It took a giant leap of faith to see Fifty Stars as a contender in the $750,000 Louisiana Derby (gr. II), much less the $43 winner. Looking down the barrel at Dollar Bill, Millennium Wind, and Hero's Tribute, the late running son of Quiet American was in deep water. Fifty Stars had not made a lasting impression in his two previous races. His late run in the Jan. 27 LeComte was good for fourth place, but three weeks later he took a step backward in the Risen Star with a dull fifth-place finish.
For trainer Steve Asmussen, the Louisiana Derby was put up or shut up time. His horse was going to either play in the big leagues or spiral down to minor stakes races.
"We never made any excuses," Asmussen said. "The horse was training well. We didn't see any problems with him so there was never any thought of pulling out. We never gave up on him. You got to believe in a horse like this that keeps coming and keeps coming."
First call in the 1 1/16-mile Louisiana Derby went to Gracie's Dancer, who shot straight out from the rail and to the front. Unreal Party, at odds of nearly 88-1, went with him. Hero's Tribute and Millennium Wind tucked in behind the speed and stayed there after a first quarter in :23.44. Fifty Stars, carried wide around the first turn, settled into seventh place, about four lengths behind Dollar Bill.
Down the backside, Fifty Stars, under Donnie Meche, was eased farther back. "I was just letting him run the way he wanted to run," Meche said, "not the way I wanted him to run. We just stayed back there and let it unfold in front of us."
Approaching the half-mile pole, Chris McCarron was keeping Millennium Wind in the thick of it. Hero's Tribute was maintaining pace in fourth. There was a big gap back to Dollar Bill, who was building momentum. Fifty Stars was still out of touch -- so far out of sight it looked like he was in the witness protection program. Owners James Cassels and Bob Zollars didn't bat an eye. "We are so used to him being out of the picture in the early going that one of us goes to the bar to get a shot of Jack Daniels and comes back to watch the finish," Zollars joked.
Going into the far turn, Millennium Wind ranged up to attack, joined by Sam Lord's Castle. Hero's Tribute, with Jorge Chavez standing up in the irons, stayed on the rail.
Around the turn, Robby Albarado finally got Sam Lord's Castle out from between horses and into serious contention. He was right there, ready to strike. True Concern, running as sharp as his training, circled the leaders and put his nose in front for a few strides. Hero's Tribute tried to come out of jail on the rail and checked once, twice, three times. It looked like roller derby. Horses were going left and right like a covey of quail.
Things went badly for Dollar Bill in upper stretch. The favorite was looking for room to get through. He clipped heels and nearly went down. Three left-handed pops from Chavez' stick propelled Hero's Tribute onto a new course and an open run, finally, to the wire.
For awhile it looked like the reserved and tactical speed of Millennium Wind was going to pay off. He got a head in front inside the furlong pole and seemed primed to hold off the closers. Close behind, however, Fifty Stars was in pursuit. "I noticed an open spot on the fence," Meche said. "I smooched to him and he went right down in there." Once clear, Fifty Stars pulled away with an endorphin rush to win by two lengths in the final time of 1:44.78.
David Hofmans, who had been grilled all week about the condition of his colt's feet, was pleased with Millennium Wind's second-place finish. "It was a top effort," Hofmans said. "Coming down the lane he fought everybody off but the winner."
Hero's Tribute's strong finish answered the two-turn question. "Today he got challenged," trainer John Ward said. "This was a rough, Derby-style race. That's what you put 'em in there for -- to get 'em boxed and knocked around. Prep races are a learning experience. The idea is to keep moving forward." According to Ward, forward means going to the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and wearing a set of blinkers.
A courageous Dollar Bill managed to finish fourth. "I honestly thought I had the best horse," trainer Dallas Stewart said. "It was like we were robbed of all our chances once he tripped. I'm disappointed but I think he is definitely a Derby kind of horse." Gut Check
Danny Peitz did the math in his head but used his gut, at the last minute, to enter Robert and Lawana Low's Real Cozzy in the grade II Fair Grounds Oaks on March 10. It was a case of sense and sensibility, rhyme and reason. "I looked at the (Ragozin) sheets and saw that they gave us a big number off her race at Oaklawn," Peitz said. "I looked at the competition and saw that we were in the ballpark."
Peitz picked up the phone and called the racing secretary, entering Real Cozzy in the $350,000 race. It was 10 minutes before the closing deadline for accepting entries. "I surprised myself, entering her at the last second," the normally conservative Peitz said. "It was a big step up for her but she deserved a shot. I just felt this was the right time to take a chance."
She's a Devil Due was making her 3-year-old debut in the Oaks. Four months had flipped over on the racing calendar since she had finished third to Caressing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). "This race will get us started in 2001," trainer Kenneth McPeek said. "You have to pick a spot somewhere. This is a tough bunch we're facing but with a little bit of luck, we'll hit a home run."
The starter punched the button and Beloved by All went out quickly to grab the lead. Mystic Lady, a Thunder Gulch filly, settled nicely under Albarado and began a stalking trip. An unhurried She's a Devil Due laid back in the middle of the pack. Real Cozzy, who had developed a history of getting mugged at the gate, dropped in behind the traffic and alternated for last place with Wood Sprite.
Mystic Lady kept close tabs on Beloved by All, who wanted no part of being rated. Her head twitched up and down, fighting to get turned loose. Real Cozzy stayed glued on the fence, last of nine at the half.
On the far turn Real Cozzy was on a roll but buried in a tight spot. It was beginning to look like Roach Motel. Once you go in, you never come out. "I was in there tight," jockey Eddie Martin Jr. said, "but the advantage was mine. I had a horse underneath me that does not know how to lose."
Real Cozzy swung out into the middle of the track for some breathing room at about the three-sixteenths pole, and ran straight into a high-low tackle. The slightly built gray was squeezed between Scoop and Irguns Angel. A good horse will run through a brick wall if you ask it and Real Cozzy didn't hesitate. She seized the moment like a groom reaching for a warm doughnut.
Owner Robert Low watched with a gasp from the grandstand. "She's a little bitty thing," Low said. "I was concerned but she's got a ton of heart and hung in there."
In deep stretch, things started to get exciting. She's a Devil Due switched leads and moved up from fourth to second. Mystic Lady, on the rail, was determined to hold on to the end. Real Cozzy ranged up on the outside and the three of them went tooth and nail in the last 40 yards. Real Cozzy was full of run in the last strides and won by a half-length over a game Mystic Lady, with She's a Devil Due a nose back in third.
Real Cozzy, now a perfect three-for-three, is headed to Oaklawn. "Her next race is definitely the Fantasy Stakes (gr. II)," Peitz said. "It's a race that the Lows have pointed toward. We're going home to Arkansas."
Peitz' next phone call to the racing secretary might be to request the Fair Grounds meet be extended to Labor Day. The trainer from Arkansas has sent out eight winners, seven seconds, and one third from 34 runners.