There hasn’t been a biblical 40 days and 40 nights of rain during the 2018 Saratoga Race Course meet. It just seems like it.
But there have been some instances that harken to 2004, when the apocalypse was upon us, and a horse named Birdstone ran out of the darkness and into the photo finish light to win the Travers Stakes.
Jonathan Thomas, 38, was a young assistant trainer then, living on the backstretch “out of my truck,” he said. He watched that Travers from the barn area, and despite the heavy rainfall, he got out, got soaked and caught the field on the backstretch as they splashed by.
“I just remember the heavens coming down and the lightning,” he said Sunday morning. “It was just the coolest thing, because there was no one out there and you could hear the crowd. It still gives me goosebumps. It was one of the coolest things ever. And I didn’t know who won until they galloped out.
“It’s just a snapshot for me that I’ll always remember.”
Thomas is trying to create an even more vivid Travers snapshot next Saturday with a horse whose name invokes divine providence and whose form suggests that he has more than a prayer of winning.
Catholic Boy comes into the Travers with an unusual resume, having begun his career as a grass horse who became a graded stakes winner in his second start, the With Anticipation at Saratoga. By December, he was racing on the dirt and continued to do so until June, when Thomas put him back on the turf.
He thrived on that surface, winning the Pennine Ridge and Grade I Belmont Derby at the Travers distance of a mile and a quarter to solidify his status as probably the best 3-year-old turf colt in the country. But … that’ll have to wait for another time, because he’s back on the dirt now and is an intriguing prospect in the Travers.
“He would have to run well in the Travers to consider keeping him on the dirt for the rest of the year, but we always take it race by race,” Thomas said. “He’s a very, very good horse on the turf. If he’s not the best 3-year-old horse on the turf in the country, he’s one of them.
“So we know we have that in out back pocket. But for residual value, for the horse’s sake, the client’s sake, he’s a horse who deserves to stand [at stud] on a big farm in Kentucky, and this is how you get there.”
How Catholic Boy got here was driven by the availability of races that fit what Thomas and co-owner Robert LaPenta wanted to do with him.
They ran in the With Anticipation because it was a rare opportunity for a 2-year-old to go around two turns at a route of ground, regardless of surface.
When he won, it made sense to try the turf again, and Catholic Boy was fourth by a length and a half to Mendelssohn in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Then the turf schedule petered out, so they ran him in Remsen on dirt at Aqueduct in December, and when he won, it then made sense to keep him on the dirt for a potential approach to the Kentucky Derby.
He suffered pulmonary bleeding in finishing fourth in the Florida Derby, so after a break from racing, he came back to win the Pennine Ridge on the turf in June.
“You hate to change when things are working,” Thomas said. “We gave him some time, and subsequently he came back well. Now that I’ve been able to look back over the year, there was a time late winter where I really think this horse was going through a growth spurt. I’ve looked at pictures and his breezes and compared them to four, five months ago, and he’s almost a different animal.”
That doesn’t mean Catholic Boy has become a hulking powerhouse. On the contrary, he has an elegant, balanced look and motion, which translates to versatility on different surfaces, if not distances.
Mentally, he is “hyper-intelligent,” Thomas said, an alert horse who doesn’t get rattled by what’s thrown at him.
“He’s not a rugged, coarse horse,” Thomas said. “When we get young horses, I like good, clean angles through their neck and shoulder. He possesses a lot of those features that would transfer over to good mechanics.”
Catholic Boy is a son of More Than Ready, but his name is derived from his dam, Song of Bernadette, the name of a movie from the 1940s about Saint Bernadette. Also, LaPenta’s alma mater, Iona College, from which his school-color maroon-and-gold silks are derived, is a Catholic institution.
If the colt has any aversion for the Saratoga main track, Thomas and jockey Javier Castellano, who has been aboard for the last three breezes, haven’t detected it.
Catholic Boy went through what Thomas called a maintenance breeze Sunday in 49.44 for a half-mile, to the satisfaction of Castellano, who has won a record five Travers.
“We weren’t looking for anything strong today,” the jockey said. “It was just stretching out his legs. He did really well, nice and easy. Keep him happy for the race.”
“We were doing it for us more than him,” Thomas said. “He seems to be really fit. I thought he moved great. It wasn’t anything exciting, but that’s not what we were looking for.
“If Javier didn’t feel like this was the best thing for the horse, if he didn’t think he could handle it, we would trust him implicitly. He’s breezed him the last three times, and every time he’s come back, it seems like he was pleased and happy and excited. If we can get a guy like Javier excited, I’ve got to be excited.”
As an assistant, Thomas has worked around some of the top horses for trainers like Christophe Clement, Dale Romans and Todd Pletcher.
His best horse now as a head trainer is a testament to his skill managing a race campaign, since Catholic Boy has been successful on both turf and dirt, a rare commodity.
The work is done, and he’s comfortable relying on that over any signs from above.
“Ironically, I was flipping through some channels a couple months ago, and Turner Classic Movies had ‘Song of Bernadette’ on,” he said. “It’s old. It’s a black-and-white movie.”
“I didn’t watch it,” he said with a laugh. “It was on too late.”
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.