Published in the Nov. 23 issue of The Blood-Horse
Thunderello was right where trainer Scott Lake wanted him, lapped outside an early-speed longshot and running comfortably--waiting to pounce, waiting to score, and waiting to bring Lake, the winningest trainer in the country for the third straight year, his first grade I victory. As Thunderello eyed the turn of the $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash on Nov. 16 at Laurel Park, he stepped awkwardly, and his jockey, Edgar Prado, immediately started pulling him up. Jorge Chavez, aboard the last-place D'wildcat, never even noticed the struggling Thunderello as he roared past on the inside. Chavez wore four pair of goggles because of the sloppy surface. He said he could barely see a thing because of all the mud. But he spotted a hole wide enough for a snowplow along the rail down the stretch, and more important, he was riding a horse with the ability and inclination to slosh through. On a rainy afternoon when even-money favorite Thunderello faltered in his quest to meet lofty expectations, D'wildcat fulfilled his--finally--for his California trainer, Bob Hess Jr., and owners Dave Shimmon and Bill Bianco. "This makes everything great," said Shimmon, who races as Fog City Stable; he owns a company in San Francisco that manufactures equipment for the production of computer chips. "We think he's a great, great horse. We knew in this race he wasn't going to be the favorite. But we felt he had enough class and experience this year to have a reasonable shot." This was the second year the Maryland Jockey Club held the six-furlong De Francis Dash three weeks after the Breeders' Cup. Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC, moved the grade I stakes from its summer home last year hoping to attract a stronger field. The result was the race's strongest field since its inception in 1990. Four runners from the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) reunited in last year's De Francis Dash. Delaware Township, sixth in the Sprint, won. The Maryland filly Xtra Heat, second in the Sprint, finished third as the star attraction. This year, the Sprint runner-up again was the headliner, but it wasn't Xtra Heat. She skipped the De Francis Dash after missing a week and a half of training as her owners tried to sell her at the Fasig-Tipton November select sale. She failed to sell at the Nov. 3 auction but was purchased privately the next day. Thunderello assumed the role of De Francis Dash favorite after a sizzling performance in the NAPA Breeders' Cup Sprint. He darted to the lead from his inside post and then, at 48-1 in only his seventh career start, held off the eventual winner Orientate until the final strides. That will perhaps stand as his crowning moment. The day after Thunderello left the Laurel track in the equine ambulance, Lake said the colt had broken the splint bone and chipped a sesamoid bone in his left foreleg. The trainer said the injury wasn't related to the ligament tear in the same leg that had sidelined the promising 3-year-old for a year. Lake said Thunderello would probably remain in Maryland for about a month while a decision was made on whether to retire him to stud or try to let him heal for a second racing comeback. Meanwhile, D'wildcat erased with one stretch surge the reputation that had caused Hess to wince before the Breeders' Cup. He read a reporter's description of D'wildcat as a classic underachiever. The truth hurt. "It's disheartening," Hess said, "because I know how great this horse is." The 4-year-old son of Forest Wildcat flashed potential last year, winning the Swale Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park by a whopping 10 1/2 lengths. But then, while training for the Lone Star Derby, he sustained a hairline fracture of his right shoulder and, like Thunderello, missed a year of racing. He returned in March and subsequently encountered a strange combination of bad luck and good luck. Twice, he was placed first despite finishing second; both times the winner had impeded him. He kept meeting horses at the top of their game, or running into trouble, or trying to overcome what his trainer openly acknowledged were trainer mistakes. "I knew there was more there," Hess said. "I was trying to find it." He raced D'wildcat on the turf hoping to earn a spot in the NetJets Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT). He also pre-entered the colt in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but D'wildcat got sick and ran in neither race. Try as he might, D'wildcat couldn't quite catch on to what he was supposed to do--until the 14th race of his career, the De Francis Dash. D'wildcat dropped back to last under Chavez, who was riding him for the first time. As the leaders battled through mud, Chavez bided his time until the turn. Then he asked D'wildcat for run. The former underachiever decided that this was his time to go. "He responded," Chavez said. "I said, 'Oh my God, I still have a lot of horse.' " D'wildcat plowed through the large opening and won convincingly, by 1 3/4 lengths in 1:10.81, as the third betting choice in a field of eight. The Bowie-based Deer Run charged from far back for second, while Laurel-based gelding Sassy Hound, who had gained the lead at the head of the stretch, faded to third. Both are Maryland-bred sons of Deerhound bred by William R. Harris. The Swale Stakes last year, the De Francis Dash this year. Those are what Shimmon, D'wildcat's owner, called milestone races--races that stamp a horse's career. He said he and Hess, of course, were thrilled for themselves. But Shimmon said with admiration of D'wildcat: "We're really excited for him." The De Francis Dash headed the six-stakes Fall Festival of Racing, which included the $100,000 Laurel Futurity. The grade III stakes for 2-year-olds returned after a one-year hiatus. Along with numerous other stakes in Maryland, it had been shelved because of a lack of purse money. Toccet cruised to a 6 1/4-length victory on his home track, reestablishing himself as one of the country's top prospects for next year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Before finishing ninth from his disastrous No. 13 post in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), Toccet won the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park. "He just seems to be getting better and better," said John Scanlan, his trainer. "Look at the horses who've won this race. We've put ourselves in that company." Such stars as Affirmed, Citation, Count Fleet, Secretariat, and Spectacular Bid captured the storied Laurel Futurity. Daniel Borislow, the Florida resident who bred and owns Toccet, tempered Scanlan's statement with one word: "Potential." Toccet, the 4-5 favorite, glided to his fourth win in six races in the 1 1/16-mile event. Chavez, his jockey, slapped him twice with his whip in the stretch for good measure, but Toccet was clearly best of an undistinguished group, getting the trip in 1:46.10. His toughest competitor, the undefeated Soto, was scratched because of the track condition. Toccet, on the other hand, relished it. "It was a pretty easy race," Chavez said. "If it was a fast track I knew he was going to win. I found out he likes it sloppy also. I know in the future, no matter what, he's going to run good. I think he's got a chance to win the Derby."