Friday, 31 August 2018 11:33

Weezie at the Flagpole: “Take Me To Church!”

By Louisa Foye | Winner's Circle

JUBILANT OWNER BOB LAPENTA PROCLAIMED “take me to church” after his newly minted star, the athletic Catholic Boy, took the rest of the Travers field to school with his dominant 4-length victory in the 149th running of the Midsummer Derby!

Mendelssohn surprisingly held on for 2nd, following two dismal performances on the dirt in the Kentucky Derby and the Grade 3 Dwyer at Belmont, while Wayne Lukas’ Bravazo was 3rd.

On a picture perfect postcard day in front of a packed house of 49K+, the versatile 3-year-old ridgling son of More Than Ready, out of the Bernardini mare Song of Bernadette, earned a 104 Beyer, and gave Hall of Fame jockey Javi Castellano his record 6th Travers victory, while giving young trainer Jonathan Thomas his second Grade 1, this time on dirt, following Catholic Boy’s Belmont Derby Grade 1 victory on turf.

Javi won his first Travers aboard Bernardini for Tommy Albertrani in 2006, and his second on Afleet Express in 2010 for Jimmy Jerkens. The following year he rode Stay Thirsty to victory for Todd Pletcher. In 2014 he won the Midsummer Derby once again for Jimmy Jerkens with V.E. Day, and back-to-back in 2015 with the memorable upset of Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, aboard Keen Ice for Dale Romans and Jerry Crawford of Donegal Racing.

Born and raised on Paul Mellon’s iconic Rokeby Farm in Virginia, Jonathan Thomas spent his early days entrenched in his parents’ lifestyle as career horsemen. The experience he gained has proven to be invaluable, as was his time as a steeplechase jockey.

Although his jump career was shortlived, he was fortunate to ride for leading jump trainer Jack Fisher, and had a couple big graded stakes victories with him, before he suffered a career-ending injury. 

Thomas broke his back and had temporary paralysis following a scary accident, and it took him an entire year of intense therapy and “a lot of luck” to regain his mobility, and I’m sure this harrowing experience has also strengthened the 38-year-old trainer’s resolve.

Upon his return, Thomas was given the chance to be Fisher’s assistant at Saratoga, and at the end of the meet, Christophe Clement asked him to join his staff. He stayed with Christophe for almost 5 years before moving on to work briefly for Dale Romans, and also spent 2007 in Saudi Arabia working for King Abdullah. And then he received the career-changing call!

Todd Pletcher was obviously impressed with the resume Jonathan was building, and when the multiple Eclipse Award-winning leading trainer in North America offered him a job, Jonathan’s career began to skyrocket.

Under Todd’s tutelage, Jonathan would further hone his talents as a horseman and conditioner, working with the likes of Uncle Mo, Super Saver and Eskendereya. After 6 years of learning from one of the best in the business, Jonathan would then spend time with Todd’s Dad J.J. at his Ocala farm to learn more about breaking horses and the sales side of the industry.

In 2013 Jonathan, who calls the late, great John Nerud his earliest hero, was offered an opportunity of a lifetime when Bridlewood Farm, also in Ocala, asked him to lead their Training Division, and it is here that he was united with Bob LaPenta, and subsequently, Catholic Boy.

LaPenta, the 73-year-old Westport, CT native, had faith in the young trainer, so when Jonathan called Bob and requested that he purchase a particular horse at the 2016 Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale, Bob obliged. The horse that Jonathan wanted Bob to purchase had been with him since he was a weanling at Bridlewood, and would go on to be named Catholic Boy after Bob purchased him as a $170K RNA. And as they say, the rest is history!

The Midsummer Derby has always been a dream of Bob LaPenta’s, as he’s been coming to the Spa for 55 years, and this purchase made his dream become reality. Bob battled a potentially deadly case of Legionnaire’s disease earlier this year, which made this Grade 1 victory even sweeter, as I know he feels truly blessed.

