Mike De Paulo doesn’t mince words - - he just tells you how it is. And when I asked him how things were going down in Florida, his reply came as curt, and honest, as expected.
“The weather has been shitty,” he cursed. “It’s rained every day for the past five or six days. My wife was down here for a bit, and it rained every day.”
De Paulo and Pender Harbour during last year's Triple Crown run
But the man who conditioned Pender Harbour to capture two-thirds of the Canadian Triple Crown last year isn’t working under a dark cloud. He’s a realist, with an eye to finding the positives, and his keen eye nearly took Pender Harbour, a horse not expected to make the Queen’s Plate, to Triple Crown glory.
“'Pender’ had a chip taken out of his knee last December,” recalls De Paulo. “He spent all winter in Toronto. He was way behind (in his training).”
The Ontario-bred son of Philanthropist-Uproar, owned by Dennis Andrews, Sandra Lazaruk and Rob and Roberta Giffin, would make his first three-year-old start in May - - and it did not go well.
“First race he ran was a disaster going three-quarters,” says De Paulo of the tenth-place debacle. “Then I trained him up to try an Ontario-sired race, non-winners of three, and Mr. Andrews, he owns a big piece of Philanthropist said to me, ‘Mike, I’d like to try something else, how about finding a stake for him’?
What De Paulo found was a difficult, unrestricted, race. But he believed in his horse.
“The only stake that was lying around was the Victoria Park and I said we could use this race as a prep for the Plate,” grits De Paulo. “As soon as he heard that, his ears pricked and he said, ‘Wow, that sounds like a plan’.”
Pender Harbour broke alertly in the Victoria Park and was all-out down the rail to finish fourth, defeated less than three lengths by Kentucky-bred Moonshine Mullin who would finish second in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga later that summer.
“He ran a great race that day,” exclaims De Paulo. “I don’t remember if he had trouble or just didn’t get a clear path, but he didn’t get beat far and he ran a real good race.”
The effort convinced the connections that Pender Harbour, though lacking in race experience compared to the other contenders, had the heart required to try the Queen’s Plate.
The chestnut was sent to post at odds of 15-1 in the Queen’s Plate and raced from tenth position at the half, under jockey Chantal Sutherland, who urged the horse into fifth by the top of the lane to finish a game third behind the victorious filly Inglorious.
“He was really running,” says De Paulo of the Plate performance. “He was one of the few horses that really finished in it.”
Pender Harbour surges through the stretch in the Breeders'
Though it hurt to lose the race, the performance proved Pender Harbour’s immense talent.
With the winter raced Inglorious taking some much needed time off following her Woodbine Oaks-Queen’s Plate double, Pender Harbour would go on to win the next two legs of the Triple Crown, nosing out Bowman’s Causeway, in his first dirt attempt, in the Prince of Wales and then bounding home over a soggy turf course to nip Celtic Conviction in the Breeders’ Stakes.
“He’s like a war horse that horse,” says De Paulo. “To do what he did, run the hugest race of his life (the Plate) and come back in three weeks again (the Prince of Wales) and come back in three weeks again (the Breeders').”
Wins by a nose!
There’s no question De Paulo would love to see his horse have another shot at Inglorious.
“I’d love to have another chance,” he says. “I’m not taking anything away from Inglorious, but when she ran against us, our campaign was crazy. I told the owners not even to bother nominating him to the Plate because there’s no way we’re going to get there.”
Or to put it more succinctly, “they had trained all winter in New Orleans and had winter racing under her belt. We were in a snowy field.”
Pender Harbour earned his stripes last season
Following his Triple Crown run, Pender Harbour put in one poor performance after acting up in the gate in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby, but then bounced back with a pair of top efforts taking the Bunty Lawless in fine fettle over the E. P. Taylor Turf Course and charged home second in the Grade 2 Autumn against older horses.
But for now, a snowy field is where you’d find Pender Harbour as De Paulo contemplates upon what type of campaign his Sovereign Award-nominated fellow will embark.
Sovereign Award worthy attire
“He started the year last year at Gail Wood’s farm, Woodlands, in January and that’s what we’re doing this year,” he says. “We don’t have a real plan yet with ‘Pender’. We want to hit some of the better races. Obviously, he can turf. He’s a pretty amazing horse. Not that many horses can say they won on the dirt, the turf and the ‘Poly’.
De Paulo feels he has nothing but options for the omnisurface star.
