No one could blame Jonathan Thomas, 37, if he had been jumping for joy as the Grade 3 With Anticipation field entered the stretch at Saratoga on Aug. 30. After a bumpy exit from the starting gate, Thomas trainee Catholic Boy found a gap in traffic and inched steadily to victory through the final sixteenth – giving Thomas his first graded stakes win from his first graded stakes starter.
Instead, Thomas remembers watching the proceedings in calm serenity. Although exciting, the result wasn't a shock, despite the horse's 12-1 odds.
“I'm a pretty sedate guy. At that point, I'm really watching him in real-time and trying to learn,” Thomas said. “You think [they're ready for a stakes run], but you don't know until you run them. I'm not much on ‘taking a shot.' I don't like taking a shot. It's always an educated risk, but I don't want to go up there with both my fingers crossed, hoping it works out. I like to think we have a reason we belong, and that goes from a graded stake to a maiden.”
Catholic Boy, who Thomas conditions for owner Robert LaPenta, came to the With Anticipation with one prior start, a maiden victory at Gulfstream Park. Thomas recalls many meetings with John Panagot, racing manager for LaPenta, strategizing about the next move for the son of More Than Ready after his maiden win. Although it's difficult to know whether a promising 2-year-old at that stage of his career is graded-stakes-talented or allowance-level-talented, Thomas has a checklist of practical and intuitive indicators to help him decide.
“The style in which a horse wins, I think, is important,” he said “I'm always feeling more confident when a horse is finishing, even if he finishes second but he's showing he's excelling in the latter part of a race. Progression is the second part. Normally a horse, even if they win, will improve from his first to his second start. We saw that with this horse, he became more professional in his training, more confident.”
Thomas's ability to size up a Thoroughbred is built on a lifetime with horses and a slightly unorthodox entrance into the flat racing world. He grew up on Paul Mellon's Rokeby Farm in Virginia, where his parents broke horses for Mellon and where he rode show jumpers and fox hunters. He doesn't remember any specific discussions with his parents about whether he should pursue horses as a career, nor does he remember considering any other vocation.
Training was not his first choice, however. Thomas started out his career as a professional steeplechase jockey, winning two graded stakes contests in a brief career ended by a serious wreck. He suffered a severe spinal injury and was told at the age of 20 he would never walk again, let alone ride. Thomas underwent two surgeries in Richmond, Va., and spent several months in the hospital before receiving training to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. All told, he was partially paralyzed for two years. He told the Daily Racing Form in 2010 that he had probably failed to grasp the seriousness of his injury at the time, which may have helped with his recovery.
Today, Thomas is not only walking again but returned to the races briefly as an amateur rider in 2006 and 2007, even representing the United States in an amateur jockeys' competition in Europe, where he finished fifth. He quickly realized however, that riding could no longer be his life.
“The hard thing is after I got hurt, I could ride but I just couldn't ride as well as I thought I needed to be at my best as a professional,” he remembered. “I realized I was 90 percent, but I wasn't going to ever be 100 percent, as hard as I'd try. My heart and my mind were still there, but physically I wasn't as strong.
“I was just starting to figure it out,” he said of his jockey career. “It was just starting to make sense, and then it was gone.”
Getting back aboard a horse at all was risky, Thomas admits. But he didn't think too hard about the likelihood of another wreck.
“I was more afraid of not being able to be a horseman,” he said. “The idea of not being able to get up and make a living with horses, I was more afraid of that than ever getting hurt or failing.”
Thomas also took a risk in going out on his own as a trainer, although that risk was a much more calculated one. After his recovery, he served as assistant to trainers Dale Romans, Christophe Clement and Julio Gardel in Saudi Arabia before taking a job with Todd Pletcher. Thomas compares his time with Pletcher to “going to Harvard,” adding polish and organization to the horsemanship skills he had already absorbed.
In 2013, Thomas was offered a job at Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, which had just been purchased by John and Leslie Malone. He has always enjoyed starting yearlings, preparing 2-year-olds, and recruiting sale horses, and the Bridlewood position allowed him to work in all three areas. That role has since extended to saddling horses like Catholic Boy on the track when owners choose to race rather than sell horses they've started at Bridlewood.
Thomas has 25 horses in active training at the farm's training center, plus 90 yearlings and 2-year-olds, down from 220 earlier this year. He expects those numbers to rise again over the coming weeks.
“A lot of times, everyone wants to separate everything into a nice little box in this business – the breaking process to the training process to racing. It can be a common thread, it doesn't have to be broken up,” he said. “If you think from a horse's standpoint, sometimes if they can be in a consistent program and surroundings, some horses thrive on that.”
Catholic Boy is a prime example of a horse benefitting from a consistent program. Thomas acquired the horse as a weanling and has taken him from first ride to first graded stakes win – an especially meaningful accomplishment since LaPenta was one of his first clients.
“You know, we're so numb to seeing six figures thrown up for horses left and right that we forget that someone worked really hard for that money and they're spending that on horses, and giving them to us to train,” Thomas said. “They're giving us more money to train and never batting an eye when they need extra time. It feels good when you're able to pay back into that.”
Catholic Boy's next start is still TBD, but Thomas hopes he could point toward the Breeders' Cup later this year.
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