Getting to March with a leading 3-year-old prospect is not new for owner Phil Lebherz. It's getting through May that's been difficult. Lebherz is one of several partners sending Sway Away into action in today's Grade II Rebel Stakes.
Sway Away could give Lebherz and Bonde their second wins in the Rebel after Sierra Sunset won in 2008, only to emerge from the race with a hairline fracture in an ankle. In 1999, the insurance executive and trainer finished third to Stephen Got Even in what is today called the Vinery Spiral Stakes with Epic Honor, but Lebherz says they outsmarted themselves planning his campaign the rest of that spring.
"We are all excited to be back," said Lebherz yesterday while watching Sway Away gallop over the Oaklawn strip. "To have gone down the Derby trail a couple times the way we did has been crushing, but this horse looks like he's built for the distance. We will find out tomorrow."
Lebherz still regrets the moves the team made in 1999 when they shipped Epic Honor to Kentucky and decided to avoid the Derby and point for the Belmont Stakes by entering the Grade III Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.
"Dumbest decision we ever made," said Lebherz. "When we finished third at Turfway, we figured we would load up for New York and thought the Lexington would be an easier spot. Instead we hooked Charismatic, who goes on and nearly wins (the Triple Crown) and we got barreled over by this huge horse. Very disappointing."
The team is eager to tackle The Factor, the 2-1 morning-line favorite, over the 1 1/16th-mile distance after running out of real estate in their last meeting.
"It has been near impossible to close on the new track at Santa Anita," said Lebherz. "We've been about the only horse who has come close to doing it. The main thing we want is a fair track tomorrow."
--Edited from track notes with additional content by Dick Downey