by Teresa Genaro
Robert LaPenta’s maroon and gold silks honor his alma mater, Iona College, a Catholic institution in the tradition of the Christian Brothers. The college takes its name from a Scottish island on which stood an abbey to which the faithful flocked to a life of monasticism. On its campus sits a student center named for LaPenta, an acknowledgement of his support of the school.
Some sources say that “Iona” can also mean “purple jewel,” and late in Saturday afternoon, LaPenta’s Catholic Boy looked like something of a purple – OK, maroon, but surely a little license is permissible? – jewel as he strode across the finish line at Saratoga, winner of the Travers Stakes (G1) for LaPenta and co-owners Madaket Stables, Siena Farm and Twin Creeks Racing Stables.
Catholic Boy is out of the Bernardini mare Song of Bernadette, named for a story of faith in the face of skepticism, of a young woman in 1858 who believed despite being questioned. The three-year-old colt and his trainer, Jonathan Thomas, have encountered more than their share of skepticism, nearly since the beginning.
Catholic Boy got his early training at Thomas’ Florida base of Bridlewood Farm, a place that he wasn’t considered “an ‘A’ horse,” according to LaPenta. But Thomas believed.
The colt rewarded his faith by winning his first two starts, both on turf, last year. Then he won the Remsen (G2) at Aqueduct last November, a race often discounted on the Road to the Kentucky Derby (G1). Catholic Boy went on to the Sam F. Davis (G3) and Florida Derby (G1), winning neither, though competitive in the former and finishing fourth in the latter.
Perhaps, after all, Catholic Boy wasn’t meant for the dirt, despite his breeding. So after a break, it was, perhaps, not much of a surprise that he returned to the turf, a decision that looked like a no-brainer when he won two straight graded stakes, both at Belmont Park, the Pennine Ridge (G3) and the Belmont Derby Invitational (G1).
Standing in the winner’s circle on July 7, just having won a Grade 1 on the grass, LaPenta said, “My bucket list is the Travers.”
It seemed improbable, and ill-considered. The horse is a monster on turf – why switch surfaces again? Back then, Justify still loomed, if dimly, and while Catholic Boy never embarrassed himself on dirt, one might have reasonably expected Thomas to talk LaPenta out of it.
And after Catholic Boy ran stride for stride with Mendelssohn throughout the 10-furlong Travers, and after LaPenta wept for the second time (his Whitmore had won the Forego [G1] earlier, the horse’s first Grade 1), and after Vinnie Viola, owner of Travers rival and fifth-place finisher Vino Rosso, was overheard saying, “What a race. What a race. That was spectacular,” it was time for LaPenta to get a new bucket.
“I’ve been coming to Saratoga since I’m 18 years old,” he said. “This race has always been my dream, even more than the Kentucky Derby. The ‘Mid-Summer Derby’ was always my dream.”
“Winning the Grade 1 (Belmont Derby Invitational) allowed us to roll the dice slightly for this,” Thomas said. “We never thought we were outmatched, but there was a question mark.”
No more. A three-year-old who’s a Grade 1 winner on both turf and dirt, Catholic Boy has, said LaPenta, “God on his side.”
“Take me to church!” he said.
The 1943 film “The Song of Bernadette” garnered 12 Oscar nominations, winning four, including Best Actress for Jennifer Jones, whose performance was called “totally convincing” and “luminous,” adjectives not out of place in describing Catholic Boy in the Travers, and LaPenta, marveling at the path his horse took to winning Saratoga’s most prestigious race, said, “They ought to make a movie about this.”
With Catholic Boy, obviously, the star of the show.