Gulfstream Park was bristling with Kentucky Derby aspirants on Saturday, with three entry-level allowances for promising sophomores building up to the main event, the Grade 3 Holy Bull.
The first to garner attention was Team Valor International's import Cerro, who grabbed the early lead and went on to dictate terms as the slight 2-1 favorite in the 3RD race. According to a Team Valor release, Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps and coach Bob Bowman are involved in the partnership.
Trained by Graham Motion and ridden for the first time by Javier Castellano, the beautifully-bred son of Mr. Greeley reeled off steady splits of :23 3/5, :47 3/5 and 1:11 3/5 on the fast main track. Wild Billum offered token pressure on the outside, and El Duro advanced into third, while Sky Captain was traveling well along the rail tucked just behind Cerro.
Cornering for home, Sky Captain angled out to deliver his challenge, but Cerro simply drew away. After reaching the mile mark in 1:37, the chestnut kept up his relentless gallop all the way to the line and scored by 2 1/2 lengths. Cerro finished 1 1/8 miles in 1:50 1/5 and returned $6, $3 and $2.40.
Sky Captain reported home a clear second by three lengths from El Duro. Wild Billum, El Gran Joyful and the ever-trailing Craving Carats rounded out the order of finish.
Cerro began his career in Italy, where he captured his debut at Milan's San Siro on June 3. The runner-up, Peng, flattered the form when breaking his maiden next out and placing in a pair of stakes. Purchased privately by Team Valor, Cerro tired to sixth in the Grade 3 Pilgrim in his American premiere, and subsequently ran fourth in a December 1 turf allowance at Gulfstream. He next tried the dirt on January 1, rallying from off the pace to finish a distant third to the well-regarded Bradester. A change of tactics on Saturday helped to advance his record to 5-2-0-1, $44,254.
"That was a legitimate race, so I guess, obviously, you've got to start thinking about three-year-olds on the dirt," Motion said. "I feel like every time he has run it's been a process of getting him fit. I've kind of given him an excuse each time he's run. I think he's on the improve."
Phelps and Bowman were traveling at racetime, but Bowman later commented on the victory.
"Neither one of us got to see the race," Bowman said, "but we are really excited to be part of Cerro's partnership and see what he can do as he moves along this spring.
"I've always loved racing, and I got out because it just got to be a little much with the coaching, but now that Michael has retired and we're on a little more flexible schedule, we both wanted to have fun with it.
"I think he's always seen how much fun I've had with it and wanted to get involved, and this is a great opportunity for us to do it."
Team Valor revealed that Cerro will likely revert to turf for the Grade 3 Palm Beach on March 3, then switch to Polytrack for the Grade 3 Spiral at Turfway on March 24. The Spiral was famously used by Team Valor's champion Animal Kingdom on his way to Kentucky Derby glory in 2011.
Bred by Manganaro in Ireland, Cerro was sold for $19,870 at Tattersalls October as a yearling. He is a full brother to Sachem Spirit, who was second in last spring's Arlington Classic on turf. They are out of the winning Giant's Causeway mare Ballette, a half-sister to multiple Irish stakes winner and Group 1 Irish Derby runner-up Dr Johnson. Also close up in the family is current Japanese three-year-old Gottfried, most recently third in the Grade 1 Asahi Hai Futurity. With his third dam being the blue hen Sex Appeal, Cerro hails from the extraordinary family of champions El Gran Senor, Try My Best and Rags to Riches.
Two races later, Stuart S. Janney III and Phipps Stable's homebred Orb overcame early trouble to rally from last in the 5TH race.
Sent off as the 2-1 second choice, the Shug McGaughey pupil was caught in tight quarters at the back of the field entering the clubhouse turn, forcing regular rider Joel Rosario to check off heels. As Orb regrouped in last, front runner Duke of the City carved out slow fractions of :24 1/5 and :49. Mountain Eagle, the 8-5 favorite, was lapped right alongside in a perfect spot.
Orb began to improve his position approaching the far turn. By the time Duke of the City clocked six furlongs in a pedestrian 1:13 2/5, Orb had cruised into a menacing third, now making a line of three abreast. Mountain Eagle came up empty between them and soon retreated on the bend.
