August 5, 2020

Catholic Boy returns triumphant in Dixie

Catholic Boy and jockey Javier Castellano capture the Dixie Stakes (G2) at Pimlico on May 18, 2019 (c) Horsephotos.com/Cecilia Gustavsson

Trainer Jonathan Thomas believed he’d found the right comeback spot for his versatile Grade 1 star Catholic Boy in the Dixie (G2) on Preakness Day, and his judgment proved right on target. Returning to turf in this first start since a roughed-up 13th in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), the 7-5 favorite asserted his class, and set himself up for a switch back to dirt for major targets over the summer.

“We thought this race was a good launch pad for the bigger races going into the remainder of the year,” Thomas said. “Sometimes turf is a little easier on them coming back and that was the plan we utilized. I think the Suburban (G2) at Belmont might be a race now under strong consideration.”

Thomas has also mentioned the Whitney (G1) at Saratoga as a desideratum. The re-emergence of Catholic Boy, a rare Grade 1 winner on both dirt and turf last season, is a tonic for an older dirt male division casting about for leaders.

Catholic Boy worked out a textbook trip in the Dixie for hot-riding Javier Castellano, stalking pacesetter Real Story through fractions of :23.46, :47.41 and 1:11.25 on the firm turf and taking command in the stretch. Admission Office, behind early after being squeezed a bit at the start, flew up the inside late, and Just Howard closed widest of all. But Catholic Boy had enough to prevail by a half-length in a final time of 1:41.09 for 1 1/16 miles.

“I was thinking (in the stretch) he might need a better trainer,” Thomas said. “No, but he’s just such a gifted horse. I would have been happy coming here and running a good second or third and galloping out well. But he has it in him to win. It was great to see.”

“Javier – it’s a rare game when you get to see a Hall of Famer hone their trade. He’s a rare rider and I thought he rode him beautifully.”

Castellano returned the compliment to both horse and trainer.

“He was great. He’s a super horse,” Castellano said. “You can do whatever you want. He can be on the pace, he can come from behind. I like the way he did it. Coming off a layoff since the Breeders’ Cup, that’s a long time to put in a good race like he did today. It was a great performance.

“We’ve been working together with Jonathan, and he did an excellent job with the horse to bring him to perform the way he did. He can go any distance – a mile and a sixteenth, a mile and a quarter. On the dirt or turf. He’s a super horse. We don’t see too many horses like that. Grade 1 on the turf and the dirt.”

Runner-up Admission Office might have pulled the upset with a cleaner passage, according to trainer Brian Lynch.

“I think if he gets a good trip today, he wins,” Lynch said. “He didn’t have the best of trips. I thought he got sort of pinched off coming out of the gate and took the worst of it out the back door. Every time he tried to move forward, a horse backed up in front of him or he got boxed in. Fortunately he got some clean racing room late and closed gamely to be a good second to Catholic Boy, which you should never be disgraced about.”

“Right out of the gate,” his jockey Joel Rosario said. “we kind of got squeezed a little bit and I kind of lost my spot, but he came running after at the end with a nice run up the inside. He got beat by a good horse. I had to just kind of wait and when he had room he really put in a nice run and finished up, but the other horse already had the jump on us. He ran great.” 

Real Story stayed on doggedly in fourth, just edged by Admission Office and Just Howard in the blanket finish. O Dionysus crossed the wire another half-length back in fifth, followed by 7-2 second choice Inspector Lynley; Phlash Phelps; Paret, who also tracked early before fading; Have At It; and Something Awesome. Flameaway, the trailer in Friday’s Pimlico Special (G3), and Twenty Four Seven were scratched.

Campaigned by Robert LaPenta, Madaket Stables, Siena Farm, and Twin Creeks Racing Stables, Catholic Boy has compiled a mark of 11-7-1-0 while amassing a bankroll worth $1,992,000. The son of More Than Ready was already a dual-surface performer at two, capturing the 2017 With Anticipation (G3) and finishing a close fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) before making a sensational dirt debut in the Remsen (G2). He continued on the Derby trail in early 2018, placing second in the Sam F. Davis (G3) but after bleeding when fourth in the Florida Derby (G1), connections wisely gave him time.

Catholic Boy reverted to turf last summer and scored two hard-fought wins over favored Analyze It in the Pennine Ridge (G3) and Belmont Derby Invitational (G1). Back on dirt for the Travers (G1), he swept to a four-length decision to underscore his quality on America’s traditional surface. Unfortunately, his hopes in the Breeders’ Cup were dashed in the early strides as he sustained an ankle wound and never got involved.

By starting out in the Dixie while looking ahead to the Suburban and Whitney, Thomas is planning to replicate the turf-to-dirt pattern that has worked so well for Catholic Boy in the past.

Bred by Fred W. Hertrich and John W. Fielding in Kentucky, Catholic Boy RNA’d for $170,000 as a “short” yearling at Keeneland January. The well-named bay is out of the Bernardini mare Song of Bernadette.