$8,500 reject out to give a wake-up call to Always Dreaming
Conquest Mo Money coming in fresh to derail Triple Crown bid
This time last year, just like Always Dreaming on Saturday, Nyquist was odds-on to follow up his Kentucky Derby success in the second leg of the Triple Crown. In the event, he finished third on a sloppy track and a brilliant career petered out from there. And while he remained a pretty spectacular feather in the cap of his rookie sire - only one, after all, among a record 21 stakes winners in the first crop of Uncle Mo - it must be said that the cards have not fallen quite so happily for the Ashford stallion this time round.
A few weeks ago Uncle Mo appeared to have three plausible candidates for the Triple Crown trail. But the Remsen Stakes winner, Mo Town, has been diagnosed with the neurological disease EPM (Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis) after disappointing in his trials; while on Sunday a still worse fate overtook Royal Mo, who had missed the cut at Churchill but was giving Gary Stevens “goose-bumps” in a brilliant final Preakness workout when breaking down with a career-ending injury.
If that might seem to leave rather too many eggs in the one remaining basket, then Conquest Mo Money - a $8,500 reject picked up by an octogenarian horseman from New Mexico, and just driven into Baltimore by truck and trailer - has already established a remarkable capacity to confound the odds.
His story began with the $80,000 purchase of an unraced Seeking The Gold mare, Stirring, at Keeneland November in 2013. She was carrying a foal by the freshman Uncle Mo, but that was just a bonus for Steve Davison and Randy Gullatt, partners in Twin Creeks Racing. Though based in Versailles, Kentucky, they also have a majority stake in a New York stallion, Mission Impazible, and thought Stirring might help the son of Unbridled’s Song make an impact on the state-bred programme.
Stirring was duly dispatched to Sequel, a Hudson Valley farm where she delivered a colt the following February. He developed into a handsome yearling, and proved his dam to have been well bought when sold for $180,000 at Saratoga. Stirring, after all, decorated his page lavishly through her own dam, Daijin, a Grade 1-placed daughter of the noted broodmare sire Deputy Minister. For Daijin is a sister to Belmont winner Touch Gold and half-sister to Canadian champion With Approval, and herself responsible for various noteworthy performers and producers - the dam, for instance, of Blue Grass winner Brilliant Speed.
As such, Stirring’s son looked a perfectly eligible fit for one of the most ambitious new operations in North America. He was duly picked out by Mark Casse on behalf of Conquest Stables, owned by Ernie Semersky and partner Dory Newell.
Semersky, who had made a fortune in Porsche dealerships, was extending a spree that brought Conquest from a standing start to over 100 horses - at an outlay exceeding $13 million - in barely two years. He was proving quite a big noise in the game, and not just in terms of the ostentatious jackets he liked to sport at the races. Candidly in to win, he bragged of an inability to do things by halves, a tireless capacity to outwork the next guy, and a “brutally honest, confrontational” style.
Whatever the merit of these attributes in other walks of life, they did not obviously qualify him as likely to last terribly long on the Turf. True, one of his first buys paid off handsomely when My Conquestadory won the Grade 1 Alcibiades Stakes. Last November, however, the whole experiment was abandoned and all 115 head of Conquest stock were sold off at Keeneland.
They included Stirring’s Uncle Mo colt, still unraced. Conquest Mo Money had been held up by ankle trouble and Casse had only given him a couple of breezes. He was overlooked by all bar Tom McKenna of Judge Lanier Racing, who was astonished to be able to take him back to New Mexico for just $8,500 - a price that placed him 81st of the 89 racing prospects in the dispersal.
The 81-year-old McKenna had named his stable in honour of his grandfather, Judge Charles M Lanier, of El Paso, Texas. Lanier raised McKenna to handle horses, and many different types had been strewn across his path before he came across Conquest Mo Money: quarterhorses, barrel horses, rodeos. Eventually, McKenna and his wife Sandy tried their luck breeding thoroughbreds and, hoping to profit from an expanding programme for New Mexico state-breds, took on a 1,200-acre estate near Taiban. Finding that selling the foals was not proving terribly profitable, however, he soon started racing them instead. From a solitary winner in 2004, last year the stable won 68 races and $1.1 million.
Conquest Mo Money has since won over $500,000 on his own account, despite initially dismaying McKenna’s private trainer, Miguel Hernandez, with his sloth. But the old man liked the horse’s mind, his temperament. Sure enough, Conquest Mo Money won his debut at Sunland Park in January, followed up by 11 lengths next time and then made all in the Mine That Bird Derby.
That race honours the local gelding who finished fourth in the Sunland Derby in 2009 before being driven 1,500 miles to Louisville by Chip Woolley and splashing through from last place for that hear-a-pin-drop success in the Run For The Roses itself. Conquest Mo Money himself fared rather better than Mine That Bird in the Sunland Derby, finishing second, and in consecutive races had held off the subsequent Blue Grass winner Irap.
Stepping up to Grade 1 company for the Arkansas Derby, Conquest Mo Money ran a superb race against the champion juvenile, Classic Empire, gamely seeing off a stubborn rival in a stretch duel only to be collared close home. Classic Empire, of course, was saddled by Conquest Mo Money’s original trainer, Casse, who must have been quietly relieved when McKenna decided to sit out the Kentucky Derby. He felt that an interval of five weeks to the Preakness on Saturday would be kinder to a colt still in the early stages of his development.
McKenna has had to pay a $150,000 supplementary fee, but knows that Conquest Mo Money will be fresher than Always Dreaming and Classic Empire, who finished fourth after a troubled trip through the slop at Churchill Downs just ten days ago.
His New Mexico outlier has been prepared away from all the hustle and bustle around Always Dreaming - of all places, at Prairie Downs in Iowa. And his silks will be worn by a 34-year-old jockey who has previously won a single Grade 3 race. But they do have a legitimate shot, having split the Kentucky Derby fourth and second at Oaklawn.
McKenna has already turned down all manner of offers for Conquest Mo Money. It has already been an incredible odyssey, and the favourite does not have a monopoly on a life of dreams.