Conquest Mo Money, connections finally get their chance

BALTIMORE -- Tom McKenna, a horse owner and breeder from New Mexico, did a practically unheard of thing when he had Conquest Mo Money skip the Kentucky Derby and let someone else take his spot in America's most famous race. On Saturday, Conquest Mo Money will jump back into the pool as one of the longer prices in the Preakness.

With runner-up efforts in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby and Grade 3 Sunland Derby, Conquest Mo Money accumulated 60 qualifying points for the Derby, tying him for 12th on the list and guaranteeing him a spot in the field. But McKenna did not think the Derby was in his horse's best interest.

"He came out of Arkansas OK, but he'd only started running at 3, and there were going to be horses in the Derby with a lot more experience than him," McKenna said. "Plus, he had run in Arkansas only three weeks after Sunland and would have had to come back again in three weeks."

Conquest Mo Money was not an original or late nominee to the Triple Crown, and McKenna would have had to pay a $200,000 supplemental fee to make his horse eligible for the series prior to the Derby. He instead opted to pay a $150,000 supplement that covers the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

"The Derby decision was not hard for me when I thought of the horse," McKenna said. "It was difficult because of all the people I disappointed."

McKenna has mixed emotions about the Kentucky Derby. He recognizes its importance but believes that 20 horses are too many for the Churchill Downs track to safely accommodate.

"The Derby is a wonderful pageant," he said. "It's great for horse racing, and it's great for the country, but I don't think it's so good for the horses."

McKenna and his wife, Sandy, own McKenna Thoroughbreds, a 1,200-acre breed-to-race operation in the parched, hardscrabble country of eastern New Mexico. Miguel Hernandez -- a winner of more than 2,100 races as a jockey who won titles at Sunland, Ruidoso Downs, Zia Park and the Sacramento fair meet in California -- has been their private trainer since 2014.

Jorge Carreno, a two-time leading rider at Turf Paradise, has ridden Conquest Mo Money in all five of his starts.

"To pass the Derby was hard," said Carreno, a 34-year-old native of Cocula, Mexico. "I mean, as a jockey, I watch those races all the time. But I think Mr. Tom made a smart, sharp move to skip it. I think the horse is getting better and better right now because we skipped the race."

Hernandez echoes Carreno's sentiment.

"Honestly, my dream was to go to the Kentucky Derby my whole life," Hernandez said. "But after Mr. McKenna and I talked, I said, 'You're right, boss.'"

Some amazing horses have come out of New Mexico over the years. In 2009, Mine That Bird shocked the world with a 50-1 upset in the Derby after finishing fourth in the Sunland Derby. He went on to finish second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont.

Bold Ego, a rapid New Mexico-bred, finished second in the 1981 Preakness after a 10th in the Derby. And then there was Peppers Pride, who campaigned exclusively in her home state, winning all 19 of her races and $1 million from 2005-08.

Conquest Mo Money is well on his way to joining the list. He won a one-mile Sunland Park maiden race in his debut, and then took the Riley Allison Derby by 11 lengths and the Mine That Bird Derby by two. He has since finished second in the Sunland Derby and was second in the Arkansas Derby, beaten a half-length by last year's 2-year-old male champion, Classic Empire.

McKenna, who selects his own horses, enjoys a good dispersal sale. He purchased his most successful horse prior to Conquest Mo Money, the mare African Rose, for $7,500 out of the Bill and Corinne Heiligbrodt dispersal in 2011. African Rose has won 18 races and $585,000.

McKenna bought six horses out of the Conquest Stables dispersal at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale last fall. The most expensive horse cost $43,000. The cheapest was Conquest Mo Money, who somehow slipped through the cracks for $8,500.

Conquest Stables purchased the colt for $180,000 at the 2015 Saratoga New York-bred sale of preferred yearlings. The son of Uncle Mo and the Seeking the Gold mare Stirring worked four times at 2 but never started. Conquest Mo Money has earned $508,000 this year.

"How did I buy him for $8,500? I have no idea," McKenna said. "Maybe the auctioneer had a brain short and just dropped the hammer. There were live bids. I really don't know how I got him. I bought a filly for $43,000, and I probably would have gone up to that same figure for him."

The McKennas, Hernandez, and Carreno will be the new kids on the block when they make their first trip to Pimlico this week. They all have had successful careers, albeit not on the national stage.

McKenna, 81, has won 285 races under the stable name Judge Lanier Racing since 2004. He said his earlier business ventures included retail, wholesale, grocery, real estate, and farming and ranching.

"I've flown airplanes, and I've raced cars," he said. "I like looking forward to the next challenge."

Hernandez, 51, began his riding career in 1984 at the Hipodromo de las Americas in his hometown of Mexico City. He later moved on to Caliente in Tijuana, and then rode in California before finding success at Turf Paradise and on the New Mexico circuit.

Hernandez's riding career came to an abrupt end when he broke his back in a spill at Ruidoso in 2013.

"When I was in the hospital, Mr. McKenna called me and said, 'Miguel, you will have a job, don't worry about anything,'" Hernandez said. "I think he knew I would never ride again before I did. I didn't know what he had in mind."

When Hernandez was ready, McKenna hired him as his private trainer. Since December 2014, they have won 102 races together. Despite never having trained before, Hernandez has a 17 percent win average.

McKenna said he decided to find a private trainer before Hernandez was injured, partly so he could have more say over how his horses were handled.

"I have trained all sort of horses myself -- performance horses, working horses," McKenna said. "I've traded horses with the Indians. I like to train horses as individuals, and that is very difficult to do with a public trainer. It's more of a cookie-cutter situation."

McKenna said he wanted a trainer whom "I could start out like a 2-year-old colt -- someone I could teach my way."

Hernandez fit the bill, and McKenna thought he had promise.

"I always liked Miguel and his wife, Graciela," McKenna said. "I knew he had talent and a lot of brains."

Hernandez said Conquest Mo Money did not impress him in his training at first.

"He's one of the lazy ones," Hernandez said. "I worked him with another horse of mine, Oh So Regal, and the other horse kept beating him. I didn't think he was a stakes horse. But when I worked him out of the gate, he was totally different. He beat the other horse easy."

McKenna, Hernandez and Carreno are based at Prairie Meadows for the first time this summer. Racing in New Mexico is underway at SunRay Park in Farmington.

"At Farmington this time of year, there is no money," Hernandez said. "We narrowed it down to Minnesota or Prairie Meadows and decided to come here."

Carreno, a winner of more than 1,300 races who has ridden at Canterbury Park in Minnesota the last three summers, wasn't about to let Conquest Mo Money out of his sight and went along with the plan.

"He's the best horse I've ever been on," Carreno said. "Every jockey spends his whole career looking for a horse like this."

Carreno feels lucky to still be a jockey. Like Hernandez, Carreno broke his back, getting injured in a spill at Turf Paradise in December 2015, and he was out of action until the following May.

"I pushed myself to come back from that injury," Carreno said. "I feel that now is my time. I am so happy to be at the track and around the horses. I just want to give my best for everyone."

Conquest Mo Money has worked three times at Prairie Meadows since the Arkansas Derby. Carreno said he was pleased with Conquest Mo Money's half-mile workout on Friday, but the horse's serious Preakness work came the week before, when he breezed six furlongs in 1:14.20.

"He worked comfortably without me asking for anything," Carreno said. "I was excited about the work."

Hernandez also is encouraged by Conquest Mo Money's training and is confident about his chances in the Preakness.

"It is not going to be easy, but he's training right," Hernandez said. "I think he's going to be pretty tough."