A little under four lengths separated Grade 3 Palm Beach third-place finisher Csaba from that race’s top pair of Howe Great and Dullahan back on March 11. That gap grows infinitely larger on Saturday as Csaba looks for his first 3-year-old victory when starting as the morning-line favorite in the $150,000 Calder Derby, and Howe Great and Dullahan look to keep their Kentucky Derby hopes alive as co-second choices for the Grade 1 Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland.
“I thought that was a pretty solid race,” trainer Phil Gleaves said of his colt’s performance in the Palm Beach. “The horses that beat us that day, they could go on to be two of the best horses of their generation, so I think we have to go forward thinking that our horse is pretty good, too.”
As a juvenile, Csaba had indeed shown Gleaves that his colt was ‘pretty good,’ winning consecutive races on the Calder dirt by a combined 8 ¼ lengths before closing out his 2-year-old season with a close fifth on turf in the Dania Beach where he was beaten 2 ¼ lengths for everything.
But when January comes and a 2-year-old enters his 3-year-old season, thoughts of the Kentucky Derby seem to occupy every crevice of a racetrack’s barn area, and grandiose plans can develop. With that premise in mind, Csaba made his sophomore debut in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, a decision that in hindsight can be viewed a bit overly ambitious, but one that the trainer doesn’t view as a misstep in any way.
“When you have a 3-year-old that has shown some ability, you really have to take a shot like that,” Gleaves explained. “With a good 3-year-old, early in the year, you have to see what kind of a horse you’ve really got. You owe it to yourself, to the owners, and you owe it to the horse.
“But at that time, we weren’t looking to go right into the Fountain of Youth (off a two-month layoff),” Gleaves continued. “We had tried entering an allowance race twice that never filled, so in that regard, our hand was kind of played for us.”
After stumbling badly at the start, Csaba finished sixth in the Fountain of Youth.
“I think it’s safe to go ahead and put a line through that race,” Gleaves said.
That assessment appeared to prove accurate when Csaba returned to run third in the Palm Beach. But with his immediate future appearing to be focused on turf, Gleaves hasn’t ruled out anything for Csaba, although his performance in Saturday’s race will go a long way in determining what lies beyond the horizon for the son of Kitten’s Joy.
“He’s a horse that can go on either surface, and that’s gold down in south Florida, especially during the summer,” Gleaves said. “But right now we’re not looking any further than tomorrow. How he runs tomorrow, and how he comes back, will decide where we go next.
“We had some bad news earlier in the week and things have been kind of rough around the barn,” Gleaves added wistfully in regards to the breakdown of stable star Mambo Meister during a recent routine morning workout. “But we’re getting through it. And I hope tomorrow is going to lift us up even more.”
STARTER SERIES SHARES SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT
In addition to the $150,000 Calder Derby, the Saturday program from Calder will feature the first leg of the Calder Starter Series, where a field of 12 will cover seven furlongs of dirt with Majestic Express installed as the 3-1 morning-line favorite for owner Frank Calabrese and trainer Kirk Ziadie.
“My horse is doing good, but it’s a tough race,” Ziadie said. “You’ve got a couple of really nice horses in there, so nothing is going to come easy. But my horse will show up, and overall I think it’s going to be a great and competitive series.”
Claimed for $16,000 out of a winning turf run at Calder on November 11, Majestic Express made two starts for Ziadie at the Gulfstream Park meet, crushing starter allowance rivals by 11 ¼ lengths on February 8 before returning 18 days later for an equally comfortable 7 ¼-length victory over a similar group of overmatched foes.
Among those looking to end the winning ways of Majestic Express on Saturday include the Jamie Ness-trained Wiki, who was second to eventual Grade 3 Skip Away winner Fort Larned in the $60,000 Challenger Stakes at Tampa; Abdel’s Ghost, a winner of three straight for trainer Jerry Procino; and Riversrunrylee, who enters the race off two consecutive victories at Tampa.
CALDER-BASED HORSES INVADE WEST VIRGINIA
Duke of Mischief, winner of the $1 million Charles Town Classic in 2011, along with Tackleberry, the fourth-place finisher in last year’s edition of that race, both return to West Virginia Saturday night to contest the 2012 running.
Owned by Alex and Joann Lieblong, Marilyn McMaster, and Fawkes Racing, Inc., Duke of Mischief is winless in each of his five starts since winning the 2011 Charles Town Classic, most recently finishing 11th in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Stakes. Trained by Dave Fawkes, Duke of Mischief will be ridden Saturday night by Joe Bravo.
Luis Olivares’ Tackleberry, a two-time stakes winner at Calder with victories in the 2010 editions of the Grade 3 Fred Hooper and the $125,000 Jack Dudley Sprint Handicap, is listed as the 3-1 morning-line favorite for the Charles Town Classic.
A three-time stakes winner at Gulfstream in 2011, Tackleberry took the rest of the year off following a ninth-place finish in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park last May. The son of Montbrook returned to the races March 10, where he finished second in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap.
Trained by Olivares, Tackleberry gets the riding services of Rajiv Maragh for the Charles Town Classic. Post time for the race is 10:30 p.m.