Calder Racing Report: Sunshine Superman

Published in the Nov. 23 issue of The Blood-Horse
The inaugural Florida Million, run at Calder Race Course on Nov. 16, was a concept borne of mutual desires. It was the desire of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association, and the South Florida-based horsemen who spend the majority of the year toiling for minimal purses, to increase opportunities for state-breds. The series of six races, funded equally between the track and the FTBOA, was open only to Florida-breds registered with the state breeding association.

"It's great to see Florida finally getting the purses up with events like this and the Sunshine Millions," said trainer Eddie Plesa Jr., alluding to Magna Entertainment Corp.'s January series that will pit Florida-breds against California-breds. Plesa spoke just after his Best of the Rest captured the day's finale, the $200,000 Carl G. Rose Classic Handicap, by 1 1/2 lengths over The Judge Sez Who. The runner-up was one of four 3-year-olds in the watered-down field of six. Referring to Best of the Rest's last race, a second-place finish in the Oct. 12 Spend a Buck Handicap, Plesa said, "I thought he was one work short of where I needed him to be, not to take anything away from Pay the Preacher."

In reality, Plesa was taking plenty away from Pay the Preacher. That 4-year-old colt has become the top handicap runner on the grounds but, though a Florida-bred, the failure of his connections to register him with the FTBOA left him ineligible for the Rose Classic. And that, in turn, left Best of the Rest the 2-5 favorite, winning--in the words of jockey Jerry Bailey--"Just like a 2-5 favorite is supposed to." Bailey allowed Island Skipper to clear and set slow fractions, but maintained contact throughout, never more than two lengths back.

Nearing the three-eighths pole, Bailey shook the reins, and the Bea Oxenberg homebred responded by quickly collaring the leader and sprinting off to an advantage that could only be slightly narrowed by Oklahoma Derby (gr. III) winner The Judge Sez Who.

"I sensed The Judge Sez Who would be coming, but I knew I had enough horse," said Bailey.

Having enough horse, of course, has never been Plesa's problem with Best of the Rest: it has been having a sound one. The son of Skip Trial made the trainer gush about his talent when he captured three stakes as a 3-year-old in 1998, including an 8 3/4-length thrashing of older foes in the Thanksgiving Day Handicap. But because of multiple knee surgeries following his race that New Year's Eve in the Fred Hooper Handicap (gr. III), he made just three starts in 32 months. The comeback that commenced with a victory in last October's Spend a Buck Handicap has now seen him make 11 injury-free starts, and he has tallied six more stakes wins to bring his career total to 10 and his lifetime earnings to $634,296.

"It is remarkable with all he has been through, that now, at age seven getting ready to turn eight, that he is running as good as at age three," Plesa said. "When I get up every morning, just seeing him looking out at me from his stall makes me know we did the right thing. He easily could have turned into a claiming horse if the Oxenbergs didn't have as much patience as they did."

Cool Rivalry
Though it was on a much smaller scale than the classic duels between his father's Affirmed and adversary Alydar, Marty Wolfson had been a firsthand witness to a rivalry four years in the making.

He claimed Coolbythepool, a 5-year-old Notebook mare, for $40,000 as a juvenile. Now racing for Louise Courtelis' Town and Country Corp., she was making her 18th start against Castlebrook in the $200,000 Elmer Heubeck Distaff Handicap, and her trainer was keenly aware of the impact.

"You don't see too many cases where horses run against each other that often in this day and age," Wolfson said prior to the 1 1/16-mile race. "It's a rarity." Then, after the race in which, ironically, Castlebrook helped set up the late surge that saw Coolbythepool get up for a neck win over Sara's Success--thus evening the series between the two at nine apiece--he was ebullient. "I'd have to say she's the queen now," he beamed. "She really is."

Wolfson had always contrasted the pair by claiming Castlebrook had an advantage with her tactical speed, and the Bill Kaplan-trained mare flashed that in the Heubeck. Cellars Shiraz, the 3-year-old who was the 8-5 favorite making her first start against older rivals, got to the front as usual, but was hounded at every stride by Castlebrook. While the fractions were moderate, the battle took its toll as the pair was passed first by Sara's Success, then, in the shadow of the wire and on the far outside, by Coolbythepool.

"I was getting worried until about the three-eighths pole when she started to pick it up," Wolfson described his fluttering emotions during the race. "Then I could see Julio (jockey Garcia) was getting her in gear and it was just a question of whether she could get there in time."

Sadly, the rivalry is now drawing to a conclusion, as Coolbythepool will likely only have one more start before, in another irony, being bred to Castlebrook's sire, Montbrook. Wolfson eschewed the possibilities of running in the NTRA Great State Challenge at Lone Star Park on Dec. 7--"She's never been a good shipper," he said--or of running her when the Gulfstream meet begins in January, due to sore feet that are exacerbated by that surface. Instead, Coolbythepool's final start will come in Calder's Stage Door Betty Handicap in December, and, with Castlebrook pointing there too, it will be the one for all the marbles.

Qick Cat
It has certainly been quite a tour for Tour of the Cat, the versatile 4-year-old gelding who won the biggest race of his career in the $150,000 six-furlong Jack Dudley Sprint Handicap. Trainer Myra Mora, unaware that he had been gelded, spent $25,000 of Susan and Jim Gammons' Double G Stables' money to claim the son of Tour d'Or from his first start, and watched as he proceeded to do just about everything possible short of winning a major stakes.

"The Cat," as he is called, was a good enough sophomore router to run second in the 2001 Flamingo Stakes (gr. III), and took to grass well enough to become a stakes winner on that surface. But it had been in dirt sprints that he had recently shined, capturing three in a nine-week period that culminated with a victory in the Groomstick Handicap on Aug. 17 in his last start. While that was sufficient to make him the 120-pound highweight in the Dudley Sprint, it was only part of the impost. "He's carrying much more than 120 pounds--he's got the weight of Susan and me on his shoulders too," Mora smiled in the moments before the race.

Add to the mix jockey Abad Cabassa Jr., and you had the makings of a real-life Horatio Alger tale. Former showhorse rider Mora, a Thoroughbred trainer for just five years, had never captured a stakes before "The Cat" came along; Double G has only the one horse in training and Cabassa flies well beneath the radar screen of riders even among the insular Calder community.

But the synergy has proven dynamic as all have added something to the mix: Susan Gammon's unwavering faith and passion, Mora's superb horsemanship, and Cabassa's steady hand that has guided the gelding since his youth.

That made all the difference in the Dudley Sprint, as Tour of the Cat used a stalking trip and three-wide move on the turn to get to the lead, and then dug down deep even when passed in mid-stretch by favored My Cousin Matt. With Cabassa recalling the a.m. lessons, The Cat came back on the rail to record a three-quarter-length score, timed in 1:10.18.

(Chart, Equibase)