06/17/2013 4:11PM

DRF Breeding Weekend Wrap: Fort Larned and Verrazano return to form, Paynter astounds in comeback

Benoit & Associates
The comebacking Paynter is bred on the same cross as Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow.

Each year’s Triple Crown run produces its own dramatic arc, and this year’s string of performances, wrapped up by Palace Malice’s upset win in the Belmont, definitely sets up an unpredictable and exciting second half of the season in the 3-year-old division.

The return of Verrazano to top form in Sunday’s Grade 3 Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth only adds to the intrigue going forward, as does Code West’s continued improvement, evidenced in his first stakes win at Churchill Downs. Both sophomores, racing for top connections, have to be considered alongside Orb, Oxbow, Palace Malice, and sleeper Normandy Invasion as contenders for the elite 3-year-old stakes later this summer.

Positions in the older male handicap division are just as much in flux with the Breeders’ Cup four months away, and two of last year’s most popular horses are right back in the discussion after sensational performances at Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park.

Fort Larned took the early lead and was unchallenged thereafter in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster on Saturday night, defeating an accomplished field of five opponents by 6 1/4 lengths. The physically imposing 5-year-old son of E Dubai traveled 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.45, the second-fastest time in Stephen Foster history behind Victory Gallop’s 1:47.28 in 1999, and earned a 115 Beyer Speed Figure. After two troubling starts to begin the year, the Ian Wilkes trainee silenced all skeptics with an effort reminiscent of his win in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Fort Larned, who moved over the $4 million earnings mark with his Foster win, will be pointed to the Grade 1 Whitney Invitational at Saratoga Race Course later this summer. He picked up his first Grade 1 win in that race last year en route to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Wilkes hopes to follow the same path this year.

Owned and bred by Janis Whitham, Fort Larned is out of the winning Broad Brush mare Arlucea, who is the dam of five winners, including Grade 1-placed Izarra and stakes-placed Moonport. Another of Arlucea’s foals, a promising Whitham-owned and Wilkes-trained colt named Lent, broke his maiden earlier Saturday night on the Foster undercard at Churchill. Second dam Bayakoa received the Eclipse Award as champion older mare in 1989 and 1990 and won a dozen Grade 1 races.

Normally, a $62,000 allowance race on a Friday card at Hollywood Park attracts scant attention apart from the normal handicapping and wagering appeal. The seventh race last Friday was something else entirely, as it served as the launching pad for an improbable comeback and the latest chapter in one of the most inspirational stories of the past year. Paynter, last seen scoring a breakthrough Grade 1 win in the Haskell last July, returned with a vengeance at Hollywood, romping to a 4 1/2-length win in 1:21.86 for seven furlongs. The final time over Hollywood’s Cushion Track translated to a 114 Beyer Speed Figure, remarkable for a horse that had been away for nearly a year.

Paynter, owned by Zayat Stables, battled both colitis and laminitis during late summer and fall 2012 but against the odds resumed training and on Friday appeared to be the same, very talented, horse he was before the long interruption. Trainer Bob Baffert did not make any firm commitments as to the horse’s next start following his comeback win.

Paynter is bred on the same cross as Preakness winner Oxbow, who, like Paynter a year ago, finished second in the Belmont. Both are by Awesome Again, and Paynter is out of the unraced Cee’s Tizzy mare Tizso, who is a full sister to Oxbow’s dam Tizamazing. Both mares are full sisters to Horse of the Year and sire Tiznow, to Grade 2 winners Budroyale and Tizdubai, and to stakes winner Tizbud.

Verrazano’s bounce-back win in the Pegasus Stakes placed the well-bred More Than Ready colt firmly back in the upper levels of the 3-year-old male division. He cruised in the 1 1/16-mile event, covering the distance in 1:41.72 and earning a 96 Beyer. Verrazano has now won five of six career starts, with his only misstep coming in the Kentucky Derby over a sloppy track, and could make his next start in the Haskell on July 28. Out of the Giant’s Causeway mare Enchanted Rock, Verrazano is a half-brother to Grade 2 winner El Padrino. His Grade 1-winning second dam, Chic Shirine, is a full sister to champion Queena.

