Saratoga Springs’ Ray Bryan eager to take another shot at Derby with Mo Donegal

Mo Donegal and jockey Joel Rosario win the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 9.

Mo Donegal and jockey Joel Rosario win the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 9.

They trotted out Nicole Kidman.

Tom Cruise was in tow.

And Ray Bryan was at a racetrack for the first time in his life.

The Kentucky Derby likes to provide a celebrity red-carpet experience as part of the overall spectacle. (You may even have heard of some of the celebrities)

But this wasn’t that.

Bryan was a freshman at Skidmore College who had taken some theater courses and answered a call for volunteers to work at the filming of some scenes at Saratoga Race Course that would appear in the 1991 movie “Billy Bathgate.”

“Billy Bathgate” bombed, but Bryan did not, certainly not at Saratoga, eventually returning there as a racehorse owner invested in Keen Ice when the colt upset Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes.

That year, Keen Ice had represented Bryan’s second shot at the Derby through the Donegal Racing partnership, and Mo Donegal will be his third on Saturday, when the Wood Memorial winner breaks from the No. 1 post at Churchill Downs for the 148th Run for the Roses.

“I’ve been very fortunate with Donegal that this is my third [Derby] horse,” Bryan said on Wednesday. “And I’ve done the [pre-race on-track] walkover two other times. So, really, the only experience, from my perspective, that would be any better would be to win it.

“I do think he’s the best shot we’ve ever had, taking into account the post position. So we’ll see what happens.”

Bryan, a long-time Saratoga Springs resident who graduated from Skidmore in 1994 and works as a financial advisor, will see what happens in the Derby remotely, since he’ll be attending his uncle’s 70th birthday party in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Mo Donegal is 10-1 on the morning line in a 20-horse field that shows scant resume-building at Bryan’s home track.

In fact, Classic Causeway, who won his career debut at Saratoga on Sept. 4, is the only one who has raced there, barring defections by Friday’s scratch deadline. It’s a sign of the times, as horses pointed toward races like the Derby as 3-year-olds tend to start racing later in their 2-year-old seasons (if at all) these days.

Mo Donegal, who was purchased by Donegal Racing for $250,000 at the 2020 Keeneland yearling sale, was a late foal, born on April 19 of 2019, so he’s young for his class and didn’t start his racing career until Sept. 30 at Belmont Park, 24 days after the 2021 Saratoga meet ended.

He’s not lightly raced, though, having won the Grade II Remsen by a nose over Derby favorite Zandon in December and the Grade II Wood on April 9 among his five starts. Bryan likes the fact that Mo Donegal is bred to run well on a sloppy track — the forecast calls for rain all day Friday and into Saturday morning — and hopes he won’t be hurt by the rail post position, which isn’t as much of a handicap after Churchill Downs built its new 20-stall starting gate two years ago.

“The good news about this horse is that he actually does have some tactical speed and can rate,” Bryan said. “That was one of the things that Keen Ice was never good at, whereas Mo Donegal is a little more nimble and has the flexibility and capability to get going in and out and finish some things off.”

Bryan first joined racing partnerships through the Saratoga Springs-based Sackatoga Stable, then West Point Thoroughbreds, and switched to Donegal not long before Dullahan finished third to I’ll Have Another in the 2012 Derby.

Up next was Keen Ice, who was seventh to American Pharoah in the 2015 Derby and lost to him twice more, in the Belmont and Haskell, before beating the Triple Crown winner at odds of 16-1 with a late surge in the Travers.

American Pharoah valiantly held on to second by three-quarters of a length, but it was a raucous group of Donegal partners, including Bryan, whooping it up in the winner’s circle.

“What we thought was he was getting stronger and stronger, and Pharoah had raced a lot,” Bryan said. “So if there’s any time in this horse’s career he’s going to lose, this is the race. 

“So we knew we had a shot. Then just the way things played out, how Pharoah came over and potentially bouncing seemed like a good situation for us. Frosted started wearing him down. Those two things made the way for Keen Ice to do what he does, which is come closing at the end.

“That’s an exceptional experience. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. Just everything you could want happened that day . . . you’re with your friends, family, and you got to see something truly miraculous.”

If Mo Donegal wins on Saturday, Bryan won’t get to see it in person, but will be surrounded by family, some of whom will be wearing Mo Donegal hats that he ordered.

“I had to make a choice, be there, do the family thing and believe in karma, third time’s a charm and he wins . . . and then I’ll be regretting it for the rest of my life,” Bryan said with a laugh, “but at the same time, you’ve got to do what’s right by the family.”

The colt himself has been adorned this week with a green-and-yellow checkered Donegal blanket that features a big dark panel and Skidmore’s trademark white lettering advertising Bryan’s alma mater, where the sports teams are conveniently nicknamed the Thoroughbreds.

The Skidmore blanket was the brainchild of another alum, retired Health Monitor Network CEO Ken Freirich, who was introduced to Donegal ownership by Bryan four years ago.

First things first on Saturday, but if you’re a Skidmore grad who lives in Saratoga and owns a share in a nice horse like Mo Donegal, your desire to win the Travers never goes away.

“Being a local Saratogian, it’s what you dream every time,” Bryan said.

Categories: At The Track, Sports


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