Botswana gives Combs shot at $1 million race

Jennie Rees

FRANKLIN, Ky. (Monday, Aug. 26, 2019) — Bentley Combs hasn’t been training even two years but figures to have a starter in the $1 million, Grade 3 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup on Sept. 7 with Botswana at Kentucky Downs.

The RUNHAPPY Meet at Kentucky Downs runs this Saturday and Sept. 5, 7, 8 and 12 with 10 grass races a day. First post is 12:15 p.m. Central.

Combs, a graduate of the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program, certainly wasn’t thinking he’d be in a graded stakes, let alone one with a seven-figure purse, when he claimed Botswana last year for himself as owner for $30,000 out of the gelding’s first race: a 12th-place finish and 30-length drubbing.

Having earned $65 in last-place money in that debut debacle, Botswana now has made $139,773 in purses.

“For a $30,000 claim that at one point was the most sinking feeling, he’s been a rollercoaster,” Combs said at his Trackside training center barn in Louisville. “We’re on the high end right now.”

In his last two starts, Botswana was fourth at 32-1 as the second-longest shot on the board in the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap in his stakes debut. After that, the 4-year-old and jockey Declan Cannon were second by a head bob after a protracted stretch duel with Factor This in Ellis Park’s $100,000 Kentucky Downs Preview Kentucky Turf Cup, with My Boy Jack another head back in third. At 36-1 that day, Botswana was the longest shot in the field.

Combs said the Ellis result wasn’t agony as much as “appreciation for how the horse ran. He ran his eyeballs out. Knock on wood, he seems to be improving every race. You can’t get mad at him for keeping on and improving. Factor This just dug in and got the bob.”

The Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup attracted 62 nominees, including 2018 winner Arklow and runner-up Bigger Picture. My Boy Jack also is being targeted for the stakes, while Factor This is possible. Others considered probable for Kentucky Downs’ first $1 million stakes include Zulu Alpha, a multiple graded-stakes winner and second by a head in the Grade 1 United Nations since being claimed for $80,000 last year. A total of 12 horses can start.

“It’s a million dollars, you know there are going to be some nice horses show up,” Combs said. "And if you think he’s going to go on and actually be able to compete against the likes of other horses, then he’s got to beat this bunch.

“The big thing I think we’ve got going for us is Declan back on him. Nothing to knock against his other riders, but Declan just seems to fit the horse really, really well. When they rounded the turn for home at Ellis, I said, ‘Oh man, we’ve got this one.’ … And Declan coming from Ireland, obviously they have courses like (Kentucky Downs) all over the place. The course and all that stuff I think will help us. I’m excited to see the horse run again.”

Cannon said he thinks Botswana will fit Kentucky Downs’ undulating course.
“He’s a well-balanced horse and he stays really well,” he said. “The longer running at Kentucky Downs will really suit him. It was a tough beat the other day, but he didn’t do anything wrong. He ran hard for me. I wouldn’t swap him; I’m looking forward to riding him.

“We dueled from the top of the lane home, and it was heads up and heads down the whole way. I actually headed him, and then Florent (Geroux on Factor This) came back at me just the last jump. I needed the wire one jump before, and I missed it. It was tough, but he ran hard. He didn’t know he got beat…. He’s always been knocking on the door, but the extra ground is key.”

Combs has won 14 of 78 career starts, with 14 seconds and 11 thirds, in his brief career training horses.

“It would be huge for his career, to have a horse like that, that he claimed,” Cannon said of Combs potentially winning the Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup. “It would be such a good story. Fingers crossed.”

Photo: Declan Cannon guides Botswana to an allowance victory in May at Churchill Downs. Coady Photography