It is rare that one trainer—much less two—can be renowned for their patience, yet concurrently respected for their affinity with young horses.
Such dexterity is what New Orleans is hosting this winter in the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots barns of Neil Howard and Wayne Catalano, who each have laid serious tread on the Road to the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks in the last month.
Each veteran trainer has synchronously been applauded for their ability to develop young animals into superstars—Catalano with three 2-year-old Breeders' Cup trophies and Howard having sculpted a perfect five-for-five grade 1-winning 2-year-old season for Summer Squall before winning the following year's Preakness Stakes (G1)—while also showing marked fortitude in the development of quality older horses.
Howard's hands-on approach helped mature Mineshaft into the 2003 Horse of the Year, while Catalano carved out a career that saw Stephanie's Kitten as an even better grade 1-winning 4-year-old than when she was a Breeders' Cup-conquering juvenile.
In 2017 Howard has Guest Suite, who showed his class and hinted at an intriguing trajectory when he took the Jan. 21 Lecomte Stakes (G3) to kick off his sophomore season. The son of Quality Road is a homebred of William Farish and Lora Jean Kilroy and has done little wrong in five starts and has improved with each effort.
The bay gelding is now aiming toward the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) Feb. 25 and put an exclamation on his preparation with a near-bullet half-mile drill Feb. 7. In what was his second work since the Lecomte, he drilled the second-best of 25 moves at the distance over the deep New Orleans oval in :47 4/5.
"I was very pleased," Howard said. "It's the usual cliché of 'it's what we were looking for,' but it really was. It was his second half-mile since the race and we'll likely work him five-eighths next week with (regular jockey) Robby (Albarado) on him and then an easy half-mile the week before the race.
"I think I'm seeing some physical positives with him. He's a smooth, nice-looking horse, but I think his weight is actually looking really good. I say that cautiously, because it's hard to notice that when you look at him every day, but this morning I was impressed when I looked at him. Like all young horses, they're developing, but I'm pleased."
As for developing, Howard is taking a more deliberate approach when it comes to another promising 3-year-old in his barn, B. C. W. T. Ltd.'s Society Beau. A son of Curlin out of the A. P. Indy mare Seattle Society, the bay colt is a grandson of grade 2 winner Westerly Breeze and has consistently held his own against some of the best of his generation. The one-time winner has hit the board in seven of his eight starts, racing against the likes of grade 1-placed stakes winners Not This Time , Lookin At Lee, and highly regarded Shareholder Value. Last time out, he was an elevated to second to well-intended Risen Star possible It's Your Nickel in allowance company Jan. 27.
"I really think he's a nice colt and he ran great the other day," Howard said. "I thought the mile wasn't his cup of tea and he wants to run a little longer. I could run him in the Risen Star, but I would rather be more judicious with him and stay in the allowance races for now. The farther the better and I wouldn't rule out turf for him in the future. If we play our cards right, he could be a very good horse if the opportunities are there to get through the conditions."
Catalano has a two-pronged, two-track attack on the first weekend in May, with Fair Grounds-based queen of the barn Farrell and lightly raced stakes winner Uncontested at Oaklawn Park. Each horse whistled during their works this week, with Catalano on hand for both. On Feb. 5, Uncontested—a son of Tiz Wonderful and half-brother to Catalano-trained grade 3 winner Solitary Ranger—fired a warning shot in the form of a five-furlong, best-of-55 bullet in 1:00 3/5 with regular rider Channing Hill up. Catalano then hopped on a flight to New Orleans, where Farrell answered with an effortless 1:01 1/5 for the same distance with Jose Valdivia Jr., subbing for Hill.
"They were excellent," Catalano said. "They now have a flight that goes from Little Rock to New Orleans, so that was great. I don't know that Farrell will work again before the race, but she went really well. She's feeling good and Valdivia liked how she went. Everything is on schedule so far."
In her last two starts, Farrell has taken the Golden Rod Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs and the listed Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds by a combined 8 3/4 lengths for breeder Coffeepot Stables. She will head to the $200,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2), which has proven a key prep in recent years for the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) and Kentucky Oaks.
Uncontested vaulted from a 6 1/2-furlong maiden debut romp in October to the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) six weeks later, when he ran an admirable fourth after setting the pace for owners Robert LaPenta and Harry Rosenblum. In just his third start, and first of his sophomore season, he toyed with seven others in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 16, sauntering home in the slop by 5 1/4 lengths. He races next Feb. 20 in the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3), and his bullet move was his third tab topper in his last four drills.
"The colt is doing good, as well," Catalano concluded. "He's got a lot of raw talent and has the speed you need. I think he could develop into a really top horse and —like I said before—you never know when it's going to rain on the first Saturday in May."