There are no sure things in racing, but this much is known: Storm Fighter will be a long shot Saturday when he starts in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby in Arcadia, Calif.
One of the pivotal races on the road to the Kentucky Derby, the Santa Anita Derby is more than just a steppingstone – the West Coast’s showcase for 3-year-olds is rich in its own history and intrigue. Calumet Farm had a pair of Santa Anita Derby winners back in its glory days, Sham won the race in 1973 before heading east to serve as foil to the mighty Secretariat, and the filly Winning Colors beat colts at Santa Anita in 1988 before making more history as just the third filly to win the Kentucky Derby. Some of the alltime great horses – Swaps, Affirmed and Sunday Silence among them – have parlayed winning efforts at Santa Anita into subsequent Derby victories at Churchill Downs.
Storm Fighter pales against this backdrop of superstars. He has only a single career victory to his credit, in a race for California-bred maidens last month. It’s a rare occurrence when a horse jumps successfully from the maiden ranks into the deepest end of the talent pool, but the people in charge of Storm Fighter – trainer Bruce Headley, owner Golden Eagle Farm, and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens – are confident that theirs is no ordinary horse, his 20-1 odds for the Santa Anita Derby notwithstanding.
“The horse is a physical specimen, to begin with, and he was raised on a very good farm, down at Golden Eagle,” Headley said Wednesday afternoon after nine horses were entered for the Santa Anita Derby. “It’s a small field, and when you have a chance, and a horse is doing really well, you decide to take a chance. He’s a talented horse. Gary was very impressed with him when he won.”
Only one horse – Apollo in 1882 – has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old. Storm Fighter barely beat history’s deadline when he made his career debut on New Year’s Eve at Santa Anita. He broke slowly and finished fourth, and then ran second on a sloppy Santa Anita racetrack in start No. 2. He dominated his next assignment, winning by nearly six lengths in his first attempt around two turns. He has improved with each start, and Headley said there is more under the hood.
“If they are any good, that’s what they do,” Headley said. “If they’re no good, they go the other way. And if they’re just mediocre, they don’t improve at all. But it’s his looks more than anything; this is the kind of horse people buy out of a sale. It’s not just his size, either. Horsemen with great eyes can see the certain way a horse is strung up, like a sailboat that has to have all the ropes and sails just right. He’s got all those dimensions, plus a little more.”
Headley is renowned for his work breaking and training horses, and he has sopped up a lot of learning in his 79 years. He said he was introduced to the track as a child of the Great Depression, by an aunt who cared for him on weekends while Headley’s mother packed oranges. Headley spent a couple of his teen years on a ranch, where he and a young Bill Shoemaker learned the jockey’s craft. But Headley said he grew too big for a riding career before ever riding an official race. It has been said that if you can’t ride ’em, you train ’em, and Headley has been training ‘em for more than half a century.
Like Headley, Golden Eagle Farm has a storied history in California. The farm itself, a 600-acre spread in San Diego County, was founded by the late John and Betty Mabee, whose best horse, Best Pal, finished second in the 1991 Kentucky Derby. Another Mabee runner, General Challenge, won the 1999 Santa Anita Derby but faltered to finish 11th in Kentucky.
Golden Eagle Farm was controlled in recent years by the Mabees’ son, Larry, who bred Storm Fighter. But Larry Mabee died of prostate cancer in December, never getting a chance to see the colt run.
Janine McCullough, the general manager at Golden Eagle, has helped steer Storm Fighter toward a possible date with destiny. She was responsible for pairing the horse with Headley, and urged Headley to bring Stevens aboard after the jockey came out of retirement in January. Baby steps, followed by a giant leap into the Kentucky Derby picture. With precious Kentucky Derby qualifying points at stake Saturday – 100 for the winner, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth – a top-two finish by Storm Fighter could send him directly to Louisville.
“The Triple Crown, honestly, wasn’t even in my mind, it didn’t even exist,” McCullough said of the weeks leading up to Storm Fighter’s first race. “But everything has fallen into place. I’ve been up from San Diego to see every workout, to hear the exercise rider, to hear Gary talk about the horse, I made the call to Triple Crown nominate him. But we’re not going to get caught up in the Derby fever. The Santa Anita Derby is our goal right now. But if he runs second – runs second flying -- then we’d be stupid not to try it. But we’re not going to set him up for failure. We’re not going to break his heart. He’s too good of a horse.”