11/25/2015 3:46PM

Hovdey: Red Vine looking to bag big trophy

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If there were a pack of lions roaming the Belmont backstretch, Red Vine would be the only gazelle.

In his last three starts, Red Vine has been third in the Pacific Classic, second in the Kelso Handicap, and third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. The favorites for those races were named Beholder, Honor Code, and Liam’s Map.

On Saturday, Red Vine will try to shed his reputation as high-class cannon fodder when he takes on stablemate Tonalist and defending champ Private Zone in the $500,000 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.

“We haven’t really been ducking anything, that’s for sure,” said Jon Kelly, who races Red Vine with his wife, Sarah, and partners Don and Joan Cimpi. “And with Tonalist in there, it doesn’t look like we’re ducking anything on Saturday either.”

The Cigar is the best late-season race New York has to offer and helps make for an entertaining holiday weekend that includes the Hollywood Derby and Matriarch Stakes at Del Mar. Yes, they are all Grade 1 races, if that makes a difference.

It certainly does to Kelly because if Red Vine is going to have a profitable future at stud, he needs to knock off a serious prize like the Cigar Mile. Kelly is an astute connoisseur of pedigree who knows that it takes a search five generations into Red Vine’s family tree before there is a single appearance of Northern Dancer. This makes him not only about as rare as the white rhino but also a stallion of unique outcross potential.

“A lot will depend on how he runs this weekend,” Kelly said.

Kelly, whose family owned the NBC television affiliate in Sacramento, has taken an international approach to his Thoroughbred enterprise, with assets spread around the globe. He also is a member of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club board of directors and loves to watch his horses run out West, where Richard Mandella is his primary trainer.

“The only complaint I have with my trainers is that I don’t have enough horses here in California,” Kelly said.

And whose fault is that?

“Mine,” Kelly conceded. “I’ve got Christophe Clement in New York and Luca Cumani in England, plus Gai Waterhouse down in Australia. That’s three of the best right there.”

Kelly also calls upon the noted equine surgeon Greg Ferraro for advice when it comes to the management of his stable. Theirs is a friendship that goes back to Kelly’s earliest involvement at the top of the game.

“The most fun I’ve had was looking at weanlings a year ago with Mandella and Ferraro,” Kelly said. “If one guy didn’t pick something out, the other guy got it, and they’re going back and forth trying to catch the other guy not catching something. What an education. I’m just sitting there absorbing everything like a sponge.”

Kelly is a vocal proponent of the platform put forth by the WHOA movement, which advocates an end to race-day medication and supports federal legislation that would place all drug testing under the national auspices of the privately owned U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

“I haven’t run my 2-year-olds on Lasix for a couple of years now,” he said. “And we won the Waya at Saratoga last year with Cat’s Claw, a 4-year-old running without Lasix. So, it can be done. I’m hoping the constant drip, drip of water on the issue of race-day medication will someday have an effect.”

Red Vine was a private purchase as a young horse through agent Debbie Easter. He was steadily campaigned on grass until a race at Aqueduct was rained onto the main track last December. Kelly and Clement ran him anyway, and the result was a three-length epiphany.

“Christophe said, ‘Jon, I’m not perfect – I didn’t realize what we had,’ ” Kelly recalled. “He hasn’t run a bad race since.”

Red Vine became a stakes winner last summer in the Majestic Light at Monmouth, then was second to Bradester in the Salvator Mile. After that, Kelly and Clement went hunting for bear in the Pacific Classic. They were beaten only half a length for second by Californian Stakes winner Catch a Flight that day, while Beholder disappeared into the distance.

“Beholder just blew everybody away,” Kelly said. “Then our horse got a bad break in the Kelso, otherwise who knows what might have happened? And he still finished in front of Honor Code. [Joel] Rosario’s agent, Ron Anderson, called immediately after that race and said we had to go for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, and that Joel would ride him right back. I took that pretty seriously.”

Red Vine’s Dirt Mile at Keeneland also was compromised by a sluggish break from the inside post that found him running in deep traffic for most of the race. That was nothing, though, compared to the troubled trip overcome by the favored Liam’s Map to win the race, while Red Vine settled for third.

“We’ve had excuses, but I don’t buy them,” Kelly said. “They’re usually pretty lame. You need to be pretty honest with yourself if you’re going to make it in this business.”

How honest?

“As soon as the race was over,” Kelly said, “I bought a share in Liam’s Map.”