Cohen Looking Forward to First Kentucky Derby Mount
For jockey David Cohen, winning last Saturday’s second race at Oaklawn was a sign of things to come for the jockey.
Cohen said after Canadian Ginger crossed the finish line first in the starter-allowance sprint for females, her trainer, Robertino Diodoro, received a call from Churchill Downs officials, informing him that Get Her Number had been removed from consideration for the Kentucky Derby. The defection moved Keepmeinmind into the projected 20-horse field, meaning Cohen and Diodoro, both Oaklawn meet champions, will be making their Kentucky Derby debuts Saturday at Churchill Downs.
“For us, it was a nice surprise,” Cohen said Sunday afternoon at Oaklawn. “We had somewhat of an idea it was going to happen, early on, through the grapevine. For me, it was the start of a great day, obviously, to ride six and win four of them.”
The four-bagger was a career high at Oaklawn for Cohen, 36, who was Oaklawn’s leading jockey in 2019. He had previously won three races on an Oaklawn card 12 times, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. In addition to Canadian Ginger ($6.20), Cohen won the fifth race aboard Greeley and Ben ($8.40) for trainer Karl Broberg, ninth race aboard American Dubai ($31.20) for Diodoro and the 11th race aboard Livingmybestlife ($5.60) for trainer John Sadler.
Cohen is Diodoro’s go-to rider and the regular pilot of the yo-yo-like Keepmeinmind, who was among the country’s top 2-year-olds of 2020 after finishing second in the $400,000 Breeders’ Futurity (G1) Oct. 3 at Keeneland, third in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) Nov. 6 at Keeneland and breaking his maiden in the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) Nov. 28 at Churchill Downs.
It’s been a deflating 2021, for the most part, however.
Keepmeinmind had been set to make his 3-year-old debut Feb. 15 at Oaklawn – the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) – before severe winter weather led to multiple postponements of the race and interrupted the late-running colt’s training schedule. Oaklawn lost eight live racing dates and 11 days of training (Feb. 12-22) because of heavy snow and arctic temperatures. Keepmeinmind also was entered in the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) Feb. 13 at Fair Grounds, but Diodoro opted to remain at Oaklawn, where the colt had been based since late December.
Keepmeinmind, in his 3-year-old debut, finished sixth in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) March 13 at Oaklawn, then fifth in the $800,000 Blue Grass Stakes (G2) April 3 at Keeneland in his last start.
Following the final round of Kentucky Derby points races April 10, including Oaklawn’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), Keepmeinmind was 30th on the leaderboard with 18 points – all collected as a 2-year-old – and needed 10 defections to be guaranteed a spot in the Run for the Roses, which is limited to 20 starters. Using a musical analogy, Keepmeinmind was number one with a bullet, climbing to No. 28 (April 12), No. 27 (April 15), No. 24 (April 17), No. 22 (April 19), No. 21 (April 23) and No. 20 (April 24) in official rankings compiled by Churchill Downs. Points earned in designated races like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Rebel and Blue Grass are used to determine starting preference.
“It’s been such an emotional ride with him because he was a horse that started the year with 18 points,” Cohen said. “Then we miss out because of the weather and he missed both races. He missed the Fair Grounds race and he missed the Southwest, so that hurt us. He obviously didn’t perform to the way we felt he was training, even though we know he’s better than that. He’s really developed over his 3-year-old year, even though he hasn’t shown it on paper. On paper, it doesn’t look like he deserves to be in there. We know he’s talented enough. We’re happy for the horse, that he gets the chance that he does deserve, in our eyes.”
Following Oaklawn’s April 22 card, Cohen flew privately to Kentucky to work Keepmeinmind and stablemates Ava’s Grace and Dreamer’s Disease the next morning at Churchill Downs. Keepmeinmind, in company, recorded a half-mile bullet (:46.20). Keepmeinmind breezed without blinkers last week and will remove the equipment Saturday At that time, Keepmeinmind was 21st on the points list.
