Versatile Catholic Boy Soars Clear in Travers

 By Bob Ehalt

Triple Crown winner Justify was not among the field of 10 in the $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1), but if owner Robert LaPenta gets his way, the 149th Midsummer Derby will have a movie star as its hero.

As 7-5 favorite Good Magic and the filly Wonder Gadot finished next-to-last and last, respectively, it was LaPenta’s ridgling Catholic Boy who stole the show in the Travers with a four-length triumph in the Aug. 25 centerpiece of the Saratoga Race Course meet.

“They should make a movie about this,” said LaPenta, who owns Catholic Boy along with Sol Kumin’s Madaket Stables, Siena Farm, and Twin Creeks Racing Stables. “A trainer (Jonathan Thomas) who never won a graded stakes race buys the horse for us. He was not considered an ‘A’ horse at Bridlewood (where he was raised). But there was something I liked about the horse, and I told Jonathan, ‘Now you’ll get your chance to prove it,’ and he did. It’s unbelievable. Take me to church.”

Before heading to church, a Catholic gentleman from Westport, Conn., will no doubt savor a special victory provided by his Catholic Boy that came about five months after the 73-year-old LaPenta overcame a potentially deadly case of Legionnaires’ disease. 

“I’ve been coming to Saratoga since I was 18,” LaPenta said. “This race has always been my dream. Even more than the Kentucky Derby (Presented by Woodford Reserve, G1). Some people might not understand that, but the Midsummer Derby has always been my dream.”

The dream came true Saturday before a crowd of 49,418 with a horse LaPenta bought at Thomas’ request after he was a $170,000 RNA at the 2016 Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale, and Catholic Boy has turned into an exceptionally accomplished 3-year-old under the young trainer’s astute care. Aside from owning victories in the 1 1/4-mile Travers and in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes (G2) on a dirt, he is a grade 1 winner on the lawn, having won the Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes (G1T) and Pennine Ridge Stakes (G3T) before his Travers bid.

“His sire is More Than Ready  He’s More Than Ready squared,” said LaPenta, who teamed with Kumin earlier in the card to win the $600,000 Forego Stakes (G1) with Whitmore. “He is great on the turf, and I think he’s great on the dirt.”

Taking it a step further, Thomas said, “Maybe today he proved he’s better on dirt.”

While future plans for the versatile ridgling—who was bred in Kentucky by Fred W. Hertrich III and John D. Fielding out of the Bernardini mare Song of Bernadette—are up in the air because of the numerous options for superb turf/dirt runners, LaPenta has his druthers.

“Dirt is where the money is,” he said.

Dirt was the right option for Catholic Boy in the Travers as he returned to the main track for the first time since he bled while finishing fourth in the March 31 Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park

Ridden by Javier Castellano, who extended his own record with a sixth Travers victory, Catholic Boy raced second, prompting the pace set by UAE Derby Sponsored by Saeed and Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (G2) winner Mendelssohn, who carved out fractions of :23.30 and :47.81 through the opening half-mile. 

“When he threw up the first quarter and half fractions, I thought it was a reasonable time for where we were,” Thomas said. “Then when I saw him traveling nicely to the three-eighths pole, I thought we were home because that’s where he starts to get strong. The mile and a quarter is something that we’ve always known is his best distance.”

Leaving the quarter pole, Catholic Boy began to inch away from Mendelssohn—the $3 million 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase who is a half brother to champion Beholder and leading sire Into Mischief  and opened a safe 2 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole in route to improving his record to six wins and a second in nine starts, with earnings of $1,842,000.

“I basically enjoyed the ride,” Castellano said.

The same could not be said of the horses behind him. As Catholic Boy, sent off as the 7-1 ($16.20) third choice in the wagering, completed the distance in 2:01.94, no one did much running behind him.

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