Published in the Feb. 23 issue of The Blood-Horse
Stop us if you've heard this one before. Booklet, a tiny colt trainer John Ward calls "a walk-on, non-scholarship type of player," spurts to an open lead, and when finally collared late by Harlan's Holiday, refuses to yield, holding off that rival by a desperate nose. Harlan's Holiday's trainer Ken McPeek had, and he didn't like it. "If they keep giving him an easy lead we're not going to beat him at a mile and a sixteenth," he said after his colt again found Booklet too hard to pass and had to settle for second in Gulfstream's Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. I) on Feb. 16. It was the first time the track had hosted dual grade I races on a single card, but judging from the excitement these two rivals engendered, it may not be the last. Booklet and Harlan's Holiday were first introduced in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) on Jan. 19 when the latter's rally fell less than a length short. But much had changed in the subsequent four weeks. For one, concerned that jockey Eibar Coa might be facing a suspension, Ward had replaced him and put Jorge Chavez in Booklet's irons. Then there was the stepped-up competition that included, among the six other runners, five horses who had won their last starts, and Spectacular Bid (gr. III) winner Maybry's Boy trying two turns for the first time. One of those last-out winners was Stephentown, so highly regarded off an allowance win earlier in the meet that he was the eighth-lowest priced individual entry in the first round of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. And then there was Political Attack, fresh off two straight front-running stakes wins, who figured to make Booklet's life difficult on the lead. Although Political Attack broke well from post two, he could not match strides early with Booklet, who had cleared the field by 2 1/2 lengths through an opening quarter of :22.98. "I knew he was fast, but I didn't expect he would show speed like that," said Chavez, who boarded the Florida-bred son of Notebook for the first time in the walking ring before the race. Chavez managed to get Booklet to relax after a half in :46.96 and headed into the turn still a length ahead. Behind him, Political Attack briefly mounted a challenge rounding the turn. Harlan's Holiday, who had raced in tandem with Stephentown down the backstretch while some five lengths behind the leaders, began to pick up the pace. The Fountain of Youth boiled down to just two after Political Attack faded at the quarter pole, and it was Holy Bull redux as Harlan's Holiday advanced toward the leader in early stretch, but was unable to get by. Just like in the Holy Bull, Harlan's Holiday finished well out into the center of the track--in this case bearing out on his own accord--but jockey Tony D'Amico said, "he had a perfect trip but still couldn't get by that horse." The previously undefeated Blue Burner finished a non-threatening third. Final time for the race was 1:44.49. Booklet's tenacity and bettors' lack of appreciation--he was third-choice at 5-1 in the wagering--were the main topics of conversation by his connections after the race. "He does not want to let another horse get by him," said owner John Oxley, who acquired the colt in a private transaction in the final days of 2001. "It's almost as if he likes to have another horse hook him." The Oklahoman, who later sauntered to the mutuel window armed with a stack of winning tickets, joked, "I sure don't need him to be the favorite. He gets plenty of respect from me." Next up for both Booklet and Harlan's Holiday is the Florida Derby (gr. I) on March 16, and many, including McPeek, predict that the extra sixteenth of a mile will make a difference in the outcome. But not Ward, who does not expect his charge to ever have to run an opening quarter as fast as he did in the Fountain of Youth. "You could see he was having fun doing it by the way he had his tail between his legs," Ward said. "The more I see of him the more his stamina surprises me."
For a "genius," Michael Dickinson is remarkably modest. The man whose training acumen is highly heralded stood in the winner's circle following yet another remarkable training feat--Cetewayo's victory in the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IT) after beating just a single horse home in his past two tries--and promptly deflected all of the credit. "The horse and the owner get all of the credit," he said. He was referring to the Kentucky-bred son of His Majesty and owner Dr. John Chandler, the president of Juddmonte Farms. "He's just a marvelous horse--an 8-year-old who wants to run. And Dr. Chandler allowed me to take all the time I needed with him. It was not brilliant training by me." Whatever you say, Michael. Cetewayo was a horse that could be expected to compete at this level, but that was back in 1998. It was then that the veteran captured three consecutive stakes, including his other career grade I in Saratoga's Sword Dancer Handicap. In four tries last year, Cetewayo could fare no better than one third-place finish coming in the Turf Classic (gr. IT). In his final two starts of 2001, he finished in 10th and 12th place in a pair of New York grade II turf races, the Knickerbocker and Red Smith Handicaps. But Dickinson attributed his poor performances to back problems, although he said he could not determine the cause at the time. Instead of persevering, the trainer returned Cetewayo to his Tapeta Farm in Cecil County, Md., and got him feeling well. He then gazed into his crystal ball and picked out the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap as a reasonable spot to commence a campaign. Although the field was deep, Cetewayo was the only contestant to have a North American grade I win on his resume. That compensated for jockey Cornelio Velasquez, who himself lacked that distinction. But the 33-year-old was unfazed, allowing Cetewayo to settle in along the hedge toward the rear of the pack while favored Band Is Passing assumed control while setting moderate fractions. Though the leader was challenged at various times, he was running strongly towards the wire until Cetewayo, after cutting the corner and angling outside near the three- sixteenths pole, came roaring by. Cetewayo drew off, running the final furlong in :11.10 and hit the wire 3 1/4 lengths clear, timed in 2:17.44 over the yielding turf. "For a 1 1/2-mile horse he has a great turn of speed," said Dickinson, reciting some of his closing fractions in his better prior efforts. "Very few distance horses have his type of acceleration." The trainer was not about to forecast where that acceleration might next show up, deferring to Chandler to map his campaign. Dickinson would only predict that it would not be 3 1/2 years before Cetewayo won another grade I, all the while leaving others to sing his praises as a conditioner. Said Stan Ersoff, who owns and trains the runner up, "Dickinson is pretty tough to beat." Continued