“The owners and us, we made a big decision to send me out there,” Cohen said. “It’s not cheap. For them to still have faith in the horse and not give up on him and keep him in Kentucky after the Blue Grass, they could have easily said, ‘No. Send him back here and run in the Oaklawn Stakes the same day.’ ”
Instead, Cohen will be at Churchill Downs Saturday. His Kentucky Derby debut comes a little more than seven years after a severe leg injury (he was kicked by a horse in the paddock before a Feb. 1, 2014, race at Aqueduct) and the subsequent deaths of deaths of his father (cancer) and sister (head injury) threatened to derail the jockey’s once-promising career.
Cohen rode his first winner in 2004 and five years later ranked sixth nationally in victories (288) and 24th in purse earnings ($7,357,326) – both career highs – competing in New York and the Mid-Atlantic. In 2012, Cohen won Saratoga’s prestigious $1 million Travers Stakes (G1) for 3-year-olds aboard 33-1 long shot Golden Ticket, who dead-heated with favored Alpha.
After not riding in 2015 and 2016, Cohen returned to the saddle in late 2017 and rode 37 winners in his Oaklawn debut in 2018 to finish third in the standings. Cohen rode 75 winners the following year at Oaklawn to end Ricardo Santana Jr.’s six-year hold on the title.
In addition to Keepmeinmind (50-1 on the morning line), Cohen also is scheduled Dreamer’s Disease in the $500,000 Pat Day Mile (G2) for 3-year-olds Saturday at Churchill Downs. Dreamer’s Disease had several published workouts this year at Oaklawn, but didn’t run at the meeting after falling behind in his training because of winter weather. He was also supposed to be riding in the Kentucky Oaks, the country’s biggest race for 3-year-old fillies, for the first time aboard Ava’s Grace, but the filly was scratched Wednesday morning with an injury. She had finished second in the $600,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) April 3 at Oaklawn.
“Honestly, I never felt like I wouldn’t have the opportunity again,” Cohen said. “For me, it’s special to get it with a team that’s been so essential in my return from an injury. To have it with Robertino, not only with the Derby, but with the Pat Day Mile, for me that’s definitely a special touch and the cherry on top. It means a lot. The guy’s very loyal. For it to be the home team really means a lot.”
Cohen, named 2018 Comeback Jockey of the Year by JockeyTalk.360.com, a web site dedicated to promoting jockeys around the world, has 186 career victories at Oaklawn, according to Equibase. Almost two-thirds (111) have come for Diodoro.
Keepmeinmind and Dreamer’s Disease, who ran sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, were all at Trophy Club Training Center in Royal (roughly 20 minutes west of Oaklawn) last spring completing the breaking process under Ike Green, who has strong ties to Diodoro. Ike Green was Diodoro’s assistant at Oaklawn in 2019 and 2020 when he captured his first local training title. Green and his wife, Aidan, have run Diodoro’s divisions at Saratoga and Churchill Downs in recent years. Aidan Green went out on her own last year and recorded her first career training victory and stakes victory at the 2021 Oaklawn meeting.
Asmussen Nearing Record
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen won another race Sunday to move closer to breaking his single-season Oaklawn record for purse earnings.
Asmussen won the eighth race with Battle Bling ($7.60), pushing his meet-leading total to 56 – 16 more than runner-up Robertino Diodoro – and bumped his purse earnings to $5,585,643. Asmussen’s runners earned a record $5,644,609 in 2019, when he won 64 races, second-highest single-season total in Oaklawn history. Sunday was the 47th day of the weather-shortened 51-day meeting. Asmussen has 37 horses entered over the final four days of the meeting (Wednesday-Saturday).
Asmussen has all but secured his record-tying 11th Oaklawn training title. Hall of Famer Henry Forrest won 11 titles between 1947 and 1963.
The late Cole Norman, Asmussen, Diodoro and David Vance are the only trainers in Oaklawn history to reach 50 victories in a single season. Norman won a record 71 races in 2003.
Battle Bling represented Asmussen’s 751st career Oaklawn winner (No. 2 all time). Asmussen has a record 96 career Oaklawn stakes victories, the latest last Saturday’s $200,000 Bachelor for 3-year-old sprinters with Jaxon Traveler. It was record seventh Bachelor victory for Asmussen.
