There were times last spring when all Kevin Kahkola could see from his vantage point located near the finish line at the Camden Training Center’s mile-long main track was the sight of Mohaymen and stablemate Shagaf thundering in his direction during an early morning breeze.
What the Shadwell Stable trainer would not give to see that same sight, only to have 18 other horses chasing his two former residents’ shadows come the May 7 Kentucky Derby.
When the expected field of 20 horses takes to the Churchill Downs track to the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” next Saturday, one-tenth of the field will be graduates of Shadwell Stables.
While some in the boxes and grandstands will have paid thousands for their Derby tickets, Kahkola saw what he hopes will be that day’s perfect race scenario unfolding before him many a time before. And, there were not more than 100,000 fans screaming, yelling or, obstructing his view on those morning training days at the Chesnut Street facility.
As the head trainer for Shadwell’s operation in Camden, Kahkola had an inkling that both regally bred 3-year-olds had a bright future ahead on them. But not even he could have predicted that the pair would be running for the garland of roses less than a year leaving their stalls at the Camden Training Center.
“By last spring,” Kahkola said while seated behind his office desk located alongside the more than 40 stalls which are occupied by Shadwell horses, “we kind of knew that these were the two that we had the highest hopes for.”
Despite coming to Camden from opposite directions and with different backgrounds, the two Thoroughbreds followed similar paths in order to punch their tickets to Louisville; even to the point of how mature their growth plates were when examined in the mid- to late-winter of 2015.
The son of Tapit- Justwhistledixie by Pulpit, Mohaymen came to Camden with all the pomp and circumstance one would expect when a $2.2 million purchase from the 2014 Keelenand Yearling Sales enters the barn. The striking gray colt turned heads from the moment he stepped off the van following his trip from Kentucky.
Shagaf never entered the sales ring. The Bernardini-Muhaawara by Unbridled’s Song colt was bred at Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s Shadwell Farm in Lexington, Ky.
While both horses were put in the general population along with the rest of the young Shadwell runners and some layups who were enjoying the winter away from the track, it did not take long for Mohaymen and Shagaf to set their own course and separate themselves from their rest of their colleagues.
Grading the growth plates of all the horses in the barn with an ‘A’ being the mark for growth plates which were closed to a ‘C’ for those horses whose growth plates were more open. After each young runner in the barn was X-rayed to determine the stage of their growth plates, the results came back with Shagaf and Mohaymen being the only two ‘C’ graded horses in the barn.
“They were the two most immature horses physically,” Kahkola said with a laugh. “You wouldn’t have known that by the way they trained, though.”
While most other Shadwell 2-year-olds shipped out of Camden to their respective trainers at some point in the spring, Shagaf and Mohaymen remained at the Camden Training Center and did not start breezing until late June. They would run alongside each other constantly; first breezing quarter of a mile before advancing to three-eighths of a mile. “They were good company for each other,” Kahkola said before he finally gave the two the thumbs up to be sent their separate ways last summer.
The extended time at the barn allowed each horse to develop and show off their own personalities to Kahkola and his staff.
“Early on, Shagaf just kind of buttoned it in,” he said of the early days of training with the two horses. “Mohaymen was always kind of flashy because he’s a big pretty gray and, of course, he came in with the $2 million price tag so, you always had your eyes on him a little closer.
“Shagaf, being a homebred, you didn’t know what to expect, even though he was royally bred. As it got toward February and March (of 2015), that’s when they started separating themselves. That’s when I really started taking a liking to Shagaf. He got fitter and was already, by that time, starting to train like an older horse where you had to start separating him from the other company (of horses) because he was too tough. He was a little too strong and he just wanted to do what he was doing.”
When it came time to decide which Shadwell trainer would get Shagaf and Mohaymen, the three-man committee of Kahkola, Shadwell general manager Rick Nichols and Shadwell racing manager Joe DeSantis convened to go over the pedigrees while getting Kahkola’s opinion as to what type of program would best suit each horse. From there, the suggestions were formed into a list which Nichols submitted to Sheik Hamdan, with the owner of the stable and its horses having the final say as to which trainer gets what horse.
The process is the same for every Shadwell-owned horse which comes out of Camden.
“I really lean, a lot, on Kevin because he knows the horses better than anybody,” Nichols said in regard to the decision-making process for Shadwell 2-year-olds. “He’s trained them but he also knows all of our other trainers’ style. He is also a very good judge of the quality of the horse.”
In the end, Shagaf was sent to Chad Brown, a trainer who has developed a reputation for his work with high-end turf horses but who has his share of stakes-quality dirt horses in his barn. Mohaymen was shipped to the barn of Kiaran McLaughlin, who had Shadwell Stables’ graduate and 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil, which was given his start by the late Shadwell trainer Bob Witham. McLaughlin relishes horses possessing more pure speed and also likes to run his 2-year-olds earlier than some trainers.
Nichols said he takes issue with those in the industry who view Brown as more of turf specialist when it comes to the horses he conditions. In the end, with Shagaf and Mohaymen, Nichols believes the right call was made as to which barn and trainer they were sent.
