Monday, July 13, 2009

Messers. Zito and LaPenta: Set Da' Tara free to do what he does best

Da' Tara's still at it -- knocking on the door of clearing the non-winners of three lifetime condition, that is.

I'd wager a number of readers haven't heard, nor much cared, about the 2008 Belmont Stakes champion since that day, when he paid $79 on that June afternoon as the shocking long-shot who collected the big check as Big Brown traded in his Triple Crown for one of the Burger King variety. But the colt is back and trying to fight his way back to the top, or at least out of the middle. Yet with three seconds in three races at age 4 -- including one going a mile Sunday when beaten 7 1/2 at Belmont -- he just can't quite get there.

It's a wonder Da' Tara wasn't a bigger price on Belmont Day 2008. He'd only won a single race in his life, albeit at first asking in maiden special company on Jan. 5, 2008, at Gulfstream Park. He was third in a Gulfstream allowance and then owner Robert V. LaPenta and trainer Nick Zito tossed him in over his head to watch him come home ninth in the Florida Derby-G1 behind what was then a seemingly unbeatable Big Brown.

Sticking with stakes company, Da' Tara was fifth in the Derby Trial at Churchill (won by eventual G1 winner Macho Again) a week prior to the 2008 Kentucky Derby, which also turned into a Big Brown romp. He followed Big Brown to Pimlico two weeks later and notched a game second-place finish in the Barbaro Stakes (formerly the Sir Barton) on the undercard of Big Brown's Preakness freakshow.

So, really, who'd fully have expected Da' Tara to spring the Belmont upset? Certainly he's well-bred, by twice-champion Tiznow out of Torchera, one of four stakes-caliber Pirate's Bounty foals out of multiple stakes winner Kaylem Ho (Salem-Kay Ho, by Quid Pro Quo) -- a blacktype quartet that included Grade 1 winner Private Persuasion (1995 Vanity H.).

But as Ann Ferland reminds me, no tail-male descendant of the great Man O' War had won an American classic since his own son War Admiral took the Triple Crown in 1934. And coming into the Belmont, Da' Tara wasn't even the most accomplished direct descendant of the mare Kaylem Ho in the race -- that was Denis of Cork, the Harlan's Holiday colt who had won the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park and finished third in the Derby behind Big Brown and the ill-fated filly Eight Belles. Kaylem Ho, second dam to Da' Tara, is third dam to Denis of Cork.

Still, when Big Brown cashed it in early under Kent Desormeaux and the scramble was on to see who picked up the loose change, the Belmont Stakes honors went to Alan Garcia and his long-shot charge, Da' Tara.

So where has Da' Tara gone from there? Lots of places and nowhere, really.

Da' Tara resurfaced later in 2008 at Saratoga for the Jim Dandy S.-G2, finishing seventh behind an old nemesis, Macho Again. About a month later, he ran fifth in a Travers S.-G1 known for its incredible photo finish -- won by fellow Tiznow colt Colonel John by the hairs of his muzzle over Mambo in Seattle.

A sixth-place finish in a sloppy Jerome H.-G2 at Belmont's fall meet prompted a drop in class for Da' Tara (and a jockey change to John Velazquez somewhere along the line) but he was not quite up to the task back at Churchill, finishing third in an optional-claimer.

A couple of months off resulted in an anticipated return to the track in February back where Da' Tara broke maiden, at Gulfstream Park, on the Fountain of Youth Undercard. But to pilfer a NASCAR term, Da' Tara has been the first loser in every race he's run this year, including his closing, but distant, runner-up performance back under Garcia at Belmont on Sunday.

So what next?

Since I'm apparently in the unsolicited advice-dispensing business these days, I have a suggestion for Messers. LaPenta and Zito: Send Da' Tara back to stakes company.

That probably sounds looney, but you haven't read the half of it yet. I want to see him on the grass next month at Saratoga. I believe the John's Call Stakes beckons on a Friday, Aug. 7.

The sixth running of the John's Call, per the condition book a $70,000-added race, is slated for a mile and five-eighths over the Saratoga lawn. It has the added benefit of being restricted to horses that haven't won a graded-stakes race in 2009, so there shouldn't be any real turf monsters in the field. Though NYRA reserves the right to move the race to the main track (apparently regardless whether weather's the issue), Da' Tara shouldn't bat an eyelash at that possibility, and if it stays on the grass, the condition book suggests he stands to benefit from some serious breaks in the weights due to having no prior earnings on turf.

Last year, only eight horses went to post, so Da' Tara likely wouldn't have to fear being closed out because of that lack of turf earnings (which are the tie-breaker in case of over-subscription). In the 2008 renewal, Just As Well, who was third in an optional-claimer in his "prep" for the race, was sent off as the 2-1 favorite in his stakes debut. Though he's gone on to be turf-G1-placed at age 6 in 2009, he didn't win on this day; he didn't even hit the board. Victory went to Summer Patriot, his first and only stakes triumph (though he is also G1-placed on grass). Second went to Venezuelan import Taconeo and third to Codeword, who is G3-placed at a mile but has never won a stakes.

Time for the race -- as it has been for all four prior runnings to take place at 13f on grass (Auguri won the John's Call at 9.5f on dirt in 2004) -- was a fairly pedestrian 2:42.50. Da' Tara's 2:29.65 Belmont victory was far from fleet, but the list of horses that have won the Test of the Champion in 2:29 or slower is lengthy and star-studded (including Seattle Slew's 2:29 3/5) and 2:29 and change is roughly par for finishing 13 furlongs in around 2:42, which as noted could win the John's Call.

