Team Valor International's homebred Howe Great held off Kentucky Derby hopeful Dullahan in Sunday's Grade 3, $150,000 Palm Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf, and in the process, vaulted himself into the Derby picture. The two are on course for a rematch in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes over Keeneland's Polytrack on April 14. If Howe Great passes that test, he could seek to emulate Team Valor's 2011 Kentucky Derby hero Animal Kingdom. Like that champion, Howe Great is trained by Graham Motion and piloted by John Velazquez.
"We talked about it before the race," Motion said, "and decided the logical spot for him, if he did well today, would be to go to the Blue Grass, and see where we go from there."
Howe Great figured to have a considerable tactical advantage over Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity winner Dullahan in the Palm Beach. Forecasting that the speedy, race-fit colt would prove too tough for the late-running Dullahan in his seasonal debut, bettors dispatched Howe Great as the 3-5 favorite. That scenario indeed played out, with another factor in Howe Great's favor. Drawn in post 1, he saved all the ground, kicked for home at the right instant under a heady ride, and extended his winning streak to four.
Dullahan rallied well to finish a clear second, beaten only a length in his first start since finishing fourth in the November 5 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Jockey Kent Desormeaux handled him tenderly in the final strides, once it was clear that Howe Great had already clinched the victory with a decisive turn of foot.
"I think the race was perfect for him," Desormeaux said. "He's so good, he's getting ready in a stakes. The other horse (Howe Great) had the recency and we loomed large around the far turn, but the winner possessed another gear. I'll possess that gear next time."
"I'm very pleased," said Dullahan's trainer, Dale Romans. "I thought that was a perfect race for him in his comeback. He finished good. We just wanted to see him finish good at the end. The one horse (Howe Great) is a quality race horse. This sets us up good, so we'll go from here to the Blue Grass."
There was one plot twist in the early stages of the Palm Beach. Since Howe Great was coming off a pair of front-running victories over the course, including the January 21 Kitten's Joy, he logically appeared to be the controlling speed. But Scorcher, the 37-1 longest shot on the board, showed uncharacteristic early foot to lead for the first time in his career.
As Scorcher went to the front through an opening quarter in :23 4/5 on the firm course, Velazquez wisely avoided a duel, and settled Howe Great in a prompting second. Csaba, a potential pace rival who had been bumped at the start by Coalport, stalked in third. Coalport recovered from his stumble at the break to take fourth, followed by the patiently-ridden Dullahan and Argentine Tango.
Scorcher continued to establish fractions of :47 2/5 and 1:11 2/5, but only on Howe Great's sufferance. Cornering into the stretch, Velazquez turned Howe Great loose, and the response was instantaneous. The dark bay colt shot clear.
At the same time, Dullahan was circling the field and rolling into contention. His four-wide path caused him to lose significant ground compared to Howe Great, and he found himself two lengths behind the winner through a mile in 1:34 4/5. Dullahan steadily closed the gap inside the final furlong, but Howe Great had gone beyond recall.
"He was on the inside but didn't seem to mind," Velazquez said of Howe Great. "Around the half-mile pole I squeezed him just a little, and he popped right back onto the bridle, and from there I made sure to save something for the stretch. When I asked him in the stretch, he responded right away. It's fun to ride the kind of horses that run as soon as you ask them."
Still perfect from three starts on turf, Howe Great zipped 1 1/8 miles in 1:46 2/5 and returned $3.40, $2.40 and $2.10. Dullahan was 2 3/4 lengths ahead of third-placer Csaba. Next came Argentine Tango, Coalport and Scorcher.
Bred in Kentucky by Team Valor impresario Barry Irwin, Howe Great has not lost since his runner-up effort in his debut. He graduated by 1 1/4 lengths in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden at Parx on October 31, and handled the stretch-out to two turns, and a switch to turf, in a second-level allowance on December 15 at Gulfstream. The Kitten's Joy was the next rung on the ladder, setting the stage for his graded debut in the Palm Beach.
"He hasn't done too much wrong in his life," Motion said. "He's a very classy, straightforward horse. The more he races, the more relaxed he has become. He's been in front in some of his races, but as you saw today, he's very tractable and relaxed, and doesn't need the lead."
Howe Great, who boasts a 5-4-1-0 record with $211,500 in earnings, is the latest headliner from the first crop of hot young sire Hat Trick. A Japanese champion by Sunday Silence, Hat Trick has already made a splash by siring 2011 French Horse of the Year and European champion two-year-old Dabirsim. Howe Great's dam, the South African-bred mare Ginger Sea, is a daughter of the prominent stallion Western Winter.