OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Having experienced both the high and low ends of the Kentucky Derby spectrum, owner Jack Wolf of Starlight Racing knows the trails and tribulations of the road to the first Saturday in May more than most. On Saturday, he’ll be watching the Grade 3, $300,000 Gotham with a sense of cautious optimism when sending out Atlantic Road and Freedom Fighter.
The one-turn mile event at Aqueduct Racetrack is New York’s penultimate local qualifier for the Grade 1, $3 million Kentucky Derby on May 1 at Churchill Downs and awards the top four finishers points according to a 50-20-10-5 scale.
Coverage of the Gotham will be available on America’s Day at the Races, the acclaimed national telecast produced by the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) in partnership with FOX Sports.
Presented by America’s Best Racing and Claiborne Farm, America’s Day at the Races will broadcast Saturday from 5-6 p.m. Eastern on FS2, with the Gotham slated as Race 9 at 5:07 p.m.
Wolf, who manages Starlight Racing with his wife Laurie, has campaigned 12 Kentucky Derby starters. He was involved in multiple-owner partnerships which campaigned 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify and last year’s winner Authentic, but also had two last-place finishers in Keyed Entry (2006) and Monba (2008).
“Through the years, we’ve had quite a few hoses in the Derby. It’s a lot different when you have one that’s a favorite as opposed to a longshot like Keyed Entry,” Wolf said. “It’s pretty exciting when you have a legit shot. Last year, even though Barclay’s horse [Tagg, Tiz the Law] was the big favorite and the one to beat, I was confident that our horse would perform, and obviously he did.”
Trained by Hall of Fame nominee Todd Pletcher, Atlantic Road broke his maiden at second asking over the Aqueduct main track in gate-to-wire fashion under Kendrick Carmouche. The son of Quality Road was originally owned by Pletcher and was privately purchased by Wolf.
“I think the further he goes the better with him being by Quality Road out of a Smart Strike mare,” said Wolf. “He improved considerably and showed a bit of determination down the lane. His last race was encouraging. It’ll be a tall ask to compete, but he deserves the chance.”
Atlantic Road was one of four next-out winners of the January 8 maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park, which was won by Lamutanaaty.
“A lot of those horses validated that they were good ones,” Wolf said.
Atlantic Road will break from the rail under jockey Jorge Vargas, Jr.
Fellow Starlight Racing color-bearer Freedom Fighter also has only made two starts but has covered some ground in both efforts. The son of Violence won on debut at Del Mar on August 1 at Del Mar and emerged from a six-month layoff in the Grade 2 San Vicente on February 5 at Santa Anita, where he registered a 94 Beyer Speed Figure with a close second to highly-regarded stable mate Concert Tour.
Freedom Fighter is co-owned by Starlight Racing alongside SF Racing, Madaket Stables, Golconda Stables, Siena Farm and Robert E. Masterson and was purchased for $120,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
“His figures have improved dramatically just looking at his Beyers and he ran an 8 on the [Ragozin] sheets. But it looks like a tough race,” Wolf said.
Campaigned by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Freedom Fighter has trained forwardly toward the Gotham, firing a pair of bullets over the Santa Anita main track, most recently a five-furlong drill in 59.20 on February 27 – the fastest of 63 recorded works at the distance.
“When Bob tells you the horse is good and breezing the way he is, I get pretty excited,” Wolf said. “Relatively speaking, paying $120,000 for him in comparison to what we’ve paid for some of the others is a bit of a bargain, especially if he moves forward.”
Wolf and owner Sol Kumin of Madaket Stables tasted Derby victory together previously with Justify and Authentic.
Wolf appears to have horses firing on multiple cylinders on the Derby trail as Starlight Racing also is part owner of Spielberg, a fellow Baffert trainee who was recently a game second to champion Essential Quality in the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn Park. A son of Union Rags, Spielberg won the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity in December and currently sits seventh on the leaderboard with 17 points.
He also has Grade 3 Holy Bull runner-up Tarantino for trainer Rodolphe Brisset, who was a last out fourth in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and is No. 22 on the leaderboard with nine points.
Both Spielberg and Tarantino are owned by the same five other owners who also own Freedom Fighter.
Wolf said that the ownership group is an enjoyable one to be involved with.
“I’ve been friends with Tom [Ryan of SF Racing] a number of years,” said Wolf. “He talked to me about getting together with SF and then Sol came along as well. It’s a really fun group of people. All of us have been through the highs and lows and we all have a good time, win, lose or draw.
“We’ve got two of the best trainers in the business,” Wolf added. “Bob doesn’t get too excited until April, which is probably the right thing. I think if you have one that’s qualified and doing well by April, then you can get excited. The end of a horse’s 2-year-old year and the beginning of the following year is too early, but we all like to dream.”