Turning into the stretch, Orb rolled past Duke of the City and opened up by 1 1/2 lengths. Duke of the City altered course to the outside to give game chase, but Orb prevailed by a tidy length with his ears pricked. His final time of 1:51 was markedly slower than Cerro's, but it was good enough to furnish mutuels of $6.80, $4.20 and $3.20.
"He's not fast, so that's going to happen sometimes," McGaughey said of the early trouble. "(Rosario) was trying to keep him down in there. I'm glad, because that way he got a little schooling.
"I think there's a lot left there," he summed up.
Duke of the City had 2 3/4 lengths to spare over the late-running Indy's Illusion. Mountain Eagle was the same margin back in fourth, followed by Uptown Anthem, Looking Cool and the eased Sayler's Creek.
Orb, who was making his two-turn debut in this spot and adding Lasix, sports a mark of 5-2-0-1, $81,050. The Malibu Moon colt finished third in a hot Saratoga maiden in his unveiling, beaten about a length by Violence and Titletown Five. A disappointing fourth to Tizracer in his follow-up at Belmont, he was a better fourth versus Vyjack and Clawback at Aqueduct on November 10. Orb wheeled back two weeks later at the same venue and scored his breakthrough in last-to-first fashion, defeating Freedom Child and next-out romper Revolutionary, and has now won two in a row.
"I've had trouble with him at the gate," McGaughey said. "The first two times I ran him, he was terrible in the gate. He came up against some good horses, too, like Violence."
McGaughey has been impressed with Orb's development.
"It was the first time I was able to get him stretched out around two turns," he said of Saturday's race. "When I brought him down here this winter, I said 'He might be a nice horse when we get him back to Aqueduct this spring. I'm very pleased today."
Orb's next race has yet to be determined.
The Kentucky-bred was produced by the winning Unbridled mare Lady Liberty. His second dam is Grade 2 victress Mesabi Maiden, ancestress of multiple Argentinean Group 1 star Suggestive Boy, who captured last summer's Wickerr at Del Mar and placed in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile.
Further back, this is the family of such Janney standouts as Private Terms, Coronado's Quest and, of course, Hall of Famer Ruffian.
The scene shifted to turf for the 7TH race, with Bold Dance all the rage as the 3-5 favorite. The half-brother to 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam gave his supporters a gallant run for their money, only to be worn down late by the 7-1 Holiday Star. An Augustin Stable homebred, Holiday Star was handing Motion his second win on the day.
Bold Dance, who had closed from midpack in his impressive maiden win over the course December 1, showed a new dimension this time by setting the pace. The Bill Mott pupil scampered through along the inside to take over through an opening quarter in :23 4/5, and led the way through fractions of :47 4/5 and 1:11 4/5. He looked to be in trouble when Bold Challenger ranged up on the far turn, and put his head in front in the stretch, apparently poised to storm clear.
But Bold Dance dug in on the fence and repelled Bold Challenger, only to have Squall King and Holiday Star emerge as new threats. Under Joe Rocco Jr., Holiday Star found the best late kick to deny Bold Dance by a half-length while negotiating 1 1/8 miles on the firm turf in 1:48 3/5.
Squall King checked in third, 1 3/4 lengths ahead of the rapidly-weakening Bold Challenger. Next came Thunder Calls and Fifth Ave Fancy in the short field of six, which had been reduced by the scratches of Draw Two, Newfound Zapper and Starship Zorro.
Holiday Star, like Orb racing with first-time Lasix, paid $16.20, $4.80 and $2.80. By the same sire as Shanghai Bobby, Harlan's Holiday, he boosted his bankroll to $40,723 from his 4-2-0-1 line. Holiday Star has raced only on turf, finishing third and seventh in Keeneland maidens before getting the job done on December 15 at Tampa Bay Downs.
The Pennsylvania-bred gelding is out of the Deputy Minister mare Spring Star, a half-sister to Grade 3-placed stakes victress Spring Season. Holiday Star's second dam is multiple Grade 2 turf queen Alice Springs.