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Published Feb 15, 2024
by Mike Henry
Book'em Danno arrives at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Wednesday night (photo provided by Derek Ryan)

Tampa Bay Downs trainer Derek Ryan decided three months ago to point his New Jersey-bred gelding Book’em Danno to the Group III, $1.5-million Saudi Derby for 3-year-olds on Feb. 24 at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Derby is part of a nine-race card culminating with the world’s richest race, the $20-million Saudi Cup.

Book’em Danno had just completed his 2-year-old campaign with three victories from four starts, including stakes triumphs in the Smoke Glacken Stakes at Monmouth and the Futurity Stakes at the Belmont At The Big A meet. His only setback came on Nov. 5 in the 1-mile Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct, when he broke on top and barely failed to last, losing by ¾-length to longshot Where’s Chris.

Ryan said that performance wasn’t the Book’em Danno who had won his first three starts. “It was a small field (five horses) and he broke so fast he ended up on the lead his first time going around two turns,” Ryan said. “He likes to stalk. He likes to hunt and run them down.”

With the Saudi Derby, a 1-mile race around one turn, still foremost in his thoughts, Ryan and the horse’s ownership group, Atlantic Six Racing, selected the $125,000 Pasco Stakes here for his 3-year-old debut. His performance under jockey Samuel Marin was just short of sensational, with Book’em Danno drawing away effortlessly to a 12 ½-length victory from Grade III winner West Saratoga.

An invitation to compete in Saudi Arabia followed soon, but some convincing still needed to be done. However, it didn’t take Ryan long to sway any of Book’em Danno’s owners away from joining the Triple Crown trail stateside for the experience of a lifetime and a shot at a $900,000 first-place prize.

Considering they purchased him for $30,000 privately as a yearling and there are hardly any costs associated with the trip, it’s a gamble worth taking.

“They (owners Jay Briscione, Frank Camassa, Jeff Resnikoff, Mark Rubenstein, James Rubenstein and Jim Scappi) had a couple of meetings and they all were in agreement,” Ryan said. “Especially when there’s no entry fee and everything is paid for – your flight, your hotel, a couple of big nights for all the owners.”

And especially when you think your horse has a great chance of improving upon his last race.

“His (speed) numbers are very, very fast, he’s consistent and he’s moving forward,” said Ryan, who will leave for Saudi Arabia on Sunday with his 18-year-old son, Christopher. “And that one-turn mile is the perfect distance. He can use his stalk-and-hunt style, and then he has that turn of foot that should get him home.

“He’s got more improvement in him.”

Book’em Danno flew out of south Florida early Tuesday night on a plane with several other entrants, including Oldsmar trainer Jose Francisco D’Angelo’s multiple stakes-winning Florida-bred colt Bentornato, another Saudi Derby entrant, and Saudi Cup contenders White Abarrio and National Treasure. The valuable cargo arrived about 9 p.m. on Wednesday (Riyadh time), shortly before Ryan saddled the winner of the third race at Tampa Bay Downs, 4-year-old gelding Colpo d’Oro.

Ryan said Book’em Danno – a son of Bucchero out of the Ghostzapper mare Adorabella – is approaching the Saudi Derby in outstanding condition. He will be ridden in the race by Irad Ortiz, Jr.

“I’ve been down in Miami with him, and everything is doing good,” said Ryan, a 57-year-old Tipperary, Ireland product. “He worked super here Sunday (breezing 5 furlongs in 1:00 3/5 from the starting gate) and Irad got on him (Tuesday morning) at Gulfstream Park and galloped him a mile-and-three-quarters and said he’s an easy ride. So I feel like we’ve covered every base.”

Ryan has been down the Triple Crown trail before, saddling Musket Man to third-place finishes in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2009 after victories in the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby and the Illinois Derby. You can’t put a price on those kinds of experiences, but Ryan – who visited Riyadh right after the Pasco Stakes to get a feel for the surroundings and the racetrack – says this is something completely different.

“I don’t think he is a two-turn horse, which is the main reason” the Kentucky Derby is off the table, Ryan said. “Plus, he’s a gelding (negating any stallion value) and it’s an awful big pot.

“This is a one-off shot. The place is gorgeous, the facilities are gorgeous and the track is absolutely gorgeous. Everything is first-class, so how many more shots are you going to get like this?

“I don’t like to plan races unless I think we can win,” Ryan said. “If he runs his race, it’s going to take a real good one to beat him. He’s just a good horse, as everyone here saw (in the Pasco).”

Book'em Danno arrives at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Wednesday night (photo provided by Derek Ryan)

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