When you've just won a $400,000 Derby prep race and you're headed to the winner's circle, it's never good to see a flashing inquiry sign. Trainer Rick Violette, Jr. was getting ready to celebrate after watching his talented three-old Upstart roll to a 2 3/4 length victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 21.
After a lengthy review, the 4-5 favorite Upstart was disqualified and placed second behind the stakes debuting Todd Pletcher trainee Itsaknockout. Violette and Upstart's owner Ralph Evans quickly departed the winner’s circle.
"Bad call," said a clearly upset Violette after the race. "They (stewards) have to understand that when the horse gets hit behind the girth (by a tiring and drifting-out Frosted), the only place the horse can go is to the right. It's disappointing. The horse ran great, we just don't get credit for it."
With Jose Ortiz in the irons, the New York-bred Upstart closed steadily in the 1 1/16-mile Derby prep to take control from 7-2 second choice Frosted in the final sixteenth. But Upstart bore out under steady left-handed urging from Ortiz against Starlight Racing's Itsaknockout in the deep stretch. Upstart raced wide throughout and the Trakus measurement system showed that he covered 20 feet more than Itsaknockout and 54 feet more than third place finisher Framment.
A son of Flatter, Upstart is on track for a start in the $1 million Florida Derby (Grade-1), Gulfstream Park's signature race and key Triple Crown prep on March 28. Having earned 36 qualifying points thus far Upstart likely will be in the Kentucky Derby starting gate on May 2.
"I’m really happy with where we are," Violette, 62, noted. "He’s rebounded well from a tough race (Fountain of Youth). Right now, we’re certainly pointing to the Florida Derby. We’ll follow his lead if he makes us change course, but that’s where we’re going.”
Violette got his start in the horse industry showing hunters and jumpers on the East Coast circuit. A graduate of Lowell University in his native Massachusetts, Violette began working on the backstretch at Suffolk Downs. He started his own public stable in 1983. Although based in New York, Violette often ships horses down to the Fair Hill Training Center for rehabilitation at the equine therapy center as well as for workouts on the Tapeta and dirt tracks.
As of mid- March, Violette has won 798 races in 4,954 career starts, and earned over $37 million in purses. He conditioned the gritty Samraat to a fifth-place run in the 2014 Kentucky Derby. Upstart is another one of those blue collar horses who keeps going out and getting the job done. After winning his first two starts, the colt was second to Daredevil in the Champagne Stakes (Grade-1) at Saratoga and came back to run third in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He earned his first career graded stakes win in the Holy Bull (Grade-3) and crushed runner-up Frosted by 5 1/2 lengths to earn a brilliant 106 Byers Speed figure on Jan. 24.
Violette said he had under-trained Upstart for the Fountain of Youth and was expecting a regression from the Holy Bull Stakes. He got it. In the Fountain of Youth, Upstart ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:46.28, almost three seconds slower than his Holy Bull. Frankly, it was a strangely run race where the horses struggled to change leads, were unable to keep a straight course, and all labored in the stretch. Still, Upstart dug in gamely in the deep stretch and was pulling away at the wire. He was clearly the best colt in the race.
“The track appeared very tiring," said Violette, whose colt carried between four and six pounds more than his rivals in the Fountain of Youth. "It was windy, very dry out there. It got very laboring. Everybody was laboring home. My colt showed a lot of talent in the Holy Bull and (today) he showed quite a bit of heart.”
Upstart is for real. The colt has shown that he can handle any surface and the classic distances. He has a strong foundation (winning four of six races), tactical speed to get position in the huge 20-horse Derby field, and a burst on command that could win the Run for the Roses. We know he can run better than in the Fountain of Youth. If Upstart runs back to his Holy Bull form in the Florida Derby, he surely will ride into Louisville as one of the favorites on May 2.
Derby Picks (as of March 16)- American Pharaoh (Bob Baffert), Dortmund (Baffert), Upstart (Violette), and Carpe Diem (Todd Pletcher)
Larry Jones has his ways with the ladies. Eight Bells, Proud Spell, Believe You Can and a host of other fillies have turned into top-flight runners under the tutelage of the Hopkinsville, Ky. native. The latest is I'm a Chatterbox.
The winner of the Silverbulletday Stakes at a mile and 70 yards at the Fairgrounds on Jan. 17, I'm a Chatterbox scooted around rivals on the final turn and stormed to the lead in mid-stretch to win going away in the $175,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes also at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans on Feb. 21. The 3-year old filly by Munnings covered the 1-1/16 miles in 1:44.10 on a fast track.
Fletcher and Carolyn Gray's homebred set the pace from the rail in the Silverbulletday, but changed tactics coming from off the pace in the Rachel Alexandra. It was a Rachel Alexandra exacta for Jones, who also sent out Calumet Farm's White Clover.
