06/06/2013 12:22PM

Belmont Stakes: Missing Kentucky Derby a blessing for Freedom Child

Tom Keyser
Freedom Child (left) is held back by an assistant starter at the break in the Wood Memorial, in which he was declared a non-starter. He enters Saturday's Belmont Stakes off a 13 1/4-length romp in the Peter Pan.

ELMONT, N.Y. − The worst thing to ever happen to Freedom Child may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to Freedom Child.

With one chance to crack the field for the Kentucky Derby, Freedom Child, coming off a maiden victory, ran in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Well, he attempted to run in the Wood Memorial.

A split second before the gates officially opened, Go Get the Basil, the horse inside of Freedom Child, charged the gate, opening it a fraction of a second before the starter did. The assistant starter in the stall with Freedom Child took a hold of the horse and still had a hold of him when the doors opened, forcing Freedom Child to break in a tangle. Essentially, his race − and any hopes for making the Derby − were over. Though he did make a move into contention down the backside, Freedom Child retreated to last in the field. He was later declared by the stewards to be a non-starter because he was in the hands of the assistant starter.

Frustrated at the time, the connections of Freedom Child quickly turned the page and formulated a different plan that included a start in Saturday’s 145th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.

The first part of the plan was engineered perfectly − Freedom Child romped to a 13 1/4-length victory in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes over Belmont Park’s main track May 11. That performance, and how he’s trained since, has Freedom Child considered by many among the top contenders in the 14-horse field for the Belmont.

“We thought there was a reason why we didn’t go to the Kentucky Derby,” said Terry Finley, president of the West Point Thoroughbreds partnership group that owns one-third of Freedom Child. “We’re hoping we run well in the Belmont and have a really good second half of the year and everything will be made right.”

Given Freedom Child’s running style and considering the way the Derby was run, missing that race may be a blessing in disguise. Freedom Child is a front-running sort, and the early fractions in the Kentucky Derby ranked in the top five in the history of the race. The four horses in front after the first half-mile finished 12th, 14th, 18th, and 17th.

Only Oxbow, who was fifth after the half-mile and second after three-quarters, finished in the top half of the Derby field.

“We might have been eighth,” Finley said.

As the head of a partnership that relies on many investors, one would think the Kentucky Derby is a priority for West Point. But Finley said he doesn’t necessarily get Derby fever.

“We got that Derby fever when we ran a horse in the Kentucky Derby in 2006,” said Finley, referring to Flashy Bull, who finished 14th. “It’s very easy to catch, and I think sometimes we make bad decisions, and we put horses into the Derby when they might not quite be ready, and it impacts them going forward.”

[BELMONT STAKES: Live updates and video from Belmont Park]

Freedom Child made his debut last September, on Jockey Club Gold Cup Day, at Belmont Park in a seven-furlong race. After breaking slowly, he made a menacing move at the three-eighths pole but flattened out and finished eighth.

Shortly after that race, Freedom Child had an ascended testicle that was bothering him removed, making him a ridgling.

In his second start, at Aqueduct on Nov. 24, Freedom Child set the pace in a one-mile maiden race but didn’t switch leads in the stretch and couldn’t hold off a late run from Orb, who beat him by two lengths.

After finishing third in a maiden race at Gulfstream on Feb. 9, Freedom Child broke through with a 5 1/4-length maiden score going 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream on March 10.

In the Peter Pan, Freedom Child broke a step slow from the rail but quickly recovered, set a strong pace, and widened his advantage at every call. That race was run over a sloppy track, conditions that could play out Saturday.

“I don’t think the track necessarily made him win that day,” trainer Tom Albertrani said. “I’ve seen him win on a dry track at Gulfstream. If it does happen to rain I’ll be all for it, but I don’t think we need to have rain to see the horse run well.”

The biggest question for Freedom Child may be his ability to rate. With other speed horses in the field, including Preakness winner Oxbow, Freedom Child may not get the lead to himself like he did in the Peter Pan.

“I don’t think there’s any problem with this horse rating,” Albertrani said. “He does everything you ask him to do. I’ve seen him rate before in his previous races. I don’t think he’s a horse that’s running off on the lead. He’ll break, and I think he’ll place himself forwardly wherever [Luis] Saez wants to put him.”

West Point owns one-third of Freedom Child with Vincent and Teresa Viola, who race under the banner St. Elias Stable, and Spendthrift Farm, owned by B. Wayne Hughes.

Spendthrift bred Freedom Child, a son of their stallion Malibu Moon, and put him through the auction ring as a yearling at Saratoga, where West Point purchased him for $350,000.

Later that night, Finley saw Hughes at the post-auction cocktail party and made a deal to sell him back one-third of the horse.

“He loved him, but, you know, he’s in a position where he’s got to sell across the board,” Finley said. “He can’t just sell the bad ones. Our conversation at the cocktail party caused us to put a partnership together, and Wayne said he’d keep a part of this horse.”

Ned Toffey, the general manager for Spendthrift, says it is Spendthrift’s philosophy to put their best prospects through the ring, but Hughes did have an affinity for this colt.

“He was a really big, good-looking colt,” Toffey said. “I know that Mr. Hughes and Terry had talked about wanting to get together at some point on a horse. This is a horse we liked, but we thought he would do well at auction.”

For Spendthrift, it has been quite the Triple Crown season. Orb, who won the Kentucky Derby, is also a son of Malibu Moon.

Toffey said Freedom Child “definitely is the guy we’re leaning toward now. But we wouldn’t be heartbroken to see Orb win. It certainly would make a nice exacta.”