Welcome back to the Twelve Days of Curlin Babies: a look back on twelve races during 2015 that stand out. Among hundreds of races by Curlin’s progeny through the course of the year, they are the ones I keep returning to in my head, the ones that I am always ready and excited to discuss.
#12: Theogony wins the Belle Mahone Stakes
#11: Stellar Wind and Curalina finish 2-3 in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff
#10: Jess’s Dream is a reality!
#9: Danette graduates — finally!
#8: Copperplate finds his place
#7: Curalina wins the Acorn…right in front of me
#6: Union Jackson breaks his maiden
#5: Charismata helps introduce a new voice to Emerald Downs
#4: Solar Maximus goes long…really long
#3: Diversy Harbor wins the Buena Vista Stakes
#2: Conquest Curlinate almost gets there in the Illinois Derby
#1: Keen Ice wins his (Midsummer) Derby
I have never been one for having an early Derby horse, an early Breeders’ Cup horse, an early anything horse. Still, there was just something special about how Keen Ice (Medomak, by Awesome Again) broke his maiden last year. The way he ran down those pacesetters, even though he had eight lengths to make up at the stretch call? His maiden win dazzled. Keen Ice was my Derby Horse.
Then, he ducked through all of those horses late in the Breeders’ Futurity (GI) — though he finished just fifth, he showed maturity. Next out, on a heavily speed biased day, he still rallied from the clouds for third in the Remsen (GII). These only galvanized my opinion that with a little extra time and distance, Keen Ice would be the winner of the 2015 Kentucky Derby.
It took a bit longer than hoped, but Keen Ice indeed found his way to Grade I glory at the Classic distance.
Keen Ice’s Derby prep season was reminiscent of the stakes portion of his two-year-old career…a lot of almost, not-quite, and too little, too late. He was fifth in the Holy Bull (GII) over the notoriously speed-friendly Gulfstream track, then wisely packed off to Fair Grounds for the rest of his prep season. He rallied for third in the Risen Star (GII), and then checked in fourth after an extremely wide trip in the Louisiana Derby (GII).
Though he won none of his Derby preps, he accumulated enough points through his prep season to just squeak into the Kentucky Derby (GI) field. He was finally getting what he needed: a return to the track over which he had won, and a mile and a quarter of ground to cover. Alas, speed held well that day, and Keen Ice had some trip trouble. Once he got a hole, he flew…but he was too far back, and only checked in seventh.
The next few races went progressively better. American Pharoah clinched a Triple Crown with a wire-to-wire tour de force in the Belmont Stakes (GI). Even so, Keen Ice rated closer to the pace than usual, and finished well to nail Mubtaahij for the show. Next out, in the Haskell Stakes (GI), he rallied strongly to finish a clear second behind the Triple Crown winner.
Both Keen Ice and American Pharoah pointed to the Travers Stakes (GI) next. Saratoga has a reputation for being the Graveyard of Favourites. Even so, beating American Pharoah seemed a tough order for Keen Ice. Keen Ice was under a ride to close the gap in the Haskell, whereas American Pharoah cantered so easily home.
Still, Keen Ice was improving…and anyone who bought blue and yellow paint for the canoe did so prematurely.
As expected, American Pharoah sent to the front. However, a new tactic from an old challenger appeared. Frosted sent right along, and was pressing on the champion’s outside by the time the field hit the first turn. Keen Ice was off the pace, as usual, but not back in the clouds. Once again using what he learned in the Belmont, he tracked in range, only four or five lengths off the early going.
Down the backstretch, the order changed little. Frosted continued to bear down on American Pharoah. Smart Transition and Upstart made up the second flight; Keen Ice tracked alongside Texas Red.
As the field got closer to the far turn, Keen Ice began his advance. He left Texas Red behind. He then passed Smart Transition, with Upstart trying to go with him along the rail. That worked for a few strides, but Keen Ice got past.
As the field approached the turn for home, Keen Ice only had two to catch. American Pharoah and Frosted kept battling for the lead. Frosted briefly got his head in front, but American Pharoah re-rallied. He put Frosted away, and finally edged back ahead. However, a mile-long speed duel can take its toll on any horse — even a Triple Crown champion.
Keen Ice was doing exactly what he was made for — the final stages of a mile and a quarter race. He found his next gear just past the furlong pole, and put Frosted away in short order. He was gaining on American Pharoah, and only had a length to make up going into the final sixteenth.
American Pharoah tried.
Keen Ice moved too well.
The son of Curlin passed the wire a widening three-quarters length in front. It was his first win since breaking his maiden almost a year before. It was his first stakes win. It was a win at the distance he was so well bred to run.
And, Keen Ice had just defeated the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Keen Ice returned two months later in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI). He faced American Pharoah once again, but that day turned out a bit more like the Belmont. American Pharoah won in a decisive wire-to-wire romp; Keen Ice rallied late for fourth. A month later, he returned in the Clark. Once again, he finished fourth — though it was a far closer affair. He was well in the rear early, flying late, and only finished a length behind winner Effinex.
In addition to being bred for the Classic distance, Keen Ice’s breeding also suggests he will improve as an older horse. Fortunately, we will see him at four. He remains in training, and plans to race next in the Donn Handicap (GI) at Gulfstream.