When Fly Down’s owner, Richard Pell, went down to the winner’s circle alone to greet his horse after triumphing in the May 8 Dwyer Stakes (gr. II), he was told he represented the smallest entourage ever to celebrate a grade II victory.
Pell will remedy that if his Mineshaft colt wins the June 5 Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
"We have about 50 people coming," said Pell, a money manager who has made New York his home since spending most of his teenage years in England.
It was near London, in fact, that Pell caught the horse bug, employing the time-tested method of skipping out of school to attend the races at Newmarket, Epson, Sandown, and Newbury.
"In England, horseracing is respectable, and families go out to the track on the weekend," Pell said. "Here, well, it has some of the aspects of a less respectable subculture."
Pell, a married father of two, got into ownership in a major way when he purchased, with the help of Nick Zito and Dave Foy, eight yearlings at the 2008 Keeneland September sale. He augmented that with six more purchases last year, and has a dozen horses with Zito.
Fly Down cost Pell, who buys under the name Pelican, $100,000.
"Nick told me from the beginning that he likes this horse," Pell said. "He’s kept the horse with him wherever he goes—Saratoga, Florida, Kentucky, so that’s a good sign. Nick’s got a murderer’s row of 3-year-olds with Fly Down and Ice Box ."
Ice Box, a late-flying second in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), will go off the likely favorite in the Belmont, but look out for the lesser-known of the Zito horses. Fly Down broke his maiden at second asking at Churchill Downs last November going 8 ½ furlongs, and started this season off with an allowance score at Gulfstream Park. His only poor performance in five races came in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), where he finished ninth, beaten nearly seven lengths.
"Jose Lezcano (his jockey) seemed to think he didn’t like the track much, that he wasn’t running over it the same way he ran at Gulfstream," Pell said. "He was just winding up for a run coming into the stretch and he got squeezed from both sides, so he didn’t have a great trip. He finished five or six lengths behind (third-place) Drosselmeyer, and then beat him by six lengths in the Dwyer, so that was a 12-length reversal.
"I always felt he’d like the track at Belmont with the sandy surface. He’s a big horse, and those kind often do well at Belmont. Plus his sire won the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) there."
Fly Down, three-for-five in his career, has also defeated Preakness (gr. I) runner-up First Dude twice, in the maiden-breaker and a first-level allowance. First Dude figures to be second- or third-choice in the Belmont.
"I’m confident that on his best day Fly Down can compete with horses like First Dude, who’s a very good horse, I think," said Pell. "The Belmont will be a different pace scenario, and a mile and a half, so it’s a different dynamic and you never know. I believe both have improved since they last met in February, so we’ll have to see who has improved more."
Fly Down is out of the Fly So Free mare Queen Randi, who also produced Seafree, a Chief Seattle filly who won the 2006 La Canada Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita Park.
Fly Down’s monstrous effort in the Dwyer certainly puts him in the thick of what should be a wide-open Belmont field, and with Pell and Zito, a Belmont victory would be a hometown home run.
"I’m hard-pressed to think of a race I’d rather win," Pell stated. "Just to have the ‘Chairman of the Board’ (Frank Sinatra) singing ‘New York, New York’ when the horses come out on the track. It would be a big thrill."