Catholic Boy Triumphs in Belmont Derby Thriller

Javier CastellanoNot many pace-setting horses battle back after being headed in the stretch but the 5/1 shot Catholic Boy dug deep to deny Chad Brown’s 2/1 favorite Analyze It on the wire in the 2018 $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational (G1T) on July 7.

Owned by Robert LaPenta, Sol Kumin (Madaket Stables), Twin Creeks Racing and Siena Farm, Catholic Boy seems to have an exceptional will to win, responding generously to the urgings of Javier Castellano to prevail by a head. For his trainer Jonathan Thomas it was a first grade one victory, he graciously praised Analyze It and admitted that he did not think Catholic Boy would overcome him after he lost the lead.

The raider from Ireland, Hunting Horn (12/5) finished nearly two lengths behind them in third under Ryan Moore for Aidan O’Brien whilst Todd Pletcher’s 58/1 long shot Channel Cat took fourth. Another European shipper, Kingstar (16/1), finished fifth for Pia Brandt who is based in France. Pletcher also saddled the fifth placed Maraud (24/1).

Catholic Boy’s performance provoked rave reviews from his growing number of fans. Horse-racing enthusiasts love a colt who will fight all the way to the line, especially when he is saddled by a relatively unknown trainer.

Catholic Boy was drawn wide but soon led the pack and seemed to enjoy his position at the head of affairs, closely shadowed by Analyze It in the second spot. A quarter mile from home Jose Ortiz drove Analyze It into a lead of less than a length but when Castellano got active Catholic Boy managed to regain the advantage in the final strides approaching the wire. Chad Brown suggested that his colt simply idled when he got past Catholic Boy.

Whilst bettors clearly thought that Analyze It was the likely winner it was a case of déjà vu as exactly the same thing happened when the two colts met on their previous start.

Analyze It was unbeaten until he encountered Catholic Boy five weeks earlier in the Pennine Ridge Stakes (G3T) at the same track. On that day Analyze It started as the 1/5 heavy favorite, ridden as usual by Ortiz.

Starting from gate one, Castellano took the lead on this son of More Than Ready within a few strides and was closely followed by Analyze It who jumped from gate two and sat, ready to pounce on his outside. In the stretch Ortiz pushed Analyze It into the lead and, having gained an advantage of almost a length, grabbed the rail, slightly hampering Catholic Boy.

When the writing appeared to be on the wall Castellano simply angled Catholic Boy out and drove him past Analyze It to win by a neck. Was Catholic Boy a hero or was Analyze It taking things easy having gained the lead?

Why was Analyze It the favorite after his Pennine Ridge defeat?

The Belmont Derby draw certainly favoured Analyze It, he was drawn in gate three while Catholic Boy only had two horses outside him in gate seven. Analyze It also had an enviable race record that Catholic Boy could not match.

One factor could have been that Catholic Boy broke a blood vessel when he finished fourth in the Florida Derby in March. Many bettors are understandably wary of a horse that has bled. Catholic Boy was given an eight week break to recover from the experience and no further issues of that nature have been reported since. The return to turf races was a deliberate move to help prevent another unpleasant episode for this talented colt.

Jonathan Thomas deserves plenty of praise for preserving not only his colt’s enthusiasm for racing but his will to fight back under pressure and win. Many horses who have bled throw in the towel long before the going gets tough making his bravery all the more impressive. One of his owners, Robert LaPenta, has had character testing issues too.

A rollercoaster ride for owner LaPenta

LaPenta partly owned three other horses that ran at Belmont Park on July 7. Tapwrit, the 2017 Belmont Stakes (G1) winner trained by Todd Pletcher, started as the 3/1 favorite with the top sports betting firms for USA players in the Suburban Stakes. The four-year-old colt ridden by Jose Ortiz was beaten ten lengths into fifth by Richard Violette’s Diversify (6/1) after being drawn in gate three. There was no immediately apparent reason for his disappointing performance.

LaPenta’s five-year-old sprinter Whitmore saddled by Ronald Moquett was the second favorite in the Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes (G2). He looked likely to win but was denied victory in the final strides by Ben Colebrook’s Limousine Liberal, the 37/20 favorite ridden by Jose Ortiz. Finishing second is the ultimate frustration for many owners, especially when the winning distance is a neck.

LaPenta has a share in Hawkish (6/1) with AJ Racing and Madaket Stables, the Penn Mile Stakes (G2) winner trained by James Toner, who finished 11 lengths behind Catholic Boy in seventh place. Hawkish is a class act but seemed to find the Belmont Derby distance of a mile and a quarter a furlong too far. That defeat should have been much easier to manage after Catholic Boy’s heroic effort at the front of the pack.

Fortunately Robert LaPenta is more philosophical than most having survived some major health issues shortly before Catholic Boy experienced his in the Florida Derby. The 72 year-old was rushed into hospital with what he and all the physicians initially thought was pneumonia but he did not respond to treatment and deteriorated dramatically. LaPenta’s temperature and heart rate soared to unsustainable levels and he was close to death.

Serendipitously one of the doctors, Dr Saikali, heard LaPenta discussing his attendance at a business meeting on the West Coast with his brother. That got Saikali thinking in a new direction and ultimately led to an accurate diagnosis of Legionnaire’s Disease.

LaPenta says that the near-death experience has changed his perspective on life. He is now better equipped to handle the inevitable ups and downs of owning racehorses. He is threatening to name one of his new crop of juveniles after the doctor that saved his life.

What next for Catholic Boy?

Now that Catholic Boy has demonstrated his prowess on turf at the highest level you might think that the Secretariat Stakes, another grade one on turf at Arlington in August, would be a logical target. That seems unlikely.

His owners are keen to try a different path and are reportedly favoring a switch back to dirt, preferring the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Catholic Boy won the grade two Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on dirt as a juvenile, justifying their enthusiasm for the Travers.

Whichever race they choose to target Catholic Boy may well provide good value for US bettors as his trainer is not one of the big-name handlers.