“His races on the grass have been on super soft turf,” says De Paulo. “It poured both times he got to run on the grass. I don’t know if there is any limitation on him. If you look up his sire’s best Ragozin number, it was in the slop at Saratoga. So, we’ve been wondering how he can run in the mud. There’s hasn’t been much he hasn’t been able to do.”
Pender Harbour wins the Breeders' Stakes
While plans for Pender Harbour remain wide open, there are a number of potential Queen’s Plate contenders in De Paulo’s barn gearing up for a chance to win the one Canadian classic that has eluded the effusive trainer.
In fact, there are a pair of ‘Bear’s’ that broke their maiden in November, just like Pender Harbour did a year earlier, that could fit the bill.
“Bear and Rod, I think, is going to be a nice horse,” says De Paulo. “First time he ran, he got beat a nose and then he broke his maiden.”
Bear and Rod breaks his maiden
The One Way Love-Final Covenant gelding was a runaway four and a half-length winner in a six furlong main track sprint on November 6. The Bear Stables charge returned three weeks later to finish third in another six panel ‘Poly’ tilt, closing late under jockey Emile Ramsammy.
“Emile thought he might have let those horses get away from him and left him too much to do last time he ran,” says De Paulo. “I think that horse has a lot of quality. Whether he goes a mile and a quarter remains to be seen.”
De Paulo’s other ‘Bear’, Bear’s Message, a bay son of Cryptograph-Versionofthetruth, is one-for-one having closed from eighth, and last, into a slow pace, to win a mile and a sixteenth maiden special weight by a neck in 1:48.01.
“That horse is a tough son-of a gun,” spouts De Paulo. “His shins were bothering him and we did the best we could to get him there. He might not have run that fast, but I think he’s a pretty nice horse. I think that horse is going to love grass. We call him ‘Lurch.’ He’s a big, long-legged, son-of-a-gun.”
Bear's Message, aka 'Lurch' wins at first asking
However, De Paulo’s best Plate prospects are likely the Frank Romano-owned pair currently in training with him in Florida - - the Stephen Got Even-Galloping Ami bay, Campitello, and the Rockport Harbor-Northglen grey, Rocky Romano.
Campitello is still a maiden, but he has faced strong company through four starts. He debuted in a mile and seventy yard event, finishing third behind well-regarded King of England and a top WinStar Farm Kentucky-bred, Bluedacious.
In his next two starts, the colt would finish fourth in the Cup & Saucer and fifth in the Coronation Futurity. Given one last shot at breaking his maiden, he drew into another strong field when third behind Bluedacious and a John C. Oxley Kentucky-bred, Moon Traveler.
Campitello should have it easier next time out
The horse should be one for handicappers to play next out if given a chance in restricted company - - and, if he makes it to the Plate, the added distance won’t be a problem.
“He’s a Stephen Got Even out of a Victory Gallop mare,” says De Paulo. “I think he’s going to be a stayer that horse.”
Rocky Romano, also a maiden, started slow and came running too late in his seven furlong debut. He was sent to post as the 2-1 choice in his only other start, going two turns in a Polytrack route, but once again was sluggish leaving the gate and couldn’t reel in Peyton, settling for place, in a troubled trip that saw the colt blocked into the turn and lacking running room down the lane.
Rocky Romano on his way to the track
“The first time he ran a great race and the jock dropped his irons leaving the gate,” explains De Paulo. “The last time he ran, he got in a bit of trouble and finished second.”
Rocky Romano arrives late in his second start
De Paulo is reluctant to choose the best of his four Plate potentials at this point.
“Certainly the Cryptograph horse has to go a little faster,” admits De Paulo. “Campitello is going to improve. His pedigree says he’ll get better as he gets older.”
While a Queen’s Plate win remains a dream, the conditioner is keen to improve his stats in 2012.
“We’d love to win the Plate,” admits De Paulo. “But, I’d like to be a little better with our in-the-money percentage. That’s a number I’d like to improve.”
With a record of 30-24-30 from 237 starts, in-the-money at a modest 35 per cent clip, De Paulo is abundantly aware that the stats don’t matter quite as much as the $2,054,198 his horses banked last season.
“There’s only one number that really counts and that’s dollars because you can’t eat the numbers,” jokes De Paulo.
And then, with a laugh, shares the following words of wisdom gleaned from Hall of Fame trainer J.C. Meyer on the importance of stories like the one you’re currently reading.
“He’d say, ‘can you take that story to Longo’s? Because if you can’t make any money with it, there’s no point talking about it’,” says De Paulo, again with a laugh.
Call me crackers, but this blogger knows where you can get a dollar off Ritz