Winning with first-time starters is nothing new for trainer Arnaud Delacour, who accomplished the feat three times over a recent period of three racing days en route to being named the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month.
Neither Delacour nor the majority of his owners – a group which includes the likes of Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s Lael Stables, Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Firestone and WinStar Farm – place an undue emphasis on horses winning their career debuts. “We’re just trying to make them ready for a race,” said Delacour, who is tied for fifth in the Oldsmar standings with 14 victories.
But the native of Lisieux, France, uses patience and a healthy dose of realistic thinking to get his horses primed to win early.
“It takes close to three months to make a horse ready from the time they come to our stable. During that time, there is a lot of educational and physical teaching that is done. We race them when they are strong enough mentally and fit enough, and if they’re good enough, they win,” Delacour said.
“Especially with maidens, it’s nice for them to get that confidence and have a good experience and win, because that’s what we want to teach them,” he said. “We could race them at a tougher (track), but they might not have as good of an experience because they would need to run harder and they might not win and it would take a lot more out of them.
“So I like to bring them along slowly and put them in a place where they can be competitive right away.”
Recent maiden successes by the likes of the Lael Stables colt Aquaphobia, Lael’s filly Hitting Spree and WinStar Farm’s filly Dark Nile have a ripple effect. “It’s very rewarding for my team of people, because that’s where the process starts,” said Delacour, who employs six exercise riders and 18 additional employees to assist with his 35-horse stable.
Delacour’s wife Leigh, a former trainer who gallops horses for the stable and cares for the couple’s sons, 3 ½-year-old Luca and 21-month-old Julien, draws a parallel between getting the most out of Thoroughbreds and young boys. “Patience applies to raising a dog or a kid or training a horse,” she said. “There are ways to get them to do what you want. It doesn’t mean you have to be mean to them. You can entice them in different ways, but you have to be the authority figure.”
It is worth noting that Delacour’s top horses last year, the now-7-year-old mare Ageless and 4-year-old colt Divining Rod, each won their first career starts. Four years ago, Ageless captured her first race by more than seven lengths at Tampa Bay Downs racing six-and-a-half furlongs on the main dirt track. Leigh at that time was the trainer of record.
Ageless developed into one of the top turf sprinters in competition, winning six stakes, including back-to-back editions of the Grade III Royal North Stakes at Woodbine at 5 and 6. Had she not been injured in her exciting Buffalo Trace Franklin County Stakes victory on Oct. 9, she would have been one of the favorites for the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.
Owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson retired the earner of $737,130 after her third-place finish on Jan. 3 in the Grade II Monrovia Stakes at Santa Anita; she is being bred to top sire Speightstown.
Divining Rod, also owned by the Jacksons’ Lael Stables, outran nine rivals in his first start in November of his 2-year-old season at Laurel Park. His 3-year-old accomplishments included a victory in the Grade III Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland; a runner-up performance here in the Grade III Sam F. Davis; and thirds in the Xpressbet.com Preakness, the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby, the Grade II Indiana Derby and the Ohio Derby.
Divining Rod has returned to light training at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky., and Delacour expects to be reunited with him soon.
A single victory is hardly reason to compare a 3-year-old to Ageless or Divining Rod, but being a horseman, Delacour is imbued with optimism.
“Aquaphobia (winner of a one-mile maiden special weight turf contest on Feb. 20 at odds of 8-1) really showed me something, because he didn’t break very good, he dropped back and he was a little green. He made a huge run from the quarter-mile pole to the wire, which is what you want to see – a turf horse finishing with a strong kick.
“We have always been high on Dark Nile (winner of a two-turn maiden special weight on the dirt in her second start). The farther she goes the better she’ll be, I think, and we probably will try her in a stakes at Laurel in April. Hitting Spree (which won her second start at odds of 10-1 on the turf on Feb. 21) has made a big change since she arrived at Tampa Bay Downs, and if she keeps developing she could be a nice filly.”
The end results of Delacour’s gradual, day-by-day approach are readily apparent, but he knows there is no room for complacency. “You always feel pressure a little bit as a trainer to produce,” he said. “We need to keep working hard to keep attracting the kind of owners we have.”
Down the stretch. Trainer Larry Rivelli sent out two winners today from two starters. He won the first race with 4-year-old gelding He’s the Dude, owned by Patricia’s Hope. Leading Oldsmar jockey Antonio Gallardo was the rider. Rivelli also won the third race with Nightbar, a 3-year-old Florida homebred gelding racing for owner Carolyn Wilson. Daniel Centeno was aboard.
Gallardo won three races on the card, giving him 10 over three racing days and 95 for the meeting. He captured the fifth race on 3-year-old filly Cohasset for owners Commonwealth Stable and Randy Bradshaw and trainer Kathleen O’Connell and added the 10th and final race on the turf on 4-year-old Florida-bred filly Descarado for breeder-owner Bruce Tallisman and trainer Darien Rodriguez.
Apprentice jockey Chad Lindsay and Keiber Coa each rode two winners. Lindsay won the fourth race on 4-year-old filly Hold Me Tight for owner Larry M. Morse and trainer George Leonard, III. He added the seventh on 3-year-old filly Seems a Fortune for owner Harpinator Racing and trainer Ian Wilkes.
Coa won the eighth and ninth races, scoring first on the turf on 4-year-old filly Sister Blues for breeder-owner Lucky Seven Stable and trainer Tom Proctor. Coa added the ninth on 5-year-old mare Desert Summer for owners Sharyn and Peter Wasiluk, Jr.; the latter is the trainer.
Desert Summer was claimed from the race for $6,250 by trainer Saul Matos for his Matos Racing operation.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The track is open every day except Easter Sunday, March 27 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.