Reliance Ranches LLC’s Big Lew earned a berth to the prestigious Champion of Champions after holding off multiple derby winner Rite Regal by a half-length in the Grade 1, $767,750 Los Alamitos Super Derby on Sunday night.
Ridden by Jimmy Dean Brooks for trainer Mike Robbins, Big Lew led from start to finish on the way to posting his first ever stakes victory while recording his seventh win in 17 career starts. Big Lew now joins defending World Champion and Champion of Champions winner Heza Dasha Fire, Bank of America Challenge Championship winner Ajs High, Vessels Maturity winner He Looks Hot and Mildred Vessels Memorial Handicap winner Sass Me Blue in this year’s Champion of Champions on December 10. The final five starting berth to the Champion of Champions will be decided in the Z. Wayne Griffin Directors Trials to be held next Sunday at Los Alamitos.
Big Lew’s spot in the Grade 1, $600,000 Champion of Champions is secured after he won the meet’s richest derby at 8-1 odds. Bred by McColee Land & Livestock, the colt by Corona Cartel came into this race after posting a head win in the trials over Spencer Childers California Breeders Championship Handicap winner Flay and 2015 champion 2-year-old gelding and Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity winner Ima Fearless Hero.
“(Prior to the trials) we needed to work out of the gate, but we decided to just let him go in the trials as is,” said Robbins. “He didn’t get away as sharp (in the trials), but tonight I felt that he would break a lot sharper and he did. He broke a lot sharper than he did in the trials and he was really running big at the end.”
Thanks to Big Lew, Robbins will saddle a horse in the Champion of Champions since winning the 1991 running with Special Leader. The trainer also won the race in 1982 with Sgt Pepper Feature and in 1984 with Dashs Dream. All three of Robbins’ Champion of Champions winners went on to be named AQHA World Champions.
“It’s been a good race for me,” Robbins said of the Champion of Champions. “I’ve saddle eight head in the race, won three and ran second twice.”
Only Blane Schvaneveldt with nine wins and Paul Jones with six have won the Champion of Champions more times than Robbins.
Big Lew will now look to become the 18th 3-year-old to win the Champion of Champions in the event’s 43-year history. Three-year-olds have won Champion of Champions a record number of times. The aforementioned Heza Dasha Fire won last year’s Champion of Champions as a 3-year-old.
“I won it twice with 3-year-olds,” added Robbins referring to Sgt Pepper Feature and Dashs Dream.
Meanwhile, Reliance Ranches LLC will have a horse in the Champion of Champions for the third time after All American Derby winner Feature Hero qualified to the 2013 running and Grade 1 winner Rock You qualified last year out of the Z. Wayne Griffin trials. Gary McKinney owns Reliance Ranches with his son Micah and daughter-in-law Leslie. The family has always enjoyed horses and the agricultural lifestyle and purchased the famous Lazy E Ranch in Oklahoma in November of 2013. Gary McKinney was on hand at Los Alamitos Race Course to watch Big Lew’s big effort.
“He’s just a good horse and gives it his all. He doesn’t leave anything on the track and he just did it again,” McKinney said. “He does basically the same thing every time. He runs well early, but he does have a kick in the middle to the end. Four hundred yards is his deal. Je does really well at 400 yards. I think this horse can run 440, but he’s always done a little better at 400. He is maturing so hopefully he’ll do well at 440.”
Big Lew’s win was the nightcap of a fun day for McKinney.
“We were at AT&T stadium today. (Micah’s 9-year-old) son was playing football there today. There were a lot of youth games out there today. Micah couldn’t make it here tonight. He has to take his boy to school at 6 a.m. tomorrow. I got here at 5:30 p.m. It’s been a long day for me. I started at 4:30 a.m. Texas time.”
Another father and son duo pulling for Big Lew at Los Alamitos were legendary rider Roy Brooks and his son, winning jockey Jimmy Dean Brooks. Roy Brooks was all smiles in the winner’s circle after watching his boy win the Super Derby. Jimmy Dean selected to ride Big Lew in the final over Flash N Bling and Rip Tide, which he also qualified for this race for Reliance Ranches.
“I knew after we qualified that he was the one I was going to ride,” Jimmy Dean said. “If (Big Lew) even pulled up half way, which he did, he was my first choice. In the trials, he didn’t leave like he could. I knew that if he would leave like he could that he would be the one to outrun. Today he left like he could. When he left like that I hand rode him the first half of the race. About half way I reached and got after him right handed a couple of times. I could kind of see them out of the corner of my eye. When I reached back, he hit another gear and went to opening back up.”
Big Lew earned $322,455 for the win to take his career earnings to $525,189. Flash N Bling finished fifth and Rip Tide sixth while earning a combined $84,452.
Robbins will now start planning for the Champion of Champions. And the secret to his success in the big race?
“Don’t do anything stupid,” he said with a smile. “Tend to them like we have been. Don’t change anything. Just keep going like we were and he’ll be fine. He’ll be tough. I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the McKinneys. They’re great people. We’ve really enjoyed working with them and they’ve been great to work with. I’m glad that we’re having some success early. It makes everything better. Hopefully we’ll get something in the Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity as well. We’ll have three horses in the trials. We’ll go back to Oklahoma and get the babies ready. We’ll be back here after Remington Park with a set of horses for the Ed Burke Million.”
And what are some of Robbins’ favorite memories about his three previous Champion of Champions’ wins?
“All three are very special,” he began. “My favorite is Sgt Pepper Feature’s. He’s the one that got my career going and without him I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’d have to say his was my favorite. I brought Pepper out here by myself for the winter meet. He was still a maiden. He broke his maiden, won his trial to the Golden State Futurity and then won the Golden State Futurity. He won 11 in a row after that in stakes trials and finals. Dashs Dream was just such a special mare. She was fast, fast. She was the fastest horse I’ve ever trained. Special Leader was a handful. He was a little different. We did surgery on his after his 2-year-old campaign. We had to do surgery again when he was three. We did surgery on both knees twice. As a 4-year-old he started to come around. He really ran big for us. In the end he won the Gold Cup and the Champion of Champions. He was really good horse.”
Robbins will now have another really good horse, Big Lew, in that race he knows so well, the Champion of Champions.
Urschel 3-D Ranch LLC’s Rite Regal ran evenly throughout on the way a solid second place finish. Bred by Dr. Steve Burns, the gelding by Favorite Cartel was looking for his third derby win of the year. Trained by Jose Flores and ridden by Cruz Mendez, Rite Regal had previously won the El Primero Del Ano Derby and Golden State Derby. He earned $130,517 for finishing second. He raised his career bankroll to $349,092.
Spackman Racing’s Timer For Jess, the only filly in the race, earned $92,130 for running third. Carlos Huerta rode her trainer Lin Melton. S-Quarter K LLC’s Ima Fearless Hero became a millionaire after earning $53,743 for his fourth place finish in the Super Derby. The gelding by Valiant Hero has earned $1,043,832 in 12 career starts. Flash N Bling, Rip Tide, Jess A Pollitician, Docs Best Card, Go Black Benny and Flay completed the field.