Still winning, 3-year-old Alwaysmining stays on target

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It takes 5 minutes and 36 seconds to walk to the track from trainer Kelly Rubley’s barn at Fair Hill Training Center. Make the walk to and from with two sets, and the conversation topics start to add up.

Winter weather, racing and training surfaces, wind, million-dollar pigeons, lead ponies named for people, exercise riders who bet (not her’s), hoof problems, first jobs, teaching school, painting barns. And, oh yeah, whether Rubley’s budding star of a 3-year-old Alwaysmining is going to the Kentucky Derby or not.

The Maryland-bred gelding has won five consecutive races – including three stakes – and deserves to be in the conversation even if he possesses zero Derby points and no wins outside of Maryland’s Laurel Park. If the Derby is in play, he’ll have to run April 6 – in Keeneland’s Blue Grass most likely. If not, then it’s probably Laurel’s Federico Tesio April 20 and a potential start in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course May 18. Rubley, who trains the son of Stay Thirsty for Runnymede Racing, would just as soon stay local.

“From my perspective, think of all the people who have had the one Derby horse,” said Rubley, whose training career started in 2014. “I don’t have Derby fever. I want to train him when he’s 6 and 7. I’m fine with the Preakness. It’s what, an eight-, nine-horse field? Of course if that all goes well, then we can talk about the Belmont and whatever else.”

Don’t take that the wrong way. She’s plenty confident in Alwaysmining’s ability and progress since she took over his training last summer. She just sees no reason to get ahead of herself – or her horse.

Alwaysmining’s owners Greg and Caroline Bentley agree, though the Kentucky Derby is still the Kentucky Derby.

“It’s a hard decision, a really hard one,” said Caroline.

The Bentleys started out on the steeplechase side of racing, graduated to flat horses (winning the 2014 Arlington Million with Hardest Core among others) and recently started developing a small broodmare band on their Pennsylvania farm. The Triple Crown races were something they watched on television, however.

“You know our background,” said Greg. “It’s not as if we’ve been trying our whole career to do this. But there are some who would say that if you get a shot at the Kentucky Derby you have to take it. We don’t feel that way, but we’re going to make an intelligent decision.”

Of course, their horse can’t run in the Derby without qualifying points and the only way he’ll get those is by racing somewhere other than his home state next month. He can stay in Maryland, aim for the Tesio’s free Preakness spot and follow the local path to the Preakness.

“You have to dream big, but you don’t have to risk more and over shoot and maybe swing for the fences and not do the right thing for your horse,” said Greg. “He just seems to love to run. We can all imagine being his age relatively and we don’t want to throw him in over his head. We want him to continue to love to do this.”

So, they’ll make the decision in the coming weeks. Alwaysmining won’t change his outlook much.

“He’s a classy horse, he’s very laid back, and that’s important,” said Rubley. “His confidence level at this point is very high. He just thinks he’s King Kong.”

The dark bay started winning in October, scoring by 10 lengths in an optional claimer going a mile, and has since added the 7-furlong Maryland Juvenile Futurity, the 7-furlong Heft Stakes, the 1-mile Miracle Wood and this past Saturday the 1 1/16-mile Private Terms around two turns. In each, he led at every call and won comfortably.

Of course, most things are comfortable for Alwaysmining. Wednesday, his first day at the track since the Private Terms, he walked there alongside lead pony Lance (named for his former owner, a pony guy at Delaware Park) and jogged a lap of the dirt track. The earner of $311,192 tossed in a few light bucks and jumps about halfway through, swished his tail a bit, but otherwise went about his business. He probably could have galloped, but Rubley was sticking to the plan and galloping can wait for another day.

“I think that’s the best thing about him, it’s all just so darn natural for him,” said Rubley. “I’m not joking when I say we literally just have to contain him. He’d go around here in 14’s every day if you let him, and be having a ball doing it. Not unruly or wild. It would be very comfortable for him. It’s a very comfortable big gallop.”

Alwaysmining began life on breeder Poppet Pitts’ farm in Monkton, Md. The place has been in her family since the 1920s and produces one or two foals a year. Pitts get some help from neighbor Vivian Rall on foaling days (though she was out of town when Alwaysmining was born and another neighbor Darin Martin filled in), raises the foals and sells them at Keeneland January.

“I try and have two mares because I don’t like just one baby here, and then they go to Hunter Valley Farm (in Kentucky) and get sold in January,” said Pitts. “They go down there in December. We’ve done well, sold them every year and we’re making a little money. It carries the show horse and the race horse and all that sort of stuff. I don’t get that attached to them knowing they’re going to go to that sale.”

Alwaysmining sold for $32,000 on a bid by 3-D Bloodstock, then went  to Jim McIngvale for $130,000 at Keeneland September. Better known for champion turned sire Runhappy, McIngvale and trainer Laura Wohlers started Alwaysmining four times – three defeats in Kentucky and a win at Laurel – before selling him privately to Runnymede.

Of the group, Pitts has the deepest ties to Maryland. Her farm is just around the corner from the My Lady’s Manor steeplechase course. The mother of trainer Helen Pitts-Blasi is a regular at Pimlico on Black-Eyed Susan Day, and doesn’t miss Alwaysmining’s races, but – like the Bentleys – typically watches the Preakness on television.

“I can’t answer that,” she replied when asked what breeding a Preakness starter would feel like. “It would be hard to believe. The Bentleys and everyone have been so good to me. It makes me cry when Alwaysmining wins and I don’t cry that easily.”