Horse Racing

Two Md. horses coming down the home stretch as possible Derby contenders

Cal Lynch opened the stall door at Laurel Park, and the big gray colt responded with a feisty turn around the space within. It belonged to him and no one else.

"Right now, he thinks he's King Kong," the Irish-born trainer said of his prize pupil, El Areeb. "And I'm not going to tell him any different."

About 1,000 miles away in Florida, another Maryland-based trainer, Graham Motion, nurtured a similar degree of confidence in an even-tempered chestnut colt named Irish War Cry. Motion is one of the most successful trainers in the country, with a Kentucky Derby win under his belt. But he doesn't mind saying this is the most advanced 3-year-old he's saddled.

Of all the words Motion could pick to describe the undefeated Irish War Cry, he settled on "straightforward." The son of Curlin just hasn't given him much to fret over.


El Areeb and Irish War Cry, both of whom broke their maidens at Laurel Park last fall, are among the top dozen or so contenders for the May 6 Kentucky Derby. Both will run their likely penultimate prep races on Saturday — El Areeb in the Gotham Stakes at New York's Aqueduct Racetrack and Irish War Cry in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Florida's Gulfstream Park.

Both colts have already won impressively this year, and both have begun to demonstrate the versatility that has distinguished so many recent Derby winners.

March is a time for dreamers in thoroughbred racing. The newest crop of 3-year-olds have shown just enough talent that their connections begin to think in earnest about clutching a garland of roses on the first Saturday in May. But many have yet to face the unlucky post draws or random injuries that complicate so many runs to the Kentucky Derby.


Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher aside, it's a thrill for many trainers and owners simply to be in the chase for one of those 20 precious Derby slots.

Maryland, for all its history with the sport, has been short on such stories in recent years. Horsemen, breeders and track operators agree the industry has been on an upswing in the state, with larger fields chasing greater purses at Laurel Park and Pimlico and more foals being born on Maryland farms. But that progress could use a public face — and what better face than a Derby contender? Better yet, two Derby contenders.

"It speaks to the success of the entire program," said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park. "The things we're doing here are working, and you're going to see more and more of these successes."

El Areeb's connection to Maryland is directly attributable to the state's healthier racing economy. Lynch moved his stable from Pennsylvania to Laurel last year largely because an old friend, Pimlico and Laurel Park general manager Sal Sinatra, sold him on Maryland's resurgence.

"Pennsylvania had started putting a greater emphasis on the casinos and the slots," Lynch said, sitting in the office of his big blue barn at Laurel Park. "It took a lot of the fun out of it. They're spending a lot of money here, and the emphasis is on racing."

Lynch purchased El Areeb for $340,000 on behalf of Saudi Arabia businessman Mohammed Al-Gadhi at a sale in Ocala, Fla., last March. He was actually their cheaper buy of the week. Undulated, stalled next to El Areeb at Laurel, went for $625,000.

El Areeb, ridden by Trevor McCarthy, did not win either of his first two races. But his talent was obvious. He worked with unusual energy and carried the ornery, competitive nature of a born racehorse. Lynch threw him into competitive workouts with the best in his stable.

"They're good horses, but he just ate them up," he said. "He's different."


El Areeb broke through with victories at Laurel in October and November, controlling both races easily from the lead. He dominated on a muddy track at Aqueduct in the Jan. 2 Jerome Stakes, then stalked the lead and won professionally in the Feb. 4 Withers Stakes, also at Aqueduct.

Lynch wasn't sure he wanted to enter the Gotham. He wondered if El Areeb, still maturing physically, could use a longer break. But the colt showed such verve in the barn coming off his victory at the Withers that Lynch finally saw no reason to hold him back.

If El Areeb runs well Saturday, the Wood Memorial on April 8 at Aqueduct would be an obvious next step, though Lynch also mentioned the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland as a possible final Derby prep. If he banks enough qualifying points, it's also possible he might not run again before the Derby. Lynch said those decisions will be made day to day.

"It's all him," he said. "Listen, you don't take a horse to the Derby. The horse takes you. Every step of the way has been up to him."

Lynch shares a connection to Maryland's other leading Derby hopeful. His brother, Feargal, rode Irish War Cry to his two victories at Laurel Park.

"I think it's fantastic for Maryland racing that we've been lucky enough to have a few of these kinds of horses," Lynch said. "I think going forward, you're going to see a lot more of that. There's a lot of good outfits shipping into Fair Hill. There's a lot of guys moving here to Laurel. It's great."


Motion, who's based at Fair Hill and has been running horses in Maryland for more than 20 years, agreed.

"It doesn't really surprise me," he said. "The caliber of racing in Maryland has always held up."

Motion won the 2011 Derby with Animal Kingdom, but that colt followed a less traditional path to Churchill Downs. In fact, Motion wasn't even contemplating a Derby run at this point six years ago. The soft-spoken Englishman often takes a conservative approach with his 3-year-olds. Irish War Cry simply hasn't let him do it.

"I don't think I've ever had one so precocious," Motion said. "He's quite a bit ahead of where Animal Kingdom was at the same time, though it's not fair to compare the two."

Motion knew Irish War Cry was a gifted, well-built colt when he began working with him last summer. He bore a strong resemblance to his father, Curlin, the 2007 Preakness winner and two-time American Horse of the Year. But he was a mellow 2-year-old, even as he won his first two races at Laurel Park in November and December.

His demeanor and work habits sharpened when Motion took him to Florida in January. And the trainer decided to give him a stiff test in the Feb. 4 Holy Bull Stakes. Lined up against him that day was Classic Empire, an impressive winner in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the presumptive early favorite for the Derby.

As it turned out, Classic Empire suffered through the worst day of his career, possibly because of a foot abscess discovered a few days after the race. Irish War Cry, meanwhile, moved to the lead easily under jockey Joel Rosario and swept to victory by 3 ¾ lengths. He suddenly shot near the top of every Derby contenders list and has looked terrific in recent workouts.

He'll be the favorite in the Fountain of Youth and if he runs well will likely enter the April 1 Florida Derby. That race has been the final steppingstone to Churchill Downs for Nyquist, Orb, Big Brown, Barbaro and many other Derby champions.

If Irish War Cry keeps winning and goes to Kentucky as a top contender, his owner and breeder, 86-year-old Isabelle Haskell de Tomaso, will likely be one of Derby week's most fascinating characters. She's the daughter of Amory Haskell, a great figure in the history of New Jersey thoroughbred racing. But she also made her name as a European race-car driver in the 1950s and founded an Italian motor company with her late husband, Alejandro de Tomaso.

"It's a very cool story," Motion said.

Yet he's trying not to get ahead of himself. The handicappers have already started debating whether Irish War Cry has had it too easy in his victories. After all, picking at Derby contenders is as much a part of the run-up as the races themselves.


"We analyze these 3-year-old races to death, and that's part of what makes it so exciting," Motion said. "But I try not to get caught up in that. All I can say is I'm very happy with how he's doing."