SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Back when hardly anyone knew War Emblem from a stable pony, Repent was the rage. He was the early favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, a powerful and consistent runner who figured to relish the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles.
But while finishing second April 6 to War Emblem in the Illinois Derby - the race that powered War Emblem to Kentucky Derby and Preakness fame - Repent sustained a minor fracture to his left front ankle. He underwent surgery, rested, returned to training, and now, 4 1/2 months later, returns to racing in the $1 million Travers Stakes tomorrow at Saratoga.
Repent is 6-1 in the morning line, a distant second choice behind 2-5 favorite Medaglia d'Oro. But don't count on odds anywhere near that high for Repent. His trainer, Ken McPeek, who upset War Emblem in the Belmont with long-shot Sarava, has made no secret that he believes Repent is poised for glory in the "Mid-Summer Derby."
"Those other horses had better have their running shoes on," McPeek said. "Repent's doing extremely well, and we've been wanting to run him a mile and a quarter. I think he's going to run a great race."
The concern for everyone - except McPeek, apparently - is that Repent hasn't raced since the spring and now faces a demanding distance and a daunting opponent in Medaglia d'Oro.
But McPeek's confidence grew on Saturday when Farda Amiga, the outstanding 3-year-old filly, won the 1 1/4 -mile Alabama Stakes here after a three-month layoff with the same come-from-behind style as Repent.
McPeek said horses such as Repent and Farda Amiga, who run steadily most of the race and then unleash a giant run at the end, need less "depth of fitness" than early-speed horses who might have to fend off multiple challenges during the race. Repent, McPeek said, is plenty fit for the Travers' 1 1/4 miles.
McPeek isn't overly concerned with Medaglia d'Oro, either. All Medaglia d'Oro did, after finishing a close second in the Belmont, was cruise to a 13 3/4 -length victory three weeks ago in the Jim Dandy Stakes, the traditional Saratoga prep for the Travers.
"We have beaten Medaglia d'Oro and most of the better 3-year-olds this year with some of our other horses," McPeek said, referring to Harlan's Holiday, whom he trained through the Preakness, and Sarava. "And I think that Repent is every bit as good or better than those horses."
McPeek's only fear, he said, is that Medaglia d'Oro will gain an easy lead and slow the pace. That would probably compromise Repent's strength as a late-speed specialist taking aim at the tiring leaders.
"If Medaglia d'Oro gets his way, he's going to be very tough to beat," McPeek said. "But you know, they really worked hard to slow the pace down on [Repent] in the Louisiana Derby, and he won, anyway. And they tried to slow the pace down on him in the Kentucky Cup, and he won, anyway."
After winning three of five races as a 2-year-old and finishing a charging second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Repent won his first start at 3, the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds - after a three-month layoff. Then he won the Louisiana Derby despite running erratically in the stretch, confirming his status as the leading Kentucky Derby contender in the East.
In all, Repent has won five of eight races and twice finished second. The only time he hasn't finished first or second was his initial start last August at Ellis Park, when he checked in third.
Helen Pitts, Repent's exercise rider, has ridden the Louis Quatorze colt ever since he entered McPeek's barn. Pitts is from Maryland.
"This is the best he's ever felt," Pitts said. "He's grown up mentally, and physically he feels a lot stronger. Everything is much easier for him. He's a much different horse, totally different - much better."
McPeek is so confident that he wishes War Emblem, the leading candidate for the Eclipse Award as top 3-year-old, had come to the Travers instead of staying in California for the Pacific Classic on Sunday at Del Mar.
"I really had no fear of running against him right now at all," McPeek said. "I think it would have clarified the 3-year-old division.
"Repent is every bit as good as any other 3-year-old in the country. The owner believes that. I believe that. Now we have to prove it to everybody else."
Where:Saratoga Race Course, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Post time:5:55 p.m.
Distance:1 1/4 miles