Thoroughbred owners can go a lifetime without acquiring a horse who can make an impact on the Triple Crown, but such success has come quickly for Donegal Racing, which on Saturday will attempt to win its first classic when the partnership, headed by Jerry Crawford, sends out Dullahan in the Belmont Stakes.
In 2008, Crawford formed a partnership among friends after purchasing eight yearlings at auction. One of the yearlings, Paddy O'Prado, went on to win the Grade 1 Secretariat and finish third in the Kentucky Derby for Donegal and trainer Dale Romans. Two years later, Donegal and Romans were third in the Derby once again, this time with Dullahan.
"Our partnership ranges from people who have been in the horse business for decades to people who had never been to a horse race until they became a partner in this," said Crawford, an attorney from Des Moines, Iowa.
Crawford, who has served as the Iowa chair or co-chair for seven presidential campaigns, including Bill Clinton's in 1996, said 22 partners are involved with Dullahan and that the group will have 300 supporters in tow on Saturday.
"Donegal started as a group of close friends, and it's expanded to include close old friends and close new friends," Crawford said. "We get to share experiences with our families and close friends, and that's one of the best things life has to offer."
Romans said he wouldn't mind being booed if Dullahan won the Belmont, and Crawford expressed a similar, albeit slightly softer, sentiment.
"You can imagine the range of emotions is great, but we're a very upbeat group, so being cast in the role of potential spoiler is a little alien to our personality," Crawford said.
"It's our job (to challenge I'll Have Another). This is what we owe Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat. If I'll Have Another wins, I'll be first in line to say, 'This is an incredibly worthy champion.'"
On Thursday, Dullahan galloped 1 1/2 miles and schooled in the paddock prior to the 4TH race.
With the 12 horses in the Belmont Stakes racing at 1 1/2 miles for the first time in their careers, the distance is a question mark for all. Although the progeny of Union Rags' sire, Dixie Union, do their best running up to 1 1/8 miles, trainer Michael Matz said the colt's pedigree on his mother's side will help him get the distance.
"His second and third dam were 1 1/2-mile horses," Matz said.
Union Rags' second dam, Terpsichorist, won up to 1 5/8 miles, including route victories in the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay Handicap and Grade 3 Long Island Handicap. The colt's third dam, Glad Rags II, was Irish champion juvenile filly in 1965 and scored her biggest win in England's one-mile One Thousand Guineas the following year.
"They ran 1 1/2 miles, and I think that's where he gets the distance from," Matz opined. "Dixie Union hasn't produced anything over 1 1/8 miles, but I think on the female side, there's a distance pedigree. He's a big horse with a long stride; he covers the ground easy -- but we don't know.
"Nobody knows. They'll probably never run this distance again in their lives. It's a big question mark."
Union Rags had a brilliant career at two and was one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby, only to finish a disappointing seventh after a troubled trip. With a new jockey in John Velazquez, who replaces Julien Leparoux, Matz would love nothing more than to see his horse get a clean journey to show what he can do.
"He's coming in very good; he worked very good," Matz said. "All I am asking for is a clean trip. He's done everything we've asked him to do. He had two unfortunate races. Whether it was the rider, the trainer, or the horse, I don't know. Sometimes you just have to do something to go about it a little differently. I think he had some bad luck.
"I don't think he had a chance his last two races to run. I don't think you can blame it on him. We'll find out Saturday. A mile-and-a-half might not be the place to start, but it's the last Triple Crown race and I think he deserves a chance."