The conversations with trainers around Fair Hill Training Center this week weren’t all about FBI investigations, indictments and cheating scandals.
Mike Trombetta was in town for a few days to check on his Maryland string before heading back to Florida. Kentucky Derby hopeful Independence Hall is still at Tampa Bay Downs with his next scheduled start the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park March 28. Trombetta said the Constitution colt would breeze Sunday at Tampa. If that goes well, he’ll ship to Gulfstream the next day and train there for a week before his final pre-race breeze next Sunday, March 22.
Second in the Sam Davis at Tampa Feb. 8 after winning his 3-year-old debut in Aqueduct’s Jerome on New Year’s Day, Independence Hall skipped the Tampa Bay Derby March 7. A start there would have probably meant another start in April and four races in 84 days counting the Kentucky Derby. Instead, Independence Hall gets his one chance to qualify for Kentucky in the Florida Derby.
King Guillermo won the Tampa Bay Derby at 49-1, giving Trombetta some pause that maybe he should have stuck with Plan A.
“It wasn’t the original plan before the Sam Davis, but Aron (Wellman of co-owner Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners) did tell me everything’s on the table,” said Trombetta. “When I watched the Tampa Bay Derby it was a little weird because my horse was in the barn on the backside. To see that horse jump up and win it gave me the illusion immediately that it probably would have been an OK race to be in but after the fact it comes back a 99 Beyer number and that horse is a legitimate, very nice horse. So who’s to say how it was going to work out.”
Trombetta knows the Sam Davis didn’t work out as his horse lost his tongue tie in the post parade, lost a front shoe somewhere and settled for second (his only defeat in four starts) after being close to a fast pace.
“He had some excuses in the Sam Davis,” said the trainer. “I’m not taking anything away from the other horses, but the tongue tie comes off in the post parade, that was unfortunate, he loses a front shoe in the race . . . these are things that matter, and they’re not completely under our control.”
Since then, Independence Hall has been training steadily at Tampa (including breezes of a half-mile Feb. 22, 5 furlongs Feb. 29 and 7 furlongs March 7) and making his trainer thing positively. A handful in the paddock before the Jerome and the Sam Davis, Independence Hall behaves much better in the morning when exercise rider/assistant trainer Sarah Shaffer is on board.
“When he goes out in the morning, she backs him up with the pony and stands him out, he’d stand there for an hour if you’d let him. He’s very content,” Trombetta said. “You bring him in with other horses, he gets going. I don’t want to get anybody hurt. When he kicks, he kicks for real. He’s good 98 percent of the time, but when something turns on, man it’s on.”
Win Win Win eyes return, major goal
Trombetta said his 2019 Kentucky Derby starter Win Win Win was nearly ready to return to the Fair Hill barn after some early prep work in Florida at owner Live Oak Plantation’s training center, and had a lofty target.
“Where’s the Breeders’ Cup this year? Keeneland? I want to work backward from the Breeders’ Cup Mile,” Trombetta said. “I would love to make that race with that horse for those people. I think he’s that good.”
Bred and owned by Live Oak, Win Win Win finished ninth in the 2019 Derby and seventh in the Preakness. He hasn’t run since a blazing victory in the Manila Stakes at Belmont Park July 4. The son of Hat Trick went a mile on the turf in 1:31.56, while rallying from 5 lengths behind in the final quarter-mile.
“Watching the Manila got the gears turning.” Trometta said. “The way that horse ran in that race . . . he was hopelessly beaten turning for home, angled out and passed everybody. They don’t do that every day.”
Old and new at Lawrence stable
Chuck Lawrence’s Fair Hill barn always includes a little bit of everything. At one time or another you might see a mare and foal, a stallion, some retirees, a big John Deere tractor, a souped-up Dodge Ram pickup and racehorses, yes racehorses.
A quick tour Wednesday made several stops. Grade 1 winner Glorious Empire has been retired and was, for the moment, content to soak up sunshine and stare down stablemates from a round pen. “I just wasn’t happy with how his suspensory was looking,” Lawrence said of Matt Schera’s Irish-bred. “It’s just not worth taking a chance. He doesn’t owe us. He’s pretty high-strung, so we’re not sure what he’ll be able to do. We’re looking into a retirement place.”
Another stable retiree, James Lee was babysitting a youngster and awaiting a ride to the farm in Virginia. Bred by Lawrence and named for the trainer’s father, the 11-year-old made 102 lifetime starts while racing for eight seasons. He spent the last 3 1/2 years in Puerto Rico before being re-imported by Lawrence and his wife Beth with some help from Turning For Home, Parx Racing and Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue.
“He got claimed from us at Parx years ago and we were following him as he came down through the ranks,” said Lawrence. “He was winning, doing OK. I was still getting breeders’ checks and everything. Then he was third for $5,000 (in August 2016) and I said I’d go get him.”
Claimed that day by Marcos Zulueta, named in this week’s federal indictment along with Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro, James Lee made his next 46 starts at Camarero Racetrack. He won seven times, but lost his final 13.
“We got him back, but it wasn’t easy,” said Lawence. “He’s turned out with a filly out of his sister Pixie Dust by Cage Fighter (a former Lawrence runner) and he’s going to Virginia to babysit her so she can be Virginia-certified.”
Lawrence’s father died in 2015, and all this would make him smile.
“Oh yeah, he’s laughing at us for spending the money to get the horse back for Puerto Rico,” said Chuck. “He’d wonder what all the fuss was about.”
On the racehorse front, Lawrence is excited about 3-year-old Imagining gelding Dee Jay. M and J Racing’s Pennsylvania-bred was second in his debut Feb. 22 and was targeting a March 24 race.
“We thought he’d win first time out, but he had the one hole and he got stopped three times,” said the trainer. “He’s big. We’re really looking forward to him running again. We’re trying to take a deep breath and be patient, but we really like him. He works and pulls up over there (at the end of the backside). He doesn’t work and pull up by the next pole past the wire.”