Having traveled the road to the Kentucky Derby many times, Wolf said he knows not to get too carried away with Derby fever.
“There’s so many variables between now and then, but it’s cool to have nice horses and be in this position,” Wolf said.
Martinez of Avanti Stable hopes Make Mischief can keep moving forward
In Italian, the word “avanti” means to go forward or persevere, and that’s just what Avanti Stable’s owner Mario Martinez hopes New York-bred Make Mischief will do in Saturday’s $250,000 Busher Invitational, a one-turn mile for sophomore fillies at Aqueduct.
Make Mischief was bred by Avanti Stable, which is located in Greenfield Center, New York, just ten minutes from downtown Saratoga Springs. Acquired by Martinez and his wife Dawn in 2011, Avanti Stable sits on 60 acres of land.
Martinez has roughly two dozen horses on his farm, ranging from broodmares, yearlings, foals as well as homebred retirees which were claimed back by Martinez.
Speightful Lady, the dam of Make Mischief, is one of two other broodmares on the farm and was acquired for $75,000 from the 2013 Fasig-Tipton February Sale when the Speightstown mare was in foal to Uncle Mo.
“She was an attractive purchase because of her pedigree and the fact that she was already in foal to Uncle Mo, before he became Uncle Mo,” Martinez said.
Speightful Lady has produced five horse to race – all of them winners – with Make Mischief being the most recent of her offspring
Owned by Gary Barber and currently trained by Chris Englehart, Make Mischief has put together solid ledger in seven starts. The daughter of Into Mischief earned black type when second in last year’s Grade 3 Schuylerville and Grade 2 Adirondack at Saratoga Race Course.
After winning her 2021 debut going seven furlongs over the Aqueduct main track, Make Mischief ran over muddy conditions for the first time when riding the rail to victory in the Maddie May on February 20 at the Big A.
Martinez said he’s not been surprised by Make Mischief’s success on the track.
“She showed talent on the farm,” Martinez said. “She was a beautiful foal and Speightful Lady has produced some magnificent looking horses. She was very tough, stubborn and was almost like a colt. She could be a little tough to handle at times. There was an attitude that came with her and now it’s showing up in her racing.”
Martinez noted that the hills on some of the paddocks on his farm are good for building strength in young horses when turned out.
“She had a lot of energy and strength,” Martinez said. “Some of the paddocks on our farm are little bit hilly, which is great for foals and yearlings. She would run up and down the hills, so she went into training by herself.”
Consigned by Paramount Sales at the 2019 Fasig-Tipton New York-bred Yearling Sale, Make Mischief was hammered down to $285,000.
“Her conformation and her looks demanded it, so that was about what we expected. I was not at all surprised by that,” Martinez said.
Martinez said he is strictly breeding to race for the moment and does not plan on selling any of his yearlings or 2-year-olds.
“You kind of regret selling some of these horses like Make Mischief because they end up being so good, which is why I stopped selling, but it’s good for the farm and it’s good for broodmares like Speightful Lady,” Martinez said. “For now, we’ve chosen to breed to race.”
In addition to Make Mischief, Speightful Lady has produced the Scat Daddy mare Jody’s Song who won both of her starts for trainer Jorge Abreu, as well as another Scat Daddy mare named Crescent Lady, who broke her maiden last July at Saratoga for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Her second progeny, a Kitten’s Joy colt named Speightful Kitten [25-3-4-3, $220,450], last raced on January 21, finishing fifth in a seven-furlong Aqueduct allowance and has gone back to the farm for retirement.
“He just retired and he’s going back to our farm,” Martinez said. “We keep track of our horses and we’ll claim back a lot of our horses and then retire them to our farm.”
In addition to Speightful Lady, Martinez also has Tanglewood Tale and Josephine’s Moment as broodmares. Tanglewood Tale produced six-time winner Big Thicket who was recently retired to Avanti as well as $925,000 purchase Tale of the Union, who broke his maiden by eight lengths on debut for Hall of Famer Bob Baffert before racing against his New York-bred counterparts on the NYRA circuit. Josephine’s Moment has both a 2-year-old and a foal by third-crop sire Honor Code.
Chateau speed of speed in G3 Tom Fool
Michael Dubb’s veteran sprinter Chateau will look to make the grade in Saturday’s Grade 3, $200,000 Tom Fool Handicap, a six-furlong sprint for older horses at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Trained by Rob Atras, the 6-year-old Flat Out gelding sports a record of 32-6-9-8 with purse earnings of $367,769 and enters his first graded test having finished no worse than third in his last five starts. Chateau earned a lofty 96 Beyer last out winning a six-furlong optional-claiming route on January 18 at Aqueduct in trademark gate-to-wire fashion.
