Sterling Racing Stables leader Sam Herzberg and his trainer, Kelly Breen, had an outline they wanted to follow for their long-striding three-year-old, Black Onyx.
The nearly black thoroughbred is the son of Rock Hard Ten, whose sons are often late developing because of their large size and penchant for long-distance races.
Herzberg and Breen were trying to be patient. If Black Onyx could give them a solid reason to get him to the Kentucky Derby, they were in agreement to pay the $6,000 late nomination fee to Churchill Downs.
But he had to give them a reason to once and for all send him toward this year’s Derby.
Black Onyx hadn’t raced this year. Trainer Breen positioned him in the $550,000 Spiral Stakes on March 23 at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky. Joining him in the 12-horse field were two others whose exploits in 2012 gave them the looks of worthy Kentucky Derby probables.
Both Uncaptured and Balance The Books had won Grade II races last year. Like Black Onyx, they were making their 2013 debuts in the late-March Spiral Stakes.
The huddled and hardy bettors at Turfway had two objectives in mind: they wanted to stay warm against the cold Kentucky air and biting wind. And they wanted to judge for themselves the seasonal debuts of Uncaptured and Balance The Books.
Black Onyx was basically overlooked. His odds were 16-1.
He hadn’t given Breen enough on-track evidence that he could be versatile enough to handle more than one racing surface. Many of Rock Hard Ten’s sons proved to be reliable on turf courses rather than fast dirt surfaces or the synthetics used at Kentucky tracks other than Churchill Downs.
Sterling Racing was waiting to the last day to tender their late nomination fee. Saturday, March 23, was the deadline.
“If he won the Spiral, his next start would be the Derby,” said Breen in explaining his sketchy, penciled plans. “He wasn’t nominated. But if won that race, he would be nominated in about 15 minutes.”
The rider in the Spiral would be Joe Bravo.
“We planned the trip out. But when the gate opened he was sluggish.” Black Onyx had broken only eighth and Bravo was concerned.
“I was saying, ‘Don’t tell me he’s not taking to the track,’ but after an eighth of a mile he took hold of the bit and started pulling me along. I was watching Uncaptured and he didn’t look like he was handling it as well as mine.
“After that, my horse settled down and it was all over.”
Bravo kept Black Onyx four- or five-wide through all of the backstretch. At the three-eighths pole, the veteran rider pushed his mount. The leaders were caught. And then he was the leader himself.
Through the stretch, Uncaptured gave it his best effort but at the wire it was Black Onyx winning by a length and a half.
The $6,000 late nomination fee for the Kentucky Derby was officially in the hands of the right people at Churchill Downs.
The Grade III Spiral was the first stakes win for the rangy colt.
He had won after a troublesome start. But Bravo had let Black Onyx settle on a long, relaxed rein. The rider known as “Jersey Joe” had deftly stayed away from traffic and the light debris being sent back by the others.
He has now shown promise while racing on fast dirt, on a grass course, and on synthetic courses in Kentucky.
His inexperience could still bring him problems at Churchill Downs, a dirt track known to be speed-favoring.
People are saying that Herzberg and Breen should shake all the rain they can out of the western Kentucky skies so the surface will be muddy and heavy when the Derby is run.
When the thorougbreds are serenaded by the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” as they stride/prance in front of the Churchill Downs grandstand, you will see a nearly black colt with a blazed face that is a near-replica of his great grandfather, the European champion, Roberto.
Black Onyx is still maturing physically. His handlers hope he has the necessary “mental maturity.”
His long stride is near perfect, at least for grass courses. The high knee action fits the turf more than a fast dirt surface. His body length and muscular shoulder could make for longer races on the grass. Almost certainly, his best races are in front of him. But just how far in front is an unanswered question.
In the few races he has attempted, the worst one was on a fast dirt track.