Battle Bling, owned by Alex and JoAnn Lieblong of Conway, Ark., was the 68th and final winner of the meeting for jockey Ricardo Santana Jr., who has moved his tack to Churchill Downs. Santana, a seven-time Oaklawn riding champion, has a 15-win cushion over runner-up David Cabrera. Santana’s $5,642,523 in purse earnings is a single-season Oaklawn record. His major client is Asmussen.
You’ve Got Mail
In trainer Ron Moquett’s case, it was the delivery of a lifetime.
Moquett said he was at his Oaklawn barn Monday when he was notified about a package to retrieve from a nearby UPS Access Point, in this case Advance Auto Parts on Albert Pike Road in Hot Springs.
That little piece of hardware Whitmore’s Eclipse Award.
“So, I’m driving up to the Advance Auto to get my Eclipse trophy and I got some Armor All and a Twix and my Eclipse trophy,” Moquett said Tuesday afternoon. “The guy said: ‘What is this? Shoes.’ It looked like it was a shoe box that it (Eclipse trophy) came in. I said, ‘No, it’s a very prestigious award.’ I ran up there and walked in and picked it up and it was just funny that the guy didn’t even get the joke. He must not have seen “A Christmas Story” is all I know.”
The equivalent of the Oscars in the film industry, Eclipse Awards are presented annually for outstanding achievement in 17 equine and human categories. Whitmore was named the country’s champion male sprinter of 2020 after winning the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) Nov. 7 at Keeneland and two races at Oaklawn – $150,000 Hot Springs Stakes for a record fourth consecutive year and the $350,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) for a record third time.
Oaklawn has been Whitmore’s winter/early spring home every year since 2016 and the gelding, now 8, has become one of the most popular and successful horses to ever run in Hot Springs. Whitmore finished second in the Hot Springs and Count Fleet this year to bankroll $140,000 and push his career total sprinting (races under a mile) to $3,984,100 – a record for a North American-based horse – in 34 sprint starts.
Overall, Whitmore ranks 91st in North American history in earnings ($4,387,850), according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization, compiling a 15-13-3 mark from 40 starts.
Swift Ruler, a star in the 1960s, is the only other horse in Oaklawn history with seven career stakes victories. Whitmore was beaten a neck and two lengths by 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up C Z Rocket in this year’s Hot Springs and Count Fleet, respectively.
“I’m not disappointed in him,” said Moquett’s wife/assistant, Laura, who regularly gallops Whitmore. “He’ll always be a champion in my book.”
In his first workout since the April 10 Count Fleet, Whitmore recorded a half-mile bullet (:48) over a fast track Monday morning at Oaklawn. The gelding is entered in the $500,000 Churchill Downs Stakes (G1) Saturday at Churchill Downs, a 7-furlong race that he’s run twice in (2018 and 2019).
“I’m looking at running,” said Ron Moquett, who also co-owns Whitmore. “We’re going to see what it looks like, but I’m looking at running in the race.”
Moquett said Whitmore was scheduled to ship to Churchill Downs early Wednesday morning. Whitmore, Moquett said, will return to Oaklawn for the 2022 meeting, but he’s not sure in what capacity. The gelding could still be in training, transitioning to a stable pony because of advancing age or doing something else.
“We don’t know,” Moquett said. “That’s the deal about being honest and saying, ‘You don’t know.’ Whitmore does what Whitmore wants. He owes us nothing. If he tells us tomorrow that he doesn’t want to run anymore, then he’s going to be the most spoiled pet you’ve ever seen. He’ll be ridden by my wife in some form or fashion. I don’t know if it will be a stable pony. It might be a bucking bronc. I don’t know. He’ll have another job. I don’t think Whitmore’s the kind of horse that would be OK just going to eat. Hopefully, we don’t have to worry about that for a little bit. But when he does, he will definitely be living, as long as we’re in Arkansas, he’ll be somewhere in Hot Springs, Ark.”
M and M Nearing Another Title
Although it hasn’t produced record-breaking numbers like 2019, M and M Racing (Mike and Mickala Sisk) entered the final four days of the meeting with a comfortable lead in its chase of a fourth consecutive Oaklawn owner’s title.
M and M, through Sunday, had 16 victories from 59 starts. Danny Caldwell, Oaklawn’s leading owner in 2014-2017, and John Ed Anthony of Hot Springs were tied for second with 10 victories.
