Jonathan Thomas leaned forward in a Grandstand box seat as his 3-year-old colt Catholic Boy commenced his workout on the Tampa Bay Downs dirt oval shortly after 9 a.m. today, accompanied by an unraced stablemate.
“Twelve-and-one (seconds for the first quarter-mile),” the trainer murmured via walkie-talkie to exercise rider Tracy Price. “That's quick enough, guys. Just sit. Just sit tight.”
Thomas stayed silent until Catholic Boy flashed past the wire, having left his company behind. “Forty-nine-and-three (for the scheduled half-mile),” he cooed to Price, as she continued moving in perfect harmony with the handsome bay son of More Than Ready-Song of Bernadette, by Bernardini. “Just let him gallop out as he wants to.
“1:02 and 1. That's great, Tracy – perfect,” Thomas said.
Thomas intended today's 4-furlong breeze, which was officially clocked in 49.20 seconds, as a “maintenance” workout, coming eight days after a 5-furlong move here in 1:01 that indicated to the conditioner Catholic Boy embraces the sand-based main Oldsmar surface.
Now, all signs point to owner Robert V. LaPenta's pride and joy making his 2018 debut in Saturday's Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis, the showcase event of the track's Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South. After shipping in Saturday from Ocala, Catholic Boy will remained stabled on the grounds here through the race.
The 38th edition of the mile-and-a-sixteenth event for 3-year-olds is a “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points race, with the first four finishers earning points toward eligibility for the Kentucky Derby starting gate on May 5.
Regular jockey Manuel Franco will again ride Catholic Boy. Confirmed challengers Saturday include Grade III winner Flameaway; multiple graded stakes-placed Hollywood Star; Todd Pletcher-trained allowance winner Vino Rosso; and Navy Armed Guard.
Other possibilities at press time included multiple-stakes winner Awaken, Mind Trappe and Septimius Severus.
The other stakes on Saturday's card are the Grade III, $175,000 Tampa Bay Stakes, for horses 4-years-old-and-upward on the turf; the Grade III, $175,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes, for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward on the turf; and the $150,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-40 yards on the main track. The Suncoast is a “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” points race.
Thomas campaigned Catholic Boy, who might be the betting favorite come Saturday, to an outstanding 2-year-old campaign which included victories in the Grade III With Anticipation Stakes on Aug. 30on the turf at Saratoga and the Grade II Remsen Stakes on Dec. 2 in his dirt debut at Aqueduct.
In that mile-and-an-eighth event, Catholic Boy finished four-and-three-quarter lengths ahead of Avery Island, a Kiaran McLaughlin-trainee who began his 3-year-old season Saturday with a victory in the Grade III Withers at Aqueduct.
Catholic Boy's only defeat in four starts was a respectable fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf on Nov. 3 at Del Mar. Thomas said that after they arrived in southern California and Catholic Boy began training on the main track at Del Mar, he briefly wondered if the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on the dirt might have been a better spot because he was handling the surface so well.
But there are no regrets or second-guesses. Thomas is looking squarely ahead.
“Right now, our focus is on the Davis, and that will tell us what our next step will be,” Thomas said. “It is still very early in these 3-year-old's lives and even though they are arguably on their most important path, career-wise, they are basically teenagers who are still growing. We've seen him put on some weight and carry some flesh this winter, and he is developing into a little more of a stronger horse.”
Thomas chose the Sam F. Davis as Catholic Boy's next start for two major reasons: the Oldsmar oval's burgeoning reputation as a track capable of moving forward Triple Crown race winners, including Kentucky Derby winners Street Sense (2007) and Super Saver (2010) and last year's Belmont Stakes presented by NYRABets winner, Tapwrit, and the timing between the Remsen, the Sam F. Davis and whatever Catholic Boy's next start will be.
“The proof is in the pudding, that Tampa Bay Downs has been a good launch pad for a lot of good 3-year-olds,” Thomas said. “And the timing gives us a plethora of options – whether it's back here for the (Grade II) Tampa Bay Derby (on March 10) or the Florida Derby (March 31 at Gulfstream Park), we have some options out of this race.
“It is very much one step at a time, one work at a time, one race at a time,” Thomas added. “But the timing made sense for us, and it's just a matter of executing.”
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