09/03/2004 11:00PM

Flamethrowintexan a smart buy that's looking even better


AUBURN, Wash. - After Flamethrowintexan won the Seattle Slew Handicap on July 31 to establish himself as the favorite for Monday's $100,000 Emerald Breeders' Cup Derby, and then solidified that role with a subsequent allowance victory, trainer Jim Penney went out of his way to credit his son-in-law, Bryson Cooper, for the gelding's acquisition and development.

Cooper, a former jockey whose wife, Kay, is Penney's daughter and assistant, normally keeps busy by galloping and working Penney's horses. This spring, however, Cooper took on an additional project for owner Paul Heist.

"Paul said he was interested in buying a good horse, and he asked us which division we thought would be the softest here," Cooper said. "We had horses we thought would be tough in the other divisions, but we didn't have an outstanding 3-year-old and we couldn't think of anybody else who had one, either. That's where I decided to look."

Cooper spent much of the next two months reading all of the editions of Daily Racing Form he could find, scanning entries on the Internet and watching videotapes of races.

"At different times we were ready to go to New York, Kentucky, and Florida to buy or claim a horse, but I was never quite sure it was the right horse," said Cooper. "Then I found Flamethrowintexan, and I was sure."

At that time, which was mid-June, Flamethrowintexan had won four of six starts in Florida and Southern California. He had been claimed out of a win for $40,000 in April, and he had since won for a $50,000 tag at Hollywood Park. He had never tried two turns, however, and the remaining stakes at Emerald were at a mile or farther.

"I watched the reruns of all of his races, and what I liked about him was his competitiveness," said Cooper. "Every time a horse came to him, he would respond. He always finished strong, even when he went seven furlongs, so I thought if we had him long enough, we could get him to go 1 1/16 miles, and eventually 1 1/8 miles," the distance of the derby.

When Flamethrowintexan was entered for $62,500 at Hollywood on June 24, Heist and Kay Cooper flew down and dropped the claim. Since then, the entire Penney team has worked to turn Flamethrowintexan into a route horse.

"Every morning, Kay would pony him or I would take him on long jogs or gallops," said Cooper. "We never let him go fast. It was all about keeping him quiet and getting him to relax."

The payoff came when Flamethrowintexan overcame a slow start to win the 1 1/16-mile Seattle Slew by a length. He confirmed that he had learned his lessons when he returned to win a 1 1/16-mile allowance race by 2 1/2 lengths under Ricky Frazier in his final derby prep Aug. 15.

"I thought his second race for us was much improved, because he ran faster and won easier even though he was forced about five lanes wide on the first turn," said Cooper. "Ricky said he knows the horse will go 1 1/8 miles, because he went almost that far in his last race."

All that remained was to maintain Flamethrowintexan's conditioning for another three weeks, and Cooper said he feels that task has been accomplished.

"I worked him six furlongs in 1:11 last Sunday, and he was perfect," said Cooper. "He was nice and relaxed through the first part, and I kept the same hold on him to the sixteenth pole. When I finally gave him his head, he rebroke. It gave me chills. Believe me, he's ready."

Number Juan up for a challenge

Among Flamethrowintexan's most formidable challengers is Number Juan, who was regarded highly enough to begin the journey down the Triple Crown trail after posting an impressive maiden win at Santa Anita in January. Number Juan, who is trained by Washington native Mike Puhich, finished sixth to Imperialism in the Grade 2 San Vicente at Santa Anita, then ran fifth to Smarty Jones in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park in February.

"He ran well in both of those races, but he got beat by some very good horses," said Puhich. "I can honestly say I've been on Smarty Jones's bandwagon ever since he beat us in the Southwest. He just won that race so easy, with so much in the tank, that I knew he had to be special."

Number Juan, a son of Silver Deputy who races for Mike Pegram, got back on the winning track in a mile allowance test at Oaklawn in March, then went to the sidelines before re-emerging at Hollywood Park in a pair of subpar efforts in May and June. He has not raced since.

"He just had a series of minor setbacks, mainly involving his feet, and he wasn't really right when I ran him at Hollywood," said Puhich. "He is a much better horse than he showed in his last two races, and I hope you'll see that on Monday."

Puhich said he hoped to get a prep race into Number Juan a month ago, but couldn't get a race to fill. Nonetheless, he is making no excuses.

"He is healthy now and he has been training really well," said Puhich. "I don't think nine furlongs will be a problem for him, even after a layoff. It might be a problem on a deep Eastern track, but Emerald is pretty glib. I think he'll run big."