Seven weeks after capping off his 27th birthday with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) on Fort Larned, jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. was on a roll at Fair Grounds with four victories from eight mounts.
“I had just won on Bind and (trainer) Al (Stall Jr.) was bragging on this first-time starter in the next race,” Hernandez said. “That was Departing. I had never been on him and he ran huge. He was my fifth winner on the card and the most impressive.”
Fast forward nearly five months later and Departing, owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, has emerged as one of the top contenders to Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) winner Orb in next weekend’s Preakness.
Hernandez has been aboard Departing for all five of his starts, all victories save for a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby (GII).
“I was riding some good maidens at the time, (eventual Kentucky Derby runner-up) Golden Soul for Dallas (Stewart) and Proud Strike for Steve Asmussen,” Hernandez said. “My agent, Frank Bernis, thought Departing was the best of them.”
Following the Louisiana Derby, the Kentucky Derby was ruled out and Departing was pointed to the Illinois Derby, a race he won by 3 ¼ lengths despite breaking from the 13 hole.
“After the Louisiana Derby, they made the plan to go to the Illinois Derby and then the Preakness,” Hernandez said. “I can’t be disappointed in missing the Derby. We have a chance to upset Orb and the Preakness is not a bad race to run in.”
The trip to Pimlico will be a first for Hernandez.
“After this meet was over, I used to ride at Delaware Park and I have ridden some at Laurel but never at Pimlico,” Hernandez said. “I am going to go over a day early and ride a horse for Al (Tread in the Miss Preakness Stakes).”
Departing continued his Preakness preparations Thursday morning at Churchill Downs, galloping two miles over a fast track well before the renovation break under Trina Pasckvale. Departing is scheduled to work Sunday morning after the renovation break.
In other Preakness activity Thursday morning at Churchill Downs, fifth-place Kentucky Derby finisher Mylute galloped 1 ½ miles before the break under exercise rider Maurice Sanchez for trainer Tom Amoss; Oxbow and Will Take Charge, the sixth- and eighth-place Derby finishers respectively for D. Wayne Lukas galloped 1 ½ miles shortly after the track opened for training at 6 o’clock with Rudy Quevedo on Oxbow and Taylor Carty on Will Take Charge; Titletown Five jogged for Lukas under Quevedo and Sunland Derby (GIII) winner Govenor Charlie jogged under Jorge Alvarez for trainer Bob Baffert.
SWEET CASSIOPEIA RIDES HOT STREAK INTO SATURDAY’S UNBRIDLED SIDNEY – When owners-breeders Steve Snowden and Dan Considine decided to bring Sweet Cassiopeia to the United States after beginning her career with 10 starts at Woodbine, it was a welcome addition to trainer Bill Connelly’s barn.
“I had trained for them and I trained her mother (My Sweet Caroline) for them,” said Connelly, who will send Sweet Cassiopeia to the post Saturday afternoon to face 10 rivals in the $65,000 Unbridled Sidney at five furlongs on the Matt Winn Turf Course. “They just wanted to bring her out of Canada.”
Under Connelly’s care, Sweet Cassiopeia has run off five consecutive victories with the most recent coming in the Giant’s Causeway on April 20 at Keeneland.
“I had just seen her run on TV before I got her,” said Connelly, adding that the initial impression was very favorable.
In her first start for Connelly, Sweet Cassiopeia finished second in a stake at Presque Isle Downs. After winning a stake on dirt at Mountaineer, Sweet Cassiopeia returned to the all-weather surface at Presque Isle and finished fifth behind champion Groupie Doll in the Masters (GII).
That was her last loss. Victories at Presque Isle and Keeneland followed before Sweet Cassiopeia closed 2012 with a turf victory at Churchill Downs.
“She got a break after that and that was design,” Connelly said of the 5-year-old mare, who returned with a victory on March 27 at Gulfstream Park.
Corey Lanerie, who has been aboard for three of the victories in the five-race streak, will have the mount Saturday.
WELL-SCHOOLED GROUPIE DOLL RETURNS TO THE TRACK – Groupie Doll, the champion female sprinter of 2012, returned to Churchill Downs on Monday after spending about three months at Indian Ridge Farm in Frankfort.
Trainer Buff Bradley, who owns Groupie Doll in partnership with his father Fred as well as Carl Hurst and Brent Burns, sent the 5-year-old mare home in early February after she was not training to his satisfaction at Gulfstream Park.
That has not been the case this time around.
“Is it a 180-degree turnaround from Florida? Absolutely,” Buff Bradley said. “She has really good energy and she wants to do it. I knew we were good and did not anticipate any problems bringing her back.”
One of the reasons Bradley was confident about his star’s return was the time spent at the farm sharing a pasture with the 12-year-old gelding Brass Hat.
“ ‘Brass’ was training her,” Bradley said of the previous stable star who earned more than $2.1 million in his career. “They would run for 10 minutes and Brass was so smart, he would cut the corner on her and when they were done, she was really blowing.”
Bradley plans to jog Groupie Doll all this month and not begin galloping until June with plenty of time to map out a campaign for 2013.
DOWN THE STRETCH – James Spence’s homebred Aubby K did not stick around Churchill Downs too long after her 1 ½-length victory in the Humana Distaff (GI) on Derby Day. “She flew out the next day to Saratoga,” trainer Ralph Nicks said. “She came out of the race fine. I have had the pleasure to be around some good horses and it feels good to have one of my own.” Nicks has his eye on the $350,000 Princess Rooney (GI) at Calder going six furlongs on July 6, but added, “Our main summer objective is the ($500,000) Ballerina (GI, at seven furlongs) at Saratoga (on Aug. 23). She runs well fresh.” … Trainer Kellyn Gorder said that Bourbon Lane Stable’s Bourbon Courage was at WinStar Farm for evaluation after being elevated to third place in Friday’s Alysheba presented by Besilu Stables (GII). “He’s a little banged up,” Gorder said of Bourbon Courage, who was put in a tight spot when Cyber Secret came over on him going into the first turn. “He had his quarter stepped on and got a pretty big gash above his knee in the first turn crowding. We were lucky he did not go down, so I guess you have to count your blessings.” … Shortleaf Stable’s Atigun expanded his resume on Derby Day with a 1 ½-length victory on the turf in a 1 1/16 miles allowance optional claimer. “We are going to nominate him to the ($100,000-added) Louisville Handicap (GIII on May 25 at 1 ½ miles) and the ($65,000-added) Opening Verse (on June 1 at 1 1/16 miles),” said Phil Bauer, assistant to trainer Ken McPeek. “If the races come off the turf, he can run either way. It opens up a lot of opportunities.” Third in the Belmont Stakes (GI) last year, Atigun’s only previous turf start in his now 18-race career was in his debut as a 2-year-old at Saratoga in which he finished ninth … Michael Tabor, John Magnier and Derrick Smith’s War Academy, unraced since being pulled up as the favorite in the Arkansas Derby (GI), worked a bullet five furlongs in :59.60 over a fast track after the renovation break under Jorge Alvarez.
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