by Terry Conway
Undefeated, the Derby favorite and a media darling. Not anymore.
It was a stunning reversal of fortune. After a torrid opening half-mile Old Fashioned (the 2-5 favorite) was run down in the final 100 yards of $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 14. He collared pacesetter Silver City midway on the final turn, but 56-1 long shot Win Willy, who was last headed into the far turn, came rolling down the middle of the track, and won by 2 ¼ lengths.
As the saying goes, there are no sure things in horseracing.
Owned by Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm, Old Fashioned suffered his first loss in five career starts. The ghostly gray colt, who trained as a two-year old at Fair Hill, was the clear-cut consensus favorite throughout the winter for the May 2 Run for the Roses.
"Maybe my horse didn't see him coming," said trainer Larry Jones. "The horse was out so wide, which I thought was very smart on their part. Don't get down there and try to eyeball him. He may have another gear. But my horse looks fine. I don't think it was any kind of distance limitations. I think we were still probably running too fast on the front end."
For Jones and Porter the shocking result at Oaklawn Park was tempered by a stellar performance eighty minutes before the Rebel Stakes.
The understudy emerged as their stable's leading star. Friesan Fire exploded through the sloppy Fair Grounds stretch to crush the field by 7¼-lengths in the $600,000 Louisiana Derby. Co-owned by Porter and Tom Lundt of Vinery Stables in Kentucky, the colt registered a 104 Beyer Speed figure.
The powerful bay colt stalked the leader, Papa Clem, down the backstretch then dragged Gabriel Saez to the lead turning for home and put the race away by mid-stretch. Friesan Fire, a son of 1992 Horse of the Year and terrific sire A.P. Indy, completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.46 on a track that had turned to slop following a day full of showers.
He is a Vinery Farm homebred produced by the Group 1 winning Dehere mare, Bollinger, a standout in Australia. Another Fair Hill trainee, the colt is 4-1-1 in seven starts.
Friesan Fire's victory margin in the Louisiana Derby was the largest since 1963. He became the first horse to sweep the Fair Grounds' series since Dixieland Heat accomplished the feat in 1993. He ran a mile and a sixteenth in 1:43.46, that's 1.65 seconds faster than he ran the distance in winning his last race, the Risen Star.
While Jones was overseeing Old Fashioned in Hot Springs, Ark, Jones' wife, and assistant trainer, Cindy handled Friesan Fire's training at the Fairgrounds. Friesen Fire signaled he was about to bust loose by turning in a five-eighths of a mile workout in a sensational 58.20 seconds on the Monday before the Louisiana Derby.
"He had the lead, but the jockey didn't have a real tight hold on him," Cindy Jones said of Papa Clem. "But when I saw Friesan Fire, Gabe (Saez) had a real snug hold on him. We had so much more horse. He can handle any surface. He's getting better and better."
With Friesan Fire extending his lead with every stride Saez pumped his fist in celebration before the bay colt crossed the wire in a final time of 1:43.46. Friesen Fire is undefeated in three starts as a sophomore. He won the Jan. 10 LeComte Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths and then captured the Risen Star by two lengths Feb. 7. All three Fairgrounds victories came under Saez, who kept the colt near the front and out of trouble until he began to challenge for the lead at the end of the backstretch.
"He was very relaxed and when I made my move, he just exploded," said Saez, a 21-year-old Panamanian who rides most of the Porter's horses. "He made me so confident. When I asked him to go he did it so easy."
When Porter first saw Old Fashioned as a yearling, he fell in love with the gray son of Unbridled's Song. He paid $800,000 for him at the 2007 Keeneland yearling sale.
"I just got a great feeling about him," Porter recalled. "Now I can't say I haven't had good feelings about other horses who didn't turn out very well. But he's just been a favorite of mine. When I walked in the barn, I always went over to see him first to say hello."
Old Fashioned has always been the more precocious of the two Porter colts.
"Larry says he has the right frame of mind for everything," Porter said.
He'll need it to rebound next time out. Minutes after the Rebel defeat his front-running style and his ability to stay the distance came into question. Such is life when the Derby favorite gets beat in March.
So what went wrong?
First off, Win Willy ran the race of his life, and at a reported speed figure of 102. Old Fashioned earned a 98 that followed a 93 in the Southwest Stakes. He scored a lofty 100 in the Remsen Stakes last December as a two-year old. The colt hasn't progressed as a three-year old, mainly because he's been chasing a speedball that eventually flames out.
Old Fashioned is running too hard on the front end of his races tracking Silver City. In the Rebel, Silver City uncorked blazing fractions of 22.57 and 46 seconds in the opening half-mile mark. Jockey Ramon Dominguez clearly made an error by keeping Old Fashioned so close to a blistering pace. Old Fashioned likes to run on or near the lead, but there really wasn't any reason to chase Silver City. The jockey needs to get the horse to relax a bit more when the pace is so swift.
Right now it looks like the 1 1/4- mile Kentucky Derby will have its typical early speed— a pack of colts zipping through the first half-mile in 46 or 47 seconds. Can Old Fashion relax and settle in behind the speed burners? Or are his front-running tactics what they are. Ala Porter's Hard Spun who was over taken in mid-stretch by Street Sense, the winner of the 2007 Derby.
The Rebel was his first hiccup of his racing career. On the plus side Old Fashioned did finish eight lengths clear of the third horse. The real test is the $1 million Arkansas Derby (April 11) run at 1 1/8 mile. His defeat in the Rebel ensures more talented challengers will take a shot at him. Jones, no doubt, will insist on different riding tactics. If Old Fashioned rebounds with an impressive win, he's back as one of the elite three-year olds heading into the Derby.
As for Friesan Fire, he's given us a nice progression through his three consecutive stakes wins at the Fairgrounds. He's money in the bank. His total graded earnings stand at $570,465, second only to the Bob Baffert-trained Pioneer of the Nile. The Monday after the Louisiana Derby the colt shot up to number one or two in everyone's Kentucky Derby poll.
Once the owner of a lackadaisical attitude, Friesan Fire now has the tactical speed to put himself in perfect position and clearly has the talent with the killer instinct to put rivals away in the stretch.
"Early in his career he was basically satisfied to be a herd animal," related Jones, who also added blinkers (keeps the horse more focused) to the colt after his fourth-place finish in the Grade III Nashua Stakes last November.
"Friesan Fire had the talent, but was satisfied to just go out and play with the other guys. Now, that's all changed for him. He has decided he wants to be the top dog."
Jones indicated if he ran a big race in the Louisiana Derby, Friesan Fire might simply train up to the Derby, seven weeks after the Rebel. Jones and Porter finished second in the 2007 Derby with Hard Spun's last prep coming six weeks out.
If Friesan Fire runs again it could be the $750,000 Bluegrass Stakes (April 11) at Keeneland where he was shipped after the Rebel.
He has had a busy schedule: seven races in seven months with no down time since his first start last fall. Still, the colt appears to have gotten stronger with each race. By giving him the break, Jones doesn't risk the colt running his best race three weeks before the Derby.
It just might be that a couple of bullet workouts over the Keeneland's Polytrack surface could set the colt up for a peak effort on Derby Day.
"He definitely has enough seasoning," Jones said. "The last three races he's definitely showed the professional aspect of it that he just wasn't showing before. He's really caught on."