By John Manley
Four years ago, Dermot Cantillon visited Newmarket, England, for the Tattersalls sale in search of a broodmare to bring back to Ireland Cantillon manages the Forenaghts Stud in Naas, Co. Kildare, for the Smurfit family, but with his wife, Meta, keeps an interest in about a half dozen mares for breeding purposes. A Riva Ridge mare named Cherry Ridge caught his eye, and when the gavel was brought down at _30,000, he owned a mare that was in foal to Alzao. He had a lot to look forward to, or so he believed.
“When she got home from the sale, she kept coughing,” Cantillon said. “We thought it was an allergy at first, but I sent her down to UCD three to four months later, and it turned out to be cancer of the lungs. She ended up having to be put down.”
But not before she gave birth to the bay colt that she bore when she was purchased by Cantillon. His arrival didn’t inspire comparisons with titans of the turf, however.
“He hadn’t the greatest of front legs,” Cantillon said. “He started to box walk just before I was planning to sell him. So I turned him out in a field in Kildare for about eight or nine months.”
Cantillon finally got the yearling to market, but had to settle for Goffs’ open sale, not the premier division. The selling price was a mere _12,000, “a disappointing price considering his pedigree,” Cantillon said. “But people were concerned about his conformation. I always thought he was very athletic. He walked very well.”
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Under new management, the colt became a gelding and, plying his trade as Hanuman Highway, he showed in the Arkansas Derby that not only could he walk very well, but he could do some quality running to boot. This Saturday, Hanuman Highway will attempt to become the first Irish-bred to win a Kentucky Derby when he enters the Churchill Downs starting gate at around 5:30 p.m.
Although he won’t be highly regarded to win the 124th Run for the Roses, Hanuman Highway did raise some eyebrows with his second-place finish at 27-1 in the Arkansas Derby on April 11. Well off the fast early pace of Favorite Trick, Hanuman Highway rallied around the far turn, then dropped to the rail entering the stretch and closed like a bullet to nip the tiring Favorite Trick at the wire, while finishing ahead behind Victory Gallop.
Prior to his Arkansas excursion, Hanuman Highway’s racing adventures consisted of two starts over dirt tracks in England, one of which saw him break his maiden, and a pair of races at Santa Anita. In the second of the California races, Hanuman Highway came wide into the straight, then drew off to defeat allowance foes by just over a length at 28-1.
Hanuman Highway promises to be a high price on Saturday also. A deep and contentious field awaits him. Favorite Trick, last year’s Horse of the Year, should benefit from the race in Arkansas. The undefeated Indian Charlie may rule the favorite, however. His sire is In Excess, the Irish-bred that holds the Belmont Park track record for the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter. Victory Gallop will also attend, as will Halory Hunter, trained by two-time Derby winner, Nick Zito and owned by basketball coach Rick Pitino, racing as the Celtic Pride Stable.
Hanuman Highway is owned by Sid Belzberg’s Budget Stable, is trained by Kathy Walsh and will be ridden by David Flores. In the gelding’s favor are his pedigree (his maternal grandsire, Riva Ridge, won the Derby in 1972), a late running style in a race that should see a quick early pace, and an adaptability to various racing surfaces. Drawbacks? The need to thread his way through traffic and the stigma of no gelding having won the Derby since the 1920s.
By overcoming both the loss of his dam at an early stage of his life and a set of legs that may have hindered his stride, Hanuman Highway has shown the heart of a champion, regardless of his placing on Saturday. As for Dermot and Meta Cantillon, they can only dwell on what might have been had Cherry Ridge lived to produce more foals, but for now they still have the opportunity to go down in history as the breeders of the first Irish-bred to win a Kentucky Derby.
Meanwhile, the status of two other Irish-connected horses, Nite Dreamer and Yarrow Br’, was uncertain at press time. Nite Dreamer, trained by Cork native Niall O’Callaghan, will run in Louisville on Saturday or await the Illinois Derby a week later. Nite Dreamer is still eligible for non-winners of one “other than” allowance races, but his second-place finish in the Louisiana Derby propelled him to the status of Derby contender. He subsequently finished up the track in the Jim Beam Stakes, but was discovered to have a lung infection when scoped after the race. O’Callaghan figures his horse ranks, at best, seventh among this year’s Derby crop, but first or second among those who would go fishing in shallower waters in Illinois.
“We’re 50-50 on it,” O’Callaghan said.”He’s doing outrageously well. Better than before the Louisiana Derby. He’s coming to himself now.”
Should Nite Dreamer go to the post at Churchill, he would be O’Callaghan’s second Derby starter. Smiling Singin Sam gave it a try several years ago, and had the lead for a short while before fatigue set in and he finished unplaced.
Yarrow Br’ is owned in partnership by Susan Magnier (the wife of Coolmore Stud magnate John Magnier and the daughter of Vincent O’Brien) and Michael Tabor. Prior to last Saturday’s Derby Trial at Churchill, trainer D. Wayne Lukas said that Yarrow Br’ would have to run spectacularly to earn a spot in the Derby. Maybe in Lukas’s lexicon, a second-place finish in the Trial qualifies as spectacular. He was still undecided on Tuesday as to the colt’s status.