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May 2, 2012

FROM THE PRESS BOX: TH’s Murans back in the Derby … this time with favorite

TERRE HAUTE — When Terre Haute native Paul Murans experienced his first Triple Crown horse racing run as part-owner of Mucho Macho Man in 2011, the experience was — to borrow a phrase from one-time Marquette coach Al McGuire — seashells and balloons.

Mucho Macho Man finished third in the Kentucky Derby last year, sixth in the Preakness Stakes and seventh in the Belmont Stakes.

Since then, the colt — which was thought to be stillborn and which was nearly put down shortly after birth — has become a dominant 4-year-old horse, winning each of the three races he’s entered. Mucho Macho Man is a 2-to-1 favorite to win Friday’s Grade II Alysheba Stakes, which is part of the Kentucky Oaks festivities at Churchill Downs.

As you might recall, Murans — who played basketball at Terre Haute North and Missouri State — went from thoroughbred aficionado to owner in the sport in short order. The Indianapolis-based financial advisor was part of Big Brown’s entourage when Big Brown won the 2008 Kentucky Derby and was so caught up in the excitement he decided to invest in the sport himself. Three years later, he watched as part-owner as Mucho Macho Man participated in the biggest horse race in the world.

If Mucho Macho Man was the only thing that ever happened to Murans in the thoroughbred racing game, he could have walked away happy. But what Murans couldn’t have known is that his run of good fortune in the horse racing world was just beginning.

Murans will be back again under the twin spires for Saturday’s Run For The Roses. This time, Murans is part-owner of Dullahan, a chestnut colt that is a half-brother of 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.

While Mucho Macho Man had a moderate chance to win the Kentucky Derby a year ago at 12-to-1, Dullahan is a horse of a different color. The explosive finisher enters the Kentucky Derby as the co-favorite, fresh off a victory in the April 14 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Park in Lexington, Ky.

Did I say victory? I meant a record victory in the 88-year-old Derby prep race. Dullahan won by 11⁄4 lengths with a time of 1 minute, 47.94 seconds, a 1-1⁄8 mile record on Keeneland’s Polytrack.

At press time, Dullahan is the co-favorite at 9-to-2 on the morning line odds along with Bodemeister. Dullahan has won two races in his eight-race career and both were Grade I stakes — the most prestigious races in the thoroughbred world. Dullahan has finished in the money in six of his eight races and has never finished worse than second at 1 1-1⁄8 miles, the longest distance he has run, and the distance which most closely approximates the 1-1⁄4 mile distance in the Kentucky Derby.

It’s a whirlwind for Murans, who is still coming off the excitement of Mucho Macho Man’s 2011 run. The ebullient Murans is excited as ever to be a part of the Derby festivities again, but with expectation come the nerves too.

“It’s definitely more anxiety because I think we can win this thing,” said Murans via a telephone interview on Tuesday. “Last year it was all new and we enjoyed the ride. This year, I’m confident that we’ve got a shot.”

Murans is co-owner of the horse and is one of the partners in the Donegal Racing consortium that owns Dullahan. Donegal Racing saw potential in Dullahan, who is the half-brother of 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, but Murans was so caught up in Mucho Macho Man’s 2011 success that Dullahan’s rise to Derby contention wasn’t in his initial sights.

“We knew early that [Dullahan] had talent, but after we did the whole thing with Mucho Macho Man and the Triple Crown, we were on that rollercoaster ride. All of the sudden, from the backburner, comes Dullahan,” Murans said.

Dullahan signaled his intent to contend as he broke his maiden in the Breeders’ Cup Futurity race at Keeneland on Oct. 8, 2011, winning the 2-year-old Grade I race by 3⁄4 of a length.

Dullahan finished out of the money at the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5, but was second in the Palm Beach Stakes on March 11. Dullahan entered the Blue Grass Stakes as an underdog to 2-year-old Horse of the Year Hansen, a prohibitive 6-to-5 favorite.

Dullahan started poorly in the Blue Grass and was in 10th when the field made the turn off the backstretch with three furlongs left. Hansen seemed indefatigable on the rail with a 10-length lead. Dullahan has still well back in the pack when the field made the turn on to the frontstretch.

Then, like a spaceship going into hyperdrive, Dullahan hit the turbo button and rocketed through the field. Using the middle of the track, he began his run in the turn, and picked off three horses by the time he got to the frontstretch. With a wide-open trip up the middle, Dullahan picked off four more horses and was in third for the final furlong.

Hansen still had a 10-length lead at that point, but Dullahan possessed a gear no other horse had that day. Dullahan’s stretch run was awe-inspiring as Hansen was caught with a half-furlong to go and Dullahan had the rest of the field easily covered by 11⁄4 lengths at the wire.

In his mind’s eye, Murans sees the 1-1⁄4 mile run required to win the Kentucky Derby and then envisions the finishing kick Dullahan had to win the shorter Blue Grass Stakes. It’s a mouth-watering prospect. “He has everything in his pedigree to be a Derby-winning horse. He’s probably the fastest horse in the stretch run in the Derby and he’s peaking at the right time,” Murans said.

Another bonus for Murans is the jockey. Three-time Kentucky Derby winner Kent Desormeaux is the irons on Dullahan. It was at Desormeaux’s invitation, via a mutual friend, that Murans was at the 2008 Kentucky Derby at all. It was there that Desmormeaux rode Big Brown to victory, which served as the inspiration for Murans to invest in the sport to begin with.

“You talk about going full circle. I dreamed about running the Kentucky Derby with Desmormeaux. It has to be fate,” Murans said.

The Derby post draw is today and Murans is hoping for any post spot between the No. 5 and No. 15 slots. With the much-larger-than-usual 20-horse field, the trip out of the gate and down the frontstretch is always vital, no matter how strong the horse is.

In a year where Hautean Steve Weatherford won a Super Bowl championship with the New York Giants, perhaps Murans can spare a rose for Terre Haute … as one of its native son’s tries to achieve immortality once more.

If Dullahan survives the opening maelstrom and is positioned to make a stretch run, Murans loves his chances to do just that.

“If he gets a clear run coming home, I have no doubt he’ll be a Kentucky Derby champion,” Murans said.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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