Updated on 09/17/2011 11:12PM

New faces rising fast

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Four-Footed Fotos
French Park is one of the premier 3-year-old fillies. Her trainer, Helen Pitts, is also showing promise.

BOSSIER CITY, La. - Helen Pitts found herself late Tuesday morning sitting in her car outside the Gulfstream Park barn that houses the string of racehorses she trains.

"I think I live at the barn, but I'm not really sure anymore," said Pitts.

Excuse the disorientation. Just six months ago Pitts was an assistant to trainer Ken McPeek. She rode maybe eight horses a morning, traveled to out-of-town stakes, stayed plenty busy. But nothing like this.

When McPeek decided to focus on work in the bloodstock business and stepped down as a head trainer, Pitts stepped up. McPeek turned over the stable to Pitts in late June, and Pitts stepped into a new lifestyle.

"It's a whole different ball game," she said. "A lot more phone calls, a lot more questions to answer, people to answer to, a lot more stress to it."

Still, Pitts wound up winning 20 races in 2005, including the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth with Sweet Talker. And this week, she is headed from Florida to Louisiana with the undefeated French Park, one of the more promising 3-year-old fillies of 2006. Scheduled to arrive Wednesday at Louisiana Downs, French Park looks like the star of Saturday's Road to the Derby Kickoff Day, which features four $250,000 stakes races, including the for 3-year-old males and the Silverbulletday for 3-year-old fillies.

At 31, Pitts has ascended in the Thoroughbred business rapidly, but she has been wrapped up with horses her whole life. Pitts's mother, Avla, trained foxhunters, show horses, and steeplechasers, and her father, Clinton, a former steeplechase rider, served as a Maryland steward for 25 years.

"I was foxhunting when I was 2 or 3," Pitts said. "I had this little saddle. I learned to ride a horse before I learned to ride a bike."

Her skills as a rider helped get Pitts to this point, but now she has to start backing off. Pitts can't afford to spend all morning on horseback. Her tools are changing from a whip and a helmet to a cell phone and a hands-free headset.

"I've ended up weaning myself off of it," she said. "It was hard, but you end up seeing a lot more."

Late in the afternoon on Nov. 26 at Churchill Downs, Pitts was seeing something disturbing unfold, as French Park fell farther and farther behind in the early stages of the Grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes.

"I was about having a heart attack down the backside," she said.

French Park first came into the McPeek barn last spring. "She was very fast, had a lot of speed," Pitts said. But French Park, a daughter of Ecton Park owned by Stan and Steve Kaplan of Cincinnati, bucked shins in June, and didn't start until Oct. 20 at Keeneland, where she won a maiden race by more than 12 lengths. She went to the lead that day, and pressed a fast pace when she came back to win the Pocahontas Stakes, a one-turn mile Nov. 5 at Churchill.

Yet there she was in the Golden Rod, her two-turn debut, falling out the back of the race.

"They bounced her around on the first turn, and she just came off the bit and took herself back," Pitts said.

But when jockey Mark Guidry called on French Park, she responded, rallying from sixth place to win by three-quarters of a length. It's unusual for an inexperienced filly to change styles in her first start around two turns, but Pitts says French Park has a "great mind."

"She's kind of laid back, lazy, until you get her in a race," said Pitts. "She might be smarter than you or me."

Guidry will stay at Gulfstream on Saturday to ride horses for Dale Romans, and Calvin Borel is on French Park for the first time. Moreover, French Park merely walked around the barn for three weeks after the Golden Rod, and has not been trained hard for the Silverbulletday. Pitts thinks French Park is fit, but wants a fresh horse for bigger races in the spring.

With McPeek, Pitts galloped and breezed stars like Take Charge Lady, who was brilliant in the spring of her 3-year-old season. This time, it's up to Pitts to run the show.

"The ball's in my court now," she said.