Kentucky Derby Trail: Life in the LaPenta Lane

Kentucky Derby Trail: Life in the LaPenta Lane
Photo: Associated Press/Garry Jones
Trainer Nick Zito, has been selecting horses for owner Robert LaPenta.
The journey to the 2005 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) may only be in its very early stages, but the continued adventures of Robert LaPenta -- "the Accidental Owner" -- are already unfolding. The master of Russian roulette has several guns loaded, and it will be interesting to see in what direction they'll be fired this spring.

Along for this dizzying ride is trainer Nick Zito, who has picked out a stable of promising 3-year-olds for LaPenta over the past couple of years. All were bought as yearlings, most at the Keeneland September sale. Some of them have been pinhooked at two and those remaining in Zito's barn have been by accident only.

LaPenta came into racing with all barrels blazing, buying relatively inexpensive yearlings picked out by Zito and trying to sell them for big bucks at age two. The main question is, what are his goals? He obviously loves to buy yearlings and sell them at a profit the following year. Yet he also loves to win big races, as evidenced by his experiences last year with major stakes winners The Cliff's Edge   and Pies Prospect, both of whom he wound up racing only because they failed to meet their reserves as 2-year-olds.

The Cliff's Edge cost $200,000 and was bought back for $195,000. He went on to win the grade I Blue Grass Stakes and earn over $1 million. Pies Prospect cost $190,000 and was bought back for $95,000. He went on to win three stakes, including the grade III Pegasus, and earn over $500,000. Even El Prado Rob, who cost $70,000 and was bought back for $240,000, wound up being grade I-placed in New York.

At the other end of the spectrum, Pomeroy, bought by Zito for $45,000, did surpass his reserve, selling for $300,000 to Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith. LaPenta and Zito then had to watch as Pomeroy captured the grade I King's Bishop Stakes and grade III Jersey Shore Breeders' Cup Stakes. The year before, another pinhook, Zavata, bought for $170,000 and sold to Tabor for $575,000, won three graded stakes in New York and placed in the grade I Hopeful.

That brings us to 2005. LaPenta's resolve could very well be tested this spring by the fortunes of the exciting prospect Fusaichi Samurai. When Zito bought the somewhat gangly son of Fusaichi Pegasus   as a yearling for $270,000, he and LaPenta had no idea the heights the colt would climb in the sales ring and the monster profit he would bring. When the smoke cleared at the Fasig-Tipton February 2-year-old sale, the colt had brought a world-record $4.5 million bid from his sire's owner, Fusao Sekiguchi.

LaPenta had made a profit beyond imagination, but now he must sit back and watch from afar as the colt receives accolades seldom bestowed upon a young horse having only won a maiden race. Only LaPenta has any idea how he will feel if this colt does become the superstar many are predicting. Again, it all depends on his goals in racing. Is it about profit or glory? So far, he's been lucky to have had both. For Zito, he too can only sit back and watch the young horses he picks out either go to someone else or wind up back with him only because no one else wants them.

But the story doesn't end there. Now we come to yet another horse in the ever-growing LaPenta legacy. And that is Andromeda's Hero, another son of Fusaichi Pegasus, from a phenomenal female family, loaded with classic and stamina breeding. Zito picked him out as a yearling for $310,000. And get this, he failed to meet his reserve at the Keeneland April 2-year-old sale and was bought back for $725,000. So, Zito got to keep a $725,000 reject. After finishing a solid third in his career debut at Keeneland, Andromeda's Hero blew away his opposition in a seven-furlong maiden race at Calder, winning by seven lengths at 2-5.

So, stay tuned for the further adventures of the Fusaichi Pegasus son who got away and the one who didn't. And who knows, maybe their paths will cross on the first Saturday in May, and LaPenta's two worlds will collide with each other with a force that will send him hurtling in one direction or the other. But for now, he's played the game the way he wants to and he's seen more action than most owners who have been in the sport for many years. Due to pure luck, and the keen eye of Zito, he's had the best of both worlds. Although he keeps playing with fire, only getting burned slightly, he's been able to experience the thrill of the Kentucky Derby trail and the ultimate thrill of the sales arena. We'll just have to see how long his luck holds out.

In other Derby trail news:

--Zito unleashed another promising 3-year-old on Dec. 31, saddling the regally-bred Indy Storm to an impressive come-from- behind win in a one-mile maiden race at Calder. Owned by Tracy Farmer, the son of A.P. Indy, out of an Unbridled mare was a $750,000 yealring purchase at Keeneland September. By winning on New Year's Eve, the colt just barely escaped the dreaded Apollo curse (No horse has won the Derby without racing at age two since Apollo in 1882).

-- Inclement weather in Southern California has forced Neil Drysdale to skip the San Miguel Stakes (gr. III) with Fusaichi Samurai, so we'll have to wait to see this much-talked about colt, who turned in a sharp six-furlong work in 1:12 3/5 back on Dec. 24.

-- Another exciting colt to have his training interrupted slightly is Roman Ruler, who finally got to work on Jan. 1 and went his six furlongs in a solid 1:13 2/5. Bob Baffert's other Derby hopeful, Chips Are Down, went in 1:13 4/5.

-- Keep an eye on the undefeated Calder horse, High Fly, who worked a strong five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 on Jan. 3. He could show up in the Jan. 8 Aventura Stakes, as could Magna Graduate, one of the best-bred horses you'll find on this year's Derby trail.

-- For those who love star-studded pedigrees, Harlington (by Unbridled out of Serena's Song) turned in a big five-furlong work in 1:00 1/5 at Palm Meadows Jan. 3.

-- Patriot Act, the maiden who looked so good finishing second in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. I), has already had five works at Fair Grounds for trainer Neil Howard.

-- Watch the Gulfstream entries for Deputy Indy in a non-winners of one allowance race. The son of A.P. Indy has had five works at Palm Meadows, including his last two (at five furlongs) in 1:00 flat and 1:00 1/5. Also fitting those conditions are runaway maiden winner Premium Tap, who has been breezing at Payson Park, and Dearest Mon, who is up to seven furlongs at Palm Meadows.

-- Breeders' Futurity winner Consolidator has had two sharp breezes at Santa Anita.for D. Wayne Lukas. Another Lukas colt to watch is the maiden winner Going Wild, who has a ton of speed and more than enough stamina to indicate he'll carry it over a distance. But, so far, he's shown he wants to mix it up early, and his wire-to-wire maiden victory in :21 2/5, :43 3/5, and 1:08 3/5 was a bit too fast. He also works fast and must learn to harness some of that speed if he's going to make it to Churchill Downs.

-- Ted West is gearing up the undefeated Kirkendahl, who has had back-to-back seven-furlong works in 1:26 and 1:27 at Santa Anita.

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