was eerily similar to what took place at the track last fall, but one they feared could be derailed this year. After winning the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity and running third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile — both at Keeneland last October — all expectations were for the bay colt to match the swagger of his Louisville-born trainer and come into the first Saturday in May as his most legitimate threat.
Confidence gave way to re-evaluation, however, after Brody’s Cause finished a well-beaten seventh in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 12. Because of how well he had trained going into that start, Romans was at a loss for excuses.
And as good as the colt trained in the aftermath, Romans doubled down on the belief that hindsight would reveal that day to be a one-off result rather than an indicator of something amiss.
“We were really frustrated obviously after the Tampa Bay race, but Dale said he came out of the race and we had no excuses,” said Jason Loutsch, general manager Albaugh Family Stable. “Dale said, ‘We’re going to get back to work and we’re going to win this Blue Grass.’
“We sat down after the Breeders’ Cup and we put a plan together. And … everyone was doubting us as to why we only planned two prep races going into the Derby. But when a plan comes together like this, it’s really special.”
Romans had pulled off the Breeders’ Futurity-Blue Grass double before with Dullahan, who ran third in the 2012 Kentucky Derby. But where Dullahan was winless on dirt heading into that classic, Brody’s Cause has been Romans’ most complete prospect.
The danger many closers face in large fields is the probability of running into traffic trouble. Despite facing 13 other challengers Saturday, Brody’s Cause positioned himself in the clear on the outside under jockey Luis Saez as he tracked along in 11th alongside fellow Romans-trainee Cherry Wine, with Laoban winging away on the front end through an opening half-mile in 46.75.
“For a 14-horse field and for a horse to come from behind, that gives you a lot of encouragement going into (the Kentucky Derby) where you’re going to have a 20-horse field,” Romans said. “He had a little adversity on the first turn. (Saez) said he got knocked off his feet but he overcame it, gathered himself up and fought back. And a horse has to do that to win the Kentucky Derby.”
Rather than simply grinding away at his opponents, Brody’s Cause can deliver an explosive, sustained move that can knock the spirit out of those next to him. When Star Hill and Laoban hooked up coming off the far turn, Brody’s Cause was picking his way through the field like a shot and proceeded to earn his third win in six career starts.
“We knew the horse would come from behind, but it was very nervous (watching),” Dennis Albaugh said. “Certainly our horse did everything we thought he would. He just stayed in the pack around the turn and just took off at the end. I don’t know why he didn’t run a good race (at Tampa) but our dream was to win the Blue Grass. And we did that today.”
Cherry Wine was nipped at the wire for second by My Man Sam, who put in his own huge run from last. Final time for the 1 1/8 mile was 1:50.20 over a track rated fast.
Zulu, who was sent off as the 2-to-1 favorite, finished 12th in the 14-horse field.
Romans said that Cherry Wine would certainly join Brody’s Cause in the Kentucky Derby field should enough defections occur to allow him in. While Romans also has Unbridled Outlaw set to run in next week’s Grade I Arkansas Derby, he can breathe a little easier now that his top prospect is back to being what he thought he was.
“He has the perfect pedigree, and the perfect look to him when we bought him,” Romans said. “And then he’s taken every step we’ve given him along the way. We couldn’t be set up better going into the Kentucky Derby.”