There is the well-worn path to getting yourself an honest to goodness Kentucky Derby horse, the one involving breeding, buying and training. And then there’s the unorthodox path that has carried Danny Gargan to the first Saturday in May.
“I’m lucky enough to claim one of Claiborne’s horses,” is the New York-based trainer’s tag line. “I’m not lucky enough to train one of their horses.”
Turns out this 145th Kentucky Derby has a distinct Hancock family flavor. After all, historic Claiborne Farm, now run by 29-year-old Walker Hancock, son of Seth Hancock, stands the stallion War Front, sire to Derby favorite Omaha Beach and starter War of Will. Seth’s brother Arthur Hancock’s Stone Farm bred Santa Anita Derby winner and co-third choice Roadster.
Wait, there’s more. Seth and Arthur’s sister Dell Hancock teamed with Claiborne Bloodstock Manager Bernie Sams to breed Sunland Park Derby winner Cutting Humor. And Claiborne teamed with client Adele Dilschneider to breed Wood Memorial runner-up Tax.
That’s where Gargan comes in, thanks to a keen eye, his “stable mail,” the luck of the draw and some good advice from friends. “I don’t get a lot of 2-year-olds,” said the trainer after Tax drew the No. 2 hole at Tuesday’s Kentucky Derby post-position draw. “It’s hard to get to the Derby until you have people giving you 2-year-olds.”
How Gargan got Tax is a story unto itself. A Louisville native, he is the son of the late jockey Danny Gargan Sr., who rode Bag of Tunes to victory in the 1973 Kentucky Oaks. Gargan Jr. was an assistant to Nick Zito, then a jockeys agent before returning to training in 2013. From New York, he was watching a $30,000 claiming race last September at Churchill Downs on television in which a Claiborne gelding named Tax finished second.
Gargan placed Tax’s name in an e-mail service that notifies you when a horse is running next. Upon seeing that Tax was entered in a $50,000 claimer Oct. 21 at Keeneland, Gargan hopped a plane to Lexington. Tax won. Then Gargan won, emerging victorious in a five-way shake — four others claimed Tax before Gargan’s name was drawn — and shipped the horse to New York for owner Hugh Lynch.
Gargan’s plan was to run Tax on the turf before friend and fellow trainer Kiaran McLaughlin talked him out of that. (McLaughlin is racing Haikal in the Derby.) The two were watching Tax work on the dirt when McLaughlin told Gargan he should enter the horse in the Remsen, a Grade 2 race Dec. 1 at Aqueduct for 2-year-olds. No way, said Gargan. He’d have to pay the supplemental fee.
“Kiaran said, ‘He worked like a real horse today, Danny,’” remembers Gargan. “That night Dave Grening (from the Daily Racing Form) called and said Code of Honor (trained by Shug McGaughey) wasn’t running and Kiaran said I was thinking about running in the Remsen. I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that.’ Dave said, ‘You might want to look at running him.’ I trust his opinion a whole lot.”
So Gargan took a shot and wouldn’t you know it the claimer finished third in a graded stakes. Better still, Tax kept improving. So Gargan put him in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes, an early Kentucky Derby prep at Aqueduct. Despite stumbling at the start, then being trapped near the rail, Tax bulled his way through to win by a head. From there, it was on to the Grade 2 Wood Memorial where Tax finished second to stamp himself a legit Derby contender.
“I claimed Divine Miss Gray who’s running Friday in a Grade 1 and is 7-2, and I claimed her for $16,000,” said Gargan. “This isn’t the first horse I’ve claimed that is a legitimate racehorse.”
Still, this is the Derby, so now others have joined the bandwagon. A month after the claim, Lucas Straitsman’s Corms Racing bought a share. (Straitsman has a problem, however. He has to find a way to get back to New York for his daughter’s communion on Sunday.) After the Remsen, Randy Hill’s R.A. Hill Stable and Dean and Patti Reeves’ Reeves Thoroughbreds out of Atlanta bought shares.
Plus, Gargan says he wants Ben Colebrook, who was Tax’s first trainer, to join him for the traditional walkover from the backside to the paddock on Derby Day. And, last but not least, the accounting firm Dean Dorton is sponsoring Tax — get it? — with its logo on jockey Junior Alvarado’s silks and pants.
But is Danny Gargan the one who’s pinching himself for finding himself in the Kentucky Derby with a Claiborne horse?
“You never know how you’re going to get anywhere in life,” said the trainer. “I’m just lucky enough that I’m the one that got him.”