A year after Thomas earned his first graded stakes win with Catholic Boy, in the Grade 3 With Anticipation on the turf at Saratoga, he now has a unique dilemma, and has a decision to make as to where to place his star pupil next. He increased his residual value as a sire exponentially following his Grade 1 victory in the Travers on the dirt, and it is now estimated he could be worth about $20 million because of his rare turf to dirt talent.

Although Thomas has not ruled out the Jockey Club Gold Cup, it appears that the Hill Prince on the turf at Big Sandy is the more likely option. The conditioner prefers the “kinder surface” as a prep for the Breeder’s Cup Classic on the dirt at a mile and a 1/4 at Churchill Downs, and Catholic Boy has certainly proven he is able to make the switch as effortlessly as he makes lead changes.

Thomas also isn’t thrilled at the prospect of meeting the 5-year-old Whitney winner Diversify on his home track in the JCGC, or of facing older horses at a mile and a 1/2 in the Breeder’s Cup Turf, but is confident that the BC Classic at a mile and a 1/4 on the dirt “hits him between the eyeballs.”

Catholic Boy, who has now earned more than $1.8 million, will remain in training at Saratoga until the end of September, and will then head down to Belmont. Thomas has also stated that there’s a possibility he may just train up to the BC, and skip a prep.

In the cruelest of sports, with all of its ups and downs, Saturday’s card, and in particular the Travers, had to be a crushing blow for leading trainer Chad Brown.

In spite of sending out 12 horses this day, including Travers favorites Good Magic and Gronkowski, Chad was only able to manage a victory in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa with Quidura, and was shut out in the five out of six Grade 1s he was entered in.

Gronk was rank after the start, and Good Magic didn’t break well, and it was all downhill from there, as Chad’s two favorites ended up 8th and 9th out of 10 horses, and were only able to beat the filly. Wonder Gadot ran well early on, sitting in 3rd place behind leaders Mendelssohn and Catholic Boy, but tired and faded to last in the late going, at the very same time Catholic Boy was gearing up.

Although it’s no immediate consolation for Chad, following his disappointment in the Travers, the not yet 40-year-old certainly will have many more opportunities in the future, and can take solace in the fact that he has 34 wins in the meet, doubling 2nd place Todd Pletcher’s 17.

Steve Asmussen sits in 3rd with 13, while Bill Mott follows with 12, and Rudy Rodriguez has 11 and Big Miah Englehart has10.

The eagerly anticipated rematch between Bob Baffert’s Abel Tasman and Bill Mott’s Elate in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign for fillies and mares 3 years old and up, at a mile and an 1/8, lived up to its billing and all the hype, and was as eerily contentious as last year’s controversial Coaching Club American Oaks.

While it remains doubtful that the stewards will ever take down Hall of Famers Mike Smith or Bob Baffert, it was evidently very clear to fellow Hall of Famer Bill Mott, and to a young Jose Ortiz, the reigning Eclipse Award-winning jockey, that they were once again not given a fair shake.

They were both visibly upset and very frustrated with the ruling that left Abel Tasman and Mike Smith up, following the inquiry, and they were not alone!

I have never in all my years heard such raucous booing as that which rang down from the normally genteel crowd in the Clubhouse boxes, when Mike Smith entered the Winner’s Circle. It was an extremely awkward moment that did not end there! 

I followed Mikey, who is generally a beloved figure, as he ran through the Clubhouse under guard, and all the way out to the Jock’s Room in the backyard, and the vociferous booing continued the entire way! It’s obvious that either it was a very partisan crowd, biased in favor of NY-based Jose Ortiz and Bill Mott, or else they had really strong feelings about the stewards’ decision.

To add insult to injury was the fact that it was an identical scenario and outcome for Mott and Ortiz as last year’s CCAO, and I can only imagine the intensity of this rivalry going forward, and in the BC Distaff!