“He had been running steady throughout the summer. After his last race we wanted to give him a little time with an eye on this race,” said Atras. “We weren’t sure how tough it was going to come up, but he’s doing as well as he was going into his last race so we decided to give it a shot. It’s a tough race but I think he deserves the shot.”
While there are other speed types lined up in the six-horse field, Atras said he is confident meet-leading rider Kendrick Carmouche can provide a winning trip from post 3.
Other speed threats in the Tom Fool include multiple graded stakes winner Share the Ride; the West Coast-based Speed Pass making his Big A debut for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert; and longshot Happy Farm, fresh off a claiming win for Linda Rice.
“Anytime you have a horse coming from another track, it can be hard to gauge how fast they are,” said Atras. “Linda’s horse is pretty speedy too, but our horse has a style of running. He likes to be on the front end and we’re not going to take that away from him. We’ll be heading out there and try to let him do his thing.”
NYRA will offer its highest ever overnight purse schedule at the upcoming 48-day Belmont Park spring/summer meet slated from Thursday, April 22 through Sunday, July 11.
Atras said the purse increase is a welcome boost for horsemen participating in the claiming ranks who will see their horses compete for purse money ranging up to $100,000.
“It’s a good program throughout, from the bottom up,” said Atras, who is fifth in the Big A winter meet trainer standings heading into Friday’s card with a record of 72-12-15-16 and purse earnings of $794,635. “I have a diverse stable. I have horses that run at the lowers levels, in the middle and some at the upper. And that balance changes throughout the year and horses may drop off a notch or climb the ladder, so with the purse increases you can make money throughout the whole claiming program.”
Atras said he is also hoping to take advantage of a “Ship & Win” program for horses based at Oaklawn Park that ship to compete at Aqueduct and Belmont Park.
Horses that made their previous start at Oaklawn may be able to take advantage of the program, which includes a 30 percent purse bonus for their first start for horses who last ran at Oaklawn in 2021 before shipping to New York. NYRA will also provide a $1,500 stipend for a start during either the Aqueduct spring or Belmont spring/summer meets, excluding stakes races, for eligible horses.
“I’ve had a few guys reach out to me looking to claim horses, and I’m also really interested in the Oaklawn program with the incentives,” said Atras. “I’d like to get a few horses out of there with either current clients or new ones. I hope I can pick up a few more horses before the meet starts at Belmont.”
Atras’ lineup on Saturday’s card demonstrates his stable’s diversity with Magnetron and Not Phar Now entered in Race 4, a seven-furlong allowance sprint for state-breds; and Number One Dillon in Race 10, a claiming sprint for 3-year-olds and upward.
Nice Guys Stables, Jorge Casal, and Sanford J. Goldfarb’s Not Phar Now, a 4-year-old American Pharoah gelding, was claimed for $40,000 from an impressive 12 1/4-length score last out in a seven-furlong state-bred maiden claiming event.
“Not Phar Now had a big, blowout win but it was obviously against much lesser, so he’s taking a big step up in class,” said Atras. “But the way he did it and the way he’s training since we got him, I think he deserves a shot at that level.”
Windylea Farm’s Magnetron joined the Atras barn in November and has hit the board in all three starts for the Canadian-born conditioner, including a third last out at this level.
Paul W. Barrow’s Number One Dillon was claimed for $16,000 from an off-the-board effort in November and has since finished second and fourth in a pair of starts.
“Number One Dillon ran really big off the claim, but his second start he was down on the inside,” said Atras. “The race actually split that day. His race ran in 1:10 and the other race ran in 1:12. So on the same day that’s quite a difference, so maybe it wasn’t that bad of an effort after all and he just caught a tougher group. He looks like a contender in that race Saturday and we’re hoping he bounces back.”
Next Saturday, Atras said he will send out Dennis Narlinger’s Sadie Lady in the $100,000 Correction, a six-furlong sprint for fillies and mares 4-years-old and up.
A six-time winner from 17 starts, the 5-year-old Freud mare has enjoyed a brief freshening since a gate-to-wire score last out in a six furlong optional-claiming sprint on December 18 at Aqueduct that matched a career-best 83 Beyer.
“After her last race, she got back into form and the state-bred stake [the Broadway, slated for February 13] didn’t fill,” said Atras. “This looks like our next best option. Looking at the nominations I think her best race puts her in contention.”