Out of the Lost Soldier mare Chit Chatter, she has a 3-0-1 mark from five career starts. Jones took over training the filly in January.
"She overcame the outside post and it will kill you here," Jones said. "She sat well, but she had done that in her first race, so we weren't too concerned about that. The horse on the inside was setting a good pace, so we knew there was a legitimate pace to close into for her. Lovely Maria worked out a good trip for herself, so we were really happy with all three horses. I'm a Chatterbox is awfully game. She has a world of talent."
Jones isn't sure where he will point his fillies next. The Fair Grounds Oaks (Grade-2) seems the next likely destination for I'm a Chatterbox. Jones said his other three-year old fillies Lovely Maria and/or White Clover could be pointed to the Ashland Stakes (Grade-1) at Keeneland on April 4. Two of the last three winners of the Oaks went on to win the Kentucky Oaks that included Untapable last year and Jones-trainee Believe You Can in 2012.
Main Sequence kicked off his 2015 campaign with an impressive win in the Mac Diarmida (Grade-2) at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 21. In a word, his late surge was electrifying. The British-bred Main Sequence is now a perfect five for five racing in the U. S. Trained by Fair Hill's Graham Motion, the 6-year old covered his last furlong in 11.20 seconds and lengthened his enormous stride with ease.
Breaking from the rail, the son of Aldebaran settled and saved ground and was more than four lengths off the lead after the first mile of the race. Rajiv Maragh steered him three-wide, then out to four-wide on the final of three turns. Twilight Eclipse had a length cushion at the sixteenth pole, but then Main Sequence's stunning turn of foot devoured him. Winner of the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf (Grade-1) at Santa Anita last year November, Main Sequence earned 2014 Eclipse Awards as champion older male and champion male turf runner. He is slated to make his next start in the Sheema Classic (Group-1), a $6 million race at 1 1/2 miles at Meydan in Dubai on March 28.
Last March trainer Shug McGaughey got walloped. Both of his highly regarded Triple Crown prospects, Honor Code and Top Billing, were sidelined by injuries two weeks apart. This year, McGaughey will take his talented four-year olds with him when he departs South Florida for New York.
Stumbling at the start, Honor Code rallied from 15 lengths back to storm home the winner by a half-length in the one-mile $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (Grade-2) on March 7. With Javier Castellano aboard, Honor Code fell well off the pace as 6-5 favorite Private Zone set splits of :23 2/5, :45 4/5, and 1:10. Pressured by Valid around the turn and entering the stretch, Private Zone hung on gamely. Then Honor Code began to uncork his rally down the middle of the track after being down 10 lengths with a quarter-mile to go. Honor Code hit the wire in 1:36 1/5 over a fast track.
"I didn't mind it being far back, because he's a come-from-behind horse and the pace set up perfect for him," Castellano said. "Those two horses (Private Zone and Valid) hooked up together all the way. But I was kinda worrying on the backside because he wasn't picking it up. At the three-eighths pole, he turned around and just took off at the top of the stretch. It was amazing the way he did it, very strong."
Last year in an allowance race at Gulfstream the colt suffered a suspensory injury which kept him out of action from March to November. Honor Code was last seen at Aqueduct in November, surging between rivals to win a 6 1/2-furlong, second-level allowance by a length. His record now stands at 6-4-2-0, $626,740.
"When he shipped down to Gulfstream and came walking in the barn, I just saw the look in his eye. I said, 'I don't know what will happen, but he'll run his race,' the trainer related. "You can't imagine the people that were just complimenting the horse by saying how good he looks. That's a pleasure for me, too, to be able to have a horse like that and for people to appreciate what they're looking at. It means a lot."
Races such as the Met Mile (Grade-1) and Suburban H. (Grade-2) at Belmont Park and the Whitney (Grade-1) at Saratoga are among the races McGaughey is targeting for Honor Code this year. The trainer said Top Billing continues to progress for his next start. The four-year-old returned from a one-year layoff to run fourth in a 1 1/16-mile optional claiming allowance February 22 at Gulfstream.
Tony Dutrow trainee Big Beast returned a winner at Oaklawn Park and recorded a 1 1/4-length victory in an allowance sprinting six furlongs on March 1. The four-year old son of Yes It's True stalked the early pacesetter before blowing by that rival under a hand ride in the sharp time of 1:10 3/5. It was the first start for the gigantic bay horse (17.1 hands) since his neck triumph in his stakes debut in last August's King's Bishop Stakes (Grade-1) at Saratoga. Shortly afterwards the colt had a small ankle chip removed and did not resume training until late last fall.
"He's filled out," Dutrow said. "He's a big horse, but all athlete. Nothing bulky about him."
The major spring objective for The Big Beast is the $300,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (Grade-3) on April 9.