For the last few weeks, Ricky Courville’s family and friends have been peppering him with suggestions for the first week in May.
They have been urging the Louisiana-based trainer to buy airline tickets or make hotel and restaurant reservations. Some have recommended buying a new suit.
But at the moment, Courville would prefer to wait until next week before handling all those details.
“It’s been an exciting time,” Courville said, “but I know anything can happen in this game so I just keep on working like normal and think about what’s going on. I’ve got family talking about making reservations in Kentucky but I tell them, ‘Whoa, we have one more race to go. Let’s not jinx anything now.”‘
For Courville, who has a string of about 30 horses based in Louisiana and spent the first 13 years of his training career without experiencing the thrill of a graded stakes win, his life finally shifted into the fast lane Feb. 26 through the heroics of Un Ojo a one-eyed gelding by the late stallion Laoban owned by Cypress Creek Equine and Whispering Oaks Farm.
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Sent off at 75-1 odds in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn ParkUn Ojo registered the biggest upset of the 2022 Triple Crown season by notching a stunning half-length victory.
The victory gave the 3-year-old with a name that translates into “one eye” in Spanish 50 qualifying points, assuring the gelding of a coveted spot in the 20-horse field at Churchill Downs for the May 7 opening leg of the Triple Crown and giving Courville, whose days usually center around racing at tracks such as Evangeline Downs and Delta Downs And watching major races on television, a chance to experience first-hand all of the euphoria and excitement bundled into America’s most famous race on the famed first Saturday in May.
At the moment, one of the final obstacles standing between Un Ojo takes place April 2 when he faces eight rivals, including the brilliant D. Wayne Lukas-trained filly Secret Oath in the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park.
With a victory in the Rebel and a second before that in the Withers Stakes (G3), Un Ojo already has 54 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) qualifying points and does not need any of the 170 points up for grabs Saturday to land a spot in the starting gate for the Run for the Roses. Yet as much as a spot in the first Triple Crown test does not hinge on a top three finish in the Arkansas Derby, Courville would love to see another big effort Saturday to have the gelding primed and for the grueling test awaiting him at Churchill Downs .
“I expect him to run a big race in the Arkansas Derby and I am sure we’ll run in the Kentucky Derby as long as he’s healthy and everything is all right,” said Courville, who trains the son of the AP Indy mare Risk a Chance bred by Southern Equine Stables with help from his son and main assistant, Clay. “He’s doing great right now and he’s a fun horse to be around. He takes it all in stride.”
The odds that have put Un Ojo and Courville in the Kentucky Derby picture are surely much higher than the gelding’s 75-1 price in the Rebel when his physical challenges and running for two different trainers (Courville then Tony Dutrow for two races and Courville again) in his six-race career are considered.
Un Ojo’s story is the kind of heartwarming tale that can bring tears of joy to the eyes of some racing fans. He’s the little equine engine that could who not only had to overcome the loss of an eye but took a humble, hard-working trainer with just 193 wins since he started working in 2008 and put him on a national stage for the first time.
“Everybody is jumping on the bandwagon with him,” Courville said. “It’s a good story with the way he lost his eye and came back from it.”
The tale of Un Ojo dates back to the summer of 2020 when he was a yearling enjoying a carefree romp in a paddock at Cypress Creek’s Kentucky farm when a storm blew into the area. High winds knocked down a tree branch that lodged in the horse’s left eye.
Sadly, the eye could not be saved, but the yearling’s racing career remained on track.
About three months later in October he was sent to Courville and the Copper Crowne Training Center in Louisiana to prepare for a racing career. What he found was a young horse still adjusting to viewing life through a single eye.
“At first he didn’t how to lead real well. He would follow behind you. It took about two months to get him to come alongside someone,” Courville said.
Once Un Ojo became more at ease with handlers, the all-important process of teaching him to race began with mixed results.
“When he started going to the track he was all right. He was just a little green. He would duck a bit,” Courville said. “He would be running and go a few strides and then duck out and then he’d do it again. We worked him a few times and he was still doing it. Then we backed off because he had some shin issues.”
At that point, it was decided to geld the 2-year-old to help him focus on running and everything began to change.
“We ended up gelding him because he was getting aggressive,” Courville said. “Once we did it, he stopped doing all that goofy stuff. The way I look at it, maybe he might become a $10 million stallion now, but he might have never made it to the races if we didn’t geld him.”
Un Ojo developed to the point where the owners slotted an Oct. 9 debut for him in a six-furlong maiden special weight race at Keeneland. Sent off at 25-1 odds, the race did not work out as hoped as he veered in at the start and finished eighth in a field of nine, 24 lengths behind the winner.
“He wasn’t ready for that type of race. He’s not a six-furlong horse,” Courville said about the debut effort. “He handled the crowd fine, but when he leaves the gate, he falls in a little bit. He didn’t do it in the Rebel, but in the first few starts he broke in. But now when we put him behind horses, He’ll go around them. Clay always kept saying he was a little better when he was down on the rail. Even though he couldn’t see it, the rail was his guideline and he worked more aggressively and paid more attention when he was inside as opposed to being five-wide.”