Pete’s Play Call hopes audible to six-furlong Tom Fool on Saturday pays off
Michael Dubb’s Pete’s Play Call has shown great consistency since starting his 8-year-old campaign. The Munnings gelding was claimed for $62,500 out of a win on November 27 at Aqueduct and went on to best a five-horse Gravesend field by 2 ½-lengths in his first appearance for trainer Rudy Rodriguez on January 2 at the Big A.
After running a competitive second in the Grade 3 Toboggan on January 30 at Saratoga, Pete’s Play Call will cut back from seven furlongs to six in Saturday’s Grade 3 Tom Fool Handicap.
The veteran Maryland bred drew the inside post for a second consecutive race.
“We were a little disappointed we drew the one-hole again, it looks like he’s married to that post,” Rodriguez said. “But he looks pretty good. We’re hoping he can keep doing what he’s been doing before.”
Pete’s Play Call was the pacesetter in the Toboggan. Rodriguez said he would prefer a target, which worked out well in the Gravesend when he pressured from the second position before finishing strong.
“He looks pretty comfortable at the distance, so we’ll see,” he added. “Hopefully, we’ll try to sit behind the speed and see what we can do. Last time, we were the speed. Now, hopefully we can put some pressure on the others to go and should be sitting in a good spot.”
Jockey Jorge Vargas, Jr., aboard for his last two starts, will have the return call. Pete’s Play Call is listed at 5-2 on the morning line, behind only 2-1 favorite Share the Ride, who will break from post 2.
“He’s a very good rider and he puts the horse in a good spot,” Rodriguez said. “The last time, the horse broke a little step slow but he was still able to run good. I want to see if we can be behind the speed and make the one run. He’s best behind the leaders.”
Pete’s Play Call, who started racing in 2015, has compiled a 14-10-6 record in 47 starts with earnings of $678,421.
E.V. Racing Stable’s Eagle Orb will look to run in a less pressurized situation, with Rodriguez returning him to New York-bred company and to sprints as he is expected to run in the $100,000 Damon Runyon going seven furlongs on Sunday, March 14 at the Big A.
Eagle Orb, who ran fifth in the Grade 3 Withers going 1 1/8 miles last out on February 6 at the Big A, was bred in the Empire State by Barry Ostrager. He will face the restricted class again, which resulted in a 2 3/4-length win in the Notebook going six furlongs on November 14 at Aqueduct that concluded his juvenile campaign.
On New Year’s Day, Eagle Orb moved into open company and ran second to Capo Kane in the Jerome at a one-turn mile before being stretched out again in the Withers, a Kentucky Derby qualifying race. His conditioner said the Damon Runyon could provide improved conditions to get back to the winner’s circle.
“I talked to the owner and we’re trying to see if we can build his confidence a little bit,” Rodriguez said. “He was running with tough competition. It’s time to relieve the pressure a little bit and maybe he’ll be OK. Going back to sprinting, I think the seven-eighths is what he wants to do.”
TRF “lucky horseshoe” drive seeking donations
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), an equine retirement facility accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), is asking horsemen to drop off their used horseshoes at trainer Rick Schosberg’s barn as part of a fundraising drive.
The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) and its horsemen are committed supporters of the TAA, which accredits, inspects, and awards grants to approved aftercare organizations to retrain, retire, and rehome thoroughbreds using industry-wide funding.
The TRF is asking that horsemen collect their used horseshoes and drop them off in the blue barrels located outside Barn 42 on the Belmont Park backstretch. The drive ends on Friday, March 12.
Following March 12, the TRF will gather the horseshoes, clean them, and tie ribbons to them in preparation for a St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser that will see donors who give $30 or more to the horses of the TRF receive a “lucky horseshoe” from the NYRA racetrack community.
For more information about the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, or to sponsor a horse at Wallkill or at one of the 500+ retired racehorses in the TRF Herd, please visit https://www.trfinc.org/you-can-help.
Aqueduct winter meet Week 12 stakes probables
Saturday, March 13
Probable: Amuse (Richard Mandella), Call On Mischief (Kelly Breen), Dontletsweetfoolya (Lacey Gaudet), Kansas Kis (Ray Handal), Sadie Lady (Rob Atras)
Possible: Jump For Joy (Mertkan Kantarmaci)
Sunday, March 14
$100,000 Damon Runyon
Probable: A Longlongtimeago (Jorge Abreu), Eagle Orb (Rudy Rodriguez), Excellent Timing (Chad Brown), It’s Gravy (Breen), It’s a Game (Breen), Perfect Munnings (Todd Pletcher), Reggae Music Man (Patrick Kelly), The King Cheek (Jamie Ness)
Possible: Writer’s Regret (Ralph D’Alessandro)
NYRA Press Release
Photo: Pete’s Play Call winning the Gravesend at Aqueduct January 2, 2021 (Chelsea Durand)