Published in the March 8 issue of The Blood-Horse
There is no oven in Barn 4-B on the backstretch of Fair Grounds, but trainer Neil Howard had a cake baked for the 10 other runners in the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) on March 2. Mineshaft (color him dark bay chocolate), bred and owned by Will Farish, James Elkins, and Temple Webber Jr., was the piece of improving work and jockey Robby Albarado was asked to do the slicing. After the 4-year-old Mineshaft ran second to Balto Star in the Whirlaway Handicap (gr. III) on Feb. 9, Howard, who won last year's New Orleans Handicap with Parade Leader, went to the drawing board. A touch here, a touch there--the meticulous Howard knew he did not have to be overly creative. "Balto Star got a perfect trip last time," Howard said. "Bonapaw took us a lot further into that race than everybody thought he would. When Bonapaw hit his distance limitations, that helped Balto Star because he was right there. We might have been too far back that day." Hint, hint. Sounded like corrective action was about to be taken. With serious money come serious faces. Howard stood waiting in stall 6 of the paddock for his horse to arrive. No stone unturned, Mineshaft came in with his deep and shiny coat looking like it had been rubbed with furniture polish. The only problem was they all looked like the cast of the rich and famous, as there were five graded stakes winners in the talented field and three millionaires. After several previous shuffles in the local older handicap series, it was time for a new deck. Olmodavor, Sunday Break, and Tracemark had flown in from California. Booklet, Best of the Rest, and Strive were the new players from Florida. When paddock judge Ramon Muniz called "Riders up," Eibar Coa, the jockey on Best of the Rest, asked a photographer for directions on how to leave the walking ring. Familiar with the setting, Mineshaft swished his tail a few times and went under the tunnel on his toes. It was time to get it on. During the warm-up, Sunday Break jogged loose, playful, and happy, but got distracted once he was in the gate. Shaking his head from side to side, when the gate opened, Sunday Break didn't. He hopped out and found himself behind the field. No surprise, local sprint hero Bonapaw took the field around the first turn, with a length lead over Mineshaft. The popular theme that Bonapaw, Booklet, and Balto Star would sizzle and fry each other on the front end did not happen. In fact, Balto Star, eased out from the inside traffic, was wide and third from last coming out of the first turn. It was not a good sign. Unchallenged and ears pricked, Bonapaw, bless his heart, sailed solo down the backside into the uncharted waters of 1 1/8 miles. Head down, neck extended, Mineshaft stayed within two lengths while looking like a horse that was crying to run faster and further. It was not the kind of pace friendly to deep closers, and favorite Balto Star had a long hill to climb, lagging in the back of the pack. Passing the half-mile marker in :47.90, Bonapaw's golden dream was almost over. Mineshaft edged closer. A wall of horses that included Booklet on the rail and Olmodavor three-wide began to bunch up behind. "I just wanted to be closer than last time," Albarado said of his stalking position. "He did a bunch of things that I liked today. He was loping down the backside and finding his stride. I had him where I wanted. From there I just let him do his own thing and run his race." Albarado, riding like he owned the racetrack, sent Mineshaft forward from follower to leader with a sudden surge on the far turn. Headed as they turned for home, Bonapaw was toast. Olmodavor overtook Booklet while Strive came off the fence and angled out into the middle of the track. Best of the Rest entered the picture. For a fleeting moment it looked like there would be a tight fight to the wire. It never happened. Mineshaft, with a powerful, churning stride, said, "See you guys later." With an eighth of a mile to run, he opened up by 2 1/2 lengths. The closer the wire, the more the field stretched out. Kept busy, Mineshaft left no doubt as to his ability and seasoning, winning by a convincing 3 1/2 lengths in the final time of 1:48.92. What a difference a visa makes. Mineshaft (one for six in Europe on the grass) is now four for five in the U.S. on dirt. Wertheimer Farm's Olmodavor came home honest, completing the exacta for sire A.P. Indy. Trying his best to the end, Olmodavor looked like a horse with a bright future in the handicap division. "For only his seventh race and to ship around the country and keep after the winner like he did--I'm proud of him," said trainer Richard Mandella. Strive's third-place finish was his first in-the-money effort in a graded stakes. "I was patient with him and he settled real well," said jockey Jerry Bailey. After the race, a more relaxed Howard considered the long-range future of Mineshaft. "He's got a great mind. He's got the talent and the pedigree to go with it," he said. "The ultimate goal is in the fall but that's a long way off." Quick fact: Shippers beware. Fair Grounds-based horses have won the New Orleans Handicap for five consecutive years. The streak started in 1999 when Precocity, trained by Bobby Barnett, held off Real Quiet. In 2000, Allen's Oop won and paid $93.60. The next year the race was won by Include for trainer Bud Delp. "Today was a tremendous thrill," said co-owner Temple Webber. "We'll take that second in the last race three weeks ago for a win today. Neil is the boss and he's done a great job."