“When it came to Mohaymen and Shagaf,” Nichols said, “Chad hadn’t been with us very long, at that time. Kiaran had trained Mohaymen’s dam, Justwhistledixie, and the boss (Sheik Hamdan) has a tendency to be very loyal to trainers if they trained a dam or, even a sire, of a particular colt, and he has a tendency to send them to that trainer. He did say that when he chose to leave Mohaymen (in the United States) that he wanted Kiaran to train him, which was obvious.
“Shagaf was another star in South Carolina that year and equally so, Sheik Hamdan wanted to give Chad a good chance with a good colt.”
True to form, McLaughlin sent Mohaymen to the track late last summer and he broke his maiden at first asking at Belmont Park. On Nov. 4, Mohaymen carried Junior Alvarado to a win in the $200,000 Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct before closing his 2-year-old campaign by winning the $300,000 Remsen Stakes for his third in as many starts. By year’s end, he was voted as a finalist for the 2-year-old colt Eclipse Award.
While Mohaymen was finding his groove at the race track, Shagaf was brought along more slowly, although he won his first and only race as a 2-year-old with a five-length romp in a maiden race at Aqueduct on Nov. 22 with Irad Ortiz up.
It was no coincidence that the two Derby hopefuls were kept away from each other when it came to where they raced this past winter.
Mohaymen headed to and stayed in Florida and won both the Holy Bull Stakes and the Fountain of Youth Stakes with ease --- earning the top spot among all 3-year-old colts in theNational Turf Writers weekly poll --- before finishing fourth behind still undefeated and Derby favorite Nyquist in the $1 million Florida Derby on April 2. All three races were run at Gulfstream Park.
Shagaf also wintered in Florida and won his 3-year-old debut in a $44,000 allowance race at Gulfstream before heading back to New York and Aqueduct where he grinded out a win in the $400,000 Gotham Stakes before ending up fifth in the $1 million Wood Memorial on an afternoon in which rain before and during the race left the track to be listed as muddy.
Earlier this week a change in rider aboard Shagaf was made.Ortiz, Shagaf’s regular jockey, was scheduled to ride another Brown-trained Derby runner, My Man Sam. That left Brown to tab Joel Rosario, who rode Orb to a win in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, to get the call on Shagaf.
In spite of losses in their final Derby tune-ups, both Shagaf and Mohaymen earned enough points to have them firmly in the projected 20-horse field.
“I think you can draw a line through both their last races,” said Kahkola, who took in the Wood Memorial from the Shadwell box at Aqueduct along with Nichols. “That was the first sloppy track that Shagaf had hit and he got stuck on the rail a little bit and got a lot of mud in his face. I don’t think anybody was closing on the track that day.
“It was the same thing with Mohaymen. It was hot and humid (for the Florida Derby) and he didn’t like the humidity and he washed out that day. The track was sticky and he got hung out a little wide and had to work a little bit. I think it kind of stressed him.”
Ironically, the fact that both Shadwell runners experienced having dirt kicked in their faces in their most recent starts may prove beneficial in the Derby, a race which several of the runners have yet to have had that experience.
While Shagaf battled in his races, Mohaymen had an easy go of things before the Florida Derby. “He kind of needed that; a wake-up call, because he had been geared down in some of his races,” Kahkola said of Mohaymen.
Both horses have been stabled at Churchill for the past two-plus weeks and the former stablemates had a chance meeting on Tuesday which was caught on video by award-winning equine photographer Barbara Livingston.
On the video, Mohayman is pictured relaxing in his stall, that is, until Shagaf was being walked around the shedrow by a groom. Like an alligator seemingly resting, a wide-mouthed Mohaymen took a snap at while lunging at his former stablemate and the man leading him through the stable.
Given their pedigrees, Kahkola does not think the extra eighth of a mile in the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby will be an issue for either of the Shadwell duo.
Nichols said the Kentucky Derby trophy is the one piece missing from Shadwell’s extensive list of hardare earned from classic races.
“It’s something everybody dreams of winning and I would really love for Sheik Hamdan to win it because, in my personal opinion, I don’t think anybody deserves to win it more,” he said.
“The way I look at it, there are five races that an owner like that wants to win; The Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the English Derby, the l’Arc de Triomphe and the Dubai World Cup. We’ve won the English Derby twice with homebreds (1989 Nashwan and Erhaab in 1994) from here. We’ve won the l’Arc de Triomphe with a homebred (Sakhee 2001) from here. We’ve won the World Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Invasor. So, the Derby is the one piece that’s missing. I’d like to win that for him.”
Echoing that sentiment was Kevin Kahkola who expects to hear whether or not he will get an invitation to the Derby in the next few days, if not already. While he would be more than happy to see either Shagaf or Mohaymen in the winners’ circle, there is a part of him which is pulling for Shagaf, who had a memorable stay in Camden.
“I’d be thrilled for either one of them to win,” he said diplomatically before showing an un-Solomon-like side. “But there has to be a little piece of me that is pulling for Shagaf only because he’s the homebred and he was a little quirky. I have a thing for the quirky horses.
“The ones who are perfect are almost too easy to train; Mohayman could have almost trained himself because he was so easy.
“Shagaf was a little more quirky. He got loose a couple times when he was here and he would drop a rider in a heartbeat. There’s just something about those horses that I like.”