Hope of winning the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge at Belmont Park was all but lost in mid-stretch for Catholic Boy.
After losing the lead and being forced to check, Catholic Boy was passed by the undefeated, 1-5 favorite Analyze It. At that point, most, if not all, horses and jockeys would wrap up and call it a day to settle for second.
On this day, though, Catholic Boy (under jockey Javier Castellano) showed no quit and wouldn’t accept defeat. Castellano found an extra gear in Catholic Boy, who re-rallied with a late move to nail Analyze It at the wire, taking the local prep for the Grade 1 Belmont Derby by a neck in one of the most extraordinary races so far in 2018.
“I was very proud of him,” said Catholic Boy’s trainer Jonathan Thomas. “To take up in mid-stretch, come back and get the job done, we were very proud of him.”
Thomas has been prideful of his charge’s exploits on many occasions and has every right to be, having been with the More Than Ready colt every step of his career.
“We bought him as a weanling (for $170,000 in January 2016 at Keeneland),” Thomas said. “As soon as he was ready to start under tack in August of his yearling year, he’s been under our roof ever since.”
That roof is Bridlewood Farm, for which Thomas heads up the training division. He recruits and develops young horses, not just for his own barn, but also for some of the biggest names in the game. One of those horses is Catholic Boy, responsible for giving Thomas his first career graded stakes win as a trainer when he was victorious in the Grade 3 With Anticipation Stakes last August at Saratoga.
Now looking for an elusive Grade 1 victory to add to Catholic Boy’s resume, the horse that brought Thomas into the limelight has been entered in the Belmont Derby this Saturday. Catholic Boy represents much more to Thomas, though. Their perseverance has meshed well, and Catholic Boy’s development exemplifies the business model that Thomas is looking to execute.
Looking for a Grade 1
With graded stakes wins on turf and dirt as a juvenile on his resume prior to the Pennine Ridge, a first Grade 1 win in the Belmont Derby would be the pinnacle of Catholic Boy and Thomas’ careers so far.
Thomas has seen good energy from Catholic Boy coming out of the Pennine Ridge, having put in three solid works over the Oklahoma turf training course in Saratoga.
“(The Pennine Ridge) looked like a pretty tough race for him on paper, but he bounced out of it quickly,” said Thomas. “He got right back in the feed tub and is showing a lot of good energy, so we thought we would keep him on a good schedule (with three works in between races), and he seems to be appreciating it. When a horse bellies down like that to win, you always kind of wonder what the ramifications will be and if they’ll need a little more time off or not. He ran a career-best sheet number and it was a good race. You never know what you’ll be dealing with on the backside of that, but he took it really well.”
After a hard-fought win in the Pennine Ridge, Catholic Boy will be asked to stretch out to the farthest distance of his career in the Belmont Derby, which goes 1 1/4 miles. With wins on turf at 1 1/8 miles in the Pennine Ridge and on dirt at that distance while winning the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes last December, Catholic Boy’s performances hint that an extra furlong may not be too daunting.
“He seems like he wants continued ground and he kind of just grinds it out,” said Thomas. “I can’t see the distance being any issue for him, based off what we see in the mornings and the bit of evidence we’ve see in the afternoons.”
Owned by Robert V. LaPenta, along with Madaket Stables, Sienna Farm, and Twin Creeks, Catholic Boy has been one of the top horses in the 3-year-old-crop, with his lone defeat on turf coming when he finished fourth in the ultra-salty Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last November.
“(Catholic Boy) has been a very reliable horse,” said Thomas. “Especially if you look at his grass resume, he’s 3-for-4, and even in the Juvenile Turf, he didn’t do anything wrong. He just had a troubled trip but ran very, very respectable.”
Derby Isn’t Everything
Ranked highly on many Kentucky Derby lists after his impressive Remsen win to end 2017, Catholic Boy began 2018 with a good runner-up finish in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February.
The plan was always to give Catholic Boy only two Derby preps, so from there, Thomas targeted the Grade 1 Florida Derby to end March. Sitting in mid-pack behind a torrid pace early in Gulfstream Park’s signature Kentucky Derby qualifier, Catholic Boy looked to be in a good spot to make a strong move late, but he flattened out and had no burst, finishing a disappointing fourth.
It was discovered after the race that Catholic Boy had bled, which explained why his usually consistent performance was lacking on the day.
“The good thing with him was that it was a first-time offense and he’s not a chronic bleeder,” said Thomas. “It’s like any small injury or trauma to the body. You just have to back off and give him a couple of weeks to regroup, so he got some turn-out time, hyperbaric therapy and let him regroup. It’s just a matter of doing right by your horse.”
Without enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, the dream of getting his first horse to Run for the Roses was lost, but Thomas took it in stride.
“The Derby is a very odd race,” said Thomas. “Either a horse is phenomenal and they win like a Justify, or sometimes, the best horse in the 3-year-old crop doesn’t (win). You’d like to get there as a trainer, but not at the expense of your horse. For me, (the Derby is) never a true barometer of a horse’s career. I’d like to get there. I’d love to be competitive at some point, but never at the expense of a horse’s career.”
