Longer The Better

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Jonathan Thomas walked through the paddock Saturday at Aqueduct, met back up with John Panagot and Jacob West and asked aloud about the best place to watch the pending $250,000 Remsen Stakes.

Thomas had good reason for wanting a good spot and he preferred a television with high-definition. Bypassing a suggestion to go up a level or two into the stands, Thomas found his spot in the small alcove at the edge of the Big A’s saddling area. A row of ceiling heaters did their best to fend off the slight chill as Thomas fixed his eyes on one of the three HD screens mounted high on the wall in the space.

Thomas watched intently as Catholic Boy, who he saddled minutes before for owner Robert LaPenta, warmed up for the Grade 2 co-feature on the Cigar Mile Day card. He noted how Manny Franco warmed up the son of More Than Ready to his associates, but otherwise looked calm as the minutes and seconds ticked down to post time.

A stone’s throw and one flight of steps away Catholic Boy and the Remsen’s nine other entrants loaded into the starting gate for the race that carried 10 points to the winner toward a spot in the Kentucky Derby field. Thomas stood a few feet in front of Panagot, LaPenta’s racing manager; and West, vice president of bloodstock for Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, as the Remsen was run, stepping closer again as the field approached the quarter pole and the real running started.

Catholic Boy surged to the front at about that point, triggering some cheers of “come on Manny, come on Manny” from the trio. The cheers were a nice touch but probably not even necessary as Catholic Boy looked like a winner just about every step of the Remsen’s 9 furlongs and at the finish, while the three exchanged enthusiastic bear hugs, he was 4 3/4 lengths clear and looking the part of a colt relishing the distance.

Thomas high-fived and hugged a few others on his way out of the viewing area and up to the track to meet the colt who will rank high on just about expert’s “Derby watch” list this winter and spring. The Remsen, Catholic Boy’s first start on dirt, followed his close fourth in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar and a win in Saratoga’s Grade 2 With Anticipation.

“We came over quietly confident he would show us a little something, but we never expected that,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ confidence came immediately after the Juvenile Turf last month at Del Mar, when Catholic Boy finished 1 1/2 lengths behind Mendelssohn. He galloped out strongly – so much so he was well in front of the field less than a sixteenth from the finish – and Thomas immediately started thinking of the Remsen.

Moved from Thanksgiving Weekend and into December by the New York Racing Association with hopes of luring horses from the Breeders’ Cup with the benefit of an extra week’s rest, the Remsen appealed to Thomas and Panagot because of its distance.

“He galloped out so well in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Juvenile, we thought, ‘we’ve got to run this horse one more time,’ ” Thomas said.

Catholic Boy flew from San Diego to New York a few days after the Breeders’ Cup. Bedded down in the barn of Todd Pletcher, Thomas’ former boss, at Belmont Park, Catholic Boy breezed twice on the training track there to prepare for the Remsen.

“The timing was great,” Thomas said of the Remsen. “We intentionally did not have a prep in between the With Anticipation and the Breeders’ Cup because it was a little of a rush either going in or coming out of it. So he ended up being a pretty lightly raced horse coming into this, just his fourth start. We felt like we were dealing with a fresh animal. I hate to say it but the Breeders’ Cup was almost a prep.”

Thomas was quick to credit Pletcher, who sent out Biblical to a sixth in the Remsen, for helping put the finishing touches on Catholic Boy’s preparations while he spent a significant chunk of time between the Breeders’ Cup and Remsen at his main base at Bridlewood Farm in Ocala.

Thomas said he’d “tap the brakes” little now with Catholic Boy, who will return to training at Bridlewood this winter. No future starts are picked out as of yet, and Thomas, reminded that reporters will be calling inquiring about the status of the latest graded stakes winning juvenile, is ready.

“Better for them to call than to not,” he said with a smile, walking back to the warmth of the alcove to catch the replay and watch the horses in the paddock for the Grade 1 Cigar Mile.

Two of the three other stakes winners on the day also came out of the Breeders’ Cup, with Sharp Azteca showing a new dimension racing from off the pace to win the $750,000 Cigar Mile and Wonder Gadot bouncing back from a sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies to win the Grade 2 Demoiselle for 2-year-old fillies. Indulgent scored the biggest upset of the four stakes, taking the Grade 3 Go For Wand at 12-1.