by TERESA GENARO
Robert LaPenta stood on the trophy presentation platform at Belmont Park, his back to the grandstand, his eyes on the infield screen. Moments before, he and his partners had accepted the trophy for the $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational after Catholic Boy turned in yet another gutty performance to earn his first Grade 1 win. Now, he watched the replay. Again. And again.
“His heart,” said LaPenta to no one in particular, “is immeasurable.”
He turned around, and, his eyes moist, tears dangerously close to spilling over, he repeated himself.
“His heart is immeasurable.”
LaPenta is no neophyte. He’s won the Belmont Stakes (G1) —twice. He’s won the Florida Derby (G1) —twice. He’s won the Champagne (G1), and he’s won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).
But there is something about this horse, the horse named Catholic Boy by the man who attended and has contributed millions to Iona College, a Catholic school, the man who runs in the colors of that school, that brings him to tears.
So choked up he can barely speak, he says, “He reminds me of two of my favorite all-time horses: The Cliff’s Edge and Jackson Bend.”
Bettors that had money on Catholic Boy might have been crying a different kind of tears inside the eighth pole. Though the three-year-old bay ridgling had set dilatory fractions, leading through much of the 10-furlong race on firm turf, he was caught late by Analyze It and strides from the wire looked like he’d get beat by a half-length.
But as he did last month at Belmont in the Pennine Ridge (G3), he fought back, ground down, found another gear—however you want to put it, he found enough to get his head in front, barely beating Analyze It for the second straight race.
“It’s good for the sport to see two of the best three-year-olds on the turf run the way they did,” said jockey Javier Castellano. “They put a lot of effort, it’s two good horses, and it can go either way. I’m very fortunate it went my way.”
“What a stretch drive,” said trainer Jonathan Thomas, who earned his first Grade 1 win. “It was a hell of a horse race. I didn’t expect him to fight back this time. I thought we were going to finish a really good second, but somehow he got it done.”
The top two finished clear of well-regarded European shipper Hunting Horn, who placed third for trainer Aidan O’Brien.
Purchased privately by LaPenta, Catholic Boy is owned in partnership with Sol Kumin’s Madaket Stables, Siena Farm, and Twin Creeks Racing Stables. By More Than Ready out of the Bernardini mare Song of Bernadette, he was bred by Fred W. Hertrich III and John D. Fielding.
Catholic Boy began his career on turf in Saratoga last summer, winning the With Anticipation (G3) in his second start. Beaten less than two lengths to finish fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) last November, he was switched to the dirt and won the Remsen (G2) going away, putting himself on the Kentucky Derby trail.
That road hit a speed bump in the Florida Derby, in which he finished fourth, and he was sidelined until the Pennine Ridge, running back on the grass. But that may not be where he’s going to stay.
“My bucket list race is the Travers (G1),” said LaPenta. “I almost won it with The Cliff’s Edge.”
If Catholic Boy comes out of this race well, and if LaPenta and his partners and Thomas make the call, and if Catholic Boy does win a Travers for LaPenta—well, the owner might well need that bucket, or at least a lot of tissues.