There’s just no escaping it. You can question his pedigree and his running style all you want, but War Pass is simply in a class by himself right now, and until someone figures out how to beat him or his pedigree catches up to him, he has to be the top dog. He beat no one in Saturday’s virtual walkover, but his physical presence and class were more evident than ever.
As for the Fountain of Youth, it was obvious the original fractions and final time were way off just from the actual scenario of the race, but one has to question some of the revised times as well. So, it’s best to just ignore them and focus on the race itself, which really didn’t provide much help in assessing the Florida 3-year-old contingent.
Before we get to both races, there is one person who could shed some light on the 3-year-old picture.
If leading Derby contenders War Pass, Court Vision, Denis of Cork, and Fierce Wind hook up at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, let’s just say they won’t exactly be strangers. All four colts received their early training at Scanlon Training Center in Williston, Fla., where they shared the same barn and were often on the track together.
So, it is safe to say that David Scanlon is well equipped to comment on the virtues and characteristics of each colt.
“War Pass was one of the stars on the farm from the beginning,” Scanlon said. “He was super fast. We thought we were going to come down to the sale and knock it out of the ballpark, but he came up with a little chip. So it actually worked out really well for Mr. LaPenta. He was a horse we thought was going to bring a fortune. He was always a superstar – a beautiful horse with big hips and a gigantic forearm. Then you'd go to work him and it was like, “Wow.” He was such a good mover and covered a lot of ground. We get paid to recognize early 2-year-old talent and he was an easy one to recognize.
“Court Vision wouldn’t have been one of your obvious ones. He was a popular horse at the farm when people saw him, but like with a lot of the Gulches he just wasn’t super fast training. He was a one-paced horse, but very honest. And they way he runs now, coming from off of it and grinding them down, is what he did on the farm. He worked in about :11 and didn’t really catch anybody’s eye. But he was a horse who never missed a day of training. He was a real honest horse, and my rider used to say, “You know, he’s not the fastest thing in the world, but he’s real determined.” He wasn’t a big horse, but he always gave you 110%. It’s more of a shot in the dark with a horse like him, because one thing you can never really see and measure is their heart. With him it’s all about heart and determination.
“Denis of Cork was an absolutely stunning horse. He’s got a lot of Unbridled in him. He’s a picture of what a good Unbridled is supposed to look like -- from his mare’s side. The poor horse started to get shins early in the game, but we had to press on with him trying to make the sale. He ended up bucking his shins really badly at Barretts and didn’t get the attention. He worked good but not lights out, and with the shins, everyone kind of passed him over. It was nice that Mike Ryan had been to our farm many times to see him train over and over, so he was pretty confident in the horse and he took a shot on him.
“He’s a typical example of a blessing in a disguise. He was such a big, scopey horse, and was more of your 3-year-old type anyway, so it forces a trainer to take his time. It worked out good. He was a great horse to be around and we were really high on him from the beginning. It’s just that things didn’t work out great as far as the sales. He was a very good galloper, and, physically, he's a picture horse to look at it; just a beautiful colt.
“Fierce Wind was just plain fast. He had a lot of speed and was a real tough, tough horse. He was one of those horses when you galloped him in company he just loved to eyeball other horses and could really take off.”
As mentioned earlier, War Pass beat up on a field mostly of claimers and should have won the way he did. But just watching how effortlessly he was cruising on the lead, and how much power he was generating, you have to wonder how anyone is going to beat this horse. He just discourages all those chasing him, and the ones who come from way out of it have only been able to pick up some of the pieces late.
In Saturday’s one-mile allowance race, War Pass looked like a man among boys as he dwarfed his overmatched opponents both physically and talent-wise. Any horse who can set legitimate fractions going a mile off a four-month layoff and then win under wraps with a final quarter in :24 2/5 and final eighth in :12 1/5 has to be something special. Yes, he was beating inferior competition, but he did gallop home by 7 1/2 lengths over his own stablemate and beat the third horse by almost 24 lengths. In short, he did what he had to do, and you can’t ask for any more than that at this stage.
If you’re going to make a case for him staying 10 furlongs, his maternal great-grandsire, Hoist the Flag, a son of major stamina influence Tom Rolfe, sired both speed horses and stayers, such as dual Arc de Triomphe winner Alleged. And his third dam, Bayou Blue, is a full-sister to Santa Margarita, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara winner Batteur, who equaled the American record of 1:58 2/5 for 1 1/4 miles. Bayou Blue also produced Alluvial, dam of Belmont Stakes winner Coastal. And Bayou Blue’s dam, Bayou, was the champion 3-year-old filly of 1957, winning the Acorn, Delaware Oaks, Gazelle, and Maskette, and was second in the then 1 3/8-mile Coaching Club American Oaks. On the sire’s side, Cherokee Run, of course, was the champion sprinter, but he also finished second, beaten a half-length, in the Preakness Stakes. So, War Pass does have enough in his pedigree to suggest that he may be able to carry his speed farther than people think. How far that is, we’ll find out soon enough.
