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The sales pavilion at Red Deer's Westerner Park was eerily silent when Bodemonster, the yearling by the heavily sought after stallion Bodemeister, pranced into the arena two years ago. "I remember thinking to myself why isn't anyone bidding," said Lori Neyka. "I mean who doesn't want a son of Bodemeister?" she said of the stallion who won the 2012 Arkansas Derby and finished second to I'll Have Another in that year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and whose many outstanding foals include 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and this year's Queen's Plate winner Safe Conduct.
Eventually somebody bid $1,000. Then another long pause enveloped the arena. "Why isn't anyone else bidding?" Neyka said to herself one more time. And he looked so beautiful." Finally, Neyka couldn't contain herself any longer. "The auctioneer asked for $1,500. I put up my hand."
More silence. "Going once. Going twice… Sold."
"It turns out that Bodemonster had failed a veterinarian's throat examination. But I didn't know that," said Neyka, who owns the Canadian Derby hopeful with her husband, Martin. "I loved his breeding. I loved the way he looked. I just took a chance. Like I said, he was so beautiful. I couldn't resist."
Whatever throat problems Bodemonster may have had are a thing of the past for the hard-charging, come-from-behind closer who has finished second to everybody's Derby choice of the moment, Tony's Tapit, in his last two starts. "I guess he grew out of any problem he might have had," said veteran trainer Rick Hedge. "That often happens with young horses. People didn't think he'd make it as a race horse. Lori thought differently. I didn't have a thing to do with the purchase. It was all Lori."
Amazingly, Bodemonster is still a maiden having failed to win in seven career starts posting a record of three seconds and three thirds in seven career starts - the last two in the August 1st Count Lathum and then a wide-open allowance race this past Sunday. But he's always heard from making his patented come-from-the-clouds move. Should he go on to win the September 11 mile and a quarter Canadian Derby he would be the only maiden to ever win Alberta's most prestigious thoroughbred race which has taken place every year since 1930.
"I tried to get him into a maiden race going long but they never got enough horses to fill the race," said Hedge. "They wrote two or three of those races but none of them filled. It was either keep him in the barn or run him against stakes horses like Tony's Tapit."
Hedge said while Bodemonster has never won a race he has gotten better and better with every start. "He's still learning. He doesn't know how to win yet. For that matter he doesn't know how to run yet and that's tough when you have to hook all these winning horses when you haven't won a race yet."
'Yet' is the operative word. On Sunday at Century Mile Bodemonster got away last in the six-horse field. After a quarter of a mile he was five lengths behind Tony's Tapit and 10 lengths off the pace set by Smart Play. "But he closed up big time," said Hedge of the second-place finish - a length and a half behind Tony's Tapit.
"He also closed up well in the Count Lathum but this last race was better. In the Count Lathum he didn't run to the first turn very good. He got himself too far back. On Sunday he made a little faster move. Especially around the last turn. He hasn't been running the turns very good. He's still a green horse. Raffy (jockey Rafael Zenteno Jr.) said he didn't pick up the bit until the half-mile pole. He was just going along too darn easy. Raffy said he asked him around the first turn but there was nothing there. At the half-mile pole he shook him up and then he got to running. You have to really wake him up and get him going. Like I said, he's still learning."
Racing from as far back as Bodemonster does is exciting. But it's also hard on the nerves. "There's nothing better to watch than a come-from-behind horse like Bodemonster," said Neyka. But he gets so far out of it that he's out of range on the TV screen. It really plays on your heart. "I tried to watch the replay a bunch of times. But for most of the race you don't even see him."
Then he comes charging. "You can really see it when he gets into gear. He just canters and gallops along and then, when it's time to go, he flattens out and he goes. After the wire he makes it look quite easy. Rick said he's getting better each start, and I'll take his word for it. His knowledge is a lot deeper than mine."
Sunday's allowance race was at a distance of a mile and a sixteenth. The $125,000 Derby is three-sixteenths of a mile longer at a distance of a mile and a quarter. "I think there's room for improvement there," said Hedge. "I'm guessing he wants to run that far. He galloped out real strong. He gets rolling at the same place all the time. He picks them up the last three-eighths of a mile," said Hedge who has run four horses in the Derby as a trainer and won it as a jockey in 1980 with Driving Home. "I actually won it twice but I got disqualified in 1977 with R.J.'s Diamond."
Hedge recalls that disqualification more than he does his 1980 victory. "Honey Speed was on the outside of me going by the wire the first time. Red Robertson had a horse in there and for whatever reason it suddenly stopped running. That started a chain reaction. I got turned out sideways and ended up four wide. They disqualified me for for bothering Honey Speed who was outside of me but it definitely wasn't my fault."
Hedge is also proud of the way he rode that race. "Western Reason, who got moved up to the win, was the favourite. He was inside of me and I kept him in trouble. I wouldn't let him out. It was good race riding. I should have two Derby wins."
On September 11 he may just get that second win. But he'll have to beat Tony's Tapit, who has won five races in a row - the last four at Century Mile and the latest this past Sunday. So the big question is: can Bodemonster turn the tables on Tony's Tapit?
Neyka thinks so. "Yes, I think the extra distance will help our horse. But it totally depends on how the race sets up. I have great hopes and Tony's Tapit has to be getting tired. He's been racing hard for a long time. There's only been two months since he was a two-year-old that that he hasn't had a race," said Neyka who runs under the Empire Equestrian stable which is the name of their farm east of Sherwood Park where they have over 100 horses - half of which they own themselves - and which Lori and Martin bought from John Shewchuk in 2011.
Empire Equestrian is also home to another son of Bodemeister - Speedmeister, a stallion whose first crop are weanlings of 2021. "They're all beautiful. And they're speedy. One of the weanlings Thiscatsgotspeed outruns everybody. We have big dreams but so does everybody," said Neyka, who still rides jumpers and show horses.
STOCK REPORT - The winner of the mile and an eighth Manitoba Derby, Uncharacteristic, and the Manitoba Derby runner-up Myopic, from Robertino Diodoro's barn, will also be in the Canadian Derby. Be Quick, who was expected to come from B.C., is injured and will not be making the trip.