HENDERSON, Ky. (Sunday Aug. 9, 2020) — On Saturday evening, following a devastating performance at one of racing’s most historic tracks, the consensus within the Thoroughbred racing community was that the question of which horse would bear the burden of favoritism in the pandemic-delayed Kentucky Derby had been answered.
Barely 24 hours after Tiz the Law threw down the gauntlet with his sublime victory in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, however, one of Kentucky’s native sons served up a reminder that he plans on being a hostile host to even the most intimidating of challengers heading to the Bluegrass September 5.
Sunday’s $200,000 RUNHAPPY Ellis Park Derby wasn’t the endgame for Bruce Lunsford’s homebred Art Collector, but the son of Bernardini looked every bit cranked for what lies ahead at Churchill Downs next month when he drew off to a 3 ¼-length triumph in the 1 1/8-miles race that headlined the biggest day in history at the track known as the Pea Patch.
With the coronavirus pandemic forcing this year’s Kentucky Derby to be delayed, Ellis Park was able to host its first ever prep for the 10-furlong classic. Its signature race offered 50 qualifying points to the winner toward the “Run for the Roses” and while Art Collector had basically locked up his place in the Kentucky Derby starting gate courtesy of win in the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on July 11, the bay colt made sure to showcase how much upside is still within him.
His 2-5 status on the odds board told of the expectations he carried in his ninth career start and, as has been the case in each outing since joining trainer Tommy Drury’s barn earlier this year, Art Collector didn’t disappoint in the least in leading virtually every step en route to his fourth consecutive victory.
“I’m surprised that my legs are still holding up underneath me,” Drury said. “It’s a big day for us. We got what we were looking for. We wanted to get enough out of this without overdoing it. (Jockey) Brian (Hernandez) even mentioned coming to the eighth pole that he was going a little too easy, so he let the reins out a notch just to let him finish on up. He was going away from the end of it and that’s kind of been him every race this year. That’s all you can ask of one. Every time we throw something at him, he answers the question and handles it with flying colors.”
Art Collector has proven during his recent streak he can win with virtually any kind of setup, having come from off the pace during his victory at Churchill Downs on May 17 and sitting a stalking trip in his Blue Grass Stakes triumph. When he got away without issue out of post 4 in the Ellis Park Derby, he used it as the latest opportunity to flaunt his front running ability.
After clicking off the opening fractions of :23.33 and :46.74 with 165-1 according to Equibase longshot Truculent sitting just off him in second, Art Collector faced a brief threat when Dean Martini loomed up approaching the far turn and Attachment Rate followed suit in the three-wide path.
Attachment Rate did well to outrun his 14-1 odds and get place honors, but he was no match in the lane for Art Collector, who strided home in a final time of 1:48.02 over a track rated fast. The track record is 1:47.60, set in 1988 by Lt. Lao.
“Our horse broke sharp and I put him in the race,” winning jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. said. “He was going quick enough but at some point, I knew I’d be able to give him a breather. He was able to take a breather going into the second turn. And once he did that, I was pretty confident in him.
“This is huge. We’re going into the Derby now with a legitimate horse. Like we said after the Blue Grass, he’s proven he’s getting better and better with each race. He showed it again today. He put everyone away. He did it all on his own and ran away from there.”
Attachment Rate was 5 ¼ lengths clear of Necker Island in third with Rowdy Yates and Shared Sense completing the top five. “How do you knock a horse like that? He’s pretty versatile,” Joe Talamo, jockey for Attachment Rate, said of Art Collector. “He’s won in front, come from behind. He’s a really good horse, for sure.”
Bred in Kentucky by Lunsford out of the Distorted Humor mare Distorted Legacy, Art Collector began his career with trainer Joe Sharp before being transferred to Drury prior to his first start this season. And where Tiz the Law has suffered his only career loss at Churchill Downs – running third over a sloppy track in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last November – Art Collector owns two wins beneath this Twin Spires this season and crossed the wire first there in a race over a sloppy track November 30 before being disqualified when he was tested positive for levamisole, a deworming agent.
“Tiz the Law will be the favorite. But everybody who’s going to be there in the Kentucky Derby, they’ve earned their chance,” Hernandez said. “You have to go in there with an open mind and just read your race. The biggest thing we’ve done through this whole journey is we just have to trust our horse. Let him take us there, and that’s what he’s doing.”
Art Collector now has 150 qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby and improves his overall record to five wins from nine starts with $664,380 in earnings.
“There are no bad stories here with our threesome (Lunsford, Drury, Hernandez),” Lunsford said. “We get along great. We started out with an idea. We pretty well stuck to the pattern, and we’re going to stick to it for one more race. I like the fact that we’re local boys. It would be a nice story for Louisville if we were to win it.”
