Jockey Joe Bravo rode PANTS ON FIRE (Jump Start) for the first time at Monmouth Park in the summer of 2010. That didn't last very long.
"That afternoon in the post parade he shied from something," Bravo recalled. "He's so powerful and strong, next thing I knew, he dropped me on my keister. He's real talented, just a big playboy."
Thursday morning at Fair Grounds, trainer Kelly Breen kept a watchful eye on the dark bay colt, one of 10 starters in Saturday's $300,000 Risen Star S. (G2). It was Pants on Fire's second visit to the Louisiana oval -- he was runner-up by a head to Wilkinson (Lemon Drop Kid) in the January 22 Lecomte S. (G3) -- and second for Breen as well. Both horse and horseman seem to like it here.
"Last time he shipped from New York and when he got here I think he was a little more nervous," Breen said. "He shipped better this time, coming up from Florida. We sent him in a day earlier so it wasn't as close to the race. He's an intense kind of horse anyway, but since he's been here on the track today, he was looking around just a little bit, a lot more relaxed and content this time than he was before."
Breen may have found himself a solid player on the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail in Pants on Fire. Although the colt hasn't won a race since breaking his maiden by seven lengths in the Delaware slop last October 4 (Bravo managed to stay aboard then and in subsequent starts), he was nipped on the wire in a $75,000 allowance going a mile and 70 yards on December 19 at Aqueduct, then set the pace in the Count Fleet S. at that same track on January 1 before getting passed to finish third.
In the Lecomte, Pants on Fire set a moderate pace while racing wide on the turns and looked to be the winner turning for home before the late-closing Wilkinson got up by a head.
"He ran a great race last time out," Breen said. "Joe tried to wait as long as he could before he pulled the trigger on him, and we knew this track has a long stretch. There's a lot more speed in this race coming up, so we're going to play it by ear whether or not we're going to send.
"This race is tough with a couple of new shooters, but we're coming in with a fit horse and when we got him back to Florida after the Lecomte he was full of energy, so we figured we'd try the next dance with him."
A solid four-furlong work in :50 2/5 at Palm Meadows on Monday helped solidify the decision to enter the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star, which has drawn Kentucky Derby hopefuls such as ROGUE ROMANCE (Smarty Jones), SANTIVA (Giant's Causeway), MACHEN (Distorted Humor), JUSTIN PHILLIP (First Samurai), and ACTION READY (More Than Ready).
"The most exciting thing about coming back is that very impressive workout," said Bravo, who was in the saddle that day. "Just the way he did it turning for home impressed me; he got into an acceleration I hadn't felt from him before. He's a big, strong animal and with a little strategy difference there's no reason he shouldn't step up on Saturday."
Breen will also saddle Fair Grounds H. (G3) contender Sleepless Knight (War Chant) on Saturday. He said the five-year-old, who is exiting a strong allowance score at Gulfstream on January 8, just makes Pants on Fire look that much better.
"Sleepless Knight is no slouch, he's a big, stout, older horse, and Pants On Fire feels a full hand taller than him," Breen remarked. "He's always been a tall drink of water, a big, lanky, long-striding horse. His first couple workouts weren't anything to brag about, but always knowing he had this long stride, we were just waiting for him to put it all together."
Pants on Fire isn't the only three-year-old contender Breen has in his barn. Stablemate Sweet Ducky (Pulpit) closed three-wide late to gain the lead in Gulfstream's Holy Bull S. (G3) on January 30, only to be passed by Dialed In (Mineshaft). The dark bay settled for a second-place finish, 1 1/2 lengths behind the winner, and is now training at Palm Meadows pointing for a probable Florida Derby (G1) start. Another Breen trainee, Sanford S. (G2) runner-up Nacho Saint (Yes It's True), is possible for the March 5 Gotham S. (G3) at Aqueduct following a 4 1/4-length maiden victory on January 28.
"Last year we tried to get Nacho Friend (Friends Lake) there (to the Kentucky Derby), and he was just a cut below it," Breen said. "Now this is the most three-year-olds we've ever had before. We've tried to diversify and I'd say we have a couple nice horses. If they step up, we have a legitimate shot (at making the Derby)."
Trainer Kathy Ritvo was all smiles herself Thursday while being chauffeured around the Fair Grounds backstretch in a golf cart shortly after her Risen Star runner MUCHO MACHO MAN (Macho Uno) had completed his first local gallop earlier in the morning.
Prior to Mucho Macho Man and Ritvo's arrival by plane Wednesday, Ritvo had expressed some concern earlier in the week about taking the horse away from his winter headquarters at Gulfstream Park, where he had finished a solid fourth in the Holy Bull despite being bumped hard early in the running.
"We would have preferred to stay home (in South Florida) for his next race," Ritvo said at that time, "but this race here fit our schedule and (Mucho Macho Man) has to learn to ship, too."
Thursday morning Ritvo gave a progress report.
"He shipped very well," she said. "Everybody here has done a great job helping us get settled in, and we're very happy. We took him to the paddock to school today and he was very relaxed."
Mucho Macho Man will race without blinkers for the first time in his career when he goes to the post in the Risen Star, and he also breezed without blinkers in a five-furlong move at Gulfstream in 1:04 1/5 on February 12.
"The idea was to see how he went with the blinkers off and it seemed to go well," Ritvo said of the Gulfstream move. "We're trying to get him to concentrate a little more -- to focus on what he's supposed to do."
Ritvo, 41, is herself a fascinating story. Born into a well-established New England-based racing family, she originally took out her trainer's license at the age of 18, but she also underwent a 17-hour heart transplant operation in November of 2008, six months after being diagnosed with a severe deterioration of the heart muscle.
DECISIVE MOMENT (With Distinction), winner of the $250,000 Jean Lafitte S. at Delta Downs on January 14 in his first start as a three-year-old, arrived by van Monday evening at Fair Grounds from his home base at Calder Race Course in South Florida and was in fine fettle Thursday morning according to trainer Juan Arias.
"He's an excellent shipper," Arias said of Decisive Moment, who has now journeyed from South Florida to Louisiana three times in his career. Prior to his win in the Jean Lafitte, Decisive Moment finished second in the Delta Downs Jackpot (G3) in November, a month after finishing third in the In Reality division of the Florida Stallion S. at Calder.
"We let him rest Tuesday after his van ride," said Arias, "and (Wednesday) we let him gallop a mile and a half around the track and then took him to the gate for schooling.
"I've been to Louisiana three times now, but this is my first trip to New Orleans," added Arias, a former jockey who is a native of Panama. "Last night we went down to the French Quarter and got to experience some of the pre-Mardi Gras happy feeling."
In the Risen Star, Decisive Moment will be ridden once again by Cajun-born jockey Kerwin "Boo Boo" Clark, who began riding Thoroughbreds at recognized meetings in 1975 and is credited with more than 2,600 wins in his career. Clark continues to be amazed at how much Decisive Moment has improved between his two-year-old and three-year-old seasons.
Now 51, Clark has ridden extensively on the Chicago and Louisiana circuits and also spent two years riding in Saudi Arabia, but has never ridden in a Kentucky Derby.
"Wouldn't that be great, after all these years, to have my first Kentucky Derby mount at 51-years-old?" Clark said recently.
"I'd love to help someone like Boo Boo finally get his first Derby mount," Arias said Thursday. "He's done a great job riding this horse for us."