Aidan O'Brien probably couldn't have picked a better year to bring over a horse for the Kentucky Derby. This year's field has yielded no clear-cut super horse and, thus, O'Brien will take a shot with Susan Magnier's Master of Hounds. He is one of at least four likely entrants in this year's Run for the Roses with a front-and-center Irish connection. The others are Santiva, trained by Eddie Kenneally, Pants on Fire, trained by Kelly Breen, and Soldat, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin.
Master of Hounds, a Kentucky-bred son of Kingmambo, became a Derby contender after losing a photo finish by a whisker in the United Arab Emirates Derby at Meydan in Dubai in late March. His credentials are spotty, to be kind. He needed four starts to break his maiden, and that came at Tipperary last July. He then went unraced for three months before finishing a decent third in a Group 1 race at Doncaster in England.
O'Brien then shipped Master of Hounds to Kentucky for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs, where he finished sixth, although beaten only three lengths for the win, while having to negotiate traffic problems into the clubhouse turn.
The Meydan prep has been his only race this year and he will likely go off at high odds in his first try over a dirt track. Adding a touch of intrigue to the Master of Hounds story is that his broodmare sire is the recently deceased Sadler's Wells. Garrett Gomez has the mount on Master of Hounds.
One of those to finish in front of Master of Hounds in Louisville last November was Soldat, owned by Harvey Clarke and Craig Robertson III. The McLaughlin trainee ran second that day, his fourth runner-up finish in five career starts to that point. He then began the new year with two front-end victories over the dirt, both sloppy and fast, at Gulfstream Park, including the Fountain of Youth Stakes.
McLaughlin and jockey Alan Garcia opted to rate Soldat in his next race, the Florida Derby, but the colt lost interest when he couldn't match strides with the leaders and finished fifth.
"Hopefully, we won't be in the one hole, like we were in the Florida Derby," McLaughlin said. "You have to learn to draw a line through a race. This horse has been first or second in every race except that race, so we're going to draw a line through it."
McLaughlin has finished second in the Derby once before, that in 2005 with Closing Argument at 71-1. He is a Kentucky native, his parents having settled in the Bluegrass State upon departing Belfast.
Another rival that Soldat has flashed his tail at is Santiva, owned by Tom Walters. The two finished second and third in a maiden special weight race at Saratoga last July. But Santiva made major strides forward when, in his first race for Kenneally, he won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill last November.
His 2011 debut in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds was promising; he ran second to Mucho Macho Man, another Derby aspirant. But his final Derby prep in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, in which he checked in ninth, augurs less well for his chances on Saturday, although he lacked room to close in the stretch and jockey Julien Leparoux may have opted to leave some gas in the tank for the Derby.
Leparoux will be in the saddle on Dialed In, the likely Derby favorite, while Santiva will be reunited with Shaun Bridgmohan, who rode him to his only victory. Santiva is a son of Giant's Causeway, which should provide plenty of needed stamina. Kenneally is a Waterford native.
Pants on Fire, owned by George and Lori Hall of Rumson, N.J., will likely keep Soldat busy near the front as the field passes the grandstand for the first time and he may well be there the second time around. Breen, his trainer, is a second generation Irish-American, his family hailing from County Kildare.
A son of Jump Start, Pants on Fire has been a little less precocious than most of his rivals. He needed three starts to find the winner's circle and he then played supporting roles in four races before breaking through with a victory in the Louisiana Derby.
A victory by Pants on Fire would represent one of historic proportions as his jockey, Rosie Napravnik, would be the first woman to cross the wire first in the Kentucky Derby.
Pants on Fire got in a final Derby work of 47.4 on Sunday and Breen is happy with the outlook.
"We had said 48 would be perfect, so we got what we wanted," Breen said. "He pulled up good, didn't turn a hair. Now it's all up to the racing gods. He's fit and ready to go."
Napravnik, likewise, gushed about her Derby partner.
"He's very easy to get along with altogether," Napravnik said. "I've said before that if there's one horse I could ride in a field of 20 it's him because he'll do exactly what you ask him to do."