I’ve known Illinois-based Kelly Ackerman since he started training in 1990, and here’s a telling fact about his style: He’s never had a first-out 2-year-old winner despite a gaudy 23 percent or so win clip. So last spring when he told me he had two good 2-year-olds in the barn, I paid attention. One of them was the Sky Mesa colt Join in the Dance, who’s now in the Derby field as a 50-1 outsider, and the other was the Newfoundland colt Handsome I am.
“[Join in the Dance] had that look, from the first time I saw him,” Kelly said. “The first time I worked him, he went three furlongs in :36 wrapped up. I knew he’d be a runner, and I figured seven-eighths would be his game at 2.”
Kelly trained the colt for owner Carrie Brogdan and partners. “She raised the colt, and she was high on him as a foal. That’s why she named him Join in the Dance, after the line in the song ‘Run for the Roses.’ So was pinhooker Paul Sharp, who had Join in the Dance and the other colt, Handsome I Am, in Florida before I got them. Handsome I Am, I figured he’d get you to the Derby. He wasn’t as fast early as Join in the Dance, but he could run, too, and he could stay all day.”
Kelly trains his stock on a family farm in Carmi, Illinois, and he doesn’t push his 2-year-olds. If anything, they’re short before they run. “I don’t like to pressure them early, and this colt looked like he didn’t want to be pushed on early,” Kelly said. “I got him after Paul Sharp had him in a 2-year-old sale, and I backed off on him.” Join in the Dance was RNA’d for $130,000 as a Keeneland September yearling and for $90,000 as a Fasig-Tipton February 2-year-old because of an OCD lesion in an ankle. He made his debut for Kelly at Churchill Downs on May 14, 2008, in a 5-furlong maiden special and ran second at almost 9-1. “He ran as green as a gourd,” Kelly said. Next out, in a 4 1/2-furlong maiden special on Arlington’s synthetic surface on June 8, he again ran second, to an Illinois-bred colt who set a track record in the race and subsequently won two stakes races. Join in the Dance earned an 83 Beyer for the effort — pretty good for a young horse making his second start. “See if you can sell him for me, for $250,000 to $300,000,” Kelly asked. “You’ve got to believe me when I say this, but he’s got a lot more in the tank — especially when he stretches out.”
Ok, I said, and took a leap of faith and put him to a few big names in the business. They passed. I then put the colt to pedigree gurus Jack Werk and Alan Porter, who have major clients behind them. Again, nothing. Both Alan and Jack couldn’t get anyone excited about a Sky Mesa — who was dead in the water at the time; how things change! — who’d run behind an Illinois-bred.
In the meantime, IEAH, which has just won the Derby with Big Brown, made an offer. “We had the pre-purchase offer from them, but they didn’t even come and look at the horse,” Kelly said. “Their vet killed the deal based on the scans that showed the OCD.”
A buyer did eventually surface, however, and his vet, Dr. Steve Allday, saw through the OCD. “He’s a guy who knows racehorses,” Kelly said, “and he told his guy the colt wouldn’t be bothered by it. He was right.” The price was $250,000, and Brogdan paid Kelly a 10 percent commission. Join in the Dance joined the Todd Pletcher barn at Saratoga and promptly won his next start at The Spa. Since then, the colt has run an excellent second to Musket Man in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby (beaten a neck), stretching out for the first time past 6 1/2 furlongs, and last out was fifth in the Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland over a synthetic surface. Musket Man, of course, won the Grade 2 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne after the Tampa Bay Derby and also is in the Derby. “Musket Man and I Want Revenge are my picks for the Derby,” Kelly said. “Musket Man ran over a very deep surface at Hawthorne, and I don’t care what his pedigree says — he’ll get the trip. He galloped out great at Hawthorne. I hope Join in the Dance runs well, too.”
And what about Handsome I Am, the other colt with classic aspirations that Kelly had? One of Jack’s clients looking for a prospective Derby horse met the asking price of $200,000, but the seller balked at the 11th hour and asked Jack’s man to pay Kelly’s commission, too, which was not a part of the contract. Jack’s man would have paid extra to get the horse, but as a matter of principle Kelly wouldn’t allow it. Instead he asked his owner to “get the colt out of the barn the next day.” The colt ended up with someone else, and ruefully Kelly told me that he’d heard that the colt had died.