El Padrino passed a significant test Saturday as the 4-5 favorite in the Grade 2, $300,000 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, but it did not come easy. The well-regarded Kentucky Derby prospect duked it out with Mark Valeski through the stretch run of the 1 1/16-mile event before prevailing by a nose, registering his first stakes victory in the process.
Ridden by Javier Castellano, the Todd Pletcher-trained colt survived a claim of foul by Anna Napravnik aboard Mark Valeski. The top two finishers brushed against each other slightly in the stretch, but the stewards found no fault with the winner.
"I was riding head-to-head with her and hitting my horse right-handed and she was hitting left-handed," said Castellano, and after looking at the head-on of the stretch run, Napravnik admitted, "Many times it feels worse than it looks and that was the case today."
El Padrino was away cleanly at the break and settled into a stalking position, with a few lengths of the pace, entering the first turn. Hero of Order, a 79-1 outsider, sprinted to the fore and led the way early, establishing opening splits in :24 2/5 and :48 3/5. Mark Valeski raced up close tracking the pace in second and El Padrino was about three lengths back in third after the opening half-mile.
Mark Valeski made his move on the far turn, advancing to challenge the pacesetter after three-quarters of a mile in 1:13, and entered the stretch run with a short lead. El Padrino bided his time through the final bend and was asked for run by Castellano upon straightening for home. He collared his game rival in midstretch and after dueling through the final furlong, narrowly gained the upper hand in the final yards.
"I thought it was a huge effort shipping into the track for the first time and the track appeared it was playing to speed the last couple days," Pletcher said of El Padrino's effort. "We chased down a really good horse, it looked like."
The chestnut colt stopped the teletimer in 1:42 4/5.
Z Dager was never a factor finishing third, 5 1/2 lengths behind the top pair, and Hero of Order held for fourth. It was another four lengths back to Shared Property in fifth. Afford, Tizanexpense, Ted's Folly, Optimizer, Adena's Chance and Mr. Bowling came next under the wire.
Owned by Let's Go Stable, El Padrino won his second career start by a 12 3/4 lengths margin in the slop at Belmont Park last October and then concluded his juvenile season with a close third, beaten less than a length, in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. He gained notoriety when opening 2012 with a good-looking score in an entry-level allowance/optional claimer January 29, powering past Grade 3-placed Take Charge Indy to win by two lengths over the rain-soaked "good" track at Gulfstream Park. It was a 13 3/4-length margin back to third and El Padrino netted a whopping 111 BRIS Speed rating.
El Padrino recorded his first win over a fast track while continuing to enhance his Kentucky Derby credentials with $180,000 in graded earnings Saturday. His overall mark now reads 5-3-1-1, $266,100.
"You hope it's the kind of race that he'll improve forward and become battle-tested a little bit and he's getting a little bit more professional all the time and, hopefully, learning how to win," Pletcher said. "I think racing is going to help him.
"He's got two good mile-and-a-sixteenth races under his belt now so this year we've got a good foundation but he's a big, strong colt, carries plenty of condition, and he's a big, laid-back horse on a daily basis so I think he's the kind of horse that needs racing to get more and more fit. He's not one to give you a huge effort every day and that's good in the long run, but sometimes those kind of horses take a little longer to reach their peak."
Bred by Emory A. Hamilton in Kentucky, El Padrino was sold for $210,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. He is the first registered foal from the Giant's Causeway mare Enchanted Rock, herself a half-sister to Grade 2 winners Waldoboro and Tara Roma. Immediate family members include Grade 1 winner Serra Lake; Grade 2 scorers Al Khali and Hungry Island; and Grade/Group 3 winners Soaring Empire, Coal Play, Cappuchino, Somali Lemonade and Baraan.
Enchanted Rock's dam is Grade 1 queen Chic Shirine, a full sister to champion Queena, who is in turn the dam of Grade 1 hero Brahms. Chic Shirine and Queena were both produced by Grade 1 victress Too Chic.
A rematch in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby April 1 could be in order for El Padrino and Mark Valeski.
In a press box speaker phone interview from South Florida, Pletcher seemed to think the long stretch run at Fair Grounds is ideal for El Padrino's style and, while not committing to a specific engagement, thought the Louisiana Derby would be a prime option.
"We're certainly happy enough with the race today that that will be one of our first options," Pletcher said. "You hope it's the kind of race that he'll improve forward and become battle-tested a little bit and he's getting a little bit more professional all the time and, hopefully, learning how to win."
Meanwhile, Larry Jones, trainer of Mark Valeski, when asked about returning for the Louisiana Derby, said, "We can see no reason not to."
"He put in a game effort," Napravnik said of the runner-up, who was making his stakes and two-turn debut. "Other than the brushing down the lane, I feel like if we were on the outside we probably would've won it. The seven-horse bumped me just slightly down the lane a few times and was more leaning on me the whole way than anything else."
"It was big-time race for him," Jones added. "He did really well."