The Cliffs Notes of Charles Fipke’s life make for fascinating reading: An industrious and brilliant child from the Canadian prairies grows up to become a renowned geologist, unearths one of the world’s biggest diamond mines in the wilds of the Northwest Territories, makes a life’s fortune several times over, and then jumps head over heels into thoroughbred breeding and racing.
The rewards thus far have been plentiful. Fipke has captured the most prestigious race in his homeland, the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine, and recorded his first Breeders’ Cup victory when his homebred, Perfect Shirl, took the Filly & Mare Turf at Churchill Downs in 2011. Next Saturday, Fipke will try to add to that list of towering accomplishments when he and trainer Kenny McPeek send out Java’s War to compete in the Kentucky Derby.
Fipke, 66, purchased his first horse more than three decades ago, but his racing empire has grown dramatically in recent years. In 2011, he bought a historic breeding farm in Paris, Kentucky -- and then bought another one down the road. He has strings of horses with various trainers in practically every corner of the U.S. and Canada, and, according to one of his trainers, a bucket list of touchstone races he wants to win. That list begins with the Derby.
Fipke has strings of horses with various trainers in practically every corner of the U.S. and Canada, and, according to one of his trainers, a bucket list of touchstone races he wants to win. That list begins with the Derby.
Fipke has so many first-class runners that he might even have a second Kentucky Derby starter next Saturday. Golden Soul, trained by Dallas Stewart, is currently No. 23 on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard and could move up pending developments over the weekend.
It’s a good situation for Stewart, and also of course for McPeek, 50, one of the leading trainers in Kentucky and a man with a slew of stakes victories to his credit. McPeek met Fipke not long ago, and it wasn’t long thereafter that some Fipke horses were delivered to his doorstep.
“His farm manager, Elke Krohn, is a friend of mine, and Elke first introduced us a couple, three years ago,” McPeek said. “The first four horses I got were slow -- but then this one is really fast.”
Java’s War earned his trip to the Derby with a thrilling victory in the Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 13. After lollygagging at the starting gate and getting off several lengths behind the field, Java’s War made a bold, seven-wide move on the far turn and ran by the tiring leaders in the final strides.
Java’s War, by the deceased stallion War Pass, likely has the stamina to handle the Derby’s demanding 10 furlongs, but pedigree analysts suggest he might be at his best on grass or synthetic surfaces. In his only previous start on the dirt at Churchill Downs, he finished a non-threatening sixth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November.
“The horse has proven himself in the bigger races, and I think a mile and a quarter ought to be even better,” McPeek said. “Whether he can get the trip and handle the ground … it’s never easy.”
A possible Kentucky Derby appearance for Java’s War has been on Fipke’s radar from the start.
“We did the Triple Crown nomination early, he was a stakes winner at 2, so he obviously has a lot of class,” McPeek said. “Mr. Fipke, we were thinking turf, or dirt, or turf routes. He wanted to try him on dirt, and here we are.”
McPeek has been here before. His first standout stakes performer, Tejano Run, finished second in the 1995 Kentucky Derby behind Thunder Gulch. He’s had a few other Derby runners, including Noble’s Promise, who finished fifth behind Super Saver in 2010.
"The Kentucky Derby is a different race, though; at a mile and a quarter, anything can happen."
“I’ve been second with Tejano Run, and I had the favorite another season. I’ve kind of sniffed at the thing, but this might be as good a chance as I’ve ever had,” McPeek said. “I think the horse who ran second could have won the race, but he was little bit unlucky health-wise. My most recent runner was Noble’s Promise, and he only got beat six lengths. I’ve been in single digits every time, so I’ve been close. But it’s like a bull’s-eye: We’ve been around it, and now we’re hoping to hit it.”
If Java’s War runs big in the Derby, there’s little doubt that Fipke will look far and wide for other mountains to conquer. On Wednesday in England, Royal Ascot announced early entries for seven Group 1 races to be contested there in June. Java’s War was among them, a candidate to run in the one-mile St. James Palace Stakes on the Ascot grass.
"I think he likes the synthetics, but he has run well on everything we have put him on and his pedigree suggests turf," McPeek told the Blood-Horse magazine. "Mr. Fipke will ultimately decide where we run, but I think [Royal Ascot] is a good option for him. He will definitely run in the Kentucky Derby next … The Kentucky Derby is a different race, though; at a mile and a quarter, anything can happen."