Once colt nobody wanted, Came Home nears pinnacle

Some fault pedigree, but he'll likely go off as a favorite in Derby


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - He's the little horse who kept coming home. And now Came Home, the scrappiest competitor in the Kentucky Derby, is out to prove that rejection and doubt mean little when fate is your ally.

"I keep saying that somehow we weren't meant to sell this horse," said Trudy McCaffery, who bred Came Home with her longtime partner, John Toffan, and owns the colt with Toffan and two others. "It seems that somehow this was all just meant to be."

When Came Home enters the starting gate Saturday for the 128th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, he will loom as one of the favorites in an unpredictable race in a bewildering year. At least that's what most people are saying.

Actually, Came Home's story is as straight and neat as sheets hung on a clothesline. From the beginning, when he came home unsold from his first auction, the narrative flows pointedly toward this climactic scene in the country's most famous race.

McCaffery and Toffan, Canadians transplanted to California, realized a dream when Toffan's mining company literally struck gold. In 1989, they spent $1 million of the riches on six racehorses at the September yearling sale at Keeneland. One was the filly Nice Assay.

They entrusted the horses to unknown trainer Paco Gonzalez and raced them with phenomenal success, especially for newcomers to the sport. Nice Assay earned $409,620 and then starting making babies for the McCaffery-Toffan-Gonzalez team. In March 1999, she produced a small, dark-brown colt by the royally bred sire Gone West.

Six months later, McCaffery and Toffan decided to sell Nice Assay and her colt at auction. In foal to another major sire, A.P. Indy, the broodmare brought a whopping $1.7 million.

But as the little weanling stood in the sales ring, he apparently saw something that scared him, and he flipped over backward. Bidding ceased. It had not reached the reserve, the price his owners had set as a minimum, and so the colt came home.

Twice more at auction, as a yearling and a 2-year-old, the small horse did not meet his reserve. He came home again, essentially naming himself and assuring he would race in McCaffery and Toffan's distinctive gold and silver silks. And race he has.

Came Home has won six of seven races, including two Grade I stakes (the Hopeful at 2 and the Santa Anita Derby at 3), two Grade II stakes and a Grade III. He has never won by fewer than two lengths, and his average margin of victory is nearly four.

Chris McCarron, the Hall of Fame jockey, has ridden him every time, and McCarron said Came Home has what it takes to win the Kentucky Derby.

"He has the talent, the class and the determination," McCarron said.

However, doubt pounds upon this horse like a hailstorm. His pedigree says he should not succeed at 1 1/4 miles, the Derby distance. Gone West, his sire, is known for producing milers. Nice Assay, his dam, came from a family of sprinters.

In his one distance race as a 2-year-old, the 1 1/16-mile Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall at Belmont Park, Came Home locked up with Officer in an unwise speed duel, tired in the stretch and faded to seventh. He had an excuse. He had missed a prep race and crucial training because of a swollen ankle. He was not at his best.

In fact, Came Home captured the prestigious Santa Anita Derby on April 6 when he wasn't at his best. He had missed training after injuring his back when becoming stuck in his stall - unable to get up - while rolling in the straw. He also got a fever. And then, two days before the race, he bruised a hoof after losing a shoe while training.

Still, Came Home won by two lengths. Critics noted immediately that his time for the 1 1/8 miles was 1 minute, 50.02 seconds, the slowest for a winner since 1963, and, for the final eighth of a mile, a dawdling 13.32.

"Where are the fast horses? They should have won the Santa Anita Derby," said Toffan, co-breeder and co-owner, fed up with the skeptics. "They said he couldn't run seven furlongs, he couldn't run a mile, he couldn't run a mile and an eighth. Well, he did, and he's still running."

Gonzalez, his trainer, is quiet and soft-spoken, but said he believes Came Home is a better horse than Free House. The popular Free House carried the McCaffery-Toffan colors through the 1997 Triple Crown series, finishing third in the Derby, second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont.

That was the team's second foray into the spring classics. Mane Minister, one of the first six horses they bought, finished third in each of the Triple Crown races in 1991.

In other words, McCaffery, Toffan and Gonzalez have run horses six times in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont and never finished worst than third. Still, they haven't won one - yet.

Yesterday, Came Home aced his final pre-Derby exam by breezing five furlongs in 1:00.06. Afterward, outside Barn 25, Toffan noted that nothing, for a change, has interrupted Came Home's training since the Santa Anita Derby.

"This is as good as he's ever been," Toffan said. "This is as fit as he's ever been. The Kentucky Derby is the one we've been aiming for, and he's peaking."

Kentucky Derby

What:128th Kentucky Derby, first leg of thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown series


Post time:6:04 p.m.

Where:Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

Distance:1 1/4 miles

Purse:$1 million

TV:Chs. 11, 4

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