Siphonic, with Jerry Bailey aboard, winning the Hollywood Futurity.

Siphonic, with Jerry Bailey aboard, winning the Hollywood Futurity.

Hollywood Park Race Report: The Strongest Link

Published in the Dec. 22 issue of The Blood-Horse
Quick--think back five years to Del Mar's Pacific Classic (gr. I) and name the horse who set the scorching pace that afternoon, the one who brusquely emptied Cigar's tank, the one who helped bring the champ's streak to a breathless and unforgettable halt. Full credit if you came up with Siphon.

A Brazilian-bred bundle of muscle with an eye that seemed to watch every move you made, Siphon was hell on wheels, a front-running dervish whose lethal mixture of speed and stamina carried him to memorable victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) and Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I).

And he was quite a challenge for those who faced him. Let him run free and you were doomed. Take him on early and expect to pay a dear price (see Cigar).

As a first-crop sire, Siphon is exactly where you'd expect him to be--among the leaders. On Dec. 15, his son Siphonic established himself as the West Coast's top 2-year-old colt with a polished 3 1/2-length victory in the $456,750 Hollywood Futurity (gr. I).

Fittingly, Siphonic's launch into Triple Crown orbit came on the very same track upon which Siphon first blasted into prominence five years ago. But while Siphon was a single-minded terror, his son has shown remarkable versatility--and aptitude--during his fledgling career. Though the colt looked strong breaking his maiden first time out at Del Mar, it was his subsequent effort, a front-running, six-length blowout in Keeneland's Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. II) that truly turned heads.

Though Siphonic entered the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) with a legitimate shot to handle the likes of Officer, Johannesburg, and Came Home, he may have lost his chances at the post position draw. Pulling the one-hole in the Belmont chute offers plenty of diversions, especially for a youngster making just his third start.

"It's funny," said jockey Jerry Bailey. "Breaking at a mile and a sixteenth, there's tractors in the chute over there, there's a maintenance shed, there's all kinds of things going on, and for a horse in the one stall, it's distracting. They don't always break the best."

Still, Siphonic gave a solid account of himself, even gaining a slim lead with a furlong to run. The tension had taken its toll, though, and he was no match when Johannesburg came storming by. Siphonic finished third, but it was more than enough to convince Bailey.

"Short of not winning a million-dollar race, I was ecstatic with the way he ran," the Hall of Famer admitted. "I mean, he'd run only two times, he broke from the inside, he was pressured all the way on a dead rail. I could never give him a chance to relax just because the pressure was always there. It was asking almost the impossible that day."

Bailey was so impressed with Siphonic's talent that he promptly told owners John and Jerry Amerman he'd pay his own way across the country just to ride the colt again. It seems well worth the expense.

Siphonic left the four-hole "with run on his mind," according to Bailey, who figured the new surroundings would make Siphonic more attentive at the break. Trainer Bobby Frankel, on the other hand, was surprised to see his Labamta Babe make the lead leaving the clubhouse turn. With Yougottawanna eager in second along the fence, the son of Skywalker peeled off even fractions of :23.20 and :46.59.

Bailey had Siphonic third all the while, just outside and ready to strike. As the field braced for the far turn, Siphonic began to close in. Labamta Babe was still in front through three-quarters in 1:10.73, shedding Yougottawanna in the process. But Siphonic had been giving Bailey all the right signals, and sweeping past the quarter pole, they took charge for good.

There was, however, still a presence to his outside. Fonz's had stayed close under new rider Alex Solis down the backstretch, racing outside of Officer in fifth. Solis knew Siphonic's trip had been ideal, so passing the three-eighths pole he put Fonz's on the attack.

But compared to the callow Fonz's, Siphonic had the experience of a world traveler. The recent winner of the Hollywood Prevue Stakes (gr. III), Fonz's--heretofore limited to sprints--was heading into uncharted territory. The Out of Place colt still put in a worthy run, but when Siphonic cornered for home, it was over.

"He really exploded," Bailey later said. In a heartbeat, Siphonic left Fonz's behind, powering through the stretch en route to a decisive triumph. His final time, 1:42.09, virtually mirrors Point Given's stroll of a year ago.

"My colt got a little tired, but I was even more impressed by what he did after he was tired," Solis said of Fonz's. "He was so game. He's such a little warrior. He came back and got some strength from wherever and went on and beat the other horse."

With Siphonic in a race of his own ahead, Fonz's was left to deal with Officer. An unbeaten sensation before deflating in both the Breeders' Cup and California Cup, Officer needed a competent effort in the Futurity to restore his reputation. It didn't happen. Officer swung into contention and joined up with Fonz's in midstretch, looking like he at least had a shot to dent Siphonic's lead. Instead, he could not push by. Fonz's held him off by a half-length, leaving his trainer, David La Croix, decidedly optimistic.

"You never know if they'll go two turns until you try them," he said shortly after the Futurity. "I think he proved himself. I'm pleased."

La Croix mentioned that Fonz's may reappear in early March, either in the one-mile San Rafael Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita or Golden Gate's El Camino Real Derby (gr. III).

For Officer, the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) is no longer an option.

"Going two turns, I'm not going to do that to him again," said Officer's trainer, Bob Baffert. "Today, he was in a good spot to really kick it in gear. He made a big run, and then he just hangs that last part. He's got distance limitations."

While Baffert stressed that the son of Bertrando will stick to sprints for the time being, Siphonic will wake up on Jan. 1 as the best 3-year-old in California, if not the nation. Though the fact remains that just one winner of the Hollywood Futurity--Real Quiet in 1997--has been able to come through at Churchill Downs, Siphonic may be just scratching the surface. Aside from his troubled Breeders' Cup trip, his year has been perfect, and even trainer David Hofmans marvels at the young colt's aptitude.

"He's one of the smartest 2-year-olds I've ever been around," he told reporters following the race. And Hofmans himself is no stranger to the grind of the Triple Crown. His work with Belmont (gr. I) hero Touch Gold (remember that awful foot?) four years ago is alone worthy of praise. Last year, his Futurity runner-up, Millennium Wind, later took the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). As twilight swallowed up the California afternoon, Hofmans could only speculate on the route that will take Siphonic to the Kentucky Derby and beyond.

"We'll start with the first Saturday in May and work backwards," said the trainer, unclear as to how many preps Siphonic will get leading into the Triple Crown. "Maybe three, maybe four. I'm not sure. I think we'll keep him in California. That's our primary goal, because we don't have a Point Given to worry about. Right now, we don't have to worry about ducking anybody. It's a pretty good position."


(Chart, Equibase)