Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care: Riding A One-Eyed Rebel Toward The Kentucky Derby Dream - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care: Riding A One-Eyed Rebel Toward The Kentucky Derby Dream

Clay Courville aboard Un Ojo

Trainer Ricky Courville never hesitated to send a young man to do a job that might typically be associated with an older person.

Kevin Moody of Cypress Creek Equine had made a last-minute decision to run Un Ojo in the Feb. 26 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The Grade 2 Rebel offered a $l million purse and 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, enough to ensure a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. The stakes could not have been higher for Courville, a trainer who had never won a graded stake.

Still, the Louisiana-based conditioner could not possibly travel to Arkansas for the major Derby prep. He was tending to his wife, jockey Ashley Broussard, as she recovered from a broken leg. On the same day as the Rebel, he had one horse entered at Fair Grounds, another at Delta Downs. And, like so many outfits, his 31-horse operation was scrambling for help.

Courville confidently assigned his son, 25-year-old Clay, to accompany Un Ojo to Oaklawn Park for the biggest race of their lives. If anyone could help the one-eyed gelding overcome long odds after a runner-up effort in the Feb. 5 Withers at Aqueduct, he felt sure it was Clay.

“I send him on the road with horses,” Ricky said. “He's responsible enough to do everything. He's reliable. I can trust him.”

Ricky knows that giving a young employee travel money can be risky business.

“You could send somebody his age on the road and they would not get up the next morning because they were at the bar or something,” he said.

Clay did, indeed, spend a largely sleepless night after the Rebel as he celebrated the warmest feel-good story the Derby trail has produced – Un Ojo's stunning half-length upset at 75-1. Forget about hurrying off to toast away the night with friends. He could not tear himself from the side of a New York-bred gelding that takes his name from losing his left eye in a paddock accident as a baby, leaving him with one eye.

“I was so proud of him,” Clay said, “I felt bad leaving him.”

To an onlooker, it would have been impossible to tell who was more amped, the seemingly impossible winner or his precocious handler.

“He was just wound up. He was excited,” Clay said. “He was jumping in his stall a lot.”

The one-eyed New York-bred, Un Ojo, rides the rail to a 75-1 upset in the Rebel under Ramon Vazquez

Clay might have been the only person who could have envisioned such success. He had worked closely with the son of Laoban from the start, breaking him and later galloping and breezing him.

“I pretty much give him all the credit on this horse,” Ricky said. “He kept saying, 'This is going to be a later horse. It's just taking him awhile.'”

The Rebel marked Un Ojo's second victory in six starts. After an inauspicious eighth-place finish in his Oct. 9 debut at Keeneland, he broke his maiden at Delta Downs a little less than a month later. The slow progress is understandable given the loss of one eye, a circumstance that led him to easily spook early in his career.

Still, Clay's confidence never wavered. He was taught at a young age how a good horse looks and acts.

“He's been coming with me to the barn since he was 4 or 5 years old,” Ricky said. “He just loved being with me at the barn, coming with me to the races.”

Like Un Ojo, Clay's young life has not been an easy road as he grew up in Carencro, La. His mother, Billie Joe, lost a decade-long fight with cancer in 20l6.

“It was tough,” he said.

He had hoped to emulate his father, who rode for 16 years before becoming a trainer in 2008. A growth spurt dashed that dream.

“When I turned l6 and it was time to start riding and get into it, I was starting to grow,” he said. “It would have been hard for me to keep my weight down.”

The 5'9″, 150-pound Clay fulfilled a goal his mother set for him by graduating from Carencro High School. Then he plunged into life at the barn, galloping horses and assisting his father in every way possible. When he rides a horse in the morning, he is able to pinpoint issues. He is equally effective on the ground, when he checks horses' legs.

He formed an especially tight bond with Un Ojo.

“He gets along good with him,” Ricky said. “It's like it's his little pet. It's his baby.”

Un Ojo has shed himself of his initial skittishness and settled in nicely.

“If you didn't know he had an eye missing and you walked into the stall on that side and touched him on the shoulder as you walked up to him, he don't flinch or anything,” Ricky said.

In the 1 1/16-mile Rebel, the gelding did not allow anything to faze him. Ramon Vazquez gave him a ground-saving trip before he outslugged Ethereal Road to the wire. Incredibly, the Courvilles and their one-eyed sentimental favorite were going to the Kentucky Derby when it was over.

“This is everyone's dream to make it there,” Clay said. “For it to actually be true, it can be reality, it's pretty awesome.”

This time, father and son will go together.

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