For jockey David Cohen, winning last Saturday’s second race at Oaklawn was a sign of things to come for the jockey.
Cohen said after Canadian Ginger crossed the finish line first in the starter-allowance sprint for females, her trainer, Robertino Diodoro, received a call from Churchill Downs officials, informing him that Get Her Number had been removed from consideration for the Kentucky Derby. The defection moved Keepmeinmind into the projected 20-horse field, meaning Cohen and Diodoro, both Oaklawn meet champions, will be making their Kentucky Derby debuts Saturday at Churchill Downs.
“For us, it was a nice surprise,” Cohen said Sunday afternoon at Oaklawn. “We had somewhat of an idea it was going to happen, early on, through the grapevine. For me, it was the start of a great day, obviously, to ride six and win four of them.”
The four-bagger was a career high at Oaklawn for Cohen, 36, who was Oaklawn’s leading jockey in 2019. He had previously won three races on an Oaklawn card 12 times, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. In addition to Canadian Ginger ($6.20), Cohen won the fifth race aboard Greeley and Ben ($8.40) for trainer Karl Broberg, ninth race aboard American Dubai ($31.20) for Diodoro and the 11th race aboard Livingmybestlife ($5.60) for trainer John Sadler.
Cohen is Diodoro’s go-to rider and the regular pilot of the yo-yo-like Keepmeinmind, who was among the country’s top 2-year-olds of 2020 after finishing second in the $400,000 Breeders’ Futurity (G1) Oct. 3 at Keeneland, third in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) Nov. 6 at Keeneland and breaking his maiden in the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) Nov. 28 at Churchill Downs.
It’s been a deflating 2021, for the most part, however.
Keepmeinmind had been set to make his 3-year-old debut Feb. 15 at Oaklawn – the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) – before severe winter weather led to multiple postponements of the race and interrupted the late-running colt’s training schedule. Oaklawn lost eight live racing dates and 11 days of training (Feb. 12-22) because of heavy snow and arctic temperatures. Keepmeinmind also was entered in the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) Feb. 13 at Fair Grounds, but Diodoro opted to remain at Oaklawn, where the colt had been based since late December.
Keepmeinmind, in his 3-year-old debut, finished sixth in the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) March 13 at Oaklawn, then fifth in the $800,000 Blue Grass Stakes (G2) April 3 at Keeneland in his last start.
Following the final round of Kentucky Derby points races April 10, including Oaklawn’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), Keepmeinmind was 30th on the leaderboard with 18 points – all collected as a 2-year-old – and needed 10 defections to be guaranteed a spot in the Run for the Roses, which is limited to 20 starters. Using a musical analogy, Keepmeinmind was number one with a bullet, climbing to No. 28 (April 12), No. 27 (April 15), No. 24 (April 17), No. 22 (April 19), No. 21 (April 23) and No. 20 (April 24) in official rankings compiled by Churchill Downs. Points earned in designated races like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Rebel and Blue Grass are used to determine starting preference.
“It’s been such an emotional ride with him because he was a horse that started the year with 18 points,” Cohen said. “Then we miss out because of the weather and he missed both races. He missed the Fair Grounds race and he missed the Southwest, so that hurt us. He obviously didn’t perform to the way we felt he was training, even though we know he’s better than that. He’s really developed over his 3-year-old year, even though he hasn’t shown it on paper. On paper, it doesn’t look like he deserves to be in there. We know he’s talented enough. We’re happy for the horse, that he gets the chance that he does deserve, in our eyes.”
Following Oaklawn’s April 22 card, Cohen flew privately to Kentucky to work Keepmeinmind and stablemates Ava’s Grace and Dreamer’s Disease the next morning at Churchill Downs. Keepmeinmind, in company, recorded a half-mile bullet (:46.20). Keepmeinmind breezed without blinkers last week and will remove the equipment Saturday At that time, Keepmeinmind was 21st on the points list.
“The owners and us, we made a big decision to send me out there,” Cohen said. “It’s not cheap. For them to still have faith in the horse and not give up on him and keep him in Kentucky after the Blue Grass, they could have easily said, ‘No. Send him back here and run in the Oaklawn Stakes the same day.’ ”
Instead, Cohen will be at Churchill Downs Saturday. His Kentucky Derby debut comes a little more than seven years after a severe leg injury (he was kicked by a horse in the paddock before a Feb. 1, 2014, race at Aqueduct) and the subsequent deaths of deaths of his father (cancer) and sister (head injury) threatened to derail the jockey’s once-promising career.
Cohen rode his first winner in 2004 and five years later ranked sixth nationally in victories (288) and 24th in purse earnings ($7,357,326) – both career highs – competing in New York and the Mid-Atlantic. In 2012, Cohen won Saratoga’s prestigious $1 million Travers Stakes (G1) for 3-year-olds aboard 33-1 long shot Golden Ticket, who dead-heated with favored Alpha.
After not riding in 2015 and 2016, Cohen returned to the saddle in late 2017 and rode 37 winners in his Oaklawn debut in 2018 to finish third in the standings. Cohen rode 75 winners the following year at Oaklawn to end Ricardo Santana Jr.’s six-year hold on the title.
In addition to Keepmeinmind (50-1 on the morning line), Cohen also is scheduled Dreamer’s Disease in the $500,000 Pat Day Mile (G2) for 3-year-olds Saturday at Churchill Downs. Dreamer’s Disease had several published workouts this year at Oaklawn, but didn’t run at the meeting after falling behind in his training because of winter weather. He was also supposed to be riding in the Kentucky Oaks, the country’s biggest race for 3-year-old fillies, for the first time aboard Ava’s Grace, but the filly was scratched Wednesday morning with an injury. She had finished second in the $600,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) April 3 at Oaklawn.
“Honestly, I never felt like I wouldn’t have the opportunity again,” Cohen said. “For me, it’s special to get it with a team that’s been so essential in my return from an injury. To have it with Robertino, not only with the Derby, but with the Pat Day Mile, for me that’s definitely a special touch and the cherry on top. It means a lot. The guy’s very loyal. For it to be the home team really means a lot.”
Cohen, named 2018 Comeback Jockey of the Year by JockeyTalk.360.com, a web site dedicated to promoting jockeys around the world, has 186 career victories at Oaklawn, according to Equibase. Almost two-thirds (111) have come for Diodoro.
Keepmeinmind and Dreamer’s Disease, who ran sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, were all at Trophy Club Training Center in Royal (roughly 20 minutes west of Oaklawn) last spring completing the breaking process under Ike Green, who has strong ties to Diodoro. Ike Green was Diodoro’s assistant at Oaklawn in 2019 and 2020 when he captured his first local training title. Green and his wife, Aidan, have run Diodoro’s divisions at Saratoga and Churchill Downs in recent years. Aidan Green went out on her own last year and recorded her first career training victory and stakes victory at the 2021 Oaklawn meeting.