INGLEWOOD, Calif. - After Yankee Bravo finished third in the Louisiana Derby on March 8, he appeared to be headed to the Kentucky Derby. All he needed was good, solid race in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, and he was bound for Churchill Downs. But Yankee Bravo flattened out in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby, finishing fourth, and the money he earned that day was insufficient to get him into the Derby.
"We tried. It just wasn't meant to be, I guess," Paddy Gallagher, who trains Yankee Bravo, said Thursday morning at his barn at Hollywood Park.
With the Derby gone from consideration, Gallagher and the partnership that owns Yankee Bravo decided to focus on the 133rd Preakness Stakes on May 17 at Pimlico. Getting into that race is not the high-wire act of the Derby, what with Big Brown having chased away all but one of the horses he beat in the Derby.
"The way Big Brown ran in the Derby, if he runs back to that performance, it looks like a lot of us are running for second," Gallagher said.
But that won't stop Gallagher from trying to pull off the upset. On Thursday, Yankee Bravo tuned up for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness with a strong seven-furlong drill here at Hollywood Park in 1:24 with his regular rider, Alex Solis, aboard. Yankee Bravo broke off about four lengths behind workmate Eager Lover, came through inside at the top of the stretch, drew away impressively, and then galloped out with enthusiasm.
"I don't know if it was the distance or better horses in the Santa Anita Derby," Gallagher said, "but he's come back and trained well."
Yankee Bravo began his career in Great Britain, where he defeated maidens at Redcar going five furlongs on turf in his debut. He was purchased privately following that race by bloodstock agent Richard Duggan, who put together a partnership that included owners David Bienstock and Chuck Winner.
"He's not a big horse. He's a nice handy horse," Gallagher said.
Yankee Bravo showed his versatility, and a wicked turn of foot, when winning his first two starts in this country, on turf and on a synthetic surface. He then ventured onto dirt at the Fair Grounds.
"That was the whole idea, to try the dirt," Gallagher said. "He climbed a little bit that day the first part."
Yankee Bravo also ducked out at midstretch of the Louisiana Derby - "He kind of tends to be a little airhead," Solis said Thursday - which prompted Gallagher to fit Yankee Bravo with blinkers that have a cup only for the right eye in the Santa Anita Derby. Yankee Bravo wore that blinker in the work Thursday, but Gallagher said he was not sure if he would wear it in the Preakness.
"I didn't see any real change," Gallagher said. "I think he could go with or without it."
Gallagher said Yankee Bravo would travel to Baltimore on Wednesday. As of Thursday, he was one of 12 horses under consideration for the Preakness, along with Big Brown, Behindatthebar, Giant Moon, Harlem Rocker, Macho Again, Kentucky Bear, Racecar Rhapsody, Recapturetheglory, Riley Tucker, Stevil, and Tres Borrachos.
At Churchill Downs on Thursday, trainer Rick Dutrow called an audible of sorts when opting to jog Big Brown for a second straight day. Following overnight rain, the Churchill surface was rated muddy, so Dutrow said he didn't want to take any chances by having the colt gallop.
Dutrow initially said he would have Big Brown's back feet shod early Thursday, then have him gallop after the regularly scheduled harrow break about 8:30 a.m. Eastern. Instead, Big Brown jogged without his back horseshoes for a second straight day, going to the track at about 6:45 a.m. for a quick once-around while again ridden clockwise by Michelle Nevin and accompanied by a stable pony ridden by Walter Blum Jr.
"He was all over the pony," Blum said. "He really needs to gallop. He's so full of energy right now."
After cooling out, Big Brown was shod shortly before 9 a.m. by farrier Todd Boston. Dutrow said he expected Big Brown to resume a regular galloping schedule Friday through Wednesday, when an afternoon charter flight is scheduled to take him to Baltimore.
Big Brown had three days off following his Derby win, then resumed training Wednesday by jogging.
"This is the best he's come out of a race since the three races we've had him," Dutrow said Thursday on a conference call. "He came out of the race good. Everything up to this point, he looks as happy as can be. It doesn't look like he's falling totally off his game."
- additional reporting by Marty McGee