Updated on 09/17/2011 10:46AM

Sky Mesa to jump right into thick of it


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The classics are over, and the tedious heat of summer is settling on the sport. But don't switch over to the Golf Channel, because Sky Mesa, the secret weapon of the 3-year-old crop of 2003, is about to be unleashed.

A powerful son of Pulpit, Sky Mesa has not raced since last October, when he won the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. But the bay colt is the likely star of the Grade 2 Dwyer at Belmont on July 6. Trainer John Ward said, "I hate to make a first start back in a Grade 2, but it looks like that's what we'll do, with the idea that the Haskell and Travers are the main events."

Stepping straight into graded company is tough under any circumstances, but doing it after eight months on the sidelines is a major-league undertaking.

But Sky Mesa, owned by John Oxley, is not an ordinary colt. Unbeaten in three starts, including the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga, Sky Mesa was the early favorite for last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but that meeting with the other top colts of this crop was not to be.

Ward explained: "Last fall, he came out of the Breeders' Futurity all right and went to Arlington. He was in good shape up there but hurt himself on Thursday after entries were drawn on Wednesday."

Sky Mesa was hurt when he "ducked from a couple of horses working on the turf course," Ward said. "They had let the Europeans get out on the turf course to work their horses, and a couple of horses were coming around the wrong way on the outside of the turf course, coming at him the wrong way for a horse running on the rail."

One of the many unexpected things that can happen to racehorses, Sky Mesa's injury was quickly detected by Ward and his stable staff. He said, "We discovered the horse had hurt himself, and immediate attention was given." Dr. Larry Bramlage, the veterinarian on call for the Breeders' Cup, examined the colt and read the initial X-rays.

Ward said, "The X-rays didn't show anything at first, but once we got him back to Kentucky, Dr. Bramlage went over them very closely." There was no sign of bone damage, only a serious sprain.

Although not as bad as a broken bone, the sprain proved a major hindrance. Ward recalled that "Dr. Bramlage said it would be 60 to 70 days before the injury would be repaired, but with any ankle injury, any sprain, you have an ongoing repair process."

Part of that repair process was keeping the colt active enough but not too active. Through the immediate recovery, things went well.

What followed was "the road around the Derby," Ward said, "rather than the road to the Derby."

Ward and his stable star traveled to Florida. He said, "Everything was on schedule and we went to Gulfstream, where Sky Mesa worked well with Edgar Prado. Then a couple of days later a severely bruised foot showed up."

Sky Mesa was flown back to Kentucky to have Dr. Bramlage examine him, and he was determined to have a severely bruised front foot. Ward said that the colt "continued to train on, but the bruise blew any chance of making the Kentucky Derby and the spring races." If the trainer was already tested by chance, things were not going to get better.

He said that Sky Mesa's work schedule was "very conditional on a dry racetrack.

"The bruised foot really threw us behind. The only thing the mud has done is kept me from having a really nice prep schedule going forward to the Haskell."

Unlike driving a race car, training a racehorse is a progressive activity, and Ward noted that "as you're training a horse, with each race that comes on, you try to keep connecting the dots, trying to put things together and build, but in this particular case, we couldn't even find the dots. They kept disappearing on us."

Racing fans kept hoping to see Sky Mesa return to his best, and "right now, everything's going forward," Ward said. "He had a very nice work at Belmont just the other day. He came off a seven-furlong work at Keeneland in 1:26.40, then went to Belmont and worked five furlongs in 1:00.20, finishing out six furlongs in 1:14.20."

Sky Mesa promised to show natural athleticism from the start. A very muscular colt, Sky Mesa sold for $750,000 at the Keeneland September sale. He brought the third-highest price for any Pulpit yearling in 2001 and is his sire's leading racer from his second crop.

Part of Sky Mesa's appeal as a yearling was that he is out of the Storm Cat mare Caress, a Grade 3 winner herself, and the colt has inherited the broad body and rounded muscling typical of the Storm Cats.

Always a good-looking colt, Sky Mesa has strengthened so much now that he looks like a bull. Ward said, "He's a great-looking, dynamic animal, an extremely superior athlete, and over the past few months, he has become very focused. He's very broad in his chest, very strong and powerful."

The colt will need that strength. His trainer said that "after you've watched Funny Cide and Empire Maker, it makes you doubt your position somewhat, but I think it's interesting for racing fans because you've got a new horse to throw in the mix. We're walking into two horses who are top class and at the top of their game."