Do horses get nervous? Will Dullahan’s heart be beating a mile a minute as he waits in the starting gate among 20 horses in the 138th running of the $2 million Kentucky Derby?
Held in front of more than 140,000 at the famed Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for 3-year-olds and they have to feel the pressure. America’s most celebrated horse race includes plenty of pageantry, with an emphasis upon fashion, socializing and celebrity-watching for those attending, but it’s the roughly two minutes that it takes to complete 1¼ miles that matters most.
The winner joins the most famous in the annals of racing and will never be forgotten.
Dullahan will be in the middle of this unique experience Saturday and whether he realizes it or not, he will face the most difficult task of his young career when the gates open. It’s been a long, winding road getting to the Kentucky Derby.
Foaled on Feb. 8, 2009, in central Kentucky, Dullahan was one of 34,000 Thoroughbreds born that year, according to the Jockey Club. A few months after his birth, his half-brother Mine That Bird pulled off a 50-1 upset in the Derby, enhancing Dullahan’s value in the process. Both are out of the highly-respected broodmare Mining My Own, who will become the first female to produce multiple Kentucky Derby winners if Dullahan succeeds Saturday.
As a 1-year-old (yearling), Dullahan’s former owners put him through a public auction, hoping to generate a sizable profit due to the success of Mine That Bird. Dullahan was offered at the prestigious Keeneland September Yearling Sale, one of a massive 7,567 youngsters that were offered over two weeks at the Lexington, Kentucky, venue.
So his new owners spent a quarter-million on the untested yearling and the chestnut colt entered training with great expectations as well as a curious name.
An Irish-based term that roughly translates to “without a head,” the dullahan, according to Irish myth, is often seen riding a black horse, with its head tucked underneath an arm.
After months of training, the horse Dullahan was ready for his first race. Trainer Dale Romans, who saddled his first Triple Crown race winner when capturing last year’s Preakness with Shackleford, sent him out for a short spin at Churchill Downs, a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight contest. Dullahan did fairly well, finishing third behind a pair of eventual stakes winners, one of whom, Daddy Nose Best, is in the Kentucky Derby field.
Winless in his first four starts, Dullahan was dismissed at 17-1 odds when lining up for the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity over Keeneland’s Polytrack and proved quite comfortable over the synthetic surface, closing strongly to win. He picked up a big paycheck for his elated owners.
Dullahan concluded 2011 with a commendable fourth in the ultra-competitive Breeders' Cup Juvenile over the Churchill Downs’ dirt track. The three that finished in front of him – Hansen, Union Rags and Creative Cause — are all fantastic sorts who will be among the betting favorites in this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Making the storied Derby field is supremely difficult and horses cannot afford too much of a belated start to their careers. What Bodemeister is attempting to do this year —become the first winning unraced two-year-old in 130 years — is a path to avoid.
Just 9,606 juveniles made it to the races in 2011, the lowest number reported since at least 1987, according to the Jockey Club, and that means just 28 percent of the foals in Dullahan’s birth year even made it to the races as 2-year-olds. A much smaller percentage was lucky enough to win.
So the pressure is on for Dullahan and the rest of the contestants. Winning the “Run for the Roses” would be most historic and Dullahan has an advantage in jockey Kent Desormeaux, who has won the Derby three times. He gives the horse confidence. And Dullahan has trained and raced at Churchill Downs, so that may add to his comfort level. But this stage will be something that he has never seen before.
Right before the gates open, the fans will be roaring, the ground will be shaking — the scene will be simply amazing. It will be time for him to focus, time for Dullahan to shine.
Orb is the even-money favorite at Saturday's Preakness, and there's a growing feeling that this 3-year-old bay colt may be special enough to give thoroughbred racing its first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.