Coming Up Roses
Menifee joined the Derby fray with an inspiring win at the Blue Grass
Five weeks ago, shortly after the start of the thoroughbred breeding season, a promising young studhorse named Harlan—a well-bred fireball who had earned more than $400,000 in his days as a racehorse and at one time was ranked among America's fastest sprinters—was breeding to a mare at Stone Farm in Paris, Ky., when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. At age 10, Harlan was only just beginning to stamp his get. The master of Stone Farm, Arthur B. Hancock III, had been banking on Harlan to supplant the older studs at Stone and lead the 2,000-acre nursery into the 21st century. Then, suddenly, Harlan was gone. "It was devastating," Hancock says. "We were just so hopeful that he'd carry the farm."
No wonder, then, that the 56-year-old Hancock was seen levitating around Keeneland Race Course late last Saturday afternoon in a kind of dewy-eyed daze after Menifee won the Blue Grass Stakes, becoming the first baby of Harlan to win a graded stakes race. Hancock looked every bit as stunned as he was when two horses that he once co-owned, Gato Del Sol and Sunday Silence, came bounding home to win the Kentucky Derby in 1982 and '89, respectively. "I can't believe it," Hancock said over and over. "A month after losing Harlan, we've now got his best son to take his place on the farm someday."
After losing much ground while racing four wide on the first turn, Menifee stayed in touch with the pacesetters down the backstretch and around the last turn. There, under some artful steering by Pat Day, the colt zigged to the rail to cut the final corner, zagged to the outside nearing midstretch to get clear, then powered past the leaders in the closing eighth, drawing off to win by a length and a quarter. His time for the nine furlongs, 1:48[3/5], was respectable enough, and he covered the final eight in a nifty 12[2/5] seconds. Thus, in a turn of events as romantic as any to occur in the 75-year history of the Blue Grass, Harlan not only left Hancock with an heir to his male line, but also left him and his 73-year-old co-owner, New Orleans businessman James H. Stone, with one of the favorites for the 125th running of the Kentucky Derby, on May 1.
Menifee, with four wins in five lifetime starts, will come to the Downs as a largely unsqueezed lemon. He started and won twice as a 2-year-old, easily breaking his maiden at Monmouth Park last July 16 before winning an Aug. 21 allowance race by three at Saratoga, only to undergo surgery in late August to remove a bone chip in his knee. He was away from racing for six months, but trainer Elliott Walden had him wound like a watch for his Feb. 27 3-year-old debut at Gulf-stream Park, where he won a seven-furlong allowance race by nearly four lengths in a swift 1:22[2/5]. In his first stakes race, the March 21 Tampa Bay Derby, the colt traveled wide around two turns, giving away at least four lengths, and tired in the drive to finish second, beaten by a length by Pineaff.
Menifee needed the work. Twenty days later he bounced into the paddock at Keeneland. "This is his crossroads," Hancock said before the race. "He's stepping up against the big boys. He runs well here, he's on his way to Churchill Downs."
A half hour later, Menifee was Derby-bound, and this Blue Grass had become his sire's epitaph.
Valhol Breaks Maiden in Style
Of all the horses who will descend on River City for the 1¼-mile Derby—from the gelding General Challenge, the probable favorite, to the Dubai-trained Worldly Manner—perhaps none will excite greater curiosity than a chestnut colt out of Texas named Valhol. That's not just because he is trained by a former bullrider, Dallas Keen, who wears a black, 10-gallon cowboy hat and guffaws in the grim face of convention.
History says that horses who do not race at age two are not seasoned enough to withstand the pressures generated by training and racing them toward the first Saturday in May. Valhol was un-raced in 1998. Conventional wisdom says that you do not throw lightly raced maidens into major stakes events against lean, battle-toughened competitors. Keen has ignored these admonitions. He's also been laughing a lot lately.