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Wilkinson puts out the Fire in Lecomte
Saturday's $96,000 Lecomte S. (G3) wasn't originally on the radar screen for Gaillardia Racing's homebred WILKINSON (Lemon Drop Kid), but when his typically cautious trainer Neil Howard reconsidered, and the visiting Garrett Gomez took the mount, it could be taken as a very encouraging sign. The reason for the optimism became apparent in deep stretch at Fair Grounds, as the game colt stayed on strongly to reel in Pants on Fire (Jump Start) by a head, and grabbed the spotlight on "Road to the Derby Kickoff Day."
"I think all of us with these three-year-olds are thinking about those races," Howard said of the rest of the local series, the February 19 Risen Star S. (G2) and the March 26 Louisiana Derby (G2).
"If the colt keeps doing well I am sure we would like to (go on to the Louisiana Derby). I'd say we are pointing to it, but I will talk to Mr. Gaylord (owner of Gaillardia Racing) and we'll figure out what we want to do."
Wilkinson was coming off a wide-trip third to the well-regarded Justin Phillip (First Samurai), who was dispatched as the even-money favorite in the Lecomte. Justin Phillip had raced erratically in that January 1 optional claimer at Fair Grounds, so first-time blinkers were added in hopes of improving his professionalism. Instead, the new equipment might have made him a little more aggressive than ideal early.
When NewYork shipper Pants on Fire secured the lead in the short field of five, Justin Phillip recovered from a bobbling start and advanced out wide into a pace-prompting second. Wilkinson, who was reserved in fourth through the opening quarter in :24 4/5, crept forward along the rail down the backstretch. He overtook Action Ready (More Than Ready) for third by the time Pants on Fire reached the half-mile in :48 4/5, and moved into second at the six-furlong mark in 1:13 3/5. By that time, Justin Phillip was coming under pressure, and he would come up completely empty down the lane.
Meanwhile, Pants on Fire kept to his task and still maintained a one-length lead in midstretch. Wilkinson was the only threat, and he appeared to be in tight quarters on the fence. Yet he still had enough room, and time, and he made the most of it. Showing both poise and resolve, Wilkinson pursued his quarry to the very end, clawing back the yardage close home to get up at the wire. The 3-1 third choice completed the mile and 40 yards in 1:40 4/5 on the fast track and rewarded his backers with $8, $3.40 and $4.60.
"He's still learning how to run, but he pays attention," Gomez said. "Neil just told me to have confidence in this horse so I did.
"I thought four or five times he was going to go by and tightened it up a couple of times on him just to have him look a little bit. That's a young three-year-old. That's what they do. They are still learning how to run. When they get to certain situations they seem to really pay attention to some things. Once he got his head in front you can see him accelerate right away. I thought four or five times down the lane he was going to do that. It took him a while, but he finally got by the horse and got it done."
Joe Bravo, who almost pulled off the wire job aboard Pants on Fire, recapped his trip while complementing the winner.
"We had a really nice first turn and it set up good," Bravo said. "I was really happy to see (Steve) Asmussen's horse (Justin Phillip) not going with us into the first turn, and he kind of used his horse to get up with us on the backside.
"Honestly, I take my hat off to Garrett Gomez's horse," Bravo added. "That was a lot of effort. My horse was there and he ran hard. It was a great horse race.
"I hate to be the guy who got beat but, you know, this was the horse's first time here, coming into town. This is a nice horse. He was giving it all. He had his ears pinned, and he was trying."
Pants on Fire, the 8-5 second choice, returned $3.20 and $4.80 for crossing the wire five lengths clear of Action Ready in third. Show was good for $6.20 at 11-1. The exacta was worth $20.60, and the 1-5-2 trifecta provided $78.80. Mobeetie (Sky Mesa), the longest shot on the board at 33-1 after capturing a $50,000 maiden claimer, reported home another 6 1/4 lengths astern in fourth, and Justin Phillip trailed.
Asmussen regretted the colt's problematic break.
"(Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan) said he didn't break and then he just ran off from there," Asmussen said of Justin Phillip. "He hasn't gotten away from there cleanly since his first race."
Wilkinson's victorious stakes debut improved his mark to 5-2-2-1, $105,490. The dark bay nearly won at first asking at Keeneland on October 21, but was bumped and carried out and missed by a scant head. Wilkinson had to settle for second again in an off-the-turf maiden at Churchill Downs on November 14, then broke through at Fair Grounds going the Lecomte trip on December 10. He tackled winners for the first time in the optional claimer on New Year's Day, where he was compromised by being hung out wide on the sloppy, sealed track. A better trip yielded a better result on Saturday.
"I think he was a little bit flat in his last race but nonetheless ran well," Howard said. "Then he seemed like he had a lot of spring in his step couple of days after that race, and his breezes were letter-perfect. He came to the race in great shape -- weight was good, and his coat was good.
"I trained him as if we were going to the race," Howard added of his thought process in advance of the Lecomte. "I didn't want to train him any lighter or differently. I figured if we were going to make the decision to go to the race, I figured he needed to train in a normal pattern.
The Kentucky-bred is the first foal from the Canadian Grade 3-placed Tasha's Delight (Afternoon Deelites), who has since produced an unnamed juvenile colt by Smart Strike and a yearling full sister to Wilkinson. Tasha's Delight is in turn a full sister to Grade 2 heroine Miss Pickums. Wilkinson comes from the female line of Grade 1 queen Delicate Vine (Knights Choice), the dam of Grade 2 victor Altazarr (Relaunch). Other notables in the family include Grade 1 winners Georgie Boy (Tribal Rule) and Celtic Melody (Mr. Greeley) as well as Grade 2 scorers Rendezvous (Victory Gallop) and House of Fortune (Free House).