The Great Southwest is many things, but in the history of the thoroughbred horse racing industry that area hasn’t stamped out many Kentucky Derby entries.
Sunland Park in extreme southeastern New Mexico is the nerve center for thoroughbred racing in the thinly populated desert area miles outside of El Paso and just north of Juarez, Mexico. El Paso has a population of about 650,000 and Juarez is a large metropolitan area with 1,700,000 people.
Mine That Bird and jockey Calvin Borel brought heaps of publicity to New Mexico racing and Sunland Park when they won a muddy Kentucky Derby just a few years back. Mine That Bird’s trainer, Chip Woolley, hobbled onto The Derby scene with a broken leg and crutches. And hobbled back to Sunland, where he is still based, with a Kentucky Derby championship to place beside his wide-brim cowboy hat and cowboy boots.
A goodly percentage of those entering Sunland Park come from Juarez. Actually, the Rio Grande River flows parallel to Sunland Park making Mexico’s citizens accessible to the race track.
The track’s seating capacity is only 5,000. The facilty also houses a casino for slots. It sits just below a sprouting of desert mountains in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Some of those filtering through the sparse crowds at Sunland Park come over from the out-of-state El Paso area.
This spring, Southwest racing has a favorite son in mostly unknown Isn’t He Clever, a brown son of Kentucky Derby champion Smarty Jones and Sharp Minister, a daughter of Deputy Minister.
Isn’t He Clever could be one of the last thoroughbreds to find his way into the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. His graded stakes earnings through March 25 were in the $190,000 range and he had no more starts before Derby Day planned for him by trainer Henry Dominguez.
In his little more than one year of on-track racing, Isn’t He Clever, has run seven times. Trainer Dominguez might just be something of a perfectionist because he has employed five different jockeys in those seven tries.
Three of his last four tries have been at Sunland Park, where Isn’t He Clever was tried in the Grade III, $800,000 Sunland Derby and before that the Borderland Derby.
Trainer Dominguez pushed him into the one-mile-and-one-eighth Sunland Derby against Daddy Nose Best and Stirred Up. The first-time jockey was Luis Contreras and he followed orders almost to the letter. Isn’t He Clever once occupied the lead but was run down by Daddy Nose Best, whose kick in the stretch was much more potent than that of Isn’t He Clever.
His second-place finish brought in the majority of the graded earnings that Dominguez can use to chase a place in the Kentucky Derby. The Borderland Derby was not a graded race, so even though Isn’t He Clever won it, his winnings could not be used in going after one of the 20 spots in the Kentucky Derby field.
Alejandro Medellin was the rider in the Borderland Derby . . . meaning he came after Corey Nakatani, Luis Quinonez, and Eduardo Gomez. That particular race was Isn’t He Clever’s sixth of his abbreviated on-track career and it was at one-mile-and-a-sixteenth.
He won the Borderland by nearly two lengths. It may not have been a much-watched race by the Eastern establishment or California racing, but for owners Kirk and Judy Robison it was just enough to satiate their appetite for a possible move to the Kentucky Derby. They had paid the modest sum of $45,000 for Isn’t He Clever at the September 2010 Keeneland Yearling Sale.
The Robison’s gelded him to make him more tractable and less a menace to be around when he was unhappy or acting a little unhinged.
While Mine That Bird came through the Sunland Park experience and found Kentucky Derby success, there have not been any others to trace the same path to horse racing glory.
Zia Park in Hobbs, New Mexico was the site of the first race for him. September of last year was the time of his first effort. That initial race was turned into a win in a maiden special weight heat. Next up came an allowance race in Hobbs in October. That one was also won by Isn’t He Clever.
But both those races were at the sprinter’s brief distance of 5 1/2 furlongs.
Not many thoroughbreds dismissed as “sprinters” can move much farther ahead to the 10-furlong distance that is the Kentucky Derby.
In November, the Robisons and trainer Dominguez went to Remington Park in central Texas. They attempted the Clever Trevor at seven furlongs. And they came in second. In his final race as a two-year-old, he was moved to Sunland Park for the Riley Allison Futurity at 6 1/2 furlongs.
When that race was won, his record showed three wins in four tries. Since he hadn’t even raced until the fall, that last try in 2011 actually came on December 30.
Just five weeks later, the Robisons were at Santa Anita Race Course in Arcadia, California. The horses ran in the same counterclockwise direction as they do at Zia Park and Sunland Park but that was one of the few similarities between the spa-like atmosphere at Santa Anita and the sandy desert at Sunland Park.
Nakatani had his ride on Isn’t He Clever on February 4 in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes. If the Robisons were going to be serious about scratching The Derby itch, they needed to start collecting graded stakes bucks.
Unfortunately, they didn’t get many dollars that day because he was only fifth in the longest race he had ever attempted. It was a one-mile-and-a-sixteenth race. Breaking from the extreme inside, he was pressed when searching for the lead. And when he swung wide, looping through the first turn, his sprinter’s background was not going to be enough to carry him smartly through the stretch. The 43-1 longshot, I’ll Have Another, was the runaway winner. The $4,000 Isn’t He Clever won in the Lewis Stakes won’t likely do much to help his cause in breaking through to The Derby.
Those two stakes at Sunland Park on February 25 and March 25 will be his last tries before a possible step toward immortality in Kentucky.
Sunland Park would make the echos of its celebrating ring off the mountains if Isn’t He Clever caught near-perfection as one of the longshots in Kentucky. But are his graded earnings enough? Or will the Robisons take a less tedious path for him this spring? They might come to Baltimore for the Preakness . . . and then move back to the desert for the remainder of his three-year-old