Hot LaPenta plays it cool
OK, what to make of the Fountain of Youth. First off, as mentioned earlier, the ridiculous fractions on the teletimer were corrected, but, while much closer than the original splits, they still left room for doubt. According to the new hand-timed fractions, they went in splits of :23 2/5, :23 2/5, :24, :26 1/5, and :12 2/5 for a final time of 1:49 2/5. So, where did that :26 1/5 quarter come from? Did they actually go from :23 2/5 and :24, come home the final eighth in :12 2/5 and throw in a :26 1/5 in between? Horses normally don’t go fast, then slow, and then fast in that short of a span. Then, it was announced today that the times were readjusted yet again to read: :24, :47 3/5, 1:11 2/5, 1:36 1/5 and 1:50. That means they came home the final eighth in :13 4/5. That's quite a difference from :12 2/5. So, did these horses close fast or incredibly slow? Who knows anymore?
Those are just numbers anyway, and the bottom line is we still don’t know how good these horses are. Some of the interesting factors to take into consideration: Cool Coal Man had an absolutely perfect trip from the rail, while Elysium Fields, with much less seasoning under him, had to go five-wide on the first turn. Court Vision, who was never sharpened for speed for this race after a layoff, had no shot, dropping 13 lengths out of it and then having to go seven-wide turning for home. He closed well enough, but was not gaining on the top two in the final furlong, finishing 5 3/4 lengths behind the runner-up.
As for the big disappointments, the 7-2 favorite Monba was beaten off after getting squeezed on the first turn that might have been of his own doing, as he appeared to be trying to get out a little. When a horse like this gets beat some 40 lengths, you have to figure something happened to him. Anak Nakal never was in the race, finishing a well-beaten eighth. Fourth-place finisher Z Humor had no business being in the race, having just run eight days earlier in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, and even trainer Bill Mott had his say about that when he was asked about the colt’s next start. “It definitely will be longer than eight days,” he said.
Getting back to the winner, Cool Coal Man gives owner Robert LaPenta a big one-two punch for the Derby -- with a front-running speed horse and a tactical speed horse. Another of his 3-year-olds, Stevil, is a stretch runner who is back working after a well-beaten, but troubled, third in a one-mile allowance race on Jan. 30. He’s better than he showed in that race and could have a future.
Cool Coal Man has now won four of his last five starts. He gets plenty of stamina from his sire Mineshaft, but his broodmare sire, Rubiano, was a seven-furlong come-from-behind sprinter. Rubiano, however, is by Fappiano, out of a Nijinsky mare, so there is plenty of stamina on paper to go with his tail-female family. He showed a good burst of speed nearing the quarter pole and blew right on by Elysium Fields, but appeared to either tire or lose concentration in the final sixteenth and let Elysium Fields come back at him in the final yards. Although they appeared to be slowing down in the final furlong, no one behind them was gaining. Cool Coal Man looks like a solid horse, but he just needs to get his act together a little bit better in the final sixteenth. This may prove to be a good learning experience for him.
Zito is well loaded, with War Pass, Cool Coal Man, and Sam Davis winner Fierce Wind, owned by Four Roses Stable.
Elysium Fields is a long-striding colt who runs fairly low to the ground. He appeared more one-paced than the winner and couldn’t match strides with him at the head of the stretch. But he never quit and kept plugging away to the wire and was actually gaining on Cool Coal Man in the final yards. The son of El Prado (IRE) has a ton of stamina on both sides and is inbred to Tom Fool without being inbred to his son Buckpasser, which you don’t see nowadays. With his grinding style of running he will appreciate the extra furlong of the Derby.
Court Vision had worked six furlongs in a snail-like 1:19 two works back and that certainly didn’t help him in this race, where position was so important. He had far too much ground to make up and ran on well in the final three-eighths, although we would have liked to see him make up a bit more ground in the final furlong. He needs to be closer up next time out, and having this race under his belt will definitely help.
Is On the Virg on the verge?
A 1 1/16-mile allowance race Friday failed to provide any fireworks, as the Pletcher-trained On the Virg just got the better of the pace-setting Winsome Charm, who was stretching out from four six-furlong races, and who probably should have either won or been beaten in a photo. The son of Silver Charm appeared to be holding off the challenge of the stalking On the Virg after setting slow fractions when jockey Tyler Baze switched sticks and gave him a right-handed whack across the shoulder. When he did, Winsome Charm veered to the left and jumped over to his left lead, losing momentum and relinquishing the lead. By the time he switched back over to his right lead it was too late and he had to settle for second, beaten a half-length. The winner, a son of Pulpit, out of a Housebuster mare, has won his last two starts.
Another allowance race that made little or no impact on the Derby was a one-mile race at Gulfstream, also on Friday, in which 41-1 shot B B Frank scored an emphatic 2 3/4-length victory over the maiden Chief Bear and the Nick Zito-trained and Robert LaPenta-owned Da’ Tara. Ironically, the winner, trained by Amy Tarant, had been claimed from Zito and LaPenta in his last start for $62,500. The winner came home the last quarter in :26 4/5 after a fast early pace to cover the mile in 1:36 3/5. The son of Came Home looks to be improving rapidly, having won his last two by daylight.
