Ransom Notes: Modern-Day Kanthaka a Kentucky Derby Contender


Siddhartha parting from Kanthaka (photo from the British Museum).

Tibetan and Buddhist history remembers the sixth-century horse Kanthaka as “a favorite horse of length eighteen cubits (27 feet) who was a royal servant of Prince Siddhartha.”

Legend has it that because their bond was so strong after the death of Siddhartha, who eventually became the sage Buddha, Kanthaka died of a broken heart. Even today Kanthaka is depicted in Tibetan art and décor as a beautiful mythic creature and, as one of the most beloved Buddhist legends, his likeness is collected by horse lovers around the world.

Now in the 21st century, the ownership group known as West Point Thoroughbreds is hoping their Kanthaka will make his own history by not only earning one of 20 spots in the starting gate for the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby (GI) at Churchill Downs on May 5, but, perhaps, by wearing the blanket of roses reserved for just one very special horse a year.

Last week, the modern-day Kanthaka upset a short, but talented, field of five other 3-year-olds in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes (GII) at Santa Anita under leading rider Flavien Prat and somewhat unexpectedly tossed his name into consideration as a legit candidate for the Run for the Roses. Nearly everyone was surprised by the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Kanthaka’s 3 ¼-length San Vicente victory, judging by the fact he was the second-longest shot in the field at 11-1.

Everyone, that is, except his connections.


Kanthaka as a youngster (photo courtesy of West Point Thoroughbreds).

When Kanthaka sold for $140,000 as a Barretts 2-year-old-in-training about 11 months ago, he wasn’t the most expensive juvenile to come out of the auction, but his connections believed him to be one with perhaps the most potential. From the first crop of the well-bred Grade 1 winner Jimmy Creed (by Distorted Humor), Kanthaka appeared to be the whole package with good works, good conformation and a good demeanor to go along with his good — yet unproven at the time — pedigree. After the sale, he was turned out and given time to grow up, which is standard operating procedure for West Point Thoroughbreds purchases.

“Our horses typically get a freshening after a training sale,” West Point President and CEO Terry Finley explained. “After Barretts we sent Kanthaka up to Pegasus Training Center in Washington. He’s always had a great and mature mind. Everything about him and the way he behaves is professional.  As our (Executive Vice President) Jeff Lifson put it this week, ‘You can do anything with this horse, he’s so mature.’”

West Point employs nearly two dozen trainers from coast to coast, but that’s not to say they don’t pay special attention to choosing the right conditioner for each of their horses. Because Kanthaka was purchased in California, it was always likely he’d stay in California, but which trainer would be in charge was a deliberate and well-thought-out choice.

“When we purchased Kanthaka from the Barretts sale last year we knew he was going to stay on the West Coast, so Jerry [Hollendorfer] being our primary California trainer at that time was the natural fit,” Finley said. “We have a process that determines which trainers get a particular horse — geographic region, racing circuit, state-bred status and history with past horses factor into the equation when selecting trainers.”

Late last year, a well-rested and well-prepared, Kanthaka made his debut at Del Mar, just a week after some of the more seasoned runners in his division duked it out in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI). Unfortunately, it wasn’t the most auspicious beginning; he ended up fifth at the wire after an awkward break, but many took note of his strong closing kick down the lane.

Back in action the day after Christmas at Santa Anita, things for Kanthaka went much smoother as he closed strongly again in a seven-furlong maiden event to win by a neck over a full field.

In early February, while looking for the next progression in the allowance ranks, a fortuitous twist of fate thrust Kanthaka right into the Derby spotlight.

“The allowance race we were targeting didn’t fill,” Finley said. “When the timing is right and the horse is right, you take a shot. So while it didn’t surprise us he won the San Vicente, I think what was unexpectedly impressive was the explosive way he won.”

For those lucky enough to own a talented sophomore, Derby Fever is a funny affliction. West Point has been to Louisville before — Commanding Curve was second in 2014 to dual Horse of the Year California Chrome and Flashy Bull was 14th in 2006 — but considering the group’s overall success and the over $45 million in purses their horses have amassed since the first runner went postward wearing the familiar black and yellow silks in 1991, it won’t be overzealous ownership or pressure that gets Kanthaka to Louisville. With West Point and Hall of Famer Hollendorfer at the helm, achievement will be the only deciding factor.


Kanthaka winning the San Vicente Stakes (photo via Benoit Photography).

In fact, the handsome chestnut has yet to earn a single Kentucky Derby point, but now with the San Vicente in his rearview mirror, the quest for valuable Derby points for Kanthaka is underway.

“We’re taking a hard look at the [March 10] Gotham Stakes [GII, at Aqueduct and worth 50 points to the winner] for his next start,” Finley explained. “It’s a natural progression for this colt; lets him go a one-turn mile and offers Derby points. Of course, we’ll keep our eye on how the San Felipe [GII, at Santa Anita on the same day] shakes out, as it’s in his backyard.”

It’s been said many times by many of the best horsemen that the greatest horses of all time possess a certain demeanor. Some say it’s because they are just smarter. Kanthaka, though still a youngster and lightly raced, has shown his people that he is one of those types ­— a friendly kid wrapped in a talented horse that has always owned a certain sense of maturity and is showing more of his inherent intelligence every day.

“He’s really grown into his body and has learned to really like people,” Finley said. “[Partner Service Liaison] Nancy Dollase shared with me that after the San Vicente, he knew he did something pretty darn important. He just stood in his stall with his ears pricked forward, allowing all his partners to take turns rubbing his nose. Nancy says if his groom Henry is standing with his back towards Kanthaka, the colt will nudge him with his nose until Henry turns around to pet him or offer a treat.”

One of the most famous quotes about luck attributed to the teachings of Buddha notes that “reverence, humility, contentment, gratitude and hearing the good Dhamma, this is the best good luck.”

Combine that with all the good things already going for Kanthaka and watching him pursue adding his own name to the history books seems like something resembling fate.

Posted on