Three-year-olds around the country continue to get “zapped” by the Derby trail’s three-headed monster. You know, zap, as in Zito, Asmussen, and Pletcher. In the past few weeks, we’ve had stakes and allowance victories by Pyro, Poni Colada, and J Be K (Asmussen), Fierce Wind and Cool Coal Man (Zito), and Why Tonto and Holidaze (Pletcher).
Asmussen actually finished one-two in the Risen Star (gr. III) with Pyro and Z Fortune, and Pletcher finished one-two in the Hallandale Beach Stakes with Why Tonto and Cowboy Cal. And we haven’t even seen War Pass and Anak Nakal (Zito), and Monba and Atoned (Pletcher) yet.
As for this past weekend’s action, it was Fierce Wind winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay, Poni Colada romping by eight lengths in the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park, and Why Tonto capturing the Hallandale Beach on the turf. And you can add allowance victories by J Be K at Fair Grounds and Holidaze at Aqueduct. Asmussen had just taken over the training of J Be K from Bob Baffert, who had him primed for a big effort first time out. The son of Silver Deputy has a ton of speed and should carry it, but 10 furlongs doesn’t look like his game.
Each year around this time, the topic of Robert LaPenta always seems to come up. LaPenta is the one owner whose modus operandi is to burn the candle at both ends, so to speak, which in his case has nothing to do with his workday and nighttime activities. Both ends for LaPenta are the racing and pinhooking business, and to date he has somehow managed to avoid getting burned, although some years it looked like a distinct possibility. Without boring anyone again with the details of LaPenta’s operation, simply put, he buys yearlings, puts them all up for sale at 2-year-old auctions, and races the ones who fail to meet their reserve, or -- as in the case of War Pass -- withdrawn from the sale because of illness or whatever reason. So, in essence he is allowing the buyers at 2-year-old sales to determine which horses he races.
His sales practices has resulted is his keeping 2-year-old champ War Pass and two-time allowance winner Cool Coal Man, who was bought back as a 2-year-old for a whopping $850,000. But on the other end of the candle, two horses he let get away are Remsen (gr. II) and Iroquois (gr. III) winner Court Vision, who he bought for $180,000 and sold for $350,000, and the aforementioned Fierce Wind, who he bought for a mere $90,000 and sold privately to Four Roses Stable after the colt failed to meet his $300,000 reserve. Fortunately for trainer Nick Zito, he at least got to keep Fierce Wind, having trained for the Fustok family for years.
LaPenta actually had several other Derby hopefuls this year, but Coal Play and Stevil turned in disappointing performances. Coal Play hasn’t worked since, but Stevil returned to the work tab on Monday. LaPenta does have maiden winner Da’ Tara, who is entered in a one-mile allowance race on Friday. The son of Tiznow wired his field going 1 1/8 miles in the slop at Gulfstream with first-time blinkers, so he’ll be dropping back in distance..
LaPenta’s main horse and main adversary -- War Pass and Court Vision -- both are scheduled to make their 3-year-old debuts this weekend – War Pass in an allowance race and Court Vision in the grade II Fountain of Youth, which could also attract Cool Coal Man.
Some may look at Fierce Wind’s victory in the Sam Davis by a half-length over the New York-bred Big Truck and say, “Big deal.” But his race was a lot better than one might think. Visually, it was impressive the way he cruised up outside the top-class Z Humor and then drew clear with little effort, although he did drift out in the stretch. He has an efficient way of moving and should only get better the farther he goes, with A.P. Indy, Seattle Slew, Roberto, Nijinsky, Secretariat, and Hail to Reason in his female family alone. Also, it must be noted that Big Truck had run a decent fourth to Court Vision in the Remsen Stakes after taking quite a wallop from the winner at the quarter pole while in heavy traffic. And then there are Fierce Wind’s splits of :24 3/5, :23 4/5, :24 2/5, :24 4/5, and :06 2/5. Those are steady, solid fractions over Tampa’s surface, and he showed his adaptability by settling four lengths off the pace in fourth following back-to-back front-running victories.
Z Humor and Wise Answer were the big disappointments in the Sam Davis, both tiring after pressing the pace. Hutcheson (gr. II) winner Smooth Air ran a good race to finish a close third after having to alter course to the inside in the stretch when Fierce Wind drifted out, but there are still questions about how effective he is going turn turns.
