In the days, hours, and even minutes leading up to the March 24 Spiral Stakes (gr. II), there wasn't a clear-cut favorite -- much less a star -- among the nine 3-year-olds going to the starting gate. Six of the nine starters were between 3-1 and 6-1 in the wagering. But all that changed at 4:42 p.m. EST as a star did emerge coming down Turfway Park's stretch. His name: Balto Star. And the strapping dark bay gelding, in an effortless performance, ran off from his foes to a surprising 12 3/4-length romp in the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Derby (gr. I) prep. While his star cleared the horizon, the Derby hopes and dreams of those in his wake apparently fell to earth with the speed of Russia's Mir space station. The fact he did it on the lead after setting solid fractions and his clocking of a quick 1:47.23 left owner Stuart Subotnick nearly speechless. "Wow" is about all he could muster while pressing his hand to his forehead when the final time began to sink in. The track and stakes mark of 1:46.70 was set 10 years ago by eventual Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont (gr. I) winner Hansel, and had only been threatened by Event of the Year's 1:47.12 clocking in 1998. Seemingly in another race, Halo's Stride, at 55-1 the longest shot on the board, finished second, 5 1/2 lengths in front of Mongoose, who in turn had four lengths on Camden Park. Buckle Down Ben, the lukewarm favorite, finished sixth, ahead of well-backed runners Meetyouathebrig and Keats. Clutch Player was eased. In four starts this year, the Anstu Stables homebred now has won three races by a combined margin of 36 lengths. He took the step from allowance to graded stakes company on the strength of a 12 1/4-length initial allowance victory at Aqueduct on Feb. 18. "His last race is why we are here," Subotnick said of his 6-1 winner. "And he looks like he can go a distance. We've won some small stakes, some New York-bred stakes, but nothing like this. You have to think about early May now." Stuart Subotnick and his wife, Anita (the stable name is an amalgam of their first names), are relative newcomers to the Thoroughbred business. Subotnick, executive vice president for Metromedia in New York, and Anita decided to give racing a whirl a few years ago after conversations with some old friends. "We had dear friends -- Tommy and Elizabeth Valando -- and Tommy said 'Look, we bought a $80,000 horse and won $2.5 million,' " Subotnick said. "And we decided to take a shot." That $80,000 horse was Fly So Free, champion 2-year-old male of 1990. An early purchase for the newly minted Anstu Stables was Miss Livi, a 2-year-old they acquired for $210,000 at the OBS March sale in Ocala in 1996. While a suspensory injury prevented her from racing, Miss Livi was bred to Glitterman in 1997. Her first foal was Balto Star. "We used a lot of pedigree services," Subtonick said on his decision to breed the unraced Devil's Bag mare to Glitterman. "One of them said the horse would either wind up pulling a beer wagon or be something very interesting." They now have something very interesting -- a Derby contender -- but it wasn't always the case. In his first start last Sept. 16 at Belmont, Balto Star was beaten 16 1/4 lengths as the 6-5 favorite. "In his first start, he couldn't have misbehaved any more," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "When he was in the paddock he nickered and hollered and tried to mount the pony in the post parade." His next start came on Nov. 7 -- this time as a gelding. "He couldn't keep his attention," Subtonick said. "Once he was gelded, we had a different athlete on our hands." It took a while for things to click, but on New Year's Day, a day for resolutions, Balto Star put it all together, breaking his maiden by 11 lengths over Aqueduct's inner track. After a third-place finish in an allowance on Jan. 18, he came back with his first tour de force. "This race unfolded the same way," Subtonick said of the Spiral. But this wasn't an allowance over the inner track. This was $600,000. This was six weeks before the Kentucky Derby. "He has stepped up to another league today," Pletcher said. "I don't know that any (of the Triple Crown contenders) has run any better than he ran today." Balto Star did catch a major break -- at the break. Henry Pabst's Keats, who figured to either set the pace or have a major say in it, stumbled at the start, and from his post 2 position, was immediately shuffled between horses and in trouble. That left Balto Star and new pilot Mark Guidry with a shot at the early advantage. They took it and got clear from the get-go. Jostling for position behind him were Halo's Stride, with Mongoose to his outside, and a rushed-up Keats in tight on the rail. The opening quarter went in :22.53 and Balto Star was on cruise control with a 1 1/2-length lead. Down the backstretch, Balto Star held his advantage after a half in :45.46. Keats was beginning to tire or get discouraged after his rough start as Gary and Mary West's Mongoose was asked for more. Meetyouathebrig was gaining ground while wide, as was Buckle Down Ben from between horses. Linda and Donald Urbas' Halo's Stride stayed in the hunt. After three-quarters in 1:10.68, the field began to string out, and on the turn, Balto Star appeared to be getting stronger. The race was over by the time he'd hit the top of the lane. The winning margin was easily a Spiral record, topping Marfa's eight-length win in 1983. Balto Star's final eighth of :12.13 helped put enough real estate between him and the runner-up to parallel park a semi, but Halo's Stride showed grit and determination for second. A hard-luck case, Halo's Stride is just now coming around after a mishap at Keeneland in his third career start last year. He unseated rider Charlie Woods in an allowance race and slammed into the inner rail. The injuries required 130 stitches. "It took a long time to get him mentally back in the game," trainer Robert DeSensi said. "Physically, he was alright." "If he hadn't had that accident at Keeneland, more would have been heard from him," said owner Donald Urbas. "But the good thing is he survived the accident. It's given us a lot of anxiety." The Urbases, from Bloomington Hills, Mich., are just now getting back into racing. They had a stable in the '80s, but didn't like the direction racing was heading in their home state and got out. Their love of Thoroughbreds drew them back in and they now have three horses in training and a pair of 2-year-olds preparing at Another Episode Farm in Ocala, Fla. There were no sour grapes from Bill Mott, trainer of third-place finisher Mongoose. "I had no excuse. The winner was on the lead the whole way." While eyeing the winner post race, Mott gave him his due: "He doesn't look like he's been back in New York all winter. He looks like he's been in Southern California." Does Balto Star have what it takes to challenge Derby 2001's big three of Point Given, Monarchos, and Dollar Bill? We're likely to find out soon in another Derby prep at Keeneland. With a $1-million bonus tied to winning two of Kentucky's three major preps (Spiral, Toyota Blue Grass, gr. I, and gr. II Coolmore Lexington) and the Derby, Subotnick's thinking about springtime in Kentucky. "The bonus is a wonderful attraction," he said. "Especially if you have the first one in your pocket." (Chart, Equibase)Continued. . . .
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