Thursday, February 5, 2009
Updated: February 6, 7:08 PM ET
This one's for Pompa
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
Paul Pompa Jr. sold a majority interest in Big Brown to IEAH Stables after the colt had raced just once, a classic example of a horse trader zigging when he should have zagged. Big Brown went on to win a Kentucky Derby and a Preakness and his value skyrocketed to well above the price Pompa got for the colt. His timing was less than perfect.
A year later, Pompa might have a last laugh, of sorts. He's the new owner of the sport's fastest 3-year-old, a gelding who might just have a shot at this year's Kentucky Derby after a win in the Sunshine Millions Dash that was so phenomenally fast some are suggesting the race was, well, too good to be true.
At the conclusion of his 2-year-old career, This Ones for Phil was just a gelding whose most notable win had come in a $60,000 stakes race at Calder. But bloodstock agent Nick Sallusto saw some potential in the son of Untuttable and convinced Pompa to buy the horse for a mere $160,000 after a third-place finish in a grass stakes at Calder in November.
"This Ones for Phil was brought to my attention, and we thought there was an upside and he had some potential," Pompa said. "He was coming out of Calder and he had been over-raced. I'm a believer in spacing a horse's races out. Nick came to me and said if we freshened the horse up and changed trainers we could probably have some fun with him."
This Ones for Phil, who had been trained by Kathleen O'Connell, was turned over to Rick Dutrow, also Big Brown's trainer. Given 11 weeks off, This Ones for Phil returned in the six-furlong Sunshine Millions Dash, and the improvement was astonishing. He won by 2¼ lengths, covering the six furlongs in 1:09. That translated to a 117 Beyer figure, the fastest number ever given to a horse that young.
But the man behind the number was suspicious. Trying to explain how a horse could improve so dramatically, racing writer Andy Beyer all but accused Dutrow of cheating in a column that ran in The Washington Post and the Daily Racing Form. Beyer left little doubt that he felt Dutrow used illegal drugs to get such a phenomenal performance out of a horse who had done so little previously.
"I have a lot of respect for Andy Beyer, but he came off as a guy who had just lost a big bet," Pompa said. "He named certain trainers and intimated they were juice guys, and that disappointed me. I've watched Rick around his barn and in the shedrow and I know how good he is. I think he's one of the top three trainers in the country. I'm trying not to pay too much attention to the story."
Pompa argues that it's not unusual for a horse to improve when moving from the barn of a lesser-known trainer like O'Connell to a top trainer like Dutrow.
"The purse structure is very weak at Calder, and that's why they have to run their horses so much," he said. "They'll run them seven, eight times over a short period of time because that's the only way they can make any money. Then if you take a horse away from an average Calder trainer like O'Connell and turn them over to a Dutrow or a Bobby Frankel you should expect them to move up in the Beyer numbers."
It's possible that This Ones for Phil is a one-race wonder coming off a fluky performance. The real test will come in the Feb. 28 Fountain of Youth. In that race, This Ones for Phil will have to stretch out to a mile and will be facing better competition than he met in the restricted Sunshine Millions race. But should he win the Fountain of Youth he will be considered among the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby. That will also mean that some deep-pocketed owners will likely come calling, looking to buy the gelding. IEAH could be among them.
"Sure, I'd sell him," Pompa said. "There have been some inquiries already, and people are offering a lot more than I paid for him. We'll see."
Or he could ride this one out. That has to be tempting after the way things unfolded with Big Brown. Who wouldn't want a Kentucky Derby winner to call their own?
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.