02/15/2011 1:22PM

J P's Gusto settling into new home at Oaklawn


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Joe Petalino has learned two things about J P’s Gusto since the 3-year-old arrived at his Oaklawn Park barn from Southern California last week. The first is that the horse is very territorial.

“He tried to eat us alive when we went to put his blanket on,” joked Petalino.

The second lesson came Monday, and it was much more important. Petalino said J P’s Gusto handled the Oaklawn surface quite well when he breezed six furlongs in an easy 1:15.60. The move was in preparation for Monday’s Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest.

J P’s Gusto, a Grade 1 winner of $527,360 for owner John Waken, became the instant leader of Oaklawn’s 3-year-old division when he stepped off the plane Feb. 9. He will head a potential field of 12 in the Southwest, a one-mile race that serves as the first of two local stepping-stones to the Arkansas Derby on April 16.

But as much as J P’s Gusto stands out, his connections are staying grounded about the Southwest. Much has changed in the horse’s world since in the last week. He was trained by David Hofmans up until being shipped to Petalino, and this will be the first time the horse has been based outside of Southern California.

It will also be the first start of the year for J P’s Gusto, who closed out his 2-year-old season with a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park on Dec. 18. J P’s Gusto will also have a new rider, Ramon Dominguez, and he will be after his first dirt win in the Southwest after finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in his lone start on dirt last November.

“We really don’t know what to expect,” said Steve Bajer, the racing manager for Waken. “He’s been training great.

“We did miss one work because of the weather and the transition. That’s why we got him to Joe Petalino a little earlier, to get one work over the track. Whether he’s 100-percent dead-fit, I don’t think anybody knows. I just hope he’s fit enough to get this mile.”

Petalino likes how J P’s Gusto came out of his work Monday, and how he has adapted to his new life at Oaklawn.

“He’s a good-looking colt, a pretty good size,” he said. “They said he grew a lot since last summer. But he’s settled in good and the work, it didn’t seem like it bothered him any. He came back from it well.”

J P’s Gusto came to Petalino after Hofmans gave the horse up following the decision to target the 3-year-old series in Arkansas. The fit was natural. Petalino, a former assistant trainer to Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg and the regular exercise rider on 1988 Horse of the Year and 1987 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba, has trained for Waken before and is a longtime friend of one of the California-based owner’s other advisers, John O’Hara.

“John was with Joe Petalino during the Alysheba days, with Jack Van Berg,” said Bajer. “They worked together. That’s where the connection comes in.”

Waken purchased J P’s Gusto for $52,000 as a yearling at Keeneland, on the advice of Bajer and O’Hara. The horse is a ridgling, as one of his testicles remains undescended. His sire, Successful Appeal, was a multiple graded stakes winner at distances of six furlongs up to a mile. J P’s Gusto’s dam, Call Her Magic, was a turf sprint specialist who once earned a Beyer Figure of 107 for a stakes win at Delaware Park.

Between them, J P’s Gusto’s parents have won 16 races, and he takes after both in that regard. He is 4 for 8, winning his maiden in the $66,000 Willard Proctor Memorial at Hollywood Park last May, then reeling off consecutive wins in the Grade 3 Hollywood Park Juvenile Championship, the Grade 2 Best Pal, and the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity.

“He’s typical of the horse we like to buy,” said Bajer. “A big rear end, a big engine there, and good and correct physically. We just look physically for athletes.”

J P’s Gusto is one of seven horses Waken has on the track, and one of three who will be in stakes action this weekend. Bajer said Harissa, who is in training with Mike Hushion in New York, is set to run in the Grade 2, $150,000 Barbara Fritchie at Laurel on Saturday. She will be ridden by Dominguez, who has been a regular aboard another Waken-owned stakes winner, Nicole H, who is also in New York with Hushion.

Waken’s other stakes starter this weekend is Honey Bunch, who came to Petalino with J P’s Gusto and who is to run in the $60,000 Spring Fever at Oaklawn on Sunday. Jon Court has the mount, said Petalino. From there, the focus will be on J P’s Gusto, whose attitude should serve him well as he begins the task of establishing his 3-year-old credentials Monday.

“He’s a pretty tough charge,” said Bajer. “As Joe would say, he’s the boss.”