11/25/2011 3:42PM

Hovdey: Count on Venomous to close in Hollywood Derby


With a history going back to 1938, a couple of name changes, and several calendar shifts along the way, the Hollywood Derby has survived as stalwart entertainment. It is a race that people want to win, and not simply because it offers a Grade 1 bauble and decent prize money. There’s nothing wrong with being able to say your horse won the same race as Busher, A Gleam, Swaps, Riva Ridge, Affirmed, Flying Paster, Royal Heroine, and Paradise Creek, whether they did it in April, July, or November, at nine or 10 furlongs, on fast dirt or soggy turf.

Court Vision − remember him? He won the Hollywood Derby three years ago, and what’s he done lately, except beat Goldikova and Gio Ponti in the Breeders’ Cup Mile?

On Sunday at Hollywood Park, the 70th running of the Hollywood Derby will bring together an ecumenical bunch of 3-year-olds at 1 1/4 miles on grass. Class should tell, as it tends to under such conditions, but with 12 in the field, luck will be required at some point along the way.

Horseplayers will be torn between well-credentialed colts Western Aristocrat, an upwardly mobile son of Mr. Greeley who pulled the wool over New Yorkers in the Jamaica Handicap last month, and Willcox Inn, a Chicago kid who was best this year in the Arlington Classic, the American Derby, and the Hawthorne Derby.

Stir in local talent such as Ultimate Eagle, Cloud Man, Surrey Star, and Irish Art, along with invaders − both foreign and domestic − such as Imagining, Slumber, Casino Host, and Cozy Kitten, and this should be a rocking good 10 furlongs. At least, that’s the way Leonard Powell sees things.

Powell will be sending forth Venomous in the Hollywood Derby, and if sheer speed in the final eighth of a mile counts for anything, the Red Ransom colt should be right there.

In his American debut Oct. 15, Venomous unleashed a ferocious run from the back row to fall just a half-length short of catching Ultimate Eagle in the Oak Tree Derby. The Hollywood version is a furlong farther, which on paper should play to the talents of Venomous. But things don’t always work out that way.

“Nine furlongs is the farthest he’s ever run,” Powell said. “But his breeding tells me another furlong won’t be a problem.”

Venomous was a busy boy in France, where he ran a dozen times for trainer Tony Clout at 2 and 3 and was hardly embarrassed when he took on the best. Venomous was third, beaten two lengths, in the Poule d’Essai des Poulains last May and fifth, beaten less than two lengths, in the Prix Jean Prat in July. Powell officially took over the training of Venomous following the Oak Tree Derby.

“He’s adapted to the new training very well,” Powell said. “In Europe you go out in sets, with horses following each other in single file. The only time a horse is passed by another horse is if he is in a workout and he’s not going fast enough.

“Here you have horses coming at you left and right, horses passing you all the time,” he said. “They are herd animals, and it can be very spooky to see that much traffic. Unless they know better, their first instinct is to run as fast as they can.”

To Powell’s delight, the morning chaos of the typical California racetrack has not fazed Venomous.

“He’s a very easy horse to be around,” Powell said. “Tony Clout told me what to expect, and there have been no real surprises.”

Powell describes Venomous as not a very big colt, but “very blocky and stocky.” This probably comes from his sire, Red Ransom, a Roberto stallion who was a powerful tank of a 2-year-old colt for Mack Miller in 1989 but was injured as a 3-year-old before he could fulfill his promise. Red Ransom became an internationally popular stallion who was standing in Australia at the time of his death, in 2009.

“When you’re on him he doesn’t feel small at all,” said Powell, who has thrown his leg over Venomous a few times before relinquishing the job to, as he put it, “a better rider.”

On the female side, Venomous can boast the broodmare sire Golden Snake, a major winner in Europe at 3, 4, and 5, who does business in Australia as well. For a time, Red Ransom stood at Sheikh Mohammed’s Dalham Hall Stud in England, long enough at least to cover Golden Snake’s daughter Snake Dancer. As a result, Venomous carries a British passport.

Powell, 35, is French, practically raised in a field of Thoroughbreds at the Normandy farm of his birth. His father, David Powell, is an expatriate American journalist and prolific horse breeder whose clients have included several of France’s most influential patrons, including Magelen Ohrstrom Bryant of Virginia, the owner of Venomous.

Powell cut his teeth in California with owner-trainer Bill Currin, who let his assistant train a few of his own on the side. Powell now has a stable of two dozen, and Venomous gives him a shot at his first major stakes win.

“It’s going to be very competitive,” Powell said. “And I think with a 12-horse field it will be a very true race. My horse needs a fast pace, but a big asset will be the fact that Joel Rosario knows him now, after riding him in the Oak Tree Derby. It wasn’t as if the horse was difficult to ride. It’s just that being at the back of the pack like he was, Joel didn’t know he had the turn of foot he had. Now he knows exactly what he’s got.”