It took 12 days longer and a bigger effort than originally expected, but Firenze Fire's weather-delayed 3-year-old season started on a winning note on the first full day of racing at Aqueduct Racetrack in two weeks.
Like everyone else stabled in New York, the winner of the Champagne Stakes (G1) had his training compromised by a spate of brutal winter weather that forced the cancellation of all or part of nine straight cards at Aqueduct from Dec. 30-Jan. 12. Original plans called for Firenze Fire to run in the one-mile Jerome Stakes Jan. 1, but Mother Nature's invention pushed the $150,000 stakes back to Jan. 13, when temperatures in the 30's and a muddy, sealed track greeted Firenze Fire and five other starters.
Ron Lombardi, who owns Firenze Fire, said it "wasn't perfect conditions" for his homebred son of Poseidon's Warrior , but in the end it was a highly useful start on the path to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) as Firenze Fire rallied from last in the small field at the half-mile pole to wear down a game Seven Trumpets in the final yards. The winning colt posted a half-length victory under jockey Manny Franco.
"That wasn't easy," said Lombardi, who races under the banner of Mr. Amore Stables, "but he did what he needed to do. It was a big win for us. If he can make through the past two weeks (in New York), we're good going forward."
An odds-on favorite, Firenze Fire covered the mile in 1:42.88 on the muddy track while receiving 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, giving him a total of 20. He now ranks second on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. Seven Trumpets, Coltandmississippi, and Regalian received four points, two points, and one point, respectively, for finishing second through fourth.
The Jerome marked a triumphant first start for Firenze Fire since a disappointing seventh-place finish the Nov. 4 Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Del Mar. Trainer Jason Servis said Firenze Fire was bothered by a fever during much of his stay in California, a turn of events made even more disappointing when the horse who finished second to Firenze Fire in the Champagne, Good Magic, won the Juvenile and became a finalist for the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male. Good Magic currently tops the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 24 points.
As for Firenze Fire, the Breeders' Cup loss diminished his stature among the top horses in his crop, but did not wash away any of Lombardi's confidence in his colt.
"He never gets respect," Lombardi said. "I kind of compare him to the (Super Bowl champion) 1969 (New York) Jets and I hope he finishes like the 1969 Jets. Every race he doesn't get talked about. Not so much this one, but the prior ones."
Lombardi said even as the cancellations mounted in New York there never was never a thought in his conversations with Servis of shipping Firenze Fire to Florida.
"There are races at the start of every month in New York with Derby points and it seemed like the easy path," Lombardi explained. "The delay was terrible but everybody is on the same terms. Jason and his staff did a good job of keeping him active and moving as much as they could, and he breezed well. We were happy where he was and he showed it today."
Lombardi said the one-mile Gotham Stakes (Grade 3, March 10 at Aqueduct) would most likely be next for Firenze Fire, followed by the New York oval's April 7 Wood Memorial Stakes (G2). The New York Racing Association announced earlier in the day that if a grade 1 winner runs in the Wood there would be a $250,000 bonus, pushing the purse to $1 million. Firenze Fire fits that description.
"The bonus didn't change anything," Lombardi said. "We staying here. We're not going south. This is fantastic, especially since he's a homebred and people kept telling me, 'Why are you getting into breeding?' It's a dream right now. I've been in this game for nine years and had some good horses but this is something special."
The victory was fourth in six career starts for the son of the Langfuhr mare My Every Wish and the $90,000 winner's share of the purse pushed his earnings to $539,100.
"He didn't have the easiest of trips ... but it's nice when things work out," Servis said. "They don't usually, but when they do it's nice."
Seven Trumpets, making his stakes debut for West Point Thoroughbreds, set fractions of :50.81 and 1:16.72 for six furlongs and enjoyed a two-length lead at the eighth pole before he drifted in and gave way in the final yards under jockey Paco Lopez.
He finished 5 1/4 lengths ahead of Coltandmississippi.
"We are thrilled with his performance. He ran well in his first race (since Nov. 25)," said Tom Bellhouse, West Point's chief operating officer. "We re-engaged the winner after the wire and that's something you like to see."
Bellhouse said the decision would be made by trainer Dale Romans and West Point president and CEO Terry Finley, who were not on hand, but said the Gotham and Wood were likely targets for Seven Trumpets.