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Updated on 09/15/2011 1:32PM
To the top, nice and slow
INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The sight of Pico Perdomo with his arm draped across the shoulders of Larry King as if they were best pals from way back should not have been alarming. But it was.
Then again, strange forces seem to intersect at the races. This was Hollywood Park last Saturday afternoon, and the Vanity Handicap had just been run. So it probably made perfect sense that the most recognizable name in the world of the celebrity gabfest would share the post-race interview stand alongside the most famous trainer in the history of Uruguay.
Besides, King tends to gravitate toward headliners, and Perdomo had just stolen the Vanity show with Gary Tanaka's 6-year-old mare Gourmet Girl. She did it with style, too, beating Feverish to the punch out of the gate and then holding Lazy Slusan safe to win the 1 1/8-mile race by five growing lengths.
"That's the kind of ride I like," said Gourmet Girl's rider, Gary Stevens, showing no apparent signs of pain in his famous knees. "I just sat there and really only rode her the last eighth of a mile."
It was a strong performance, noteworthy any time of the year. Too bad, then, that the Vanity was drowned out by the din of the following day, when the tumultuous Hollywood Gold Cup and three other stakes dominated the news.
Gourmet Girl has been around a long time and certainly deserves to be called one of the all-time bargains. As a yearling, Perdomo got her for a bid of $3,500, before Tiznow and Budroyale made her sire, Cee's Tizzy, a household word. Tanaka paid considerably more when he bought her at age 4, following a win in the 1999 El Encino Stakes. Since then, Gourmet Girl has won three Grade 1 races. Her earnings have reached nearly $1.2 million. Now, for the first time in her career, Gourmet Girl has thrust her name into the race for the divisional leadership among older fillies and mares.
Gone are the days when she played second banana to the likes of Manistique and Riboletta. Furthermore, the addition of blinkers has helped erase the frustrations of her 0-for-10 record last year. In 2001, she is 3 for 5 and rolling.
Lazy Slusan, with major wins this year in the Santa Margarita and Milady handicaps, had been considered the best in the West, while the East's latest flavor of the month is Critical Eye after her narrow Hempstead Handicap win over Jostle. But when it comes to the Breeders' Cup Distaff and any talk about an Eclipse Award, all bets are off. Especially since reigning champion Riboletta is back from retirement, waiting in the wings and ready to breeze. After six months of preliminaries, the season starts now.
John Dolan, who trains and owns Lazy Slusan, seemed to think it was the three pounds his mare gave Gourmet Girl that made the difference in the Vanity. At least, that's what he told Perdomo after offering his congratulations.
"Maybe next time, level weights," Dolan said. "You also beat me by five in the Apple Blossom."
"Ah, but you made a mistake," Perdomo said with a good-natured smile. "You should have backed off. But then you won that seven-eighths race in good time."
Perdomo's message was clear. It was not the weight spread. It was the date spread. Conservative to the core, Perdomo had not run Gourmet Girl since her victory in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park on April 8. Lazy Slusan, on the other hand, had run twice since, winning the seven-furlong B. Thoughtful Stakes for Cal-breds and the Milady. Gourmet Girl could have run in them both.
"Why would I ever be worried about Lazy Slusan?" Perdomo said. "I run against her four times on the dirt and beat her three times.
"For this race, my filly looked beautiful," he added. "But I was a little worried because she was still a little juicy - she had put some weight on."
Perdomo talks about Gourmet Girl as if she were still the innocent waif he found at the 1996 Del Mar yearling sale. He is doting, protective, and steadfast in his ideas of how she should be trained. You will not see Perdomo's horses flashing five-eighths in 58 seconds, or cracking 1:12 for six furlongs. Gourmet Girl was ready to run the race of her life off a month of galloping and three timed works. The best of them - by current standards - was three-quarters in 1:13.80.
"Angel Penna once told an owner, 'My friend, don't worry about time. You worry about time when you are sitting in jail,'" Perdomo said. He worked for Penