A small chestnut son of Purim was hardly considered one of the top picks at the Keeneland September yearling sale when he went for $50,000 in 2011. In the high-dollar world of thoroughbred auctions, people pay hundreds of thousands, into the millions, for young horses that have never run -- their willingness to spend based on strong physical characteristics and solid bloodlines … signs that this one could be a winner.
But for Wes Welker, the standout receiver who recently signed with the Denver Broncos, that $50,000 yearling purchase turned out to be a steady player -- now a 3-year-old runner named Undrafted who, in six starts, has never been out of the money. He is an undersized but feisty competitor -- or, as trainer Wesley Ward puts it, "He's a good-feelin' guy." That's something the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Welker knows plenty about; the horse's name refers to his early days trying to make it as a pro, when he went undrafted out of Texas Tech.
"He's just a hard-working horse," Welker said. "He's consistent and it's kind of funny to watch him run -- it definitely is kind of a take on what my career has been like."
The horse runs Saturday in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, a Grade 1 event with a purse of $750,000 and 100 points on the line for the winner toward a spot in the Kentucky Derby field. Heading to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May is a dream of every owner, one Welker is still chasing with this contender. Undrafted was a late nominee to the Triple Crown, and a first or second (worth 40 points) in the Blue Grass could punch his Derby ticket.
"He's run so well in the graded races down in Florida," Ward said. "We know he likes the Polytrack and we're hoping a lot of the horses he's running against don't."
Welker has owned thoroughbreds for about the past five years. He got involved in that aspect of the sport through bloodstock agent Gatewood Bell, with whom he also owns six other runners including a filly named Gypsy Robin, who won the Beaumont Stakes and the Lexus Raven Run at Keeneland last year. Welker compares the feeling of racehorse ownership to that of competing and winning a game; athletes definitely understand the training regimens and rigors these horses go through en route to victory.
"It's a very, very similar feeling as far as getting ready for a game or getting ready for a race," he said. "Making sure your body is where it needs to be, training the way you need to train, knowing how big of an advantage you can gain by doing everything possible to be ready for game day … those are all things I'm familiar with. Then you get that thrill of watching your horse get ready to start, and it's pretty special when they take the lead."
It's a very, very similar feeling as far as getting ready for a game or getting ready for a race.
”-- Wes Welker, owner of Undrafted
Welker said horse racing is his escape from his profession, a hobby he can enjoy without pressure while still feeling the adrenaline rush of competition.
"I'm just out there enjoying it and having fun," he said. "It's nice to get away and kind of have that thing you do. For some guys it's golf or other deals, but for me it's the horses."
Undrafted is the only horse Welker owns outright -- the others are in partnerships arranged by Bell. According to the bloodstock agent, the small but mighty Undrafted was the perfect fit for the NFL star.
"He was perfectly balanced and I love where he was raised; I've had a lot of luck with horses from Runnymede Farm," Bell said of Undrafted. "He was a really smooth walker with a little swagger, using the perfect amount of energy without being too energetic or full of himself. He's definitely small, but he's not a tiny little thing; he had all the pieces that fit well for me. I turned him out in a field with two other colts we bought two days later; he was the smallest one in there but he ran circles around them all and bullied them around, kind of how I imagine Wes on the football field. I was like, 'You've gotta take this one, buddy, this is you in horse form.'"
Undrafted started for the first time at Keeneland last spring and won by three lengths. At Gulfstream Park this January, he was third behind Itsmyluckyday and Sr. Quisqueyano in the Gulfstream Derby, and those two came back with strong victories -- Itsmyluckyday winning the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes and finishing second behind Orb in the Florida Derby, and Sr. Quisqueyano romping by 7½ lengths in the Calder Derby.
The chestnut gelding was also third in the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes, and he missed second in the Grade 3 Swale last time out March 2 by a nose.
"He's already won an 'A other than' [allowance] and his races have actually been kind of sneaky, a lot better than they might look at first glance," Bell said. "We think he's a good horse and we've gotta try. He loves the track and Wes loves Keeneland, so he's just excited to be a part of it. We know we're 15-1 and there are four or five really good horses in there, but we think we have a chance or else we wouldn't run."
Undrafted turned in his final prerace breeze at Keeneland on Saturday, going five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 after closing from about eight lengths behind the Johannesburg filly Sunset Time.
Obviously the underdog role is nothing new, and I think we almost enjoy him being in that spot.
”-- Welker, on Undrafted
"That's the thing with horse racing; you really never know," Welker said. "He's such a nice horse and we'd hate not to give him a chance to go on and compete in the Derby. Obviously the underdog role is nothing new, and I think we almost enjoy him being in that spot. Hopefully he can go out there and get a solid race under his belt."
"Everything looks good," Ward said. "He's never had a problem running in his life. He ran his best number when he broke his maiden here going a short distance, so he has that going for him. The question is how far he's going to go."
The farthest Undrafted has raced to date was a one-mile allowance on the Gulfstream turf -- one he captured by two lengths last December. He'll have a furlong more to run in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass, not to mention the hefty 1 1/4-mile distance of the Derby. That hasn't deterred the connections.
"That's why we're in the Blue Grass: to make the Derby," Ward said. "If we run first or second, we've got a good shot. As we've seen in the past, anything can happen."
Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning turf writer who covers horse racing for The Blood-Horse magazine in Lexington, Ky. Follow her on Twitter @bh_cnovak and read more of her work at www.bloodhorse.com.