Indian Sun, trained by Dan Hendricks, returned to the grass Saturday after a fourth in the Robert Lewis Stakes (gr. II) and a second to El Gato Malo in the San Rafael (gr. II) and rallied from last to just get up by a nose in a one-mile allowance race. The son of Indian Charlie had also finished fifth, beaten 3 1/2 lengths, in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I).
Although it probably won’t have any bearing on the Derby, Ferragamo, a son of Vindication, wired his field in the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes in 1:09 4/5 for his third victory in four career starts. The colt actually has some pretty solid stamina influences and is inbred three times to Hail to Reason, so he could be dangerous stretching out.
Shug McGaughey is the last trainer to rush his young horses, so there is no reason to think of Cosmic as a Derby horse. But then again, after the colt’s victory Saturday in a 1 1/8-mile maiden race at Gulfstream, you never know. By El Prado out of the top-class mare Heavenly Prize, Cosmic showed good acceleration on the turn, but was headed by the Zito-trained Truth Rules at the top of the stretch. After turning for home, he regained the lead, and when jockey Javier Castellano hit him right-handed, he resented it, throwing his tail in the air. After getting back in rhythm, he drew clear under a hand rider to win by 2 1/4 lengths, with another 6 1/4 lengths back to the third horse. The final fractions of :24 4/5 and :13 were decent enough, as was his final time of 1:50 3/5. Cosmic now has a win, a second, two thirds, and a fourth over turf, Polytrack, a “good” dirt track and a fast dirt track – all at a mile or longer. With his pedigree, he should only keep improving.
In other Derby news:
Dick Mandella, who has already lost graded stakes winners Dixie Chatter and Crown of Thorns to injury, said he may be forced to miss the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) March 15 with Into Mischief, whose nagging left hind foot problem has not healed as fast as Mandella had hoped. The Hall of Fame trainer nursed the colt through the San Vicente, but the injury is still posing a problem. If the son of Harlan’s Holiday is forced to miss the San Felipe it would severely compromise his chances of making the Derby.
One horse who is on target for the San Felipe is San Vicente (gr. II) winner Georgie Boy, who turned in a sharp five-furlong drill in :59 2/5 at Hollywood Park for trainer Kathy Walsh.
In addition to the showdown between Colonel John and El Gato Malo, Saturday’s Sham Stakes (gr. III) will serve as a crossroads for Reflect Times (JPN) and should determine whether the late-running son of French Deputy is as effective going two turns as he has been in sprints. He just got up to finish a well-beaten third in the Robert Lewis after a pair of scintillating victories coming from the clouds in sprint races. Trainer John Shirreffs is hoping to make it to the Kentucky Derby for the fourth straight year.
Visionaire, third in the Risen Star (gr. III) in his stakes debut, breezed a half-mile in :48 4/5 after two-minute licking from the five-eighths pole to the half-mile pole. Trainer Michael Matz was happy with the move and will work the son of Grand Slam in company next Saturday before deciding whether to run him in the Louisiana Derby March 8 or wait a week and go in either the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) or Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III).
Back on the work tab after an absence: Racecar Rhapsody (:37 1/5 and :48 4/5), Golden Yank (:40 and :50 3/5), King’s Silver Son (1:02), and Macho Again, who is entered Thursday in a six-furlong allowance race at Fair Grounds; Dallas Stewart is using the race instead of a workout.
Saratoga Russell, winner of his last two starts by a total of 18 lengths, will stretch out from six furlongs to the 1 1/16-mile Gotham Stakes (gr. III) March 8. The son of Trippi is trained by Rick Violette and is named for Russell Horvat, a partner of West Point Stable who passed away last year at a young age after suffering from leukemia.
Also pointing for the Gotham is recent Aqueduct allowance winner Holidaze, who won going two turns for the first time for Pletcher, despite encountering traffic problems. Distance will not be a problem for the son of Harlan’s Holiday. Stablemate Atoned, like Holidaze, owned by Dogwood Stable, is scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the Tampa Bay Derby. The son of Repent has not run since finishing second in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II). Dogwood’s third Derby hopeful, the hard-luck Blackberry Road, breezed five furlongs in 1:02 4/5 at Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby.
Whirlaway Stakes winner Barrier Reef had his first workout as a Godolphinite, breezing a half in :52 3/5 at Payson Park for Rick Mettee. It was the colt’s first work since the Whirlaway, in which he carried the Darley Stable colors and was trained by Tom Albertrani.
Hopeful (gr. I) winner Majestic Warrior is up to six furlongs in his works, breezing in 1:15 3/5 at Payson Park for Bill Mott. Another of Mott’s Derby hopefuls, Alaazo, breezed five panels in 1:02.
Turf Paradise Derby winner Nikki’sgoldensteed, who is a horse to keep an eye on despite his humble beginnings, will make his next start in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) March 8.