Returned to Louisiana, Un Ojo ran a month later at Delta Downs and blossomed with a 4 1/4-length victory in a maiden race.
“The racetrack at Delta was deep but he won in good time and gobbled those horses up,” Courville said.
The New York-bred was then entered in the Jean Lafitte Stakes and closed well to finish fourth.
After that, a decision was made to capitalize on his status as a son of a New York-based stallion and he was sent to New York to run in the rich $500,000 New York Stallion Series stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack. Since Courville did not have a base in New York, Un Ojo was transferred to Dutrow and finished second by a neck on the Dec. 18 test despite some late bumping.
The gelding then stayed in New York with Dutrow and displayed a nice late kick when he rallied from 17 lengths back in 11th to finish second Feb. 5 in the two-turn 1 1/8-mile Withers Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct. In the Withers, he even overcame the adversity of getting some dirt in his eye.
“Ricky and his son put a great deal of work into Un Ojo before he came to me,” Dutrow said. “I did the best we could with him and I’m proud of the work we did. He was improving and he kept doing great.”
Though original speed figures for the Withers came back slow, the next target for Un Ojo became another trip south for the Rebel.
“He was training fantastic and I told (owner) Kevin Moody and the Cypress Creek people that,” Dutrow said. “I did not know where he would finish but I was confident he was going to give his very best. There were a lot of things I didn’t know, like how he would handle the track. But what I did know is the horse’s character and how he was training and I was very confident he would give his very best.”
Another element involved who would be the trainer of record for the Rebel, Dutrow or Courville. Dutrow made that simple for everyone.
“I told them to give the horse back to Ricky,” Dutrow said. “I’ve been in this business my entire life and so was my father (Dick) and my brother (Rick). My brother won the Kentucky Derby and so many big races. I’m 63-years-old and I’ve experienced a great deal in the sport. I have experienced people taking horses from me, and running them right back in races like the Rebel with success and I’m standing there like a big dummy. Un Ojo deserved to run for him.”
When Courville spoke with Dutrow he asked him if he wanted to reconsider and was assured all was fine.
“The morning entries were taken Tony called me and said enter him under my name. He said it was only fair,” Courville said. “Twice I asked him if he was sure that was what he wanted to do and he said it was. I’d say it worked out well for me.”
As it turned out, neither trainer was on hand at Oaklawn for the Rebel as Clay Courville handled the task of saddling Un Ojo. Both watched from afar and could not believe it as Un Ojo’s odds on the toteboard skyrocketed.
“He did not have the past performances of a 75-1 shot. That was an oversight,” Dutrow said. “By no means should he have been in the single digits, but 75-1 was outrageous.”
Both trainers then enthusiastically watched as jockey Ramon Vazquez kept Un Ojo up close along the inside for most of the race and then launched a determined rally in the stretch. As the favored 4-5, Bob Baffert-trained Newgrange dropped back to fifth, Un Ojo was third, a length behind, with a furlong left. He then wore down Lukas’ Ethereal Road to prevail by a half-length and return $152.80 to win with Barber Road quickly to miss second by a closing nose.
In one fell swoop, Courville saved the richest and most important victory in his career while driving back home from a race at Delta Downs.
“It was amazing. It was a great sensation,” Courville said. “But I can’t say I was shocked that he won. I thought his last two races in New York were pretty good. I thought he ran two winning races. In the Withers, he was so far out of it, but made up a lot of ground and he was the only one closing. In the Stallion Stakes, it looked like he was going to run the winner down but near the wire the winner came out and bumped him and knocked him off stride. they didn’t take the winner down.
Dutrow was equally thrilled with the sight of the gelding in the winner’s circle after a million dollar race.
“I said congratulations, Ricky. We all pay our dues and none of us know what fortune we have coming our way, but I’m happy for Un Ojo, the connections, and everyone involved,” he said.
Of course, no one should expect to see 75-1 odds once again in the Arkansas Derby. After what happened in the Rebel, speed figures for the Withers have been changed and the perceptions about Un Ojo have also been altered. In a contentious field of nine Saturdays, he’s listed at a single-odds price of 6-1 in the morning line, while facing rivals that include Secret Oath (5-2), Doppelganger (3-1),We the People (7-2), Barber Road (8-1), and Cyberknife (8-1).
Realistically, that price may not include the sentimental factor of people betting on horses who warm their hearts, such as the one-eyed Patch . In the 2017 Triple Crown, Patch was second in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) but then went off at 14-1 in the Kentucky Derby despite drawing post 20. He finished 14th that day and the fan-favorite still was priced at 12-1 for the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1), where he finished third for the lone grade 1 placing of his career.
As Un Ojo’s story becomes more well-known, he figures to attract the same kind of attention at the betting windows. Though in his case, in perhaps the most endearing aspect of his story, the challenges the gelding faces in each race have not fazed him in the least.
“Un Ojo doesn’t know he has any adversities in his life. He handles himself with one eye like all horses with two handle themselves,” Dutrow said. “With his character, you are going to see big things from this horse, especially if they ask him to run a mile-and-a-quarter on Kentucky Derby Day. This horse always tries.”