When it comes to getting a horse to Louisville for the first Saturday in May, there is precious little room for setbacks of any kind — let alone those of a physical nature.
So when trainer Doug O'Neill's Grade I-winning Square Eddie had to miss more than a month of training with a sore left shin this season, many figured they could cross the chestnut colt off their list of Kentucky Derby probables.
Thankfully for O'Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam, Square Eddie's physique didn't know anything about conventional wisdom.
As a result, the fast-healing colt will attempt to regain the status of "Derby contender" when he heads a field of 12 for the Grade II Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland Saturday.
Although O'Neill didn't totally abandon Square Eddie's Derby hopes when the shin injury showed up two weeks after his second-place run behind The Pamplemousse in the Grade III San Rafael Stakes on Jan. 17, he figured, at best, he may not get another start before the Derby.
But after a series of impressive works at Hollywood Park (6 furlongs in 1:12.20 on April 11 and 1:13 on April 5), O'Neill believes the colt is ready for an 11th-hour prep race.
"To run a mile and a quarter off a 13-week break isn't impossible, but not too many people do it," O'Neill said Wednesday morning. "It's not the most ideal game plan, but it's one of those things we had to deal with and... knock on wood, it's behind us.
"His last two works have just been sensational. I figured if I could get him back on the track in a month or so (after the injury) we'd still have a chance at a race like the Derby."
Even with the blow of having Square Eddie sidelined for much of the Kentucky Derby prep season, O'Neill still sees several positives for the colt heading into this weekend and beyond.
After beginning his career in England, Square Eddie was purchased privately by Reddam and made a smashing U.S. debut when he captured the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland by 43/4 lengths last October — defeating the likes of current top Derby contender Pioneerof the Nile.
He capped off his six-race juvenile campaign with a second-place effort in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile and has only been off the board once in his career.
In addition to his seasoning and ability, it is Square Eddie's unflappable nature that has O'Neill feeling confident about his comeback chances.
"I remember when we first saw him (at Keeneland), literally we walked up to his stall and he was yawning and stretching — and this is the day of the race," O'Neill recalled. "Most horses you see like that you're like 'Today isn't going to be their day,' but we've seen that as a constant part of his character.
"Nothing bothers him. He's just a very confident individual. From my limited experience with (the Derby) you really need a horse who can handle all the pressure, and I think he will thrive on it."
Although Square Eddie and his $774,981 in graded stakes earnings could go on to the Kentucky Derby regardless of where he finishes Saturday, O'Neill isn't going to take the next step unless he sees a healthy, improving horse return to his barn this weekend.
"We're here to win, of course, but I think it's unrealistic to think he's going to be at 110 percent off a 13-week layoff or whatever," O'Neill said. "Ideally, he wins, but if he doesn't win but is finishing at the end and comes out of it sound, we'll huddle up about Louisville."