OLDSMAR, Fla.–Would he be able to handle the dirt?
That question was answered Saturday, when D.J. Stable’s Helium scored a ¾ length victory over the late closing Hidden Stash to win in the 41st running of the 1 1/16 miles $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (Gr.2) It was the first time around two turns for the son of Ironicus, and his first start after a nearly six-month layoff. The winner is conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse and was ridden to victory by journeyman jockey J.C. Ferrer.
However, there was the possibility that Helium would have made his next start in a place other than Oldsmar, with Casse considering the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct for the colt who now has three wins in three starts. But it was his training in Boynton Beach, Fla. that suggested that the now multiple stakes winner deserved an opportunity, and the Tampa Bay Derby seemed to be the best spot.
“He was supposed to run a couple of times and the races were canceled (after his win last October in the Display at Woodbine),” said Casse. “He’s got dirt on the bottom, but he’s mostly grass on top. Nick Tomlinson, my guy down at Palm Meadows kept saying this horse is training really-well. So, I talked to the Greens, and said, ‘what do we have to lose. Let’s give it a shot.’ He really impressed me today. Everything didn’t go perfect for him, but he was still able to overcome that, and it takes a good horse to do that. I was just concerned with how he would handle the dirt.”
Breaking from the 10-hole, Helium seemed unhurried early, but was more than up to the task as the race developed, with an outcome that pleased his connections and surprised the wagering public. Even more impressive was the colt’s fitness level, said Casse.
“This horse is really something,” said Casse. “He got away a little slowly, but we planned on him being closer. He made a big wide run and made the lead, I was going to be happy with second, we can build on this. This was only his third start. There’s a lot of improvement in him. What was amazing was he wasn’t overly exhausted after the race.”
Helium earned 50 points and appears to be headed for a date at Churchill Downs on the First Saturday in May, and with his win in Oldsmar, should be able to handle the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles.
“He’s a beautiful horse; he looks like a Derby horse,” said Casse, who won the 2019 Preakness with War of Will and the 2019 Belmont with Sir Winston. “I was saying to somebody, ‘he’s bred to run all day long.’ It’s exciting. The Greens, we’ve only been together for a short time, but they’ve put a lot of faith in me. I appreciate that. I’m just happy for them.”
For Ferrer, who has ridden for nearly four decades, it was an opportunity to savor his first Tampa Bay Derby win, a track he has been a fixture at during the winter for decades.
“Around the 3/8ths pole…I thought I had a good chance,” said Ferrer. “They stopped running and at the quarter pole, he went to the front. He’s kind of a green horse. This is the third time he ran. He waited for the horse, the horse outside of me (Hidden Stash), he started running again.”
Ferrer is no stranger to graded stakes success, having scored major wins previously on horses such as Sea of Tranquility, Dancing Guy, Double Booked, Rize, Stormy Pick and City Zip, but Saturday’s victory was special for the rider who was the 69th recipient of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 2018.
“I owe everything to God,” said Ferrer. “You can’t give up.”
Story and Photos: Ben Baugh