03/26/2014 1:59PM

Kentucky Derby: Intense Holiday latest bright spot for Starlight Stables

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Lou Hodges Jr./Hodges Photography
Intense Holiday, winning the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, joins his sire, Harlan’s Holiday, and Ashado as Starlight Stable-owned stars.

NEW ORLEANS – They first burst on the scene in the spring of 2002 with Harlan’s Holiday, who won the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes and finished seventh as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. They raced under the name of Starlight Racing, but because co-owners Jack and Laurie Wolf surrounded themselves with a large, fun-loving entourage, they became known as “The Wolfpack.”

Harlan’s Holiday went on to win more than $3.6 million and was a successful sire before his untimely death last fall in Argentina. Starlight Racing has expanded since Harlan’s Holiday’s run, both in clientele and success. The Wolfs and original partners Don and Barbara Lucarelli have quarterbacked partnerships that also raced Shanghai Bobby, the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old of 2012, and two-time champion Ashado, one of the finalists this year for the Hall of Fame.

In addition, Jack Wolf has become a force for second careers for racehorses as president of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, which granted more than $1 million to 23 charities last year and was honored earlier this year with a Special Eclipse Award.

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Ashado and Shanghai Bobby provided Starlight with its biggest wins, which came in the Breeders’ Cup. Starlight never has won a Triple Crown race, let alone the Kentucky Derby. But it has one of the leading contenders for this year’s Derby in Intense Holiday, who won the Risen Star Stakes here at Fair Grounds last month and returns Saturday in the 101st running of the Grade 2, $1 million Louisiana Derby.

The Starlight story comes full circle through Intense Holiday, for he is a son of Harlan’s Holiday. Wolf, though, said sentimentality played no part in the acquisition of Intense Holiday, who was purchased for $380,000 at the 11-day Keeneland September yearling sale by former trainer Frank Brothers, the chief adviser on purchases for Starlight.

“Frankie Brothers does the selection process for us, and he’s been liking the Harlan’s Holidays the last few years,” Wolf said this week on a national teleconference. “He was the most expensive yearling we bought in that crop. We had the numbers we wanted already. He came through on a Thursday. We thought we’d have finished up on Wednesday. But contrary to my conservative nature, I kept raising my hand.”

Intense Holiday was placed with Todd Pletcher, the primary trainer for Starlight, and made his first two starts last summer at Monmouth, where he beat maidens in his second start. He has been in nothing but graded stakes since. He was fifth in the Champagne, fourth in the Nashua, and fourth in the Remsen before leaving New York for Florida, where he was third in the Holy Bull.

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Then came his breakthrough race in the Risen Star, in which Intense Holiday rallied to win under Mike Smith, who is back aboard Saturday.

“We felt like, going back to the Nashua, and the Remsen, and the Holy Bull, that he had done better than perhaps perceived by the general public,” Pletcher said in a telephone interview. “He had different trips and such. We felt like he was improving in his training, and we felt like a bigger effort was in him. He had always trained well. That’s why we kept running him in those races.

“It was comparable to Palace Malice last year,” Pletcher said, referring to the Belmont Stakes winner.

Intense Holiday on Wednesday drew the rail in a field of 10 for the 1 1/8-mile Louisiana Derby and was installed as the 2-1 favorite by track linemaker Mike Diliberto. The rest of the field, from the rail out, is King Cyrus, Louies Flower, Flat Gone, Gold Hawk, Vicar’s in Trouble, Commanding Curve, Rise Up, In Trouble, and Albano.

Pletcher and Starlight have been aligned for almost 12 years now, since Harlan’s Holiday was transferred to Pletcher in mid-career. Pletcher said he and Wolf have a “no B.S. kind of relationship.”

“Jack’s a very straightforward guy to deal with,” Pletcher said. “He just wants the facts. We might talk about strategies, which races to go in, but for the most part, he hires people and lets them do their jobs.”

That philosophy has worked well. In addition to Ashado, Harlan’s Holiday, and Shanghai Bobby, other prominent Starlight runners have included Algorithms, Hilda’s Passion, Keyed Entry, Monba, Octave, Purge, and Take the Points.

Another current member of their roster is the 3-year-old filly Candy Kitty, a two-time stakes winner this winter at Gulfstream who is set to make her next start in the Grade 1, $500,000 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland on April 5.

“It’s uncanny how they come up with good horses every year,” Pletcher said. “They’re consistent. There haven’t been too many dry years.”

Wolf is keenly aware that regardless of whether they end up as graded stakes winners or something far short of that, all horses need a proper post-race life. To that end, he has worked tirelessly for the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, which he said has received “tremendous cooperation” from the sport’s leading organizations since the idea of mandatory aftercare funding from the industry was hatched less than three years ago.

“We made our first grants in the fall of last year, $1 million for 23 charities,” Wolf said, “and hopefully there’s more than that this coming fall.”