Cork pops Southwest field
In Monday’s Southwest Stakes (gr. III), Denis of Cork remained undefeated with a powerful 2 1/4-length victory over California invader Sierra Sunset. Imagine how jockey Calvin Borel felt after choosing Turf War as his Derby horse and then seeing his old friend Denis of Cork, whom he had ridden in his only two starts, charge to an impressive score under a hand ride, while Turf War finished ninth as the 2-1 favorite. Robby Albarado, who rode Denis of Cork in the Southwest, has committed to ride Blackberry Road in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), so he better hope trainer David Carroll, who stables at Fair Grounds, decides to stay on the Oaklawn route and point for the Rebel Stakes (gr. III).
Denis of Cork has been a buzz horse ever since his dazzling maiden victory at Churchill Downs last year. In the Southwest, he did everything like a seasoned pro, sitting 18 lengths back off the blistering pace set by Sacred Journey and then mowing down everyone just inside the eighth pole. He was moving with such authority approaching the quarter pole, you already knew at that point the race was over.
Albarado, after giving him one tap with the whip, hand rode him the rest of the way, and Denis of Cork threw his ears up as he hit the wire in 1:37 4/5 for the mile. The son of Harlan’s Holiday made up nine lengths in the final quarter, but it must be noted that the final quarter was run at a crawl, with everyone slowing down noticeably. There’s no telling how good this colt is. He’s certainly bred to go on, being out of an Unbridled mare. He has tremendous cruising speed and can sustain his move for a half mile or more.
Sierra Sunset ran big to finish a clear-cut second, but the big surprise was the pace-setting Sacred Journey, coming off three career six-furlong races, managing to finish in a dead-heat for third with Liberty Bull after a quarter in :22 2/5 and half in :45 1/5. In addition to Turf War, the big disappointment was the Bill Mott-trained Riley Tucker, who finished a well-beaten sixth.
In the Hallandale Beach, Why Tonto stalked his stablemate Cowboy Cal throughout the nine-furlong race and then out-kicked him in the stretch to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:40 1/5 for the 1 1/16 miles. Although the son of Indian Charlie started his career with two dismal efforts on dirt, he was pretty immature back then and certainly looks ready to return to the dirt (real dirt). His pedigree says he should run on grass and dirt, so why not make a run for the Derby? There’s nothing to lose. Owners Starlight Stable, Paul Saylor, and Don Lucarelli also have Monba, who runs in the Fountain of Youth, and Sleuse, a brilliant maiden winner at seven furlongs who would have an extreme outside shot of making the Derby if they decide to go that route. But his pedigree and lack of seasoning seem to indicate the Derby would be a push.
Godolphin’s Etched could do no better than a well-beaten fourth in the UAE Two Thousand Guineas (UAE-III) in his first start of the year. But it must be pointed out that the three horses who finished ahead of him were undefeated Southern Hemisphere 4-year-olds – two from Argentina and one from South Africa -- so he deserves another shot. Another Godolphin 3-year-old, Numaany, finished fifth, and should get better as he matures. In the U.S., Whirlaway winner Barrier Reef will now don the Godolphin blue silks and be trained by Rick Mettee, who handles the Godolphin horses here for Saeed bin Suroor. The son of Mizzen Mast is another who will only get better with maturity. He has a great deal of ability, but a lot to learn.
Dogwood Stable’s Holidaze, another talented son of Harlan’s Holiday, made a successful stretch-out, winning a mile and 70-yard allowance/optional claimer by a length after having run in five sprint races. The field was stretched out pretty good from second to seventh, with the highly regarded Mint Lane and Globalization both finishing out of the money. Rallying from last to finish second was Paraneck Stable’s 33-1 shot Parky, winner of a $35,000 maiden claiming race in his only career start. Holidaze gives Dogwood three legitimate Derby hopefuls, along with Blackberry Road and Atoned.
Big things were expected from Iron Works Pike and Manager Boire in a one-mile allowance at Fair Grounds Feb. 14, but it was the former’s less-heralded stablemate My Pal Charlie, coming off a win in a $50,000 maiden claimer who beat both of them by 1 1/2 lengths. Al Stall trains both horses for B. Wayne Hughes, who also has Crown of Thorns and Into Mischief with Dick Mandella.
Nikki’s Cinderella horse
Going back to last week, we have a good story in the making with the victory of Nikki’sgoldensteed in the Turf Paradise Derby. Purchased for $15,000 at the Barretts yearling sale, the Cal-bred son of Formal Gold, trained by Bob Hess, was coming off five sprint races, four of them against state-breds, including his career debut at two furlongs. A second to Bob Black Jack at Del Mar at odds of 27-1 indicated the colt had a future. He broke his maiden at Santa Anita on Jan. 11 and then stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in the Turf Paradise Derby, where he rated off the pace before bursting clear in the stretch to win by 5 3/4 lengths. Out of a mare by the seldom seen Tank’s Prospect, there is no reason to think he won’t keep stretching out successfully.
