Mystery horse Tomcito among Triple Crown noms

The mystery horse worked out this morning at Palm Meadows in Florida in what was another possible step toward the Kentucky Derby. He might be good enough to win the Derby in a romp or he could be so badly outclassed that he won't get anywhere close to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. When it comes to Tomcito, no one knows. Of the 448 horse nominated to the Triple Crown, he may not be the best, but he is certainly the most intriguing.

Tomcito was the champion 2-year-old of 2007 in Peru, which, by itself, probably isn't that big of a deal. Horses race for modest purses in Peru and there has never been a horse to come out of that country and succeed at a high level in the U.S. But this one may be different -- very different.

Tomcito is American bred and is by Street Cry, the sire of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense. Despite his pedigree, he slipped through the cracks at the Keeneland September 2006 sale, where Peruvian owners bought him for just $7,500.

"He was very wide in the chest and walked a little wide," said trainer and bloodstock agent Dante Zanelli, who bought the horse for his uncle, top Peruvian trainer Juan Suarez. "And Street Sense hadn't won any major races yet, so people didn't know how good a sire Street Cry was going to turn out to be. What we liked was that he had a long stride. There are always good opportunities at these sales."

Tomcito began his career in July and won his first two starts by a combined 26 lengths. Stepping up to stakes company for his third start, he finished second, but that would be the last time he lost.

Though only a 2-year-old, Tomcito had to race against 3-year-olds. Like everywhere else in the Southern Hemisphere, thoroughbreds are born in Peru during what are our summer months, starting in July. Since Tomcito was foaled in the Northern Hemisphere and was born Feb. 13, he was a few months older than South American 2-year-olds. Therefore, he could only run against horses who were 3 or older.

Suarez placed him in the second leg of the Peruvian Triple Crown, the mile-and-a-quarter Clasico Ricardo Ortiz de Zevallos, for his fourth career start and Tomcito delivered a powerful performance, winning by 9 ¾ lengths. He returned four weeks later in the Group 1 Peruvian Derby at a mile and a half and again beat 3-year-olds, this time by 3 ½ lengths. He has not started since.

"I have seen Tomcito run in Peru and he is the likes I have not seen around South America," said Michael Burns, a journalist who covers South American racing. "He may be the only 2-year-old on the globe to beat 3-year-olds at a mile-and-a-quarter in October. A 2-year-old that beats older horses at the Derby distance in October is a little out of the norm."

His last two races, which are available on Youtube.com, are something to see. He doesn't make a move until the top of the stretch and then unleashes a kick that makes it seem like he is running twice as fast as anyone else in the race. In the stretch, he looks like a quarter horse dashing to the wire in a 220-yard sprint.

With their horse having earned just $54,139 last year in Peru while racing exclusively at Hipodromo de Montericco in Lima, the owners and Suarez decided to look for more lucrative paydays, the reason why he has been sent to the U.S.

Zanelli, himself a Peruvian native, is overseeing his training while Suarez and the owners, Stud Jet Set, decide his future. According to Zanelli, his next start will either be in the UAE Derby in Dubai or in the Florida Derby. Should he race in Dubai, he might not be pointed to the Kentucky Derby, but Zanelli said the Belmont Stakes is in the plans, no matter where the colt runs next.

Even Zanelli isn't quite sure where Tomcito will fit when it comes to U.S. racing.

"Racing in Peru is not at the highest level," he said. "You gets hundreds of horses that come to the U.S. each year from Argentina but only one or two from Peru. That makes it hard to measure. There are some horses from Peru that have done OK here, but mostly at a smaller level. There haven't been any that have excelled in graded stakes. It's hard to measure this horse."

Jockey Edgar Prado, another Peruvian native, saw Tomcito race in person in October and was aboard him Monday for a half-mile work in :50 3/5 at Palm Meadows. He, too, doesn't know quite what to make of Tomcito.

"He was a 2-year-old beating 3-year-olds and was much the best against those horses," Prado said. "I think he can compete with horses here. The one problem may be that the track in Peru is slower than the tracks here. He comes from off the pace and I don't know how he'll do on tracks where speed holds up better."

Tomcito is well bred and by a sire that has already produced a Kentucky Derby winner. With the horse having already won at a mile-and-a-half, distance is obviously not a problem. The only question is his class. Is he good enough? The answer awaits us.

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 wnfinley@aol.com.