Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers and jockeys as they travel the Road to the 149th Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve on May 6 at Churchill Downs.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series began on Feb. 18 with the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes presented by Lamarque Lincoln and Lamarque Crescent City Ford at Fair Grounds. The 1 1/8-mile contest produced a surprising winner in longshot Angel of Empire, a Pennsylvania-bred purchased by Albaugh Family Stables for a relatively modest $70,000 at Keeneland’s 2021 September yearling sale.
The victory, combined with Angel of Empire’s runner-up effort in his previous start in the one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park, vaulted the Brad Cox trainee to the top of the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard with 54 points.
The emergence of the son of Classic Empire, the 2016 champion 2-year-old male, significantly strengthens the Albaugh family’s pre-Derby hand. Albaugh Family Stables also has a financial stake in two other Derby prospects, Jace’s Road and Cyclone Mischief. Jace’s Road stands 12th on the Derby leaderboard with 15 points. They are hoping for a big effort from Cyclone Mischief in the March 4 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Pedulla conducted a question-and-answer session with Jason Loutsch, racing manager for Albaugh Family Stables, on behalf of America’s Best Racing:
PEDULLA: What led you to buy Angel of Empire?
LOUTSCH: When we went to the Keeneland sale in 2021, we were hoping to pick up one or two colts in the later books. It’s a numbers game, right? So, we were just trying to acquire a few more colts that, regardless of where they are from or how they are bred, we thought could get the classic distance. We thought he had the things we are looking for and we thought it was a fair price. We search the later books to see if there is something that meets our criteria and he filled all the boxes.
PEDULLA: What were your expectations when you bought him?
LOUTSCH: Like I said, it’s a numbers game, so you really don’t know. There have been all kinds of priced horses that won the Kentucky Derby. Our goal is to find horses that can get the classic distance and possibly win the Kentucky Derby.
PEDULLA: I see he broke his maiden last August at Horseshoe Indianapolis.
LOUTSCH: We sent him to Brad [Cox] and we sent him to Indiana not knowing exactly what we had yet. He just continues to get better and better. He’s a big, tall, rangy colt, the farther the better. He’s still maturing. He’s an April foal (born April 9, 2020). We hope he can keep progressing and making the necessary improvements to get to May.
PEDULLA: Why did you decide to keep him at Horseshoe Indianapolis for two of his three starts as a 2-year-old? He also won an allowance race there.
LOUTSCH: It’s not where they start. It’s where they finish. We don’t really care about where we break our maiden. We just like to get them experience and then we go from there.
PEDULLA: So, you don’t mind starting your 2-year-olds off the beaten path?
LOUTSCH: We don’t care where we break our maiden. It’s about gaining that initial experience. If they win, we can advance to run against the bigger boys.
PEDULLA: In looking at his past performances, his only bad race was the second start of his career, an allowance race at Kentucky Downs in which he ran sixth. What happened that day?
LOUTSCH: Brad said, “Let’s run him on the turf and see if he likes it.” He had no interest in running on the turf.
PEDULLA: Why did you choose the Smarty Jones to open his 3-year-old campaign?
LOUTSCH: He had been training really well and Brad wanted to give him a shot in the Smarty Jones. We wanted to see where we stood, to be honest with you. I thought he ran a great race in the Smarty Jones off a layoff. We were really happy. After that race we talked and we thought that long stretch at the Fair Grounds would be really good for him.
PEDULLA: You were right.
LOUTSCH: I thought Luis Saez did a tremendous job of getting him in position. He’s not a fast horse sprinting-wise, so I was worried about him getting shuffled back too far. But Luis got him out of the gate and got him to the rail and sat behind the speed and did a marvelous job of getting him into position to succeed.
PEDULLA: How many horses does Albaugh have?
LOUTSCH: Under the racing umbrella, we have about 30. Then we have 10 broodmares [at Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky] with our stallion Not This Time and 20 weanlings and yearlings. We have been doing business with Taylor Made forever. Great people. They’ve done a tremendous job for us.
PEDULLA: You definitely have enough qualifying points to go to the Derby with Angel of Empire. Is that a relief?
LOUTSCH: Keeping him healthy is the biggest thing. I think he’ll have one more race. Brad does a tremendous job of spacing the races out. I think we’ll look at one more race, the Louisiana Derby, the Blue Grass [Stakes] or the Arkansas Derby and then go right into the Kentucky Derby.
PEDULLA: Brad emphasized after the Risen Star that this is a colt that wants distance. Will the mile and a quarter in the Derby not be an issue?
LOUTSCH: I don’t think so. I don’t think any horse in America is really bred to go a mile and a quarter. But he’s certainly bred to run a mile and an eighth, and he was still running at the wire [in the Risen Star]. So, we have confidence he will get the mile and a quarter.
PEDULLA: Albaugh has been to the Derby a number of times. You are still seeking that first win. Do you ever feel you are closing in on it?
LOUTSCH: No. This game is so hard. You think about how much luck is involved with post position and trip. Our first goal is to get to the Derby. You can’t win unless you are in the race. You want to have a sound horse. After that, you have to leave it up to the horse and the racing gods.