Battalion Runner is the latest Kentucky Derby (G1) hopeful bred and raised by the Justice family’s Dell Ridge Farm.

Established in 1998 by the late Frank Justice, the Lexington, Kentucky, nursery has been responsible for two top Derby prospects in recent years in Violence and Honor Code. Unfortunately, both suffered injuries that ruled them out of the Run for the Roses.

Violence, who sold for $600,000 as a yearling, was actually the early favorite for the 2013 Kentucky Derby after capping an unbeaten juvenile season in the CashCall Futurity (G1). But in his three-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth (G2), he sustained a career-ending injury. Violence nevertheless finished a game second that day to eventual Derby winner Orb, prompting thoughts of what might have been.

Honor Code, raced by Dell Ridge in partnership with Lane’s End Racing, vaulted into the 2014 Derby discussion thanks to his Remsen (G2) thriller. Although he too met with a setback that cost him nearly all of his three-year-old season, Honor Code developed into a champion at the age of four. His whirlwind, last-to-first charges in two of the sport’s most coveted titles in his division – the 2015 Metropolitan H. (G1) and Whitney (G1) – earned him an Eclipse Award as champion older male.

It’s testimony to the strength in depth of the Dell Ridge broodmare band that Honor Code, Violence, and Battalion Runner all spring from different families.

Battalion Runner’s dam, Tamboz, was purchased for $440,000 as a broodmare at the 2012 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale. Then in foal to Tiznow, Tamboz had achieved little on the racetrack herself, but she sported a terrific pedigree. Not only was she by leading sire Tapit, but she hailed from a strong female line cultivated by the Winchells. In fact, she entered the sales ring with a pretty powerful catalog update: her full brother, Tapizar, had just won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) at Santa Anita.

Not known at the time was that Tamboz’s then-weanling filly by Harlan’s Holiday would go on to become a graded stakes performer herself. Named Oceanwave, the Gary and Mary West colorbearer just missed in the 2015 Fantasy (G3), placed in the Honeybee (G3) and Indiana Oaks (G2), and competed in the Kentucky Oaks (G1).

“Pretty decent racehorse,” was how Dell Ridge farm manager Des Ryan summed her up.

Tamboz’s ensuing foal by Tiznow, Tiznoble, was a good-bodied sort – but his forelegs had a conformation flaw.

“Very crooked in front,” Ryan revealed. “Toed out.”

Unsold for $32,000 as a Keeneland September yearling, Tiznoble was retained to race for Dell Ridge. After going three-for-four, he was claimed by trainer Mike Stidham. Tiznoble has already furnished dividends for his new connections. He nearly took last December’s Woodchopper S. at Fair Grounds, and he’s subsequently won and placed second over the same New Orleans turf.

“He looks like he’s got a lot of talent,” Ryan commented.

For Tamboz’s first mating under Dell Ridge auspices, Ryan was determined to send her to Taylor Made Farm’s patriarch, Unbridled’s Song.

Aside from the obvious appeal of an outstanding sire, Unbridled’s Song offered a fascinating pedigree match-up with Tamboz: inbreeding to 1990 Kentucky Derby-winning champion and influential sire Unbridled.

“That’s a lot of why I wanted to breed to him. I liked that nick pattern,” Ryan said.

As his name implies, Unbridled’s Song is a son of Unbridled. Tamboz’s sire, Tapit, is out of an Unbridled mare. Thus the resulting foal would be inbred 2x4 (the numbers representing the generations in his pedigree) to Unbridled.

Those theoretical advantages were translated into physical reality by Tamboz’s baby, gray like both his parents.

“He was very well-balanced as a foal, just grew in stages, always looked the same, and just blossomed as a yearling,” Ryan recalled.

“Lovely shoulder and hip on him. Very similar to the mare – she is elegant as well.”

Battalion Runner as a Keeneland September yearling

The smashing colt was all the more a godsend, considering that Unbridled’s Song died a few months after he was conceived. Tamboz had been fortunate enough to visit the 20-year-old stallion in his final year at stud. There would be no second chances at this union.

Her Unbridled’s Song colt had a winning disposition to go along with his stellar looks, as Ryan explained.

“He was always very independent, a strong-minded individual, but at the same time, very likeable – lots of personality.”

As is often the case with the good horses, his upbringing at Dell Ridge was “very straightforward and uneventful…pretty much straightforward the whole way through.”

Nor were there any escapades – no tales of “the day he did this, that, and the other thing.”

Bound for the yearling sales, he could have been on many buyers’ short lists on pedigree alone. The scarcity factor surely helped, being one of the very last opportunities to scoop up a well-bred yearling colt by Unbridled’s Song. But his striking physical appearance took him up to another level, and made him a hot commodity.

“He really blossomed through the spring and summer of his yearling year,” Ryan noted.

The yet-unnamed colt was consigned through St. George Sales, acting on behalf of Dell Ridge, at Keeneland September in 2015. He ultimately commanded $700,000 from Jimmy Crupi’s New Castle Farm.

“He sold himself,” Archie St. George said, complimenting the excellent work done by Dell Ridge. “We were just lucky enough to be a small part of it.

“He came to the sales looking like his price tag. Des Ryan, the farm manager, and his team at Dell Ridge did a great job prepping him for the sale. 

“They did all the hard work, they bred and raised him. We just had him for two days!

“He was a very straightforward colt to be around, didn't turn a hair and showed great while at the sales. He ticked all the boxes and was a very good physical. He had a lot of interest and was vetted by prospective buyers a ‘ridiculous’ amount of times.

“It is a privilege to have sold a horse like him for Dell Ridge and we are delighted for St. Elias Stables.”

St. Elias is the nom de course of Vincent Viola and his wife, Teresa. Although Crupi often buys youngsters as prospects for resale, that was not the case this time. The beautiful gray was “bought as a racehorse.”

The name Battalion Runner derives from Viola’s military background, as a West Point graduate, and veteran of the 101st Airborne Division, before making his fortune with Virtu Financial.

The Violas are also co-owners in Always Dreaming (whose Tale is here), a fellow “classmate” of Battalion Runner’s during their pre-training with Crupi in Ocala, Florida.

“They were straightforward and good horses,” Crupi said. “We knew right away they were runners.”

When asked to compare the two, Crupi put them in the same lofty category.

“Same as Always Dreaming. They were in the same set, and I couldn’t separate them, who was better.”

As we near Derby Week, however, their paths appear to be diverging. Always Dreaming will be one of the favorites off a three-race winning streak, crowned by the Florida Derby (G1), and a final major work that drew rave reviews. Battalion Runner exits a useful second in the Wood Memorial (G2), but his Derby status became uncertain after a lackluster breeze.

Might he join Honor Code and Violence as exceptional Dell Ridge-breds who didn’t make the Derby?

If so, Ryan would take it in stride as part of the game, and he trusts that trainer Todd Pletcher will make the right decision. With other major races down the road that would suit Battalion Runner, it’s preferable to keep that long run in mind.

“Todd Pletcher is a very smart guy,” Ryan said. 

Photos courtesy St. George Sales / Mathea Kelley