Art Collector started his career last year on grass, where he won a maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his second start. NOTE: An Ellis Park record $5,241,601 was bet on the 10-race card, eclipsing the prior record of $4,906,096 on Aug. 4, 2007, when Ellis Park was host to the Claiming Crown. RUNHAPPY Ellis Park Derby video
Quotes:Winning trainer Tommy Drury, Art Collector:
Question: What’s this step mean, what did today mean for you?
“I walk out of the paddock and you’re 1-9 in the biggest race in the history of Ellis, at least to my knowledge. I’m surprised that my legs are still holding up underneath me. It’s a big day for us. We got what we were looking for. We wanted to get enough out of this without overdoing it. Brian (Hernandez) even mentioned coming to the eighth pole that he was going a little too easy, so he let the reins out a notch just to let him finish on up. He was going away from the end of it and that’s kind of been him every race this year. That’s all you can ask of one. Every time we throw something at him, he answers the question and handles it with flying colors.”
Question: What does this race mean going forward, in terms of his foundation?
“I think we got what we were looking for. We’ve got good timing between now and the big race. First and fore most we want to make sure he comes out of the race ok and we’re going to take care of him first and let the rest fall into place. Ideally the timing will be good. We certainly didn’t have to over-exert ourselves today to get it done here. It’s the kind of race you want, if you’re going into a big one, this is the way you want to go into it.”
Question: Can you say Kentucky Derby now?
“Not yet. We need to make sure he’s ok tomorrow, but I’m getting closer. This has just been a, I can’t find the words for it, a dream come true. My daughter was here today and able to share it with me. This has been a lot of years of hard work, long days and tough beats. Today is why you keep coming back, that’s why you do it to get an opportunity like this and I’m just glad we were able to make the most of it.”
Question: How nerve racking will the next few weeks to be?
“You know, I was staring at the ceiling at 2 o’clock this morning for the Ellis Derby, so I can only imagine. It’s fun though. It’s not so much that you’re nervous. I have faith in my ability. We know exactly where our horse was at. Everything that we’ve wanted him to do, he’s done. We’re going into the race exactly the way we want to go into it. But just to be in this situation and to get this kind of an opportunity and to have Bruce (Lunsford) leave the horse with me. What do you say? The guy has given me the chance of a lifetime here.”
Question: Bruce said he’s not sure if Tiz The Law has beaten much better than you’ve beaten along the way, what are your thoughts?
“I happy for them. I’m happy for us. They won their races in their home state. I know yesterday was a big race that meant a lot to them, just as today meant a lot to us. We have a lot of friends here at Ellis Park and I think my second start in my life was here at Ellis. It’s been good for all of us. You can’t worry about anyone else. You just have to take care of your horse and make sure that your horse where it’s supposed to be and give them every opportunity. At the end of the day, may the best horse win the race.”
Question: How long will you keep him at the farm before he goes back to the track?
“He’ll definitely go back to Skylight tonight. He’ll be there for a few days and I’ll get with Bruce and we’ll map out a plan. We’ve been shipping to race. Going to Keeneland and coming here. After that last breeze at Churchill we’ve always brought him back to Skylight for that week leading up to the race. Nothing against Churchill, it’s just a little quieter at Skylight. He just enjoys that environment. There is plenty of green grass for him. This one will obviously be a little different. I was just trying to get through today, so we really hadn’t thought about it.”
Question: What would your dad say to you after a day like today?
“I think he’d be pretty proud. He did this his entire life as well. He’s not gotten close to the opportunities that I’ve gotten. I think he’d be pretty proud.”
Question: Is this kind of like a silver lining to this COVID deal, because obviously without that you may not be in this position?
“I think I’m the only person in the world that’s found a silver lining to the COVID mess. I really do. Maybe we’re not standing here today, if it weren’t for the COVID stuff. I guess everything happens for a reason.”
Winning owner Bruce Lunsford, Art Collector: (On starting his horse ownership career at Ellis Park) “To start at the bottom of this that many years ago and get to this spot and have a Derby horse that’s actually a contender. I have a lot of respect for the Derby, and I had a lot of respect for the Blue Grass Stakes. I said I would never bring a horse to either race if I didn’t think I had a legitimate shot. I think after today that I have a legitimate shot.
I’ll put these two (Hernandez and Drury) up against anybody else’s pair they’re bringing. This is a hell of pair, I can tell you that. “When I bought my first mare with Seth Hancock, he said, ‘What do you expect out of this?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m patient. I’d like to have a horse in the Derby some day with a shot.’ I had a big shot in the Oaks and ran third (with Madcap Escapade). And I’ve always wanted to win the Blue Grass Stakes, because when I was at UK, that’s when I decided I wanted to own horses some day. It’s a lot of history for me.
