By Bill Heller
With Thoroughbreds racing fresher and less frequently these days, traininga horse to win off a month layoff is commonplace. But when a trainerstretches his Thoroughbred’s layoff to six months or longer, and he winsthat first start back, that’s special. Doing it consistently stamps a trainer as one of the best in the business.
Different trainers take different approaches with workouts trying to reachthe same destination: the winner’s circle, even if the return race is a prepfor an upcoming stakes.
“The training theories are a lot different now,” Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens said. “The horses are not quite as strong as they used to be. They’re bred a lot more for speed. It’s a different game now.”
It’s a game Jerkens, at the age of 78, continues to win. In the space of 10days at the end of May at Belmont Park, Jerkens won the Grade 2 ShuveeHandicap with Teammate and the Grade 3 Jaipur Stakes with 24-to-1 longshot Ecclesiastic and finished second with longshot Political Force in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap. All three horses are home-breds owned by Joseph Allen.
First up was Teammate, the four-year-old gray filly who was coming off afine three-year-old season, one win and four second in 10 starts in 2006 and earnings of $350,890. She won the Grade 2 Bonnie Miss by six lengths; finished second in back-to-back Grade 1 stakes, the Alabama and the Gazelle, both to Pine Island - Shug McGaughey’s outstanding filly who suffered a fatal breakdown during last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff - and concluded her three-year-old season last November 4th, finishing a front-running fourth at 2-5 in the Grade 3 Turnback the Alarm Handicap. “She was running against the best,” Jerkens said. “She looked like she was home in the Alabama.”
Teammate’s first goal this year would be the Grade 2 Shuvee Handicap at one mile at Belmont May 19th. To get her there, Jerkens penciled in herfour-year-old debut in an allowance/optional $75,000 claimer at sevenfurlongs at Belmont, May 3rd.
Teammate’s first published work was April 10th at Belmont Park, when she breezed five furlongs on the Belmont Park training track in a leisurely1:04, only the 21st fastest of 27 working that day at that distance (21/27).Four days later, she worked a bullet five furlongs on the training track in1:00, best of 59 at that distance (1/59). On April 24th, she worked sevenfurlongs in 1:24 3/5, a brilliant move which wasn’t ranked because no other horse worked that distance that morning. Teammate’s final prep came on April 30th when she returned to the training track and again recorded a bullet, covering four furlongs in :46 4/5, best of 28 that day (1/28).
Asked about bringing her back, Jerkens said, “You jog a little bit, gallopand start breezing slow. Some horses get more out of their gallops. Shedoesn’t like to gallop too slow. She’ll gallop along in the morning. Thisyear, she’s been easier to train than last year. She seems to be morewilling. I have a good man get on her.”
The blazing works, especially the seven furlong move, may have been a tad faster than Jerkens preferred, but it didn’t faze him. “Some real goodhorses will work as fast as you want them to,” he said. “When you’re running with good horses, it’s a whole lot different. If you’re running $20,000 claimers, they won’t do it, and they can’t do it. I was looking for 1:26. If she had been racing every three weeks, you wouldn’t want to her to work that fast. Everything is relative to how close the race is. You don’t want to go too fast on top of a race.
“Years ago, I remember watching Eddie Neloy when I was younger. He would take his stakes horses and work them five furlongs in :59 three days out, then walk the next day, then gallop a mile and a half, and then do it again on the morning of the race. I watched him a lot. Ben Jones had a filly named Bewitch. She was a big fat mare. He worked her five-eighths in :59 or in a minute the day before the race.
“I remember Beau Purple (who upset Kelso four times). He worked 1:48 3/5 for a mile and an eighth a week before the (1962) Hawthorne Gold Cup. He was a little fat horse. He shipped to Chicago, then, three days before the race, he went three-quarters in 1:11 3/5. And it was muddy. He beat good horses.”
Surprisingly, in a field of just five in her 2007 debut, Teammate faced good horses, too: Todd Pletcher-trained Yachats, making her return off an even longer layoff, and Her Royal Nibs and Endless Virtue, who’d each wonmore than $150,000 in the last year and a half. Longshot Solarana completed the field.
