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Keen on the Derby scene

May 2, 2015     E-mail this page to a friend!

Keen Ice (#9, outside) breaks his maiden at Churchill Downs, September 6, 2014
(photo by Donegal Racing)

Iowa-based partnership Donegal Racing readies for a rousing Derby weekend as Keen Ice runs for the roses

By Ryan Roshau, special to TRJ—The Racing Journal

If you are a partner or investor in a Donegal Racing Partnership, you buy into Derby Dreams. On the first weekend in May, those Derby Dreams may become a reality.

On Saturday, Des Moines-based Donegal Racing could dance a jig under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. From of a crop of nine horses offered in its “Derby Dream VI” package two years ago, Keen Ice and Puca will be running in the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, respectively. As a bonus, their older horse—Finnegan’s Wake—will be one of the favorites in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on the Derby undercard. For a stable that currently lists 25 in training, that is quite the coup.

“We looked into it and as far as we can tell, we’re the only stable to have a horse run in each of the three big races on Derby weekend,” Chief Operating Officer Conor Foley notes, “I am very humbled and it’s the ultimate to watch the partners and investors enjoying the ride this week.”

Donegal President and founder Jerry Crawford added that Donegal expects more than 150 guests at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend. “We travel pretty well,” Crawford said, “Our partners aren't afraid to have a good time.”

For a relatively small outfit with investors throughout the country, the triple play is impressive. Keen Ice will be Donegal’s third Derby starter in six years, joining Paddy o’Prado and Dullahan, two stretch runners who both finished third under the Twin Spires. Donegal President and pedigree enthusiast Jerry Crawford only looks for those who can thrive on the dirt and get a classic distance when he seeks to fill out the stable’s roster.

“From the time we look at purchasing yearlings, we set out with a goal of winning (the Kentucky Derby). That helps us narrow our focus and vision on achieving that goal,” Foley says. “Our horses are mostly colts and they are the type that are bred and built to run 1-1/4 miles.” Foley concedes that the odds of getting one into the gate are a tall order but they tend to be nice horses with the ability to achieve success before and after the Derby prep season. Paddy o’Prado, for example, was more of a success on the grass and Dullahan won the Pacific Classic his sophomore year on the synthetic surface at Del Mar.

“If there’s one thing we learned from those Derby experiences, it’s how incredibly lucky you have to be to win. In 2010 and 2012, Paddy o’ Prado and Dullahan had wide trips,” Foley said with a bit of remorse. “It’s the biggest field you will ever have to run in and you have 150,000 people screaming at you; it puts a lot of horses on edge.”

Keen Ice, like Donegal’s Derby predecessors, will be running on late and he will need the red sea to part if he is to be a factor in the race. His most impressive showing to date was a weaving-through-traffic third in the Risen Star Stakes in New Orleans. That, coupled with an honest fourth in the Louisiana Derby earned him enough points to just make it into the twenty-horse field. The chestnut colt also posted a career win at Churchill Downs when he came on late to nip the field at the wire, breaking his maiden late last summer.

Despite having three-time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux in the irons and and seasoned Louisville conditioner Dale Romans legging him up, Keen Ice’s odds will be in the neighborhood of 50-to-1, the longest shot Donegal has brought to the Derby. “It looks like the greatest Derby field I’ve seen in my lifetime so we’re excited to be a part of it,” Foley says. “We have the utmost respect for the competitors in this year’s field and we’re privileged to be a part of it but as I said earlier, you need luck to have a good day.”

And now that the chestnut colt is part of the field, his name will be thrown around office pools and neighborhood parties along with 19 others. Keen Ice’s name is a nod to the sport of curling. When the ice is fast or “keen”, the curling stone travels further and less force is needed to advance it. The Kentucky-bred is by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin.

Donegal ‘s name is derived from a region in Ireland, a reference to Crawford’s family roots. “I guess it’s pronounced ‘Dun-EE-gull,’” Foley says. “We’ve been going for seven years now and we have a goal of being profitable and to this point we have been.” And thus far the luck of the Irish has been on their side as defections have led to them earning their way into the sport’s most elusive starting gate. It’s that wild ride of the unknown that makes Donegal and racing partnerships so intriguing. They know the anticipation of getting into the race is part of the appeal.

“You have to enjoy everything along the way and you don’t take anything for granted because this is horse racing,” Foley says. “You have to enjoy the success that you can get and have a good time when it comes.

For Donegal and their partners, the good times often come on the national stage in the biggest races. They could stay closer to home and have a successful string at Prairie Meadows, Canterbury, or maybe Arlington. But Foley says, that strategy is not a part of their marketing plan. “We are aboutfulfilling our partner’s dreams and goals and they want to win the biggest races in the country. Our goal is to compete on the biggest stage and sometimes we are fortunate enough to be there,” Foley says. “We love those tracks and in fact we have one bound for Prairie Meadows now, but these partners and investors are from all over the country and they love their horses and this is the dream they have.

“They dream to run in a race like this.”