The lure of the Kentucky Derby is so strong it reaches to Canada and other countries as well.
Owners and trainers begin searching for ways to get their two-year-old thoroughbreds through the jumble of pathways that might get them to the “Derby”.
Racing schedules are made firm. Yet “firm” in thoroughbred racing means until an injury throws curves to the future or a horse’s form goes south and he hasn’t progressed well enough to go to another stakes race.
If plans aren’t thrown aside when the thoroughbred is two, then a schedule is projected and then put in place for the early months of his three-year-old campaign.
If enough progress is made and the thoroughbred seems able to run a creditable mile-and-a-quarter then the owner and trainer have to be sure the necessary points have been secured to qualify for the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.
The “early months” of any three-year-old’s season is where the calendar is now.
One of those still on the trail to Louisville is River Seven, a Canadian whose two-year-old races were all run at Woodbine in Ontario.
River Seven is the son of sire Johannesburg and the dam Sans Souci Island. He was auctioned as a yearling for $80,000 and bought in 2012 as a two-year-old for $60,000 at a Keeneland sale by Tucci Stable (Lou Tucci and his nephew, Carlo) and its trainer, Nick Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is a lifetime horseman. He’s been a “grinder” at his chosen trade. Now 61 years old, the low-key trainer has done his work at Fort Erie and Woodbine in Canada. Until the last seven years, he prepared mostly claiming horses and barely knew any stakes runners.
However, by 2010 he had won purses exceeding $1 million for five straight calendar years and had 25 stakes win either at Fort Erie or Woodbine.
After getting River Seven for the $60,000 auction price, Gonzalez set him on a four-race schedule as a two-year-old.
His first race was at Woodbine and came on June 12 of last year in the Clarendon Stakes at only 5 1/2-furlongs. River Seven was matched against another would-be Kentucky Derby Canadian named Uncaptured, who we wrote about last week.
Uncaptured won the Clarendon, which was a $150,000 race.
River Seven was third that day.
His next race was in July in the six-furlong Vandal Stakes. And just to complicate things, there was Uncaptured entered in the $150,000 stakes. Uncaptured won again, but River Seven improved from his first time and finished in second place.
He was still winless. He could run in a maiden race with other non-winners if Gonzalez saw that route as the way toward progress.
And so in a maiden special weight race at Woodbine, River Seven was tried at one-mile-and-70 yards. He still didn’t win, finishing second again.
Gonzalez had opened with a $150,000 stakes race. He had followed that with another $150,000 stakes race. Dropping back, he tried River Seven in a routine maiden special weight race.
And still there were no wins.
Gonzalez seemed unruffled.
He stepped up to the $225,000 Grade III Grey Stakes, again at Woodbine just outside of Toronto. The distance was one-mile-and-a-sixteenth, the longest race of his short career.
The Grade III race was one of only three outside the United States that would yield points toward the Kentucky Derby. By winning, River Seven earned 10 points toward qualifying for the “Derby”.
Trainer Gonzalez’s confidence had been rewarded.
River Seven defeated the graded stakes field after losing to a field of maidens just a month before.
The heavy favorite in the Grey Stakes happened to be the unbeaten Uncaptured. When Uncaptured finished a disappointing fifth, he didn’t earn any points toward running in the Kentucky Derby.
The Grey Stakes was the last of the four 2012 races River Bend tried and it came in October. All his races were at Woodbine.
A late-fall and winter of rest followed.
The dark brown colt has not raced in January or early February. His schedule could be planned with races in the United States in mind.
When River Bend won the Grey Stakes, trainer Gonzalez said: “I’m going to do my best to keep the owners from getting caught up in that (Kentucky Derby) kind of thing. Riven Seven is an Ontario-bred and they really have a Queen’s Plate dream. And that’s very special for my wife, Martha, and I as well. That really is our main goal.”
A Gonzalez-trained horse won the 2010 Queen’s Plate.
After consulting with Lou Tucci over the late-fall and early-winter months, if Gonzalez has been persuasive enough, River Seven may stay in Canada and have a schedule that sends him toward the Queen’s Plate (Canada’s answer for three-year-olds for the Kentucky Derby).
If the lure of Kentucky is too powerful to ignore for the Tucci Stable, then a plan to earn enough points to qualify for the “Derby” has to be formed by trainer Gonzalez.