Yachats, a four-year-old filly owned by Aaron and Marie Jones, hadcompleted her three-year-old season last August 19th, when she finished atiring fifth in the Ms. Woodford Stakes at Monmouth Park, April 19th. For2006, she had two wins and a second from six starts and earnings over $61,000.
Pletcher, who has won the last three Eclipse Awards for trainer and againleads all trainers in earnings this year, wanted to bring Yachats, named fora town in Oregon, sooner. “It was basically frustration,” Pletcher said. “Wehad entered the horse several times at Gulfstream Park. The races didn’tfill. So we entered her here, and we look up and see Teammate was in there.”
Yachats showed six works before her return, all at Palm Meadows, thetraining center in south Florida:
March 4th - five furlongs in 1:01 1/5 handily, third fastest of 19 (3/19)
March 12th - five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 handily (6/21)
March 18th - five furlongs in 1:02 3/5 breezing (16/26)
March 24th - five furlongs in 1:02 3/5 breezing (13/29)
April 8th - a bullet five furlongs in 1:00 handily (1/12)
April 15th - five furlongs in 1:01 4/5 handily (8/9).
Both Teammate and Yachats raced well in their 2007 debuts, Teammate beating Yachats by a neck. In her next start, Teammate won the Shuvee by half a length over heavily favored Sugar Shake. “We were flattered when Teammate came back (and won the Shuvee),” Pletcher said. “Sometimes, you run well and you just get outrun.”
Sometimes you don’t. Eugene Melnyk Racing Stables’ Harlington had suggested greatness early in his career for Pletcher. A son of Unbridled out of the 1992 Eclipse Champion Three-Year-Old Filly Serena’s Song, Harlington made it to the races late in his two-year-old season, winning a one-mile maiden race on a sloppy track at Aqueduct by a neck, November 28th, 2004.
Freshened over the winter by Pletcher, he returned at Gulfstream Park onJanuary 15th, 2005. Racing again on a sloppy track, he won a bottom-levelallowance race by three lengths. Harlington finally caught a fast track inhis third start, the Grade 3 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds. Sent off the6-5 favorite in a field of 11, he raced extremely wide from the 10 post andchecked in sixth, three lengths behind the winner, Scipion.
“We were disappointed right after the race,” Pletcher said. “But he cameout of the race with a filling in his left front ankle.”
Given ample time to heal and recover, Harlington returned to the track,December 4th, 2005, at Aqueduct, and he won an allowance race by fivelengths. Pletcher again freshened him and Harlington moved up the allowance ladder, winning a non-winners of three-other-than by a length andthree-quarters over a future star, Premium Tap, at odds of 3-5, February8th, 2006.
Pletcher upped the ante, and Harlington responded by capturing the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Breeders’ Cup Handicap by a neck, March 4th, 2006.
Harlington moved up to Grade 1 company in the Pimlico Special, May 19th, where he finished a dull sixth to a horse making his first North American start: Invasor. Who knew? Invasor, last year’s Horse of the Year, hasn’t lost a race since.
Again, Harlington came out of the Pimlico Special with a filling in thatsame ankle. “We sent him to Eugene’s farm,” Pletcher said. “They gave him time off. Phil Hronec is there and runs the farm. He knows what level we want. Had several half-mile breezes before he came back to us.”
Pletcher began shopping for a spot for Harlington’s five-year-old debut,eventually selecting a mile-and-a-sixteenth allowance/optional $100,000claimer at Belmont Park, May 24th, a year and five days after his last race.
“A horse like that is going to have to run at least a mile,” Pletcher said.“You have to have a starting point. We were thumbing through the condition book. We circled this race at Belmont. There was a back-up plan for an allowance race at Churchill Downs a couple days later. We were happy the race filled at Belmont.”
Pletcher’s workout pattern is one he has honed. “There’s really not a wholelot of variation you can do,” he said. “I’m not a breeze-him-back in fivedays. I’m a six or seven-day guy. Generally, we’re on a six or seven-dayschedule.”
