The early morning sunlight filtered softly through the barn windows at trainer Tim Tullock's Laurel Park barn as he put his shoulder to that of 3-year-old colt Gattopardo and the two jostled their way down the shedrow, heading for the training track - a place both man and horse have found delight this spring.
"It's a nice feeling to have a horse in the barn like this," Tullock said, a few minutes later, of the colt who might run in May's Preakness.
Tullock smiled as he watched the Johannesburg offspring move sideways as he made his way on the track beneath the guiding hands of exercise rider Scott Hammond.
"He's being a little bit of a dink," Tullock said. "He's feeling pretty good this morning."
Gattopardo will leave Laurel at 3 a.m. tomorrow in a van to Aqueduct in Jamaica, N.Y., where he will run in the $150,000, Grade III Bay Shore Stakes, a seven-furlong test for 3-year-olds.
"Choosing the Bay Shore over the [$750,000, Grade I] Wood Memorial was the prudent thing to do," said Tullock, who came to the decision yesterday in discussions with Gattopardo's owner, Mike Ueltzen.
"He's won twice at this distance. But it is going to be a tough race. It will be the toughest race he's ever been in. It will be the toughest race all these horses have ever been in."
In yesterday's draw, Gattopardo was given the No. 3 post. From that position, Tullock said, he would expect jockey Julian Pimentel to position the colt just off the pace.
Tullock said he has Gattopardo in what he believes to be top form. The horse, who with Pimentel aboard won the Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel Park last month, had an impressive five-furlong workout at the track Saturday, covering the distance in 58 seconds.
Tullock said Gattopardo trained very well again yesterday morning.
Asked who in tomorrow's race might give his colt trouble, Tullock laughed.
"Take your pick, it's that salty of a race," he said. "But we think we have the best 3-year-old going seven-eighths [of a mile] in the country. We'll find out."
Ueltzen, a Virginia businessman who is president and chief executive officer of The Republic Group, a high-tech export engineering firm dealing in the management of weather radar and satellite systems around the world, is a hands-on owner of his horses and involved in daily decisions.
In the case of Gattopardo, Ueltzen, 62, also owned, raced and bred his mother, Senza Paura, and with the help of a breeding service picked Johannesburg as an excellent match for the mare.
"I keep my mares in Kentucky near their boyfriends," Ueltzen said. "But I don't pick sires. You need at least a database to tell you what horses work well with other. I use the Jack Werk Thoroughbred Service. I asked for the top 10 horses that would be a good "nick" [match] for my mare. It cost me about $600 [for that information]."
And what he got, Ueltzen said, "was the biggest surprise" in his life.
"Did I know I had a nice mare who won stakes races in Delaware Park, Laurel and Philadelphia? Yes," he said. "Did I know I chose a good stallion? Yes. But did I think I'd get a stakes winner good enough to run in the Preakness?
"I've bought a number of nice horses, that's one thing. But to have a homebred like this? No, I never expected that."
If Gattopardo runs well tomorrow, finishing first or a very good second, Tullock said the Preakness will be on his dance card.
An exciting, perhaps scary, thought for an owner. But Ueltzen said for his horse, whose name translates from Portuguese to English as "the leopard," there is no worry.
"Gattopardo's dam, like the leopard, lacks fear," Ueltzen said. "I believe she passed that lack of fear on to this colt."