Kentucky Derby

Musket Man has long defied his pedigree

LOUISVILLE — For the last several months, trainer Derek Ryan has repeatedly been reminded why his Kentucky Derby contender Musket Man shouldn't be in his current position.

There was no way, critics argued, a horse with his sprinter-laden pedigree would ever be able to successfully stretch out.

Even after notching two graded stakes wins beyond a mile, more than one person has mentioned to Ryan his first ever Derby hopeful is hardly bred to handle the 11/4-mile distance.

While many like to judge Musket Man solely on his bloodlines, Ryan is basing his opinion on what he actually sees in front of him.

Regardless of where he finishes in the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 2, Musket Man has already bucked some significant odds merely by getting to the first leg of the Triple Crown.

His sire, Grade I winner Yonaguska, never won beyond 7 furlongs, and his dam, Fortuesque, was a sprint-specialist that never won beyond 61/2 furlongs in a 17-race career.

Special horses can often outrun whatever limitations their pedigrees may put on them, and Ryan says Musket Man is such a horse.

The versatile colt has quietly won five of his six career starts, including a surging, 2-length triumph in the Grade II, 11⁄8-mile Illinois Derby on April 4.

"They said he couldn't win going 11⁄16 miles (in the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby on March 14) and he won that," Ryan said. "Then he wins at 11⁄8 miles and they say 'Oh it was a bad race.' They can say what they say but they don't know this horse.

"Last year, they said Big Brown didn't have the pedigree and (2004 Derby winner) Smarty Jones wasn't supposed to go a mile and a quarter so I don't listen to all that."

Even before Musket Man made his first career start last October, Ryan had a feeling the colt could end up proving a lot of naysayers wrong.

Though good natured around the barn, Ryan saw the colt — who is a May foal — turn into another animal the minute he had a target in front of him.

"Training-wise, when he gallops, he's laid back, but as soon as you put him on the rail and work him in company he's like the Energizer Bunny," said Ryan, a native of Ireland who has been training on his own since 1996. "He'll gallop around half asleep but you give him something to chase, he'll go get 'em. He's shown a lot of class from day one."

After winning his first three career starts, Musket Man hit his first bump in the road when he was a well-beaten third in his first try around two turns, the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 14.

While some interpreted that defeat as a sign of his bloodlines catching up to him, his connections knew the loss was more a function of mental immaturity than physical fatigue.

"It was his first time around two turns and after that first turn I guess he thought his race was over," co-owner Eric Fein said after his Tampa Bay Derby triumph. "(Ryan) has done an unbelievable job with him."

Though he has had his best success rating relatively close to the pace, Musket Man showed he could adjust to unforeseen circumstances when he was forced to make a five-wide move to win the Tampa Bay Derby after getting shuffled back to eighth.

It may shock some if Musket Man finds a few extra furlongs of fight in him this Saturday, but don't count Ryan among the surprised if it happens.

"We've been hearing about the distance since (his maiden win) in October," Ryan said. "Hopefully after next weekend they'll be wondering if he can go 11/2 miles (in the Belmont Stakes)."