Harlington had six workouts leading up to his race, the first three on theBelmont Park training track and the next three on the main track:
April 8th - five furlongs breezing in 1:03 3/5 (7/12)
April 22nd - five furlongs breezing in 1:02 (7/20)
April 29th - five furlongs breezing in 1:02 2/5 (10/15)
May 6th - a bullet five furlongs handily in 1:00 3/5 (1/12)
May 14th - five furlongs breezing in 1:00 (6/46)
May 21st - five furlongs breezing in 1:01 4/5 (41/54)
The gap from April 8th to the 22nd was because of a lot of rain on LongIsland. And Harlington’s final work was supposed to be on May 20th, fourdays before his race. “We got rained out again, so I had to make his workout three days back,” Pletcher said. “Because he is a large horse and carries a lot of weight, I wasn’t worried about it. We pulled him up fairly quickly after the wire. Usually, we let them go on for a quarter or three-eighths.”
Harlington won his return easily by 3 ¼ lengths. “I was very pleased,”Pletcher said. “I thought he raced very well. He’s a horse we’ve always feltvery good about. He put us in a position to move into a stakes. He is aGrade 1 stakes horse, and we have to prove it.”
Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito’s Commentator has already proven himself at the highest level of competition. His neck victory over subsequent Horse of the Year Saint Liam in the 2005 Grade 1 Whitney Handicap was one of the greatest victories in Zito’s career. He had successfully stretched out Tracy Farmer’s New York-bred speed machine to a mile-and-an-eighth. That victory was Commentator’s seventh in eight career starts as he battled an assortment of physical problems.
In his next start, the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes, then at Belmont Park,Commentator was cooked by two rabbits entered by Saint Liam’s trainer, Rick Dutrow, and faded to be a distant third to Saint Liam.
Commentator made just two starts in 2006, winning the Mugatea Stakes for New York-breds easily at 1-9 and then having terrible luck in the Grade 1 Forego, September 2nd, 2006, at Saratoga. Sent off the .90-to-1 favorite in a deeply talented field of 11, Commentator leapt up at the start, gettingaway dead last. He was rushed into contention by Eibar Coa, then faded to10th.
Given ample time to recover, Commentator was pointed to a new campaign this year by Zito. “We’re always talking about having a good bottom,” Zito said.
“A horse needs to have a good bottom before you can even breeze him. I’ve been doing this for a good time. Every single day, you have people come to the barn and say the horse worked great. But they don’t know how much went into it before they work. We had to gallop him for two months because he needed it. We didn’t like the way he came back from the farm.”
Zito takes pride in his ability to win with long layoff horses. “We’ve donepretty well with layoffs,” he said. “The more talented the horse, the betteryou look.”
Wanderin Boy made Zito look like a genius when he overcame a six-monthlayoff to take the Grade 3 Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs on May 4th by 4 ¼ lengths.
Could Commentator do the same? Zito chose a softer spot for his return, the Richmond Runner Stakes for New York-breds at 6 ½ furlongs at Belmont Park on May 28th. Only four other horses were entered, all of them considerably overmatched.
Commentator showed six different works before his return, the first at Palm Meadows, the next four at Churchill Downs and the final one on the deep Oklahoma Training Track at Saratoga:
March 31st - three furlongs handily in :36 2/5 (1/3)
April 10th - four furlongs breezing in :48 (9/49)
April 19th - four furlongs breezing in :48 2/5 (11/34)
April 27th - four furlongs breezing in :47 4/5 (2/22)
May 7th - a bullet five furlongs breezing in :58 4/5 (1/27)
May 22nd - a bullet four furlongs breezing in :47 3/5 (1/43)
Commentator ran true to his works, springing out of the starting gate as ifhe’d been shot out of a cannon, then dusting his rivals wire-to-wire by 11 ¼lengths in a sparkling 1:15 3/5 under Corey Nakatani, who barely moved his hands during the race. Commentator was back and ready for harder battles.
Getting back to the winner’s circle in his return could do nothing but help.