“We’ve run, what, 220, then 140 and we’re probably going to run 70 this meet,” Mike Sisk said Saturday afternoon, moments after winning the second race with Canadian Ginger. “We’ve got a good core group of horses now. We don’t have to go claim every race or put one in for a tag every race. It’s taken us four or five years to build it. Then, coming off a COVID year, you don’t really know what was going to happen. So, you kind of come into this meet a little fearful of: ‘Man, are they going to run a whole meet?’ And claiming here is impossible. If you pick the right horse, you’re going to get in a 10, 12-way shake. If you don’t have the bulk of your horses when you get here, you’re not going to be able to build a barn.”
M and M won its first race at Oaklawn in 2017 and has dominated the owner’s standings the last four years. M and M set single-season Oaklawn records for victories (61) and purse earnings ($1,782,351) in 2019, when it started a jaw-dropping 220 horses during the 57-day meeting. M and M won its third consecutive title last year, winning 27 of 144 starts, according to Equibase.
“We’re down to like 30 horses now,” Sisk said. “It’s probably the fewest horses we’ve had since we started. If we run them, they get claimed. It’s hard to claim them back. Usually, we come down with a hundred, but we probably only had 60 when we got here. But we had a plan. I thought 17 would win the title. I think that’s going to be the number.”
Sisk, co-founder of the Low T Center chain of low-testosterone clinics, splits his time between Hot Springs and suburban Dallas. He is making a sizable investment in the Arkansas breeding program by developing a 50-acre farm on the outskirts of Hot Springs.
“Our goal is to kind of re-rack that Arkie-bred program,” Sisk said. “Bring in some different studs, bring in some different mares. Really make that an Arkie-bred operation.”
Sisk said the plan is to stand “four or five stallions” and board “10” mares. The building project, Sisk said, should be completed by early 2022.
“We’ll have about six paddocks there,” Sisk said. “There’s a stream that runs through it. It’s going to be a beautiful piece of property.”
M and M’s primary trainer is Robertino Diodoro, who topped the Oaklawn standings for the first time in 2020 and ranks second this year. Former trainer Cody Autrey is M and M’s racing manager and the point man for its breeding interests, Sisk said.
Oaklawn's weather-shortened 51-day meeting ends Saturday.
Scarred, trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, is the 5-2 program favorite for Saturday’s $300,000 Oaklawn Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles. Winner of Oaklawn’s closing-day feature will receive automatic entry into the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, May 15 at Pimlico. Seven horses are entered in the Oaklawn Stakes, but trainer Brad Cox said Warrant will be scratched. Cox is still scheduled to be represented by Fulsome, the 3-1 second choice in the program. Probable post time for the Oaklawn Stakes, the 11th of 12 races, is 6:18 p.m. (Central). First post Saturday is 12:05 p.m. … David Cabrera, Oaklawn’s second-leading rider this year, said he will ride at Lone Star Park after the meeting ends Saturday. … Distance specialist Lone Rock won the $130,000 Isaac Murphy Marathon Overnight Stakes at 1 ½ miles Tuesday at Churchill Downs for 2020 Oaklawn training champion Robertino Diodoro and jockey Ramon Vazquez, another Oaklawn regular. Favored Lone Rock ($3.80) was exiting an allowance victory at 1 ½ miles April 11 at Oaklawn and finished second in the $150,000 Temperence Hill Stakes at 1 ½ miles March 13 at Oaklawn. It was the first career Churchill Downs stakes victory for Vazquez, who was Oaklawn’s fourth-leading rider this year through Sunday. Trainer Sherry Rhea recorded her first career winner in Sunday’s seventh race at Oaklawn with My Little Tipsy ($15), according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. She had been 0 for 61. Rhea is the daughter of retired trainer Stanley Roberts, who bred and owns My Little Tipsy. Roberts has 193 career Oaklawn victories. My Little Tipsy also was the first American victory for apprentice jockey Albert Lopez, according to Equibase. … Apprentice jockey Cassidy Fletcher recorded his first career Oaklawn victory aboard Moon in the Sky ($8.40) in Sunday’s fifth race.