Trainer Joe Petalino says J P's Gusto had been doing things too easily in his training leading up to the $300,000 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park, so he demanded more from Gem Stables' grade I winner in a five-furlong drill March 13.
With a workmate for a target, the 3-year-old ridgling drilled a bullet in :59 2/5 over a fast track on a mild and clear morning. Jockey Bryan McNeil was aboard, although 2010 Eclipse champion jockey Ramon Dominguez will be back in the saddle for the March 19 Rebel after riding the J P's Gusto to a troubled second-place finish in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) last month.
"We were looking for something a little sharper," said Petalino after the son of Successful Appeal zipped along the rail, ticking fractions of :24 and :47 3/5 and galloping out six furlongs in 1:12 1/5. "He had been just plodding along by himself with what he had been doing and had been doing it easily. We wanted to put something in front of him to make him a little sharper. That's what he needs because the water is getting a little deeper now."
McNeil added: "He saw that target and it made him more aggressive with each step. Down the lane he just cruised right by him."
Petalino says there is addded pressure now on J P's Gusto heading into this weekend's 1 1/16th-mile test. J P's Gusto arrived in his barn in early February when owner Dr. John Waken and his advisors decided to point for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I), taking him away from trainer David Hofmans in Southern California.
With Hofmans, J P's Gusto won four of five races to begin his career including the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) last August. Since that win he has finished second in three of his four starts, all of them two-turn route races.
Because of the losing streak, questions linger about J P's Gusto's chances as the distances grow longer on the Derby Trail. Petalino says the team isn't getting ahead of themselves.
"All the national handicappers and media are calling and comparing his chances to get a mile-and-a-quarter," he said. "Last I checked, the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby aren't a mile-and-a-quarter. The owners don't appear to have 'Derby fever' too much. They sent him here because they liked the distance progression and they are out to enjoy each race as it comes."