The fan in trainer Jonathan Thomas is getting a real kick out of his current reality.
The colt he helped purchase as a short yearling out of the 2016 Keeneland January sale is no longer just another promising baby to come out of his Bridlewood Farm-based program. He is a multiple graded stakes winner, a Breeders' Cup participant, and, with his win in the Remsen Stakes (G2) in December, Catholic Boy became a contender on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
If the bay son of More Than Ready runs to expectations when he makes his seasonal debut against six challengers in the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) Feb. 10 at Tampa Bay Downs, the pressure of having a classic contender may start weighing on his conditioner a bit. For now, however, Thomas' perspective is buoyant.
"We're proud of all the horses we get to work with and what they go on to do. But it's especially gratifying with a horse that basically we've taken from the cradle to wherever he's headed now," Thomas said of Catholic Boy, who became his first graded stakes winner last summer. "It's cool. I'm also a big fan of the sport, so it's been a fun thing. And the horse has been so good to us, that it's less pressure than just hopefulness that he continues to progress."
Catholic Boy has already shown he can make one very key step forward regarding his classic potential. After he made his first three starts on the turf, including a victory in the With Anticipation Stakes (G3T) at Saratoga Race Course in August, he turned his dirt debut into a coming-out party when he won the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes by 4 3/4 lengths.
The decision behind the surface switch was brought on by the desire to keep the bay colt around two turns—and the lack of such options on turf—as well as the fact he was still relatively fresh following his fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T) Nov. 3. The way Catholic Boy trained over the main track suggested to Thomas dirt wouldn't be an issue. When he backed that up with his clearcut Remsen win, Thomas said that instead of feeling pangs over what might have been, had they had run in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), he was grateful circumstances allowed them to experiment with grand results.
"Hindsight is always 20/20, and if he had run just a little bit better in the Breeders' Cup and won or finished second, we might have never put him on the dirt," Thomas said. "I'm a believer in one step at a time, and I'm happy to be in the spot that we are. So there really is little in the way of regrets with the way things have panned out."
Owned by Robert LaPenta and Madaket Stables—that latter of which bought into the colt about a month ago—Catholic Boy has three wins from four starts with $314,000 in earnings.
Catholic Boy's form was further flattered when Avery Island, who ran second to him in the Remsen, came back to win the Withers Stakes (G3) Feb. 3. Should Thomas' protégé deliver a similar effort this weekend, he would likely train up to the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park March 31.
"The ideal scenario we wrote up on paper was the Sam Davis to the Florida Derby to the Kentucky Derby. And, as we all know, things rarely go as you expect, but that is what we sat down to do," Thomas said. "I know there is this trend toward lightly racing horses, and we kind of got questioned about the two preps into the Derby, but if you really look at his last 6-7 months, he's going to have had in an ideal scenario—six two-turn races going in from July to May. And that's fairly substantial."
The Sam F. Davis is a Road to the Kentucky Derby points race, where points toward a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) field will be awarded on a 10-4-2-1 scale.
Among those Catholic Boy will have to overcome in Saturday's 1 1/16-mile Sam F. Davis is Albaugh Family Stables' Hollywood Star. The son of Malibu Moon was entered in last weekend's Holy Bull Stakes (G2), but was scratched out of the spot as the Albaughs and trainer Dale Romans also had grade 1 winner Free Drop Billy in that test.
Out of grade 1 winner Hollywood Story, Hollywood Star will make his first start since he finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He broke his maiden first time out at Churchill Downs in June and followed that up with runner-up efforts in the Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Coors Light (G2) and Iroquois Stakes (G3) prior to the Breeders' Cup.
John Oxley's Flameaway is similar to Catholic Boy, in that he boasts form over both turf and dirt. The son of Scat Daddy took the Kitten's Joy Stakes over the Gulfstream Park grass Jan. 6, but earned his first graded win on the main track when he prevailed in an off-the-turf edition of the Dixiana Bourbon Stakes (G3) at Keeneland in October.
"He's actually won two stakes on the dirt," said trainer Mark Casse, referencing Flameaway's victory in the off-the-turf Skidmore Stakes at Saratoga in August. "He's trained well enough that he deserves another shot—and there may be a touch of Derby fever in there as well. One thing about him is he runs hard and likes to win—two good qualities."
Tampa Bay Downs, Saturday, February 10, 2018, Race 10
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Navy Armed Guard (KY) Jesus Lopez Castanon 116 Joan Scott 15/1 2 2Flameaway (ON) Jose Lezcano 120 Mark E. Casse 8/1 3 3Vino Rosso (KY) John R. Velazquez 116 Todd A. Pletcher 3/1 4 4Septimius Severus (PA) Jose L. Ortiz 116 George Weaver 15/1 5 5Hollywood Star (KY) Joel Rosario 116 Dale L. Romans 5/2 6 6Catholic Boy (KY) Manuel Franco 122 Jonathan Thomas 8/5 7 7Vouch (KY) Daniel Centeno 116 Arnaud Delacour 8/1
Tampa Bay Downs, Saturday, February 10, 2018, Race 10