Moreno a work progress

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Eric Guillot walks a fine line with the talented and formerly erratic Moreno, who takes on a few of the big names from this year’s spring classics in today’s $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga.

He freely admits that he thinks the Ghostzapper colt is up to the task of taking on the likes of Palace Malice, Mylute, Freedom Child and others in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy. And he’s just as quick to throw a word of caution to anyone that thinks it’ll be rosy from here on out for the gelding named for his owner, Southern Equine Stable’s Michael Moreno.

“He’s the most talented 3-year-old in the country, from a talent standpoint,” Guillot said along the outside fence on the main track as Moreno effortlessly galloped past the grandstand Friday morning. “But with all my history with cheaters is eventually they just quit trying. You never know when that light bulb is going to burn out.”

Guillot and Moreno, the man that is, hope that it won’t be today when Moreno tangles with two turns for the first time since his rapid ascension from maiden to Grade 2 winner in a two-month span this spring and summer.

It’s been a long road from a promising 2-year-old who started in the Grade 2 Best Pal in his second start to 3-year-old who battled almost too many physical issues to count before winning back-to-back starts at Belmont Park June 8 and July 6. The latter was the Grade 2 Dwyer, where he won by 7 lengths racing on the pace throughout.

“He was always cut out to be a good horse,” Guillot said back at the barn. “He’s got three crooked-ass legs, one good leg out of four. That’s why I cut him. He’s homebred, well-bred, but you just never know with homebreds. Even if he wins five Grade 1s in a row nobody could or would breed to a crooked horse like him.”

Guillot isn’t exaggerating. Moreno wouldn’t come close to being the $1.2 million sales-topping A.P. Indy colt Southern Equine bred and sold across the road at Fasig-Tipton in 2010. Moreno might have had a hard time getting a bid. The gelding’s right hock turns out. His right stifle does, too. And it gets no better from the front.

Guillot laughs about it, but the physical and mental issues Moreno’s endured slowed down a lot of progress that his connections hoped would first get him to the Del Mar Futurity, then maybe the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and then maybe the Kentucky Derby. You name it and Guillot’s dealt with it. Shins. Foot issues. Stifle problems. High suspensory. Bled through Lasix. Lung infection. Bar shoes.

He didn’t make any of those races, but he’s made the Jim Dandy. Now Moreno wears blinkers; they were added before his maiden win that came in start No. 9, and Guillot won’t send him to the track without earplugs.

“I’ve got earplugs in, so he can’t hear his feet rattle,” Guillot said. “I put them in the same time as the blinkers. He can’t hear his feet rattle and he can’t judge how close the other horses are to him.”

Moreno put plenty of distance between himself and the opposition in those last two starts, but the Jim Dandy presents a different challenge against a better field. Some, like Palace Malice, Will Take Charge, Freedom Child and Mylute, are starting up again after a rest from the Triple Crown grind. Others, like Code West, Looking Cool, Bashaar and Perfect Title, are in good form.

“I would love to see him put his ears down and actually try,” Guillot said. “I’ve been confusing him with that one turn. He runs those big turns. The last couple races he’s been taking it in stride. Like a good gelding. Maybe he likes Belmont.

“But I’ll tell you, he’s cooled out before we even take the tongue tie off. Did you see his ears? Like that, straight ahead. He’s got that high cruising speed, too, like a Quality Road type. He would surprise me if he won for fun. You can see every time he was right he ran. When he wasn’t, he didn’t. That I know.”

Carl Nafzger, who’d never be confused with Guillot, knows his horse, too. Like Guillot he’s bringing a colt that comes into the Jim Dandy in the right direction.

Looking Cool landed in Saratoga thanks to a victory in the Grade 3 Iowa Derby at a big price June 29. The Candy Ride colt was a distant eighth in the Grade 3 Matt Winn, won by Bob Baffert’s Code West, the start before that and tried eventual Kentucky Derby winner Orb earlier this year at Gulfstream.

Nafzger nominated Looking Cool to the classics but backed off when Jim Tafel’s homebred colt failed to give the same signs he might have seen in 2007 with eventual Derby winner Street Sense or back to 1990 with Derby winner Unbridled. Nafzger’s been down the road before, many times, and knows asking too much to a colt unprepared can do bad things.

“He was the kind of horse when we’d give him the chance to step forward he was making mistakes,” said Nafzger, who won the Jim Dandy and Travers with Street Sense in 2007. “When they make those mistakes you can’t take the next step. He’s got to take you through the steps. The last race he took us through the steps and that’s why we’re here.

“But he even made mistakes in that last race. Just like Street Sense. He made two mistakes in the Blue Grass and he got beat a nose. You don’t win good races making mistakes. Until they quit making mistakes, and he ran such a good race in Iowa, not making mistakes, doing everything right and getting up in time to win, (can you say), ‘OK, let’s give him a shot to be a good horse.’ That’s all. We’ll see what he can do.”

Palace Malice was always a colt his connections felt was a good one and finally put it together on a big stage in the Belmont Stakes. The Curlin colt didn’t get too much rest following his victory over Preakness winner Oxbow and Derby winner Orb, but still needs to knock the dust off from a seven-week break.

“Now, that he’s won a classic, you can go into all these races with a little more confidence,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “He always showed us that type of ability, at the same time, he just missed in the Blue Grass, he got in trouble in the Louisiana Derby, ran a little green in the Risen Star, he just wasn’t quite polishing it off. Now he has, you can go with a little more confidence.”

Mike Smith is in from California to ride Palace Malice, the 5-2 morning-line favorite, for Dogwood Stable and trainer Todd Pletcher. The $200,000 Keeneland 2-year-old graduate has worked five times at Saratoga since the Belmont and looks to give his trainer a fifth win in the Jim Dandy.

“I usually work my way back from the target, when I laid it out, I said, the earliest I would work him would be whatever date it was, ” Pletcher said. “I told Mr. Campbell, the horse is screaming for a breeze, he’s acting good, feeling good, let’s just let him stretch his legs a little bit. He wasn’t getting unruly or anything, he was just doing so well, eating so well, acting so good, there was no reason not to.”

That first work back was at Belmont June 23, a half-mile in 49 2/5 seconds. Since then, it’s been stepping stones – another half at Belmont, a half over the Oklahoma track here, two 5-furlong moves on the main track and then a half-mile finisher six days ago.

“He always trains well, his work two works before the Belmont was as good as we’ve ever had a horse work,” Pletcher said. “I’m not saying it was the best but I can’t think of one that’s better, the way he did it, the way he galloped out, in hand. We were quietly confident going into the Belmont that he was capable of winning it.”

The field also includes Bashaar (Javier Castellano) for Shadwell Stable and trainer Danny Peitz, Code West (Joel Rosario) for Gary and Mary West and Baffert, Will Take Charge (Junior Alvarado) for Willis Horton and D. Wayne Lukas, Perfect Title (Shaun Bridmohan) for Chuck Fipke and Dallas Stewart, Freedom Child (Luis Saez) for West Point Thoroughbreds, St. Elias Stable and trainer Tom Albertrani, Mylute (Rosie Napravnik) for GoldMark Farm, Whisper Hill Farm and trainer Tom Amoss. The field will most likely be reduced to nine with Jerome and Gotham winner Vyjack expected to run in Sunday’s Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.