I don't know whether Zito has ever tried to work Da' Tara over a turf course, but I know the horse hasn't raced over one. And the one thing we know about the colt is that distance, at least by American standards, is not a limitation. Tiznow is throwing plenty of classic-distance horses, not to mention at least three graded-stakes winners on grass -- Tizaqueena, Tizfiz and Tizdejavu. And considering Da' Tara's dam line produced a 1-2 finish in the Belmont last year at a mile and a half, I'm going to assume the extra 660 feet of the John's Call won't be Da' Tara's undoing.

I think your horse fits in the race, Nick and Bob, and to prove it, I'm willing to pay the early nomination fee on your behalf, provided you'll pay the $1,000 to pass the gate. ... O.K., I know there's no fee for nominations (if they're on time, it's $200 supplemental). But you also get a $750 rebate on the one-grand starter's fee provided the horse does actually run in the race. And isn't $250 an insignificant amount to risk? ... I mean, by your bankroll's standards?

If Da' Tara doesn't like the turf, so be it; he hasn't won his last seven races anyway. If he can merely maintain his runner-up streak for 2009, it's still a good payday and an extra spot of black type on his (potentially foreign-market) stallion resume that sure could use it. ... The Belmont alone isn't much of a selling point for a stud career these days.

But if he does take to the grass -- and I truly believe that isn't out of the question -- Da' Tara just might win that race. And then we have even bigger plans.

Winning the John's Call would set the stage for a potential entry in the Breeders' Cup ... the Marathon, that is. The race has been extended this year to 14 furlongs (provided they don't start canceling races now) which, Messers. Zito and LaPenta, could help play into your boy's hands. And unlike so many eastern-third-based American horses, Da' Tara shouldn't run and hide from the Pro-Ride at Santa Anita, either. Aside from Da' Tara himself and champion juvenile filly Folklore, each of Tiznow's other Grade 1 winners in his still-young stud career have won at least one of their G1s on SoCal synthetics: Well Armed (Goodwood S.); the aforementioned Colonel John (Santa Anita Derby); and Tough Tiz's Sis (Lady's Secret S.).

Millionairess Bear Now has two G3 wins over different synthetic tracks. Slew's Tizzy won the Coolmore Lexington S.-G2 on Keeneland's Polytrack and set a 9-furlong course record over the all-weather surface at Hollywood Park. Ex-claimer Informed added a G2 win over synthetics for Tiznow recently by taking the Californian at Hollywood.

Since extremely talented horses and their connections are donning garlic necklaces and holding out crosses at arm's length at the notion of racing over Pro-Ride during the Breeders' Cup -- complaining that the "plastic" surface favors European invaders and turf horses -- why not find out right now whether Da' Tara is one of those who can handle the grass? ... Even if he can't, or doesn't like it quite as well as the main track, I wouldn't write off the Marathon completely because of the fine synthetic form so many Tiznows have displayed.

The Breeders' Cup Marathon, though over the main track, indeed was a haven for Euros and turf horses at Santa Anita last year. Irish-shipper Muhannak (with no career graded blacktype) won it, second went to ex-claimer and Cal-based G3 turf winner Church Service, and finishing third was Big Booster, previously winner of the San Juan Capistrano-G2 at 14f on turf.

So how about it, Bob and Nick?

You have a Grade 1-winning distance horse on your hands. And he suffers from seconditis at shorter circuits (five of his other 14 starts lifetime, plus the MSW win and two thirds). But if Da' Tara can win the John's Call and be pointed to the Breeders' Cup, there are a half-dozen potential preps to test him again and keep him sharp between the two -- including the all-weather-track Turfway Park Fall Championship, which is a win-and-you're-in for the Marathon.

Allow the guy do what thus far he's done best -- turn Da' Tara out and let him run all day.

You might even decide that this distance racing thing is pretty cool, something I have a hunch your horse already has figured out for himself.


  1. Good post, I've always liked Da'Tara (my wife picked him to win the Belmont) to me this also proves Big Brown wasn't up to the hype, the horses he ran against are now in allowance company and optional claimers.

  2. It wasn't a stellar field for a Belmont, and I don't mean that there weren't Grade 1 horses, just that there weren't "Belmont Stakes" horses, though most these days aren't.

    Denis of Cork unfortunately hasn't raced since. Third was a dead-heat between Anak Nakal (Kentucky Jockey Club S.-G2, Pennsylvania Derby-G2), whose sire was Belmont-winner Victory Gallop, and Ready's Echo, who had been third in the G2 Peter Pan as a prep.

    Rounding out the order were: 5th, Macho Again (Stephen Foster-G1); 6th, Tale of Ekati (Wood Memorial-G1, Cigar Mile H.-G1); 7th, Guadalcanal (three wins and no blacktype lifetime); 8th, Icabad Crane (Federico Tesio S., 3rd Preakness S.-G1); and then 9th, Big Brown.

    So the field had three current or eventual G1 winners (Big Brown, Tale of Ekati, Macho Again), a G2 winner (Anak Nakal), and a G3 winner (Denis of Cork) -- that's five of the nine starters. Plus a stakes winning Preakness-placer (Icabad Crane). Only Guadalcanal was (and remains) non-blacktype.

    Sort of funny now that I think about it. I wouldn't have thought the field was that good, either. But while I don't think most of those horses relished the Belmont's distance, several of them were pretty good horses, and at least one -- Macho Again -- still is.


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