It has taken more than six months but Catholic Boy, a Grade 1 winner on both dirt and turf, will make his seasonal debut as he returns to grass in the $250,000 Maker's Mark Dixie (G2) Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.
The 118th running of the 1 1/16-mile Dixie for 3-year-olds and up is one of nine stakes, five graded, worth $2.8 million in purses on a 14-race program highlighted by the 144th running of the $1.65 million Preakness Stakes (G1), the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown.
Robert LaPenta, Madaket Stables, Siena Farm and Twin Creeks Racing Stables' Catholic Boy has not raced since being eased following a rough trip in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs. It was the end of a six-race campaign that produced three wins, all in graded-stakes, and pushed the bay ridgling over $1 million in career earnings.
Catholic Boy wintered with trainer Jonathan Thomas Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, Fla. where he got a well-deserved break before returning to training in February. He has worked consistently for his return both at Bridlewood and Belmont Park, where he breezed five furlongs in 1:02.19 on the inner turf May 11, the fastest of five horses.
“We've been very pleased with the time. He had three months off, a well-deserved break over the winter, and he seemed to have done really well for having that. He's had a steady series of breezes to get ready and I thought what he did at Belmont the other day was really nice,” Thomas said. “So, all in all, we're pretty happy with where we're at.”
Thomas took his time bringing Catholic Boy back to the races, and had the luxury of looking at various spots given his success on various surfaces. The bay 4-year-old strung together three straight wins last summer, in the 1 1/8-mile Pennine Ridge (G3) and 1 ¼-mile Belmont Derby Invitational (G1) on turf, and the 1 ¼-mile Travers (G1) on dirt at Saratoga.
“They're horses year-round and sometimes you're lucky to have won stuff. I don't think we ever felt lucky; I just felt like we were able to showcase his talent which comes with a big responsibility,” Thomas said. “It's nice to have a horse like him for various reasons, one of the primaries being the fact that he's adept at two different surfaces and you can kind of pick and choose a little bit about what's right for his scheduling.”
Catholic Boy represents all five career graded-stakes wins for Thomas, a former assistant to future Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, winner of the 2012 Dixie with Hudson Steele. Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, who rode Hudson Steele, has the mount on Catholic Boy.
“One of the many benefits of working for Todd was just being around the depth of horses that he had. [Catholic Boy] always trained like a horse to me that was capable of winning a Grade 1,” Thomas said. “To exit the year with two under our belt, one of them being the Travers, which is arguably like a fourth Classic, it felt like quite an accomplishment as a trainer but also just the responsibility of having a horse with that kind of talent to get it done, for him and the owners, was very satisfying.”
With the Breeders' Cup as a long-range goal, Thomas is hoping to use the Dixie as a stepping-stone to another successful campaign. Among the rivals Catholic Boy will face are graded-stakes winners Flameaway, Have At It, Inspector Lynley, Just Howard, Real Story and Something Awesome, along with local multiple stakes winners O Dionysus and Phlash Phelps.
Catholic Boy and Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano drew far outside Post 12. All horses
“It's the beginning of what we're hoping is a long campaign for the remainder of the year. We're just looking for him to get a good experience, if that's winning or not winning. That's not really my primary goal at this stage as much as just getting him back with a positive race under his belt, and that's all we're looking for,” Thomas said. “The Dixie looks like, from a timing perspective for the remainder of the year, a good launch pad for him.”
Skeedattle Stable's Just Howard was Maryland's champion 3-year-old, turf horse and Horse of the Year following a 2017 season that saw him string together four straight wins, three in stakes, capped by the Commonwealth Derby (G3).
Last year, Just Howard was third in an off-the-turf edition of the Dixie and won an optional claiming allowance in the summer at Laurel Park but was off the board in a trio of stakes. He has raced once this year, finishing a troubled fourth in the Henry S. Clark Stakes April 20 at Laurel.
“To me, this year he has been as good or better than ever,” said trainer Graham Motion, who won the Dixie with Dr. Brendler in 2003 and Better Talk Now in 2006. “I feel like he's an unlucky horse. We kind of got caught out with the weather last year; we just never seemed to get lucky. Then, his first race back this year he got in trouble, which probably compromised him.
“He got taken up pretty good at the sixteenth pole, so I think if he improves a little bit he can be competitive in here,” he added. “I'm really happy with him. I realize this race is going to come up really tough, but he's probably going to spend this year in Maryland and this is a race we wanted to run in. This is kind of the race we were pointing for.”
Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey has won the Dixie four times, most recently last year with Fire Away. He returns to defend his title with Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stables' Inspector Lynley, whose previous graded-stakes wins came in the 2017 and 2019 Tampa Bay Stakes (G3). He enters the race off a one-length victory in the one-mile Danger's Hour Stakes April 7 at Aqueduct.
Cross-entered in Friday's historic $300,000 Pimlico Special (G3) at 1 ¼ miles on dirt, John Oxley's Flameaway was a graded-stakes winner at 2 and 3 who has two previous tries on the grass – running eighth in the 2017 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) and winning the 2018 Kitten's Joy Stakes. Thirteenth in last year's Kentucky Derby, he won the Challenger Stakes in March and was sixth last out in the Ben Ali (G3) April 13 at Keeneland.
Robert Evans' Have At It is also entered to make his 2019 debut, last finishing sixth after setting the pace in the Hollywood Derby (G1) Dec. 1. While in California he also finished second by a half-length in the Twilight Derby (G2) after winning Belmont Park's Hill Prince (G2) last fall.
Real Story has not won since taking the American Derby (G3) last summer at Arlington Park, but has run second in both his races this year including a neck loss to Just Howard's stablemate Irish Strait in the Henry Clark.
Stronach Stables' multiple graded-stakes winning millionaire Something Awesome, winless since his upset victory in the Charles Town Classic (G2) last April, finished off the board in his one career try on the grass. The 8-year-old Awesome Again gelding was most recently sixth in defense of his win at Charles Town.
Marathon Farms' O Dionysus was third by a neck in the Clark, just his second loss in five career tries on turf after winning dirt stakes as a 2 and 3-year-old. Fourth in last year's Dixie, he won an optional claiming allowance and the 1 ½-mile Cape Henlopen Stakes last summer on the grass at Delaware Park. He finished sixth in the BWI Turf Cup (G3) last fall at Laurel, contested over a yielding course.
“If the turf is good and firm and has a good footing to it, he likes it and he's been right there. I did run him on a soft turf last year and he didn't run well. That was my fault,” trainer Gary Capuano said. “It was against my better judgment but I did it anyway and it didn't work out.
“The last race was great off the layoff. He was coming. He was grinding it out and he just couldn't nail them. I was real happy with it and he came out of the race real good and breezed real nice, so he's ready to go,” he added. “We've kind of been shooting for this race since he's been back. We wanted to get a prep race into him, which we did, and then go in that. We're on target.”
Completing the field are Phlash Phelps, a two-time winner of the Maryland Millon Turf, Admission Office, Paret and Twenty Four Seven.
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