J P'S GUSTO (Successful Appeal) never fully convinced a trainer with Triple Crown credentials or a reigning Eclipse champion jockey that he could turn his Grade 1-winning two-year-old form into the stuff of Kentucky Derby (G1) contenders. After the colt blasted through his final workout before the April 16 $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), his current trainer, Joe Petalino, feels the impressions could change next Saturday.
Under new jockey Cliff Berry and wearing blinkers again with the intention of adding them for the race, J P's Gusto scorched five furlongs in :58 2/5 and galloped out six furlongs in 1:11 1/5 over a fast track at Oaklawn Park on Saturday.
"I'm confident because he's been training well the whole time," Petalino said. "The blinkers sure helped quite a bit. Then again I was pretty confident in his last race, but the jockey told me I had a sprinter. I think he's been listening to the TV handicappers too long."
Petalino inherited the horse when owner Dr. John Waken shipped the horse from trainer David Hofmans in Southern California for the Arkansas Derby series. The 63-year-old trainer was frustrated by the ride jockey Ramon Dominguez turned in aboard J P's Gusto in the Rebel S. (G2) on March 19 when the colt finished seventh while front-running winner The Factor (War Front) strode through a leisurely pace. In the Southwest S. (G3), his prior start on February 21, J P's Gusto finished second despite a troubled trip. Dominguez came off the colt saying he thought a mile would be his best distance.
Dominguez has been replaced by Oaklawn's leading jockey Berry, and Petalino is adding blinkers looking to get his charge into the race sooner, making sure The Factor, who is expected to return, does not have such an easy lead this time.
Trainer Donnie Von Hemel's conservative nature would probably have him leaning towards a less ambitious spot than the Arkansas Derby, but Pin Oak Stable's ALTERNATION (Distorted Humor) is slowly giving his trainer confidence that his mental state is catching up with his proven physical ability after he worked a solid six furlongs in 1:14 3/5 Saturday at Oaklawn.
Shortly after Alternation was scratched from his stakes debut in the Rebel for flipping in the starting gate, Von Hemel indicated that a start in the Arkansas Derby was unlikely. However, the ever patient trainer has been working hard with the talented colt, taking him to almost daily sessions in the starting gate and schooling him regularly in the paddock and infield.
Saturday's work, in which the colt and regular jockey Luis Quinonez ticked off fractions of :12 2/5, :25 3/5, :38 3/5, :51 2/5, and 1:02 4/5, left Von Hemel feeling like he warranted a shot in Oaklawn's centerpiece race.
"The work went as planned," Quinonez said. "We wanted to get to the last part, ask him a little bit and turn it up. He did that. I think he probably got the last quarter in :11. He did great. I've always liked this horse. He's big and strong. You go to where you think he doesn't have enough but he gives you more. I really liked his first race when a horse came outside him and another one put him in between. He saw that and dug in. To do that so young, that shows courage."
After two straight impressive allowance wins at Oaklawn heading into the Rebel, Alternation was among the favorites for the race before his mental lapse. His works and behavior since have his connections believing that was hopefully a one-time event.
"It went well," Von Hemel said. "He was very relaxed the first part but had a really nice acceleration down the lane. I'm happy with him. We will talk with the Pin Oak people today. I can tell you that we are probably leaning toward running in the Derby."
Clearly the Florida sunshine has done TRUMAN'S COMMANDER (Friends Lake) some good. The Nick Zito-trainee fired another bullet workout Saturday over the fast dirt at the Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Florida, and is set to return to Oaklawn to contest the Arkansas Derby.
Truman's Commander broke his maiden at Oaklawn March 6, but Harry Rosenblum sold a majority interest to Robert LaPenta soon after and the Kentucky-bred was shipped to Zito in South Florida. He has since posted two quick half-mile workouts, including his latest Saturday morning in :47 4/5. He easily bested a workmate named King Alpha (Tiznow), who went the same distance in :49.
"I think his work was great," said Hall of Famer Zito, who successfully landed his third career Florida Derby (G1) victory last Saturday with LaPenta's Dialed In (Mineshaft). "I thought his work last week was great too. I did something a little different today and worked him in company with another horse and he showed he's pretty quick for a horse who comes from behind. He has a nice turn of foot."
Truman's Commander got his name because Rosenblum is the godson of the 33rd president, Harry S. Truman. Rosenblum has been excited since closing the deal with LaPenta after his first four races with trainer Allen Milligan. Part of the sale stipulated the colt would return for the Arkansas Derby even though the trip to Florida and back could prove taxing. Zito has been pleasantly surprised.
"I think he's a terrific horse. He's adapted well, which I'm happy about," he said. "He has a great disposition and does everything right. He's put on muscle and he's shining and glistening. The Arkansas Derby is a big step up, but that's what we're looking for. We've done upsets before. That's why they run the race."
Trainer Todd Pletcher also worked a pair of Arkansas Derby contenders at Palm Meadows on Saturday.
BRETHREN (Distorted Humor), the winner of the Sam F. Davis S. (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs and the half-brother of last year's Derby winner and Arkansas Derby runner-up Super Saver, fired a co-bullet five-furlong drill at Palm Meadows along with DANCE CITY (City Zip), a developing allowance-winning colt.
Both went in :59 seconds and will now hop aboard a Tex Sutton charter flight from Florida scheduled to arrive in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on Monday. Pletcher indicated both will be entered in the Arkansas Derby.
Brethren is looking to bounce back from a disappointing third-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2). Dance City is two-for-three with both his wins coming at Gulfstream Park this year.