06/14/2010 12:00AM

Rail Trip asserts himself at top level


Last week's Thoroughbred action showcased several bright performances from some of racing's shining stars. The up-and-coming Blame continued his march on the handicap division with a gutsy win in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. Life At Ten and Get Serious utilized jaw-dropping displays of speed in winning the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Handicap and Grade 3 Monmouth Stakes, respectively. Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year, returned to her winning ways by thrashing an overmatched group in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill. Last but never least, racing's Reflection of Perfection, Zenyatta, stretched her awe-inspiring undefeated streak to 17 with her usual last-to-first flourish in the Grade 1 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park.

The wins by Rachel and Zenyatta are sure to start tongues wagging yet again from supporters of both super females. But the argument of who is better is becoming a bit passe, don't you think? It's so 2009. While a meeting between the two would likely shake the foundations of the sport, another burgeoning East vs. West rivalry is developing. And if both protagonists remain healthy, a potential matchup between Quality Road and Rail Trip should begin a whole new squabble among passionate fans and handicappers.

Rail Trip earned the "Performance of the Week" trophy by virtue of his facile score in last Saturday's Grade 2 Californian Stakes at Hollywood. Sent off as an overwhelming 1-5 favorite in the field of eight, Rail Trip prompted the pacesetting One Track Mind while in between horses on the backstretch before taking command on the final turn. He showed excellent acceleration in upper stretch to draw clear of his rivals and was geared down in the waning 100 yards by jockey Rafael Bejarano. Rail Trip received a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 for the Californian and now seems in line to defend his Hollywood Gold Cup title on July 10. Clearly, he is the top handicapper not named Zenyatta in California, and his speed and versatility would make him a dangerous foe for that champion should they ever meet.

Rail Trip is a 5-year-old gelded son of Jump Start, winner of the Grade 2 Saratoga Special at 6 1/2 furlongs for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Jump Start, by Breeders' Cup Classic and Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy, only ran five times at 2. A condylar fracture in his left front cannon bone, suffered during his 11th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, sent Jump Start to stud prematurely. Rail Trip is his only Grade 1 winner, but he also has sired Grade 2 winners Sir Whimsey and Jump On In, and Icabad Crane, the third-place finisher in the 2008 Preakness Stakes.

The Californian winner is the first foal from Sweet Trip, a Carson City mare who won 1 of 6 starts for trainer Patrick Byrne. Her victory came in a six-furlong maiden special weight for juvenile fillies at Churchill Downs. She is a half-sister to Broken Silence, a stakes-placed filly around three turns at Fairplex.

Rail Trip's second dam, Stellar Affair, won the Matching Stakes at nine furlongs on grass at Del Mar. The fourth dam was Group 3 placed on grass in England.

A $200,000 yearling purchase, Rail Trip was sent to Ron Ellis in Southern California, but minor injuries delayed his career debut until November of his 3-year-old season. It was worth the wait as Rail Trip pounded his opponents into the ground as the 2-1 favorite in a six-furlong maiden special weight over the Hollywood Cushion Track. He broke like a bullet from the far outside post and was headstrong on the lead for the first quarter-mile. He settled on the turn and poured it on in the stretch to win by a measured 3 1/2 lengths. He stopped the clock in a blazing 1:07.94 and earned a huge debut Beyer of 102.

Ellis resisted the temptation to hike his burgeoning star immediately into stakes competition, instead settling on an entry-level allowance at 6 1/2 furlongs on Dec. 20. Rail Trip had to do things a bit differently than in his debut as he rated kindly off the pace while three wide on the backstretch. The results were the same, however, as he took command in only a manner of strides in upper stretch under a confident Jose Valdivia Jr. Rail Trip's final time of 1:13.92, accomplished under hands and heels urging, was only three-fifths of a second off the track record. His winning Beyer was 101.

A new year brought new challenges, most notably a shift to two-turn route racing over the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita. Rail Trip was again odds-on for a second-level optional claimer at 1 1/16 miles on Jan. 30. Breaking from the inside post, he quickly dispatched of any formalities, opening up an uncontested lead through moderate fractions before breezing home to win by 5 1/2 lengths.

Ellis remained conservative. Rail Trip's next start wasn't in a stakes race, but in a conditioned allowance at 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 20 at Santa Anita. Only three opponents showed, and it was another ho-hum gate-to-wire win for Rail Trip, who scooted clear of pace rival Booyah after three furlongs.

Out of options, Ellis next sent Rail Trip to the Santana Mile at Santa Anita on April 4. Here, Valdivia's confidence almost cost Rail Trip a victory. Over a Pro-Ride surface that seemed to favor closers, Rail Trip found his customary spot on the lead in the field of four. As usual, Rail Trip widened his advantage in upper stretch, and Valdivia, expecting another easy win, began gearing his mount down before the wire. Meanwhile, Dakota Phone kept eating into the margin, and Rail Trip was fortunate to eke out a photo by a nose.

Rail Trip made his graded stakes debut on May 9 in the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap around 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood. The 3-5 favorite, he tracked pacesetting Ball Four while under a confident ride, but just couldn't go by that rival in the stretch.

He then tasted defeat in the 2009 Californian. Valdivia hustled to grab the lead and the rail but was soon confronted from the outside by Ball Four. Valdivia then rated Rail Trip, allowed Ball Four to make the front, and parked Rail Trip off that one's flank in the two path. Rail Trip dispatched of Ball Four turning for home but couldn't resist the late challenge of Informed, dropping the decision by three-quarters of a length.

At this point, some handicappers believed that Rail Trip was best at distances up to 1 1/16 miles, but he tucked those critics away after the Hollywood Gold Cup at 10 furlongs on July 11, 2009. Dismissed at 9-1 following the two losses, Rail Trip tracked pacesetting Tres Borrachos, took over nicely late on the far turn, and drew away to win by three lengths. He set a track record with his 2:00.75 clocking and received a career-best Beyer of 111.

Rail Trip didn't have the smoothest journey when he was the beaten favorite in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Sept. 6. Ellis then put Rail Trip away for the year after the gelding reportedly injured his feet.

Rail Trip's 2010 debut, an easy win in the Mervyn LeRoy on May 8, set him up perfectly for the Californian. His greatest asset is the ability to accelerate instantly when given his cue. That acceleration would serve him well against stone closers such as Zenyatta. Perhaps a more intriguing battle would occur with Quality Road as both horses utilize front-running tactics. Either way, there's no denying Rail Trip his proper place as one of the top handicap horses in training. If he remains healthy, he looms large in the Gold Cup.