It didn’t take long for Mikey and Bob to quiet the crowd, however, as they came right back out in the next race, the Grade 1 Ballerina for fillies and mares 3 years old and up, a 7 furlong sprint, with Marley’s Freedom, to go 2-2 on the day. The 4-year-old daughter of Blame easily dispatched the tough field, winning by 3-1/4 lengths, and is headed to the Breeder’s Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

It was a Dale Romans exacta in the 7 furlong Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens for 3-year-olds, when Promises Fulfilled, the son of previous Romans trainee, Shackleford, completed an Amsterdam-Jerkens double for owner and local businessman Bob Baron, with his 1-1/4 length victory under Luis Saez. His stablemate, West Point’s Seven Trumpets, beat a late charging Firenze Fire, while Engage was 4th.

It’s been a wonderful meet for the always affable Saez, and it’s nice to see him in 5th place in the Jockey Standings with 26 wins, behind leader Irad Ortiz with 45, Jose Ortiz and Javi Castellano now tied with 33, and Manny Franco with 31.

In the other Grade 1 Sprint on the card, the Forego for 3 year olds and up, Bob LaPenta, once again along with Sol Kumin, picked up his second Grade 1 on the day, when he and trainer Ron Moquett’s 5-year-old gelding Whitmore avenged his neck loss to Limousine Liberal in the Grade 2 Belmont Sprint on July 7th, while earning his first Grade 1 victory.

Whitmore, with Ricardo Santana aboard, beat the favorite, City of Light, the flashy Cali-based shipper for Michael McCarthy, under Irad Ortiz, by 1-1/2 lengths, while Limousine Liberal was nosed out in 3rd.

City of Light was bet down to 4-5 based on his set of Grade 1 wins at Santa Anita, and his more recent victory over leading older horse, Accelerate, in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap in April, which made Whitmore’s victory even more impressive!

In the $1-Million Grade 1 Sword Dancer, run over the inner turf course at 1-1/2 miles for 3 year olds and up, Chuck Lawrence’s 7-year-old gelding Glorious Empire wired the field, and made sure he didn’t have to share the victory with anyone else, as he did in the Grade 2 Bowling Green, when he and Channel Maker were in a dead heat.

Lawrence, who just like Jonathan Thomas is a former steeplechase jockey, actually went to the same High School as Jonathan, too, and now they share one more thing in common, as they both won Grade 1s on Saturday, Lawrence’s very first, and Thomas’ second!

It was also the very first Grade 1 for relative newcomer, owner Matt Schera, who actually claimed Glorious Empire for just $62,500 in May of 2017, and it has to be a real thrill to see his notoriously problematic Irish-bred gelding win a million dollar race!

On Friday’s New York Showcase Day, it was so heartwarming to see veteran 9-year-old gelding Kharafa get his first victory in seven tries at the Spa in the West Point. They just don’t make them like this anymore, and his indomitable spirit was a sight to see, with Dylan Davis aboard.

It’s hard to believe that the final week is here, and I’m trying hard not to get too melancholy, as I think about this weekend’s stakes races, but the pang in my heart is inevitable. 

I am thankful that I’ll get to see the marvelous Voodoo Song run one more time in the Bernard Baruch, where he’ll be challenged by Inspector Lynley, and I’m looking forward to seeing Antonio Sano’s Gunnevera return for the third straight summer to run in the Woodward, after winning the Saratoga Special in 2016, and coming in 2nd behind West Coast in last year’s Travers.

Other probables for the Woodward include Dallas Stewart’s Seeking the Soul, the trio of Dalmore, Imperative and Uno Mas Modelo for Anthony Quartarolo, and a trio for Todd Pletcher in Patch, Rally Cry and Tapwrit. Other possibles could also be Realm, Discreet Lover, Kurilov, Sunny Ridge and Term of Art, in what is expected to be a crowded field.

With three Grade 1s this weekend in the Woodward, the Spinaway and the Hopeful, and with a trio of Grade 2s in the Bernard Baruch,  the Prioress and the Glens Falls, plus the Grade 3 Saranac, there will still be plenty of great racing, and I hope everyone will join me there to bid farewell to another amazing meet!

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