Just five days after celebrating Havre de Grace's Horse of the Year honors, trainer Larry Jones enjoyed a banner Saturday at Fair Grounds by sweeping both sophomore stakes with Brereton Jones homebreds. Oaks aspirant Believe You Can started the double in the Silverbulletday Stakes, and Mr. Bowling capped Road to the Derby Kickoff Day with a battling win in the Grade 3, $175,000 Lecomte Stakes, raising his profile on the Triple Crown trail.
Mr. Bowling had dominated in his only prior start around two turns, a 7 1/4-length rout in the October 8 Dover Stakes at Delaware Park. The dark bay colt cut back to one turn for the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs on October 30, but the race didn't pan out as hoped, and he ended up third.
Stretching back out to a mile and 70 yards here, Mr. Bowling fought off Z Dager and Shared Property to remain perfect at two turns. The 7-2 second choice covered the distance in 1:43 2/5 and returned $9.20, $4.80 and $4.
"To be honest, we thought the colt was just starting to get good," trainer Jones said. "He's maturing at the right time. He really showed an affinity for this track when we got down here. I can tell he liked it better than anywhere we've been to this point. He pretty well got himself ready. Having Believe You Can, they've been work mates, they got each other ready and it paid off."
Under Robby Albarado, Mr. Bowling settled in a ground-saving sixth through an opening quarter in :23 1/5, a little more than five lengths behind the pacesetting Alexander Thegreat. Mr. Bowling smoothly progressed into fourth, just two lengths astern, by the time the leader reached the half in :47 1/5. Z Dager, part of the favored Zayat Stables entry at 3-1, was well placed in a rail-skimming third, while Shared Property endured a wide trip farther back.
Rounding the far turn, Alexander Thegreat was headed by 57-1 longshot Hero of Order through six furlongs in 1:12 4/5. The pair continued to slug it out at the top of the stretch, but their leadership was on sufferance only, as the principal contenders were all set down in earnest for the drive.
Mr. Bowling was the first to strike, but he soon had a fight on his hands. Shared Property loomed wider out down the center of the track, before his ground loss took its toll, and his bid ultimately flattened out. Then Z Dager drew up to Mr. Bowling's flank. The winner refused to crack, however, and turned back the late thrust of Z Dager by a head.
"I had a great trip, unbelievable trip," Albarado recapped. "I just wanted to give him a chance turning for home. I worked him in the morning. I saw a lot of fight in him. So I figured if I can get him clear turning for home, give him a chance to run home, he would. When that horse ran to him late, he gives him some second effort.
"This is one of the toughest Lecomtes I've seen in a while, so I look forward to him the rest of the year. Hopefully I can stay on him."
The connections of Z Dager were delighted with his near-miss.
"I had him running down the lane," jockey Shane Sellers said, "and when I got through that hole I thought, well, I'm home free now, and then he saw daylight and being just a little green, might have cost him just a little bit. But he's a young horse and hopefully the next time he'll have learned from it."
"He's a little bit 'on again, off again,' but that's just who he is," trainer Steve Asmussen said. "I think the winner ran about a head better than we did.
"I think it was huge for his third race, coming out of a maiden race, to run as well as he did."
Shared Property was a commendable third, another half-length back. Jockey Leandro Goncalves rued the hand that he was dealt from post 13.
"We drew the outside post and that wasn't to our advantage," Goncalves said. "I tried to get him to the inside a little more, but I couldn't really get that done. He didn't have a very good trip. Then in the stretch he kept drifting to the outside and that hurt us a little. Also, he hadn't run in a long time (since his sixth in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity on October 8)."
Dan and Sheila, Z Dager's entrymate, rallied from dead last in the big field for fourth. John Velazquez, who flew in to ride the Todd Pletcher trainee, cited the ridgling's inexperience.
"I didn't want to be so far back, and going into the first turn there it was getting tight, and I kind of cut back out of there," Velazquez said. "Being green though, he doesn't know very much, so when he saw the whole group, he kind of ducked out of there, not being very sure. Then I hit him and he kept backing up, backing up, backing up, was jumping up and down, and finally when I got him running, the three-horse (Ted's Folly) drops back into the inside and he started rolling. Too late, but I think he got a good experience out of it."
Next came Hero of Order, Hammers Terror, Capetown Devil, Alexander Thegreat, Ted's Folly, Adena's Chance, Exfactor, Seven Lively Sins and Chalybeate Springs.
Mr. Bowling boasts a 5-3-0-1 record with $201,048 in total earnings, $115,848 of the graded variety. His first three starts came at Delaware Park, where he finished fourth in his August 1 debut and shed his maiden status on August 22. Those were both six-furlong sprints, but he showed much more when upped in trip for the aforementioned Dover.
His connections had been expecting just such an improvement.
"Jose Caraballo was on him as a two-year-old," the trainer recalled.
"That's the first thing he said after his first work: 'He can run as long as you can get the races to go. This one will run all day.' I think he's right."
The Kentucky-bred is from the first crop of Istan, who stands at the former Governor Jones' Airdrie Stud. He is out of the winning Irish Tower mare Goldilock's Bear, herself a half-sister to Grade 1 queen Tarlow. Multiple Grade 3 victor Yankee Fourtune and Grade 2-placed multiple stakes scorer Go Go Shoot are also in the immediate family.
Mr. Bowling failed to reach his reserve when bringing a bid of only $14,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. That might have turned out to be a lucky stroke for his owner/breeder, who now has a candidate on the Derby trail.
Larry Jones mentioned the next race in the Fair Grounds' series, the Grade 2 Risen Star on February 25, as his target.
"Hopefully they will take my entry for the Risen Star over here and let me back in the next one," the trainer quipped.
The Grade 2, $1 million Louisiana Derby on April 1 is the track's final prep on the road to the May 5 Kentucky Derby.