04/25/2014 4:34PM

Late bloomer Soi Phet on the rise

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Soi Phet had been with trainer Leonard Powell for a month last summer when the trainer realized a change in the gelding, a $16,000 claim last May.

“It was a week before his first race for us,” Powell recalled last weekend. “He became a different horse. Mentally and physically, he was more relaxed, and that was different.”

Powell saw proof in a race when Soi Phet won his debut for the stable in a starter allowance at Hollywood Park last June, leading throughout to win by 9 1/2 lengths.

That win was only the start. Soi Phet took three consecutive races over the next two months before finishing third behind eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita last September.

The acquisition of Soi Phet has been the most astute claim of Powell’s career as a trainer. The way the horse handled the class hike has left high expectations for 2014.

The 6-year-old Soi Phet makes his first start of the year in Saturday’s $125,000 Tiznow Stakes over a mile for California-breds on the California Gold Rush program at Santa Anita. The Tiznow Stakes is the launch of a season for Soi Phet that could lead to further starts in statebred stakes or further success in a graded stakes.

“I hope it’s the latter,” Powell said.

So far, Soi Phet has earned a remarkable $232,446 for owners Gerald and Sandra Benowitz, Paul Viskovich, and Powell’s wife, Mathilde. Powell knew Soi Phet had drastically improved last summer when the gelding won consecutive starts at Del Mar in an optional claimer for California-breds on July 20, an allowance race against open company Aug. 10, and an optional claimer against open company Sept. 1.

Because Soi Phet was a California-bred winning against open company, the winner’s share of the last two races in that sequence were worth $60,060 and $62,400, the equivalent of winning a $100,000 stakes. That sequence of wins stamped Soi Phet as a Polytrack specialist, a notion dispelled to an extent when he finished 6 1/2 lengths behind Mucho Macho Man in a field of 10 in the $251,250 Awesome Again Stakes.

There was not to be a Breeders’ Cup race for Soi Phet. Instead, Soi Phet finished fourth in the minor Big Bear Stakes on Oct. 31 and fifth of seven in the Grade 3 Native Diver Stakes at Hollywood Park last December. After that, Powell decided Soi Phet needed a rest. A 13-race campaign in 2013 was enough.

“He had raced a lot before I claimed him,” Powell said.

In recent months, Soi Phet has thrived training on Santa Anita’s dirt track, Powell said. The trainer expects a top performance in the Tiznow Stakes, which drew a field of seven.

“I think he’s better on the dirt,” Powell said. ”I love the way he is working on dirt, better than last year. This is what we hoped when we freshened him after the Native Diver. We hope to have a good year and face good horses.”

Soi Phet was bred by Archa Racing, who owned him until he was claimed. Soi Phet is by Tizbud, a Cee’s Tizzy stallion who stands for $1,500 at Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif. Tizbud, who won the 2003 California Cup Classic, is out of Cee’s Song and is a full brother to 2000 Horse of the Year Tiznow, a leading sire in Kentucky.

Tizbud’s leading foal is Tiz Flirtatious, a six-time stakes winner who won the Grade 1 Rodeo Drive Stakes at Santa Anita last fall and is expected to run in major turf stakes on the circuit later this year.

Soi Phet is out of the Siberian Summer mare Summer Jersey, the winner of a maiden claimer at Santa Anita in 2005.

Powell, 37, has trained stakes winners Aotearoa (2013 Zuma Beach Stakes at Santa Anita), Catsalot (2010 Pacific Heights Stakes at Golden Gate Fields), and Niagara Causeway (Grade 3 Tokyo City Handicap at Santa Anita in 2008).

Born in the United States and raised in France, Powell has a 17-horse stable at Santa Anita. He moved to the United States in 2002 and worked as an assistant and exercise rider for the late Bill Currin until he launched his own stable.

Soi Phet has been a success story of the last year. Even though Soi Phet is a 6-year-old with 23 starts, Powell said there is potential for further improvement.

“You show him something one time, and the second time he gets it,” Powell said. “I train differently. We do a lot of walking before and after [going to the track in the mornings]. A horse is used to a routine, but he learns quickly.”

That ability to adapt could be key for Soi Phet if he lives up to expectations this year.