In perhaps the most exciting race of the weekend, Code West responded to a late challenge from resurgent Uncaptured to defeat the reigning Canadian Horse of the Year by a head in the 1 1/16-mile, Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes on the Foster undercard. The 3-year-old Lemon Drop Kid colt finished in 1:43.37 and earned a 92 Beyer. Code West improved to three wins from 10 starts for his career, with four seconds and two thirds. Much like Belmont winner Palace Malice, Code West had performed rather well for the duration of his young career while flying under the radar due to a lack of a marquee win. He gives trainer Baffert two interesting cards to play, along with rising contender Power Broker, in the Haskell and/or Travers.

Out of the stakes-winning Saint Ballado mare Charitabledonation, Code West is a full brother to multiple Grade 2 winner Charitable Man and a half-brother to stakes-placed winner Melrose Woods. He was bred in Virginia by Edward P. Evans.

Weekend notes: Easily the most unexpected outcome of the weekend also occurred under the lights at Churchill Downs, as John Oxley’s allowance winner Funny Proposition posted a shockingly easy five-length victory over champion Royal Delta in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis. The 4-year-old Medaglia d’Oro filly was well-beaten in her only dirt stakes try prior to last Saturday’s win—in last summer’s Coaching Club American Oaks—but did enter the Fleur de Lis with three wins in as many starts over Churchill’s main track for her career. She covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.22 and earned a 90 Beyer.

Bred in Kentucky by Russell Reineman, Funny Proposition is out of the stakes-winning Distorted Humor mare Humorous Miss, who is a half-sister to stakes winners Home of Stars and Artistic Star.

British-bred Byrama, who had been knocking on the door against graded stakes competition for over a year, broke through under Hall of Famer Gary Stevens in the Grade 1 Vanity at Hollywood on Saturday. The 4-year-old Byron filly defeated More Chocolate by an impressive 3 1/2 lengths, covering 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.40 on Cushion Track and earning a speed figure of 91. Byrama finished a close second going seven furlongs in the Grade 1 Vinery Madison at Keeneland two starts back in April but regressed to fifth in the Humana Distaff on dirt at Churchill on the Derby undercard.

A stakes winner last fall on the downhill turf at Santa Anita, Byrama improved to five wins from 19 starts with her victory in the Vanity. She is out of the winning Darshaan mare Ayrama, and is a half-sister to Group 3 winner Klammer.

At Belmont Park, hard-knocking Dance to Bristol also picked up her first graded stakes win in the Grade 3 Bed o’ Roses. The 4-year-old daughter of champion Speightstown took the seven-furlong Grade 3 race by 2 3/4 lengths over Fantasy of Flight and notched her fifth consecutive victory in a final time of 1:20.81, good for a 95 Beyer. She has now won eight of 16 starts to date, with seven runner-up efforts.

Dance to Bristol made her first start at Belmont in the Bed ‘o Roses after picking up checks at a variety of Midlantic tracks as well as Aqueduct. She is out of the winning Louis Quatorze mare Dance To Dawn, who is a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Chief Honcho. Her second dam is multiple Grade 3 winner Expressive Dance, by Riva Ridge, who is a half-sister to 1979 Travers winner and track-record holder General Assembly. Dance to Bristol’s extended female family tree is sprinkled with interesting horses from all corners of the globe, including Japanese Group 1 winner Old Tiara, English Group 1 winner Poet’s Voice, Mexican champion sprinter Zacatlan, and several U.S. stakes winners.

Lastly, Kitten’s Dumplings proved much the best in the late going to win the Grade 3 Regret on Saturday, the last graded stakes on a superb Downs After Dark card at Churchill. She took the turf race by 2 1/4 lengths, finishing 1 1/8 miles 1:48.41 and earning a 91 Beyer. Kitten’s Dumplings entered the Regret off of a similarly sharp win in the 1 1/16-mile Edgewood at Churchill on May 3. She now has three career stakes wins and four overall, from nine starts.

A 3-year-old daughter of Kitten’s Joy out of the winning Grand Slam mare Granny Franny, Kitten’s Dumplings becomes the latest graded stakes winner for the ultra-successful team of owners-breeders Ken and Sarah Ramsey, trainer Mike Maker, and jockey Joel Rosario. Ramsey Farm stallion Kitten’s Joy, the champion turf male of 2004, will be profiled this week as DRF Breeding’s Hot Sire.