'We Knew What We Were Looking For'
By Jeremy Balan, Thoroughbred News Service
You could almost feel the Storm the Court bandwagon get lighter as the horses crossed the wire in the San Vicente Stakes Feb. 9 at Santa Anita Park.
It’s not that last year's 2-year-old champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner ran poorly. He finished fourth, beaten 2 1/4 lengths by winner Nadal, but the run was just uninspiring.
But the context of the seven-furlong trip around the main track wasn’t meant to inspire the masses. It was part of a plan, and the humans around the bay 3-year-old colt saw nothing to dissuade them from taking the next step — the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.
“We knew what we were looking for,” said Justin Border, whose partnership with Ryan Exline, Exline-Border Racing, is the majority owner of Storm the Court. “It is important to have a plan, then if things shift or change, you adjust your plan. But nothing in that race changed our outlook, perspective or anything, really.
“If anything, it reinforced our plan.”
In the San Vicente, Storm the Court got out of the gate best, ran with the leaders early, and then dropped off a bit, despite some mild urging to stay in the race from jockey Flavien Prat in the backstretch.
As Nadal and Ginobili set a torrid pace in front of him, it appeared Storm the Court was in a perfect stalking position. Then he started to lose ground on the leaders in the turn and was passed by Fast Enough. The Court Vision colt made up ground as the horses neared the wire, but was never any threat to the leaders.
“We were actually quite happy given the field, the distance and his layoff,” Border said. “From a horseman’s perspective, it was a perfect race off the layoff. He’s the type of horse that needs to race to get fit. He gets a lot out of his works, but to move forward and win at the highest level, he needs a race.”
It’s not that his connections weren’t trying to win. They would have loved to win the San Vicente. But a victory in Storm the Court’s first start since his stunning, 45-1 upset of the Juvenile wasn’t the main objective. The Storm the Court crew was also encouraged by the colt’s gallop out past the wire. He was in front soon after the horses reached the clubhouse turn.
“I don’t overanalyze it,” said Storm the Court’s trainer, Peter Eurton. “I don’t think I had him completely tight, and it wasn’t his best distance. He’s a fighter, not a come-and-getter. He’s a defender of the lead.”
That’s how Storm the Court won the 1 1/16-mile Juvenile, when he went to the front and fought off Anneau d’Or in a battle to the wire. Eurton’s comment might also be the closest to a tactical hint you’ll get from a veteran horseman ahead of the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe. Don’t be surprised if Storm the Court is on or near the front early in the race.
That’s not going to be as easy as it was in the Juvenile, with other speedy horses in the race — most notably the Bob Baffert-trained morning-line favorite Authentic — but Storm the Court wasn’t necessarily supposed to get the lead in the Juvenile, either, and he did.
Along with a fitness improvement, in his second start off a three-month layoff, Storm the Court also has recent history on his side, at least in terms of getting to Churchill Downs for the first Saturday in May.
The curse of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile appears to be over -- 10 Juvenile winners from 2000 to 2014 missed the Kentucky Derby because of injury, illness or fitness -- and the last four Juvenile winners have performed well in the Run for the Roses.
Nyquist won the 2016 Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire recovered to finish fourth after a brutal start in 2017 and was second by a head in the Preakness, Good Magic was no match for eventual Triple Crown winner Justify but battled on to come in second in 2015, and Game Winner overcame an impossibly wide trip to be placed fifth last year. (The notable exception during the drought was Street Sense in 2007 becoming the first horse to pull off the Breeders' Cup-Derby sweep.)
But the plan for Storm the Court doesn’t necessitate a look that far ahead. He sits in fourth (22 points) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard and will need to up that total to get into the 20-horse gate at Churchill Downs.
Eurton considered a trip to the Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday, or a jaunt to the Rebel Stakes next week if the San Felipe draw put Storm the Court on the rail, but ultimately the trainer decided to stay at his Santa Anita home base. That gives him options after the San Felipe, with a final April 4 prep in the Santa Anita Derby or the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Shipping now and shipping back home, then more travel to Kentucky, would only complicate the plan.
And when the draw for the San Felipe came in -- Storm the Court got post 6 -- it was sealed. The champ would stay home. With Flavien Prat riding 3-for-3 Thousand Words, Joel Rosario picks up the mount on Storm the Court.
“I love the draw, I love the way he’s going into it, and I love that we’re staying home,” Eurton said.
Jeremy Balan is an Eclipse Award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Southern California.