Social Inclusion: A promising thoroughbred heading way too fast toward Kentucky Derby

Columnist

Owners, trainers, breeders and fans all dream of seeing a young racehorse start his career so brilliantly that his potential appears limitless. There haven’t been many such thoroughbred stars in the United States in recent years, but an extraordinarily precocious colt has burst onto the racing scene.

Social Inclusion made his debut at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 22 and won a maiden race by 71 / 2 lengths in fast time. In his second start, he faced Honor Code, then considered a top contender for the Kentucky Derby, and ran away from him by 10 lengths, breaking a track record. On Saturday he will compete in the $1 million Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct and try to qualify for a place in the Derby field.

Andrew Beyer has been The Washington Post’s horse racing columnist since 1978 and is considered one of the leading experts on the subject. View Archive

If fate had placed Social Inclusion into the sure-handed care of a trainer such as Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher or Graham Motion, the racing world would be hailing him without equivocation as a bright new star. But people in the sport don’t know quite what to make of Social Inclusion because his destiny is in the hands of an enigmatic, unrealistic owner and an 85-year-old trainer who has never won a Grade I stakes.

This much is certain: Having raced just twice, Social Inclusion is underprepared for the Wood and the Derby. But it is hard to tell modern-day horse owners to temper their desire to win the Kentucky Derby. To many of them, it’s the only race that matters. When Ron Sanchez went to a sale at Keeneland and saw Social Inclusion as a yearling, he turned to his trainer, Manny Azpurua, and declared, “I think we have a Derby horse.” He bought the colt for $60,000.

Sanchez came to the United States from his native Venezuela and started his Rontos Racing Stable in 2010; he owns about 50 horses, most of them based in Florida and a few in California. He was little-known in the sport until last month. He has said in recent interviews that he is “in the insurance business” and “a financial adviser to athletes,” though Google searches disclose little information about him beyond his recent racing activities.

Sanchez’s profile was raised significantly after Social Inclusion’s second victory. Gulfstream had scheduled an allowance race to give Honor Code his first start as a 3-year-old, but Social Inclusion shot to the lead in the field of five and ran away from the favorite, running 11 / 16 miles in 1 minute 40.97 seconds. His Beyer Speed Figure of 111 was the best pre-Derby race at a mile or longer by any 3-year-old since 2009.

This is the time of year when thoroughbred owners are looking for 3-year-old prospects and are often willing to pay outlandish prices for them. Sanchez’s phone starting ringing with offers from prospective buyers.

But he proved to be a reluctant seller. One overseas buyer offered $8 million, but Sanchez told the online Paulick Report he was holding out for $15 million. Ray Paulick wrote the number “set new standards for absurdity.” Sanchez also wanted to retain part-ownership of the colt and wanted Azpurua to remain the trainer, a condition that would have been unacceptable to virtually any would-be buyer. Sanchez finally decided he would wait until after the Wood Memorial to entertain further offers.

If his negotiating position was unrealistic, so too may be his ambitions. As talented as Social Inclusion is, he has not been in a tough, competitive race. When he defeated Honor Code, he took an unchallenged early lead in a five-horse field otherwise devoid of speed. Entering the Grade I Wood Memorial against battle-tested speedsters — such as Samraat (5 for 5 in his career) and Uncle Sigh — is a huge leap. He might succeed on the basis of sheer superior talent — none of his Wood rivals has earned a Beyer Speed Figure higher than 96 — but even if he wins Saturday, he would face an almost insuperable challenge at Churchill Downs.

In the Derby, sufficient preparation is almost as important as raw talent. No horse since 1882 has won it without racing as a 2-year-old, and that statistic is no fluke. Even if a youngster races only once at 2, he has gone through weeks or months of serious preparation to reach the starting gate. That foundation of fitness has proved essential in the Derby.

After Sanchez bought Social Inclusion, he sent the colt to trainer Jeff Bonde in California, where he recorded a series of workouts in the spring. Bonde said the colt “was good-looking, and he had a lot of talent . . . but he was immature.” So he sent the colt to a farm to give him more time to develop.

Near the end of the year, Sanchez said, “I decided to bring him to Florida and change training methods.” He believes strongly in Azpurua — “an old-school trainer, a good guy, a legend in Venezuela,” where he won more than 3500 races — though the veteran’s career statistics in the United States hardly support such confidence.

Social Inclusion had his first workout under Azpurua’s care Jan. 4 and has made extraordinarily fast progress to get to the Wood Memorial three months later. Sanchez dismisses the suggestion that his colt doesn’t have enough seasoning for the challenges ahead of him.

“I am not concerned about inexperience,” he said. “When he gets to the track he knows what to do.”

Owners and trainers obsessed by the Kentucky Derby don’t want to acknowledge one of the hard facts of the sport: The surest way to compromise a promising horse’s future is to ask him to do too much too soon. That maxim is true at any level of the game but especially in the Triple Crown series, which takes a fearsome toll on the horses who compete in it. But Sanchez says competing in the Derby is “the dream of my life,” and anyone who bought his colt would probably feel the same way. Social Inclusion is destined to undertake some tough challenges for which he may not be ready.

For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.

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