Longshot Future book plays
If you’re still searching the Future Book for some live horses at a decent price, impressive maiden winners Elysium Fields and Kentucky Bear step way up in class in Sunday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes. Both appear to be extremely talented colts, and if either should run big, you can bet the money will come pouring in on them, so now is the final opportunity to get in on the bottom floor. Kentucky Bear would have to outrun his pedigree a bit to take home the roses on May 3, and he’s had only one career start, but Elysium Fields will run all day, has plenty of foundation, and could be a real sleeper for Barclay Tagg, who also has Tale of Ekati and Big Truck, as well as Jockey Ridge, who disappointed last time out on an off track. Elysium Fields tuned up for the Fountain of Youth with a five-furlong drill in :58 4/5 Monday.
Another potential Fountain of Youth starter who bears watching is the A.P. Indy colt Adriano, who is coming off an electrifying 6 3/4-length victory in an allowance race on grass for Graham Motion, in which he inhaled his field and drew off in a flash. In his only non-turf start, he finished a respectable fourth in the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) on Polytrack at odds of 9-1. If he runs as well on dirt as he did in his last start, this will be your last chance to get him at any kind of price.
One horse who is coming off a sneaky-good effort is Golden Spikes, who stretched out from seven furlongs to 1 1/8 miles in an allowance race and pressed the quick early pace set by Legacy Thief. The son of Seeking the Gold disposed of Legacy Thief and ran on gamely to the wire, but couldn’t hold off Coal Coal Man, losing by a length. He’s bred to run all day, being out of an A.P. Indy mare whose dam is the top-class stakes winner Shared Interest, by Pleasant Colony. If trainer Marty Wolfson can get him to settle better, he could be one to watch.
Two California colts who are attractive propositions are Coast Guard and Reflect Times, who finished two-three in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II). Reflect Times displayed a powerful stretch kick in his first two starts sprinting and still has to prove he’s not a one-turn closer, but Coast Guard runs like he wants to go on and will get better with racing and maturity. He could prove to be good value.
Others to watch who still have value are Alaazo, Face the Cat, Make the Point, and Miner’s Claim. The last named is way under the radar, having won both his starts at Woodbine last year, but he could be a good one if he makes the transition to dirt. The son of Mineshaft is working up a storm at the Ocala Training Center and appears to be sitting on a big race.
Another who is way under the radar is Whirlaway runner-up Roman Emperor, who keeps improving and is bred to run forever, being by Empire Maker, out of a Colonial Affair mare – both stallions having won the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). The horse who finished third in the Whirlaway, Texas Wildcatter, is a Todd Pletcher colt who hasn’t gotten much notice, but was coming on at the end and has a lot of room for improvement.
So, there still are a number of attractive propositions out there, but time is running out.
Also, keep an eye on a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Santa Anita Friday, where the highly promising Pletcher colt On the Virg takes on Limestone Edge, Chop House George, and stretch-outs Winsome Charm, Afleet Ruler, and Cardinal Zin. On the Virg is by Pulpit, out of a mare by champion sprinter Housebuster. But there is stamina on the tail-female line. Limestone Edge gets blinkers on after a series of steady works, including six furlongs in a bullet 1:10 1/5 on Jan. 19. The horse he defeated in his maiden score in November, Medjool, who we've been following closely for a while, finally broke his maiden impressively Monday, winning by 4 1/2 lengths over a strong field. Limestone Edge is by Cat Thief, out of an Unbridled mare, so distance will be no problem.
Red flag horses
The following horses have not had a recorded workout in at least two weeks: Macho Again, Paint, Jedi Code, Legacy Thief, and King’s Silver Son. Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) winner Wicked Style has not worked since November. Golden Yank, third in the Delta Jackpot (gr. III), and Wind’s Legacy, winner of two straight at Hollywood, have not worked since December.
Stakes horses who have recently returned to the work tab are Racecar Rhapsody (:37 1/5), Texas Fever (1:02 4/5), and Salute the Sarge (:50 4/5 and 1:04 4/5). Another stakes horse from last year, Shore Do, has been training sharply for his return, working six furlongs in 1:13 1/5 in his most recent drill.