This has been a great ride. I’m going to enjoy the ride for the next four weeks. I’m going to treat every day as if I’ve got the winner. Because the race only lasts two minutes, but I’ve got four or five weeks in front of me that could be super. Everybody has treated me great. I love the way we were treated here.” (On taking on Derby favorite Tiz the Law): “If I go to my handicapping days and I never take anything for granted, I was a little upset — as I kidded Brian — that we didn’t break the track record because we came within a fifth-second or so. And I feel pretty good about that. I look at the races that he’s run. I’ve seen a lot of good horses over the years come to Churchill Downs. I don’t necessarily think the horses he (Tiz the law) has run against are a whole lot better than what we’ve run against and that we’ve beaten handily.” “There are no bad stories here with our threesome (Lunsford, Drury, Hernandez). We get along great. We started out with an idea. We pretty well stuck to the pattern, and we’re going to stick to it for one more race. I like the fact that we’re local boys. It would be a nice story for Louisville if we were to win it.”
Brian Hernandez Jr., winning jockey, Art Collector: “Our horse broke sharp and I put him in the race. He was going quick enough but at some point I knew I’d be able to give him a breather. He was able to take a breather going into the second turn. And once he did that, I was pretty confident in him. From the stretch home he was in himself and cruising along. He seemed to enjoy himself. He went the mile and an eighth impressively today and we’re looking on to the next one.” (Did you have to urge him at all?) “I just let him out a little bit, just to let him cruise along. When I got to the eighth pole, I just clucked at him a little bit just to make him go on a little bit just because we need him to be ready for the next one. So we just wanted to get the right kind of race into him, and that’s what he did today.
He’s such a professional horse, and he showed it again today. He was able to go 46 2/5 on the lead and just able to widen on them again. It’s a testament to the horse how really good he is. That’s quick for a half, especially going a mile and an eighth. That’s really fast for a horse. And he was able to do it within himself. He traveled like a winner the whole way. We say that all the time, but being on their back we have an instinct to know how fast they’re going. That’s all I wanted to do: I just wanted to stay out of his way and let him travel.
“This is huge. We’re going into the Derby now with a legitimate horse. Like we said after the Blue Grass, he’s proven he’s getting better and better with each race. He showed it again today. He put everyone away. He did it all on his own and ran away from there.
“To be here at Ellis Park, it’s huge. This race means a lot to Ellis. And to ride here as often as I do, to be able to come in here with such a nice horse and he’s got so much press behind him now to go into the Derby, it’s a great story for everyone. It’s going to be a historical race. First time ever Ellis Park holds a Derby prep. “Tiz the Law will be the favorite. But everybody who’s going to be there in the Kentucky Derby, they’ve earned their chance. You have to go in there with an open mind and just read your race. The biggest thing we’ve done through this whole journey is we just have to trust our horse. Let him take us there, and that’s what he’s doing.”
Dale Romans, trainer, runner-up Attachment Rate: “I was very pleased with race he (Talamo) rode and the race he ran. Now we’ve got to figure out if that’s enough to get into the Derby. I would think 36 (points). If we can get in, I’ve got to talk to Mr. Bakke (co-owner Jim Bakke). That’s the best race he’s run for us so far. That being said, we should probably try the Derby. Art Collector is a good horse. That’s great, it’s good for them to bring him down here. I’m not sure I’d have had the backbone to bring him down here and try him one time before the Derby. They showed a lot of confidence in the horse and he ran a great race.”
Joe Talamo, jockey, runner-up Attachment Rate: “We had a great trip. Hustled him out of there just a little bit to get him into the race. I tell you what, at the three-eighths pole, I really had a feeling like I was going to win. He was running into the bit really well. Ran a really good race. I mean, hat’s off to the winner. He’s a really good horse. But I tell you what, I’m pleased with mine. He ran a good race in the Blue Grass last time and I think he ran an even better race today. He’s improving every race, which is what you want to see.” On Art Collector: “How do you knock a horse like that? He’s pretty versatile. He’s won in front, come from behind. He’s a really good horse, for sure.”
Chris Hartman, trainer third-place Necker Island: “I thought he ran a credible race. Just in a little too deep. We didn’t have a real game plan after this race, so now we’ll figure something out, try to find a softer spot. I think everyone is happy with how the horse ran. He ran a good race.” “Art Collector is a really nice horse. Fun to watch him run here at Ellis, that’s for sure. That was a treat for those people here today.”
Florent Geroux, the jockey for second-choice Shared Sense, fifth. “It was not a great post for us. I had to break and take back and go all the way inside to save as much ground as I could because the turn was coming right away. I think it cost us maybe a place or two at the end. I’m not saying we would have won, but probably been involved for third or fourth. Since I was so far behind, it was hard to catch up.”