A horse like Army Mule can test the patience of an owner and trainer, but the lightly raced colt surely made up for lost time in a huge way and in a rather prestigious spot.
The 4-year-old Pennsylvania-bred son of Friesan Fire lived up to every bit of the potential trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Vinnie Viola saw in him as he romped to a 6 1/4-length victory in the $400,000 Carter Handicap (G1) at Aqueduct Racetrack April 7. The decisive win in the seven-furlong test was just the third start of his career and his stakes debut.
"I think this horse can be special for the sport," said Viola, who races under the banner of St. Elias Stable and also owns the Florida Panthers of the National Hockey League.
Army Mule, an $825,000 purchase as a 2-year-old, surely looked "special" in the Carter, as he scooted through a hole along the rail on the turn under jockey Joe Bravo and overpowered 10 seasoned rivals to increase his combined winning margin to 22 1/4 lengths.
Army Mule won in 1:20.94 on a track labeled fast, but Viola described it as "heavy and dewy."
"I don't even think the track is that fast today, and to go (1:20.94) is something very special," said Pletcher, echoing Viola's opinion. "The sky's the limit with him. He's a super-talented horse. It's a matter of keeping him healthy.
"You never expect to win a grade 1 by that many lengths, but he was training really well coming into it, and he showed exceptional ability in his two races. It's not a move we make that often from a non-winners-of-one to a grade 1 stakes, but his last race was so powerful."
Army Mule arrived at Pletcher's barn last year as a 3-year-old and posted an 8 1/2-length win in a Belmont Park maiden race April 30. Any thoughts about his future plans were put on hold when Army Mule's knee acted up, and he did not return to the races until Jan. 31, when he registered an even more impressive 7 1/2-length score in a Gulfstream Park allowance optional-claiming race.
"He had a flare-up in his knee. It wasn't a surgical issue. We just had to give him time," Pletcher said after his third win in the Carter. "When you have a horse break his maiden like he did, and with Saratoga around the corner, you starting thinking (about the future), but it's a tribute to Vinnie's patience as an owner that we gave him the time he needed. I told him he's a very talented horse, and we have to stop and give him a break, and the patience paid off today."
After his colt successfully handled the prodigious jump in class, Pletcher said the Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap (G1) June 9 at Belmont would be an appropriate target.
"The way he finished at seven furlongs today, it makes sense to have the Met Mile on the radar," the trainer said.
For Viola, the Carter underscored what he first saw in Army Mule at the 2016 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-olds in training sale, when he purchased the eye-catching colt.
The winner's share of $240,000 lifted Army Mule's earnings to $311,400.
"It's a bit of a contrarian path in developing a horse from a nondescript sire, but when you think about horses as athletes, the moment we saw him, Dennis O'Neill and myself, he was a premier athlete," Viola said.
Bred by Hope Hill Farm, Army Mule was originally purchased for $35,000 by Scanlon Training & Sales at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Eastern fall yearling sale.
Jockey John Velazquez, who was on Awesome Slew in the Carter but rode Army Mule in his April 2017 debut, succinctly expressed what happened Saturday.
"I had a great trip," he said. "I into ran a monster."
Perhaps a "special" monster.