Catholic Boy persevered through that bleeding episode under Thomas’ watchful care and is back in top form. Getting a horse through an event like that was a small task after what Thomas had done in his career just to get to this point.
Thomas, 37, grew up caring for horses on Rokeby Farm in Virginia, where 1993 Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero was bred. Caring for horses as a youngster landed Thomas as a professional steeplechase jockey, starting as an apprentice at the age of 17. His jockey career lasted only three years, though, after he broke his back in 2000. The injury left Thomas temporarily paralyzed for a year.
“I would’ve been a (steeplechase jockey) for many, many years, if I hadn’t gotten injured,” said Thomas. “It was a roadblock. It made me take stock of life and try to develop a career path, which was flat racing. Honestly, getting hurt early may have been the best thing for me.”
With a lot of therapy and luck, Thomas was eventually able to overcome his paralysis. He was able to start from the ground up after recovering and started working for steeplechase trainer Jack Fisher. After that short stint, he became an assistant trainer for multiple Grade 1-winning conditioner Christophe Clement, where he spent four years.
Next, Thomas spent a year training in Saudi Arabia, but then returned to the United States to work under multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher for more than six years.
“I looked at (working for) Clement and Pletcher like going to college, so it was like going to the Harvard and Yale of the backside,” said Thomas. “That was always my plan, to end up working and being an assistant for a top trainer and see where that took me.”
Building the Business
After helping Pletcher cultivate such young talent as Uncle Mo, Super Saver, Eskendereya, and many other major Grade 1 winners, Thomas left to join Bridlewood Farm in 2013. His job would be to reinvigorate and run Bridlewood’s Training Division.
“Bridlewood is our hub,” said Thomas. “It’s a private training facility and I would call it our training camp. To me, the horse business is like any other sport, it’s a recruiting business. I want to recruit young, talented stock. I love that we have a place that we can send that young stock so I can develop, analyze, critique, and ultimately decide where they go.”
Sometimes, horses are clearly earmarked to go to certain trainers after spending time at Bridlewood, but other times, Thomas has been able to bring horses he likes into his own barn. As Thomas has shown his ability to win on the biggest stages, owners have chosen to fill Thomas’ barn with horses that haven’t been “spoken for.”
“We started Destin, Tapwrit, Gun Runner, and Carina Mia,” said Thomas. “We’ve had a lot of cool horses come through the pipelines. I’m trying to create a cyclical thing where we recruit, develop, race, and on the back-end, if they’re good enough, like Catholic Boy, to hopefully get a stallion deal and develop fillies that can go on to become broodmares.”
Future Stable Stars?
Thomas started running horses under his own name as trainer in 2015 with just 12 starters that year and only 18 in 2016. That stepped up to 71 in 2017.
Thomas is currently enjoying his most prolific year, with 56 runners already in the first half of 2018, while netting 14 winners for a 25% win rate. Impressively, he’s had top three finishes from 55% of his runners this year, and from May 31 to July 1, he won 9 of out 18 starts for a 50% win rate and hit the board with 72% of his runners.
Thomas and his stable of about 45 horses look to ride that momentum all summer. He’s brought a string to Saratoga, led by two fillies targeting stakes events during the 40-day meet.
The undefeated 4-year-old filly Tillie’s Lily is being pointed to the $200,000 Caress Stakes on July 23 going 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf. The daughter of Distorted Humor won her 2018 debut on June 1 at Belmont going 6 furlongs on the grass.
An exciting prospect for Thomas is the juvenile filly Entirely, sired by Point of Entry, who was a debut winner at Gulfstream, also on June 1. Thomas said that he may point Entirely to either the $100,000 Bolton Landing Stakes on August 15 at 5 1/2 furlongs, or wait until the $100,000 P.G. Johnson Stakes on August 30 at 1 1/16 miles; both on the turf.
One filly that will receive a lot of attention is Osare, the half-sister to the 2016 Travers Stakes winner and 3-year old champion Arrogate. A 3-year old filly by Medaglia d’Oro out of the Distorted Humor mare Bubbler, Osare broke her maiden at second asking at Belmont on June 21, going 1 1/4 miles on the turf. She is training at Saratoga, but her next start is undetermined.
“(Osare is) a real fun filly because Bridlewood owns her, so she’s a house horse,” said Thomas. “George Isaacs, the general manager (of Bridlewood), and myself bought her as a yearling for $300,000. It was right after Arrogate had just won the Travers, in the first book at Keeneland. She was a big, gangly filly, so you had to look at her through a crystal ball. This is a great story, because we just took our time and really let her develop, and she’s paid us back. Honestly, if she never runs again, she’s (already) a winner and has tremendous residual, so we’re all very proud because she was a complete team horse.”
With his strong background of horsemanship and recent success, Thomas is emerging onto the horse racing landscape as a trainer with a focused plan for success.
Still, he is humble with his goals set simply, stating, “Being a good horseman is my number-one goal and being a good teammate with my clients.”
Generation Now is a new series highlighting the top younger trainers at Saratoga all summer. This is the first installment, so please follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim for updates.