Oaklawn Park Race Report: Blowing in the Wind

Published in the March 30 issue of The Blood-Horse
On paper, the smooth score by Team Valor's Windward Passage in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn Park could hardly be called an upset. But there is so much more between the past performance lines. In reality, the colt's victory--his very presence on the racetrack, in fact--was a miracle.

On Nov. 7, 1996, his dam, Storm Runner, closed out her career with a win in a Churchill Downs allowance race. By Miswaki out of the Sovereign Dancer mare Katrinka, Storm Runner, then a 3-year-old, had the potential to be a pretty nice broodmare for owner Team Valor Stables. On a van trip to Florida, she came down with a freaky virus that not only threatened her breeding career, but her life.

"She was paralyzed behind while on the van," said Barry Irwin, who heads the Team Valor syndicate. "They had to take her off the van with a forklift. (The condition) lasted about six months. I can say now, though, that I'm delighted I decided to keep her. She really had quality."

In 1998, a recovered Storm Runner was bred to Captain Bodgit who, as a 3-year-old, won the Florida Derby (gr. I) and Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. II), and finished second in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and third in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). A winner of seven of 12 races in his career, Captain Bodgit was purchased by Team Valor after his 2-year-old season.

The mating produced Windward Passage, who began his racing career slowly as a 2-year-old with a fifth-place finish in his debut at Arlington Park, and a third-place finish in his second start at Keeneland. As if it was meant to be, he broke his maiden in his third start at Churchill Downs Nov. 7, 2001--five years to the day of his mom's last race.

Windward Passage, trained by Steve Asmussen, needed all of the 1 1/16 miles at Churchill to get the job done that afternoon, and that has been the case this year, too. He finished second in his 3-year-old debut at a mile and 40 yards at Fair Grounds in February, and followed up with a closing third at a mile in the muddy Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn in early March.

This is a colt that apparently wants some ground. The 1 1/16-mile Rebel, run before a large on-track crowd of 24,777 on March 23, was proof positive.

The final local prep at the Hot Springs, Ark., track for the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) came up lighter size-wise than expected. The March 2 Southwest Stakes was so popular it was split into two divisions, but several colts were sidetracked by injuries. Another one, the Asmussen-trained Private Emblem, who won the fastest Southwest division, needs a lot of time between races and took a pass on the $100,000 Rebel.

At post time, the 8-5 favorite was California shipper Ocean Sound, who in his previous start finished only four lengths behind Came Home, perhaps the West Coast's leading Kentucky Derby contender, in the March 2 San Rafael Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita. His trainer, Jim Cassidy, was no stranger in the land of the Ouachita Mountains; last year, he saddled Jamaican Rum to a second-place finish in the Arkansas Derby.

The close second choice was Jeremiah Jack, who had finished fourth in the Jan. 26 LeComte Stakes won by another Asmussen trainee, Easyfromthegitgo. In the interim, the colt underwent throat surgery, and reappeared donning blinkers for trainer Tom Amoss. In last year's Sam Houston Texan Juvenile Stakes, Jeremiah Jack defeated Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) starter French Assault and Private Emblem.

Ocean Sound, who shipped to Oaklawn more than a week before the race, had the advantage of an often deadly combination: the rail and the services of jockey Calvin Borel. The Mujadil colt quickly took command and held a comfortable lead over Jeremiah Jack through fractions of :23.95 and :47.88 on a track rated fast. Meanwhile, jockey Donnie Meche had Windward Passage tucked away nicely between those two, with Dusty Spike a few lengths back in fourth. The other four horses never really got into the mix.

After six furlongs in 1:12.73, jockey James Lopez asked Jeremiah Jack for some run, and he came to within a head of Ocean Sound. The California shipper repulsed the bid, but by that time, Windward Passage was eating up ground in the center of the track. Windward Passage took over after a mile in 1:38.50, and drew away in the final sixteenth to win by a length in a moderate 1:45.06 for the distance.

Ocean Sound finished 3 1/4 lengths ahead of Oklahoma-bred Dusty Spike in a quality effort in only his second start on the dirt. Interminable Gold, another colt in the Asmussen arsenal, rallied late to pass Jeremiah Jack for fourth.

"I just sat on him and tucked him in, and tried to get him to relax," Meche said of Windward Passage. "I felt I could have gotten them at any point. Once I pressed him, he made his move and did what he had to do. If anything had gotten closer to him, I think he would have responded even more."

Asmussen said the colt went off his feed after he shipped from Kentucky to Fair Grounds late last fall, and also developed ulcers. The training time he lost, though, "may be a blessing," Asmussen said given his recent development.

"I've seen drastic improvement in his last three races," the trainer said. "I'm hoping beyond hope he's still moving forward."

Asmussen said the "responsible thing to do" is keep Windward Passage at Oaklawn for the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby on April 13. Irwin said that indeed would be the case, and the extra sixteenth of mile should suit the colt. At this point, at least, the farther the better.

Windward Passage, with $105,920 in earnings, is the first stakes winner for sire Captain Bodgit. Irwin said the fact the partnership bred the colt is especially sweet and, meanwhile, Storm Runner's legacy lives on. In 2000, the mare was barren, and in 2001, she aborted a Captain Bodgit foal. But this year, she delivered a full sister to Windward Passage who Irwin said has been named Leeward Passage.

See Her Go
Asmussen holds a great hand in the 3-year-old colt division at Oaklawn, but on the 3-year-old filly side, trainer Donnie Von Hemel has some good cards himself. He trains Bedanken, winner of the Honey Bee Stakes (gr. III) and Dixie Belle Stakes at the meet, and on March 22 had a big smile on his face when See How She Runs won her third race in as many starts.

Owned by Josephine Abercrombie's Pin Oak Stable, See How She Runs broke her maiden at Oaklawn Jan. 26, and won a local entry-level allowance on Feb. 17. Both of those races were at six furlongs, and Von Hemel wanted to try the Maria's Mon filly around two turns.

He dropped her in a mile allowance race for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up. See How She Runs, the lone 3-year-old in the six-horse field, grabbed the early lead, maintained it under a hold, and exploded on the final turn under jockey Don Pettinger to win by eight lengths.

"The way she performed, we have to believe distance is not a problem," Von Hemel said. "From the three-quarters to the seven-eighths, she had a turn of foot that really showed something."

See How She Runs is narrow up front, and really doesn't look the part. But put her on the racetrack, and it's a different story, almost a sort of optical illusion. "You can look right over her," Von Hemel said. "She does have some length to her, and she carries her head up in the air. When she's running, though, she looks like a big horse."

That she does.

(Chart, Equibase)