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Monday, July 31
Florida-breds impressive in Stallion Stakes

One year ago, following the Affirmed Stakes - the second leg of Calder's rich and prestigious Florida Stallion Stakes-Roger Velez jumped off Carey's Gold after guiding the colt to two-thirds of a series sweep and jumped directly into oblivion.

For although the fact that the jockey had been perfect in the irons of the $1,500 (yearling) purchase, not to mention perfect in FSS races to that point, trainer Henry Collazo decided, with the availability of Eclipse Award winner Jorge Chavez, to replace the 45-year-old journeyman. Velez was hurt but undaunted; he instead took the mount on O'Rocky in the In Reality series finale and finished fourth behind Carey's Gold who saw his hopes for a sweep dashed by the talented Booklet. Velez then spent the better part of a year waiting for a chance that may never come again … or may come just like that.

"That's two down; one more to go," Velez shouted, shaking his whip in jubilance after scoring the 2002 Affirmed aboard Lawbook, putting the colt in position to become just the fifth horse to sweep the open division in the FSS' 22-year history. The win was even more emphatic than the one in the Dr. Fager leg three weeks earlier. Lawbook, after allowing first Kissin Bold and then

Rufustheroadrunner to open up clear leads during the seven-furlong race, was asked for his run around the turn and went to the front with his ears pricked. It was all Velez could do to keep his attention in the 4 1/2-length route.

"Today he came right out of the gate smoking and wanted to go with them," said the rider after dismounting Tommy Heard's private $50,000 purchase from breeders Beverley and Steve Tortora. "I said `no, we've got to do it the right way and just sit.' There were horses in front of me but I knew I had them: I was just waiting for him to explode and when he did he was gone."

Supah Blitz put in his usual late run for a minor award, but the star of the show was clearly Lawbook, Heard's dark bay son of Notebook, whose win in the Dr. Fager followed on the heels of his failure to break his maiden until the seventh start of his career. "I couldn't teach him to crawl over the top of other horses," said the owner/trainer, referring to the repeated troubled trips his colt sustained. "The fact is I always thought he was just waiting for more distance to show his best and that he'll get better as they go longer."

One could look long and hard and still not find two more worthy individuals than Heard and Velez. Just weeks before his 85th birthday, Heard is now the oldest trainer to win an FSS race and can now boast of stakes wins in eight consecutive decades. Velez, meanwhile, remains best known for being the only jockey ever to ride multiple grade one winner Hal's Hope, who, prior to his untimely demise in July, was the pride and joy of his 91-year-old breeder/owner/trainer Hal Rose. "Somebody told me the other day I always do good for the old folks," said Velez with a laugh.

It has been a decidedly rocky ride for the South Florida native, though. A New York favorite while an apprentice in the mid 1970s, Velez quickly found the high life irresistible and stumbled into alcoholism, sustaining a mild stroke and staying away from the races for the better part of a decade. Another "old-timer," Allen Jerkens, got him back involved and Hal's Hope's victory in the 2000 Florida Derby (G1) put him back on the map.

Still, there was the indignity suffered when replaced aboard Carey's Gold last fall - Velez chalks it up to being "Just one of those situations" - and the struggle for mounts for a jockey who, interestingly, acts as his own agent. He knows this much: when the Oct. 12 In Reality comes, he will be sitting on Lawbook. "And he's got exactly the right style for that 1 1/16-miles," Velez pointed out, the broad grin on his face mixed with gritty determination. "He's got a great three-eighths of a mile kick and dirt in his face doesn't bother him at all. He has the versatility to put him anywhere in the race and that's going to help him."

One race earlier on Calder's Aug. 31 card, in the distaff equivalent, the Susan's Girl Stakes, those looking for Ivanavinalot didn't have much trouble finding her. Manoel Cruz put the Kathleen O'Connell charge right in the lead on the rail and widened … and widened until at the wire they were an FSS record 10 lengths ahead of Heavenly Miss who edged Fortunate Card by a half-length for the show.

When the FSS series dawned three-weeks before, it was the latter two fillies who battled to the wire - Fortunate Card getting the head decision - while 8-5 favorite Ivanavinalot sustained a trip that her trainer called "suicidal."

"She was standing perfect in the gate when one of the other horses got upset," O'Connell described of Ivanavinalot's fourth-place finish in the Desert Vixen series opener. "Then she turned her head just as they were going to start, banged into the gate and then into another horse. They ran fast fractions up front and there was just too much for her to overcome: it was a miracle she only got beat five lengths."

That Ivanavinalot was even more heavily bet in the Susan's Girl - she was 6-5 - was testament to the prowess she showed both while winning her first two career starts by an average of 6 _ lengths and the impression she made on those who knew her best. "She was a special filly right from the first day we saw her on the farm," said owner Gilbert Campbell, who bred the daughter of West Acre - Beaty Sark at his Stonehedge Farm in Williston. "She always trained great and did everything right - she's the kind of horse you just dream about."

Campbell began dreaming in 1997 when he bought the stallion. "He had as good a pedigree as it gets," Campbell noted of the Claiborne Farm-bred son of Forty Niner out of the Honest Pleasure mare Narrate. "And he showed us a lot of heart while in training, even though we knew from his legs he could never make it to the track. Our trainer told us that if we try to run him we might lose him, so we made a stallion of him."

Campbell bred West Acre to just four mares in a test crop in 1998 - "And they all broke their maidens," Campbell mentioned with pride - and he covered 20 mares in 1999, included among them the daughter of Deputy Minister who had previously produced multiple stakes winner Shananie's Beat. Ivanavinalot, the daughter of that mating, becomes West Acre's first stakes winning offspring. "Lots more are coming," matter-of-factly predicted Campbell.

As for O'Connell, the 50-year-old Detroit native who captured two-thirds of the 1996 FSS with Campbell's Blazing Sword, admitted to have taken Ivanavinalot's Desert Vixen defeat especially hard.

"She came out of the race a lot better than me," she quipped when asked how her filly withstood the experience - all she can do now is wait the interminably long six weeks until the series concludes in the $400,000 My Dear Girl Stakes. "I see no problems in her getting the distance," she said of the 1 1/16-miles. "We'll just keep our fingers crossed."

As impressive as Ivanavinalot was on this afternoon, O'Connell also knows that there will be any number of challengers who will come forth on Oct. 12. Some will be among those she has already vanquished, including Fortunate Card, whose trainer Collazo - a man whose three series wins during the past 13 months gives him the right to opine without argument - called his filly's effort "a progression."

And some will come from the ranks of those late developers who skipped the FSS, such as Lavender's Lass. That filly, from the barn of Bill White, trainer of defending My Dear Girl winner Blissful Kiss, is the second foal of graded-stakes winning Florida-bred Lucky Lavender Girl and was among the most impressive debut winners seen at the meet.

Still, White knows the hurdles he faces and commented that, from his perspective, he could only take heart in the fact that "The ease with which Ivanavinalot won should keep the competition down" in the last leg. That because, as O'Connell put it after the Susan's Girl, "This was a 'wow' race."

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