02/11/2013 5:43PM

Kentucky Derby Under the Radar: Cerro

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Barbara D. Livingston
Cerro could make his next start in the Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes on March 3 at Gulfstream Park.

The first round of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager featured 23 leading 3-year-olds, but there are plenty of gems lurking on the periphery. One of them is Cerro, a colt from the connections that brought you 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.

At this point in 2011, Animal Kingdom had yet to make his 3-year-old debut, was a completely unproven commodity on dirt, and boasted a top Beyer Speed Figure of 84. Cerro, on the other hand, has two starts this season, including a 90-Beyer score on dirt. It will be interesting to see if the additional experience proves beneficial later this spring.

Cerro was foaled in Ireland on April 15, 2010. Bred by Manganaro LLC, Cerro is by the deceased stallion Mr. Greeley, a three-time Grade 3 sprint winner. Mr. Greeley prevailed at distances ranging from six furlongs to a mile, placed in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and received a career-best 111 Beyer when he ran second in the Grade 2 Jerome Handicap at eight furlongs.

At stud, Mr. Greeley’s North American Grade 1 winners are El Corredor (Cigar Mile), Whywhywhy (Futurity Stakes), Nonsuch Bay (Mother Goose Stakes), Aruna (Spinster Stakes), Celtic Melody (Humana Distaff Handicap), and Western Aristocrat (Jamaica Handicap).

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Cerro is a full brother to Sachem Spirit, runner-up in the 2012 Arlington Classic Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on grass. The siblings acquired stamina from their dam, Ballette, a Giant’s Causeway mare who won on turf in Ireland at both 1 1/4 miles and 1 1/2 miles.

Ballette is a half-sister to Dr. Johnson, a multiple listed winner on grass and runner-up in the Group 1 Irish Derby. Dr. Johnson won at distances up to 14 furlongs.

The second dam is a placed three-quarter-sister to multiple Group 1 turf winner El Gran Senor and Group 1 turf winner Try My Best and is a half-sister to Group 3 turf winner Solar.

Purchased for $19,516 at the Tattersalls October yearling auction, Cerro was sent to Italy for owner/trainer Gianluca Verricelli. Dismissed at 36-1 on June 3, 2012, in a seven-furlong maiden on grass at San Siro, Cerro apparently showed early speed en route to a victory that was flattered when the second- and third-place finishers both returned to immediately graduate.

Soon after the maiden win, Cerro was purchased privately by Team Valor International and transferred to trainer Graham Motion. Not only did Team Valor and Motion make history with Animal Kingdom’s Kentucky Derby victory, but the owner-trainer combination also has enjoyed recent success with such foreign imports as Went the Day Well, Lucky Chappy, La Luna de Miel, Master Shade, Lake Drop, and Gypsy’s Warning.

Cerro made his North American debut in the Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes going 1 1/16 miles on turf at Belmont on Oct. 8. He broke smartly under jockey Jeremy Rose, but was rated back to the pocket position behind the pacesetter while saving ground. Rose maneuvered Cerro off the inside on the backstretch, and the duo prompted the leaders while three wide. Cerro joined the front-runners turning for home, but was overwhelmed by the closers while racing somewhat greenly.

It’s quite possible that Cerro, making his first start in two months, was taken out of his game by being rated off the pace, and he also may not have appreciated the very wet turf course. The Pilgrim winner, Noble Tune, returned to finish second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, while the runner-up, Notacatbutallama, came back to win two stakes races on grass in New York.

Cerro turned back in distance for his next start, a one-mile allowance at Gulfstream on Dec. 1. Ridden by Joel Rosario, Cerro raced in close attendance to the leaders while three wide, but failed to reel in gate-to-wire winner Undrafted and faltered in the final furlong.

Motion made some changes for Cerro’s 3-year-old debut, an entry-level allowance on New Year’s Day at 1 1/16 miles. Adding Lasix and racing on dirt for the first time, Cerro improved his Beyer 14 points with a third-place finish behind the promising Bradester. Six of the seven main-track races at Gulfstream that afternoon were won by horses who were either on the lead or within a length of the front-runner at the pace call, and Cerro attempted to buck the bias with a midpack trip under Rosario. After saving ground on the first turn, Cerro moved to the outside on the backstretch and commenced a three-wide bid on the final turn. While no match for the top two finishers, Cerro looked a bit smoother with his lead changes and was the only late-runner to make a substantial bid. After the race, Olympic legend Michael Phelps and his longtime swimming coach, Bob Bowman, joined the Team Valor group that races Cerro.

Cerro put his toe on the Kentucky Derby trail with a strong pacesetting win at Gulfstream on Jan. 26. Stretching his legs around nine furlongs, Cerro went immediately to the lead under Javier Castellano, set solid splits while along the inside, and kept on trucking to the wire in 1:50.29. Cerro’s final time was .76 of a second faster than the other entry-level allowance for 3-year-olds at nine furlongs that afternoon.

Cerro’s last race was a good first step on the road to stakes competition, although he will need continued improvement to hang with better 3-year-olds. He seems to enjoy dirt racing, has improved with Lasix, and the strong stamina on the bottom side of his pedigree should help him navigate demanding distances. Cerro could be at his best when allowed free rein on the lead, and he will likely need to prove his ability from off the pace if he is to succeed against the cream of this crop.

Cerro is still learning, so it makes sense for Motion to take a rather conservative route with the chestnut colt. The Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes, to be contested March 3 at nine furlongs over the Gulfstream turf course, looks like the next start for Cerro, with a tilt in the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes over the Turfway Park Polytrack on March 24 a more long-term goal. Motion and Team Valor took last year’s Palm Beach with Howe Great, and they have won the last two runnings of the Spiral with Animal Kingdom and Went the Day Well.