By Robert A. Knolhoff Jr.
Polite applause, or the local equivalent of a heart pounding ovation, greeted 43-year-old Jerry Bailey and Gaviola upon their triumphant return. The broad-grinning Hall of Famer had just guided the roan filly to a popular triumph in the May 6 Beaugay Handicap (gr. IIIT) and in the process recorded career victory number 5,000. Within this snapshot atop Aqueduct's rubber tiled paddock lived the dichotomy of the modern Kentucky Derby weekend in New York. All eyes of the racing world are fixated on the happenings in Louisville. Closer to home, the heart and mind of any sensible racegoer longs for the timeless appeal of Belmont Park. Despite the obvious hurdles, how do you get the point across that the overdue farewell to Aqueduct, featuring a quartet of historically rich graded stakes, including the long anticipated Carter Handicap (gr. I), is one splendid showcase of local racing talent? How about assembling equine star power headlined by a near flawless filly bound for championship honors, the purest miler in training on course for the Met Mile (gr. I), and a sampling of international flavor in the season's first grass stakes. Sound too good to be true? Not so if you were present on the same weekend one year ago. Even if Perfect Sting, Yankee Victor, and Spindrift were otherwise engaged this time around, a replacement cast led by Gaviola, Richly Blended, and a refined winner of the $300,000 seven-furlong Carter named Peeping Tom would suffice. In the never-ending quest for a quality racehorse, trainer Pat Reynolds received the learned input of Danielle Milazzo, daughter-in-law of Flatbird Stable owner Louis Milazzo. An employee of Daily Racing Form, Danielle's passion for pedigree research led her to suggest to her father-in-law that Reynolds claim a son of Eagle Eyed named Peeping Tom for $40,000 in March of 2000. "Danielle was a real fan of Eagle Eyed, so we went over to check him out," recalled Reynolds. "He didn't stand out physically but he looked sound and being a grandson of Danzig we figured him for the turf. He needed a little work, and most of it was with his mind. So, we gelded him before Saratoga and by the end of the summer he really came into his own. He's reached the point where no one can pass him in the stretch." With a physical presence that emerges soon after he is saddled in the paddock and an efficient stride which belies his modest frame, Peeping Tom was the winter-long picture of consistency. Since a stunning finish between El Corredor and Affirmed Success in last November's Cigar Mile (gr. I), no one has passed him since. With a perfectly timed "go" from Shaun Bridgmohan, he took home a 1 1/2-length victory in the Carter over Say Florida Sandy in 1:21.33. Hook and Ladder and Max's Pal contested for early supremacy, but did so with pedestrian clockings of :23.14 and :46.05. Outside, Bridgmohan kept Peeping Tom close enough to the pace while not overanxious to commit to the lead. With as polished a full extension as one could draw, the 4-year-old drew clear and provided Bridgmohan with his second consecutive Carter victory. "Shaun deserves his due," praised the winning trainer. "He's a young rider, but he has a really good taste for the game. He knew not to go for the front too soon. In fact, we worked 'Tom' a half-mile all along the inside. He loves to circle the field and we didn't want him to always have his own way. "Honorable mention goes to my blacksmith, Ray Amato Jr.," he said. "We had a little bump in the road a few weeks ago and he needed his glue-on shoes readjusted. I read last week where Carl Hanford remarked how tough it was to keep a horse in tune for six months. We've had 'Tom' in training for 14 and now we're here. This is what every trainer lives for." After encountering traffic on the far turn, Say Florida Sandy unfurled his customary late punch in deep stretch and finished with courage with Joe Bravo aboard. Hook and Ladder saved third by a head from Max's Pal in the seven-horse field. Peeping Tom earned $180,000 and will point toward the Met Mile on Memorial Day. Gaviola's Comebacker
Billy Turner knows firsthand the exhilaration of winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), and the veteran horseman never hesitates to infuse a little historical perspective while admiring his current star pupil, Twilite Farms' Gaviola. By sitting a trip reminiscent of the one Perfect Sting enjoyed in last year's Beaugay, Bailey secured the first victory of Gaviola's much awaited 4-year-old campaign. Taller and with more angle to her scope than appeared last season, the daughter of Cozzene asserted her class to prevail by a diligent half-length in the $109,900 handicap. "She has speed but is really a one lick filly," said Turner. "With the idea being the farther she goes, the tougher she'll be to catch. We want to try her at least at 1 1/4 miles." Over a turf course conducive to front runners, Truebreadpudding proved herself a tough customer on the lead. The New York-bred daughter of Proud Truth yielded grudgingly and finished a half-length ahead of stablemate Efficient Frontier. The running time for the 1 1/16 miles was 1:41.74. Modestly standing off to the side as lenses clicked on Bailey aboard Gaviola, Turner remarked, "Isn't that nice," after noticing Bailey holding his commemorative placard. "I've always ridden Jerry since he first came to New York. Of course, he was a lot easier to get back then." Perfect Blend
At second glance, Raymond Dweck's Richly Blended wants for very little. That third-place finish in the Wood Memorial (gr. II) looks even better in hindsight, and the son of Rizzi reaffirmed his own gifts as a natural miler with a dominating performance in the one-mile Withers Stakes (gr. III) on May 5. "Rick (Wilson) wrapped him up pretty good in the final eighth of the Wood, or he might have been a little closer to Monarchos," said trainer Ben Perkins Jr. "If anything, the two-turn effort should have settled him down a little." Powerfully masculine Richly Blended conquered impressive Bay Shore (gr. III) winner Skip to the Stone after a spirited duel in :45:09, then drew off with authority towards a 4 1/4-length score over smart-closing Le Grande Danseur in 1:35.66. "Another superb effort from him," said Wilson. "He handled the pace pressure like a pro, and even though he didn't switch leads until a few jumps before the wire, I knew we were home and I didn't want to fight him." Strategic Plan
World-class stayers like Dance of Life and Tiller have had their say in past editions of the Fort Marcy Handicap (gr. IIIT). A year ago, Irish-bred and Dubai-imported Spindrift built on that legacy. By contrast, blue-blooded American-bred Strategic Mission led nearly all the way in this year's $112,900 renewal for an overdue first stakes victory. A half-sibling to grade I winners Sultry Song and Solar Splendor, the Live Oak Plantation homebred has had a lightly raced career laden with headstrong displays of speed and shades of brilliance. Aboard the committed front runner for the first time, Richard Migliore coaxed sensible splits of :24.07 and :48.86 before letting the dark bay stride clear by 3 1/2 lengths in midstretch. From within midpack and along the inside, Pine Dance rallied and steadily diminished Strategic Mission's lead to as little as a length before the wire. Strategic Mission completed the course in 1:41.62.(Chart, Equibase)