D’Amato: ‘Further the Better’ for Stronghold

April 7, 2024

Stronghold and Antonio Fresu victorious in the Santa Anita Derby (Ernie Belmonte/Past The Wire)

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Santa Anita Press Box

ARCADIA, Calif.— All was well with Santa Anita GI Santa Anita Derby winner Stronghold the morning after his thrilling victory in the 87th running of Santa Anita’s most prestigious race for 3-year-olds.

“He came out of the race in great shape,” trainer Phil D’Amato reported.

In the Santa Anita Derby going 1 1/8 miles, Stronghold and Antonio Fresu edged favorite Imagination by a neck after a near stretch-long battle. It was the first Santa Anita Derby win for both D’Amato, a native of Los Angeles, and Fresu.

“It’s very special,” D’Amato said. “Especially to win with a horse I think is one of the top contenders (for the Kentucky Derby).”

For Fresu, a 32-year-old native of Sardinia, Italy, the Santa Anita Derby was his first Grade I win in the U.S. He and D’Amato will next head to Churchill Downs with Stronghold for their first-ever try at the Kentucky Derby on May 4.

Stronghold races as a homebred for Rick and Sharon Waller. He is by Ghostzapper out of graded stakes winner Spectator, by Jimmy Creed. The Santa Anita Derby was his second consecutive graded stakes win after previously scoring in the GIII Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico Feb. 18.

It is also noteworthy that as a 2-year-old last October, Stronghold broke his maiden over the Churchill Downs strip when making his second start going a one-turn mile. He is now 3-3-0 in six starts overall with $827,200 in earnings.

This time around at Churchill Downs, Stronghold will be tested at the Kentucky Derby’s classic distance of 1 ¼ miles. D’Amato sees the added distance as a positive.

“Stronghold is a horse that just continues to improve, and I think it’s the further the better with him,” D’Amato said. “He does just enough. He’s shown the will to win, but those are usually the kinds of horses that stretch out well because they don’t use themselves too much early and drain the gas tank. They have something left. I’m happy where we’re at with him right now.”

For the first time this year, all horses competing in the Kentucky Derby must be on the grounds at Churchill Downs a week prior to the race, which is Saturday, April 27. D’Amato said it remains to be determined when Stronghold will ship to Kentucky.

“I’ll devise a plan to get him to Churchill, but we’ll keep him here for at least the next two weeks,” D’Amato added. “Then we’ll look at the long-term weather forecast and decide whether we’ll be there a week out or two weeks out. I think it’s more about not having any interruptions to his training, that’s the most important thing for the Derby.”

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