HALLANDALE, Fla. - Trainer John Ward Jr. and his principal owner, John C. Oxley, had a plan last year: focus on the Triple Crown races with top-notch horses and a top-notch crew. Their plan worked to perfection as Monarchos, the robust gray colt, won the Kentucky Derby.
This year, with the top Ward-Oxley 3-year-olds sidelined with minor injuries, Oxley went out and bought the horse who may take them to the Derby again. Yesterday, the modestly bred, small colt named Booklet captured the $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park for his sixth triumph in seven races.
The front-running victory earned Booklet the distinction of first 3-year-old to win a Grade I stakes in 2002. How much farther he'll go down the Derby trail remains to be seen. His sire, the Florida stallion Notebook, usually produces horses better at shorter distances than the longer distances of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
But Booklet has been a pleasant surprise since Oxley, who owns an oil company in Oklahoma, bought Booklet at the beginning of the year. Oxley turned the slight-shouldered colt over to Ward, who looked at Booklet's four victories last year at Delaware Park and Calder, examined his pedigree and started calling him "the walk-on."
Said Ward: "He didn't get a scholarship to go to a fancy college. He doesn't have a fancy pedigree. But when he runs, he runs hard. He's smart and he's professional; he's a pretty neat animal. The thing that surprises me is how much endurance he has."
Despite winning the Holy Bull Stakes four weeks ago at Gulfstream, Booklet was the 9-2 third choice among the eight horses in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth. The runner-up in the Holy Bull, Harlan's Holiday, was the 5-2 favorite. Stephentown, flashy winner of a Gulfstream allowance, was also 5-2.
Booklet darted to a 2 1/2 -length lead down the backstretch. With Jorge Chavez in the saddle, Booklet remained in full control around the far turn. Harlan's Holiday, who raced three-wide around the turn, challenged down the stretch. But the little Booklet, as he had in the Holy Bull, held off his more highly regarded foe.
Booklet passed under the wire a nose ahead of Harlan's Holiday, an Ohio-bred son of the deceased Harlan. Five lengths back, Blue Burner claimed third, followed by Political Attack, Speed Hunter, Stephentown, Grey Beard and Maybry's Boy.
The winner paid $12.40 and headed a $32.40 exacta and $177 trifecta. His time over the wet-fast track was 1 minute 44.49 seconds.
Tony D'Amico, the jockey of Harlan's Holiday, and Ken McPeek, the colt's Kentucky-based trainer, both said that they thought Harlan's Holiday would overtake Booklet in the stretch.
"He kept digging in and digging in," D'Amico said of his mount. "He just couldn't get past him."
Stephentown, a $500,000 yearling by Wild Again, making just his fourth start, raced in easy striking distance, but faded in the stretch.
Said Tony Reinstedler, his trainer: "We weren't good enough - how's that sound?"
Oxley said that Booklet, whom he bought with races such as the Lone Star and Illinois derbies in mind, seems to relish the competition.
"He doesn't like to be passed," Oxley said. "I think he almost likes to have a horse hook him. Then he digs in and keeps going."
Ward said Booklet's next race likely would be the March 16 Florida Derby. McPeek said that that was the target for Harlan's Holiday, too. McPeek's other Derby contender, Repent, runs today in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
NOTE: 8-year-old Cetewayo, trained by Michael Dickinson at his Tapeta Farm in Cecil County, won the Grade I, $200,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap in his first start since November. It was Cetewayo's first Grade I victory since the Sword Dancer Handicap in August 1998 at Saratoga.
Dickinson said Cetewayo, who paid $38.60 to win, had been sidelined with back trouble.
"It's one for the horse," Dickinson said of the 3 1/4 -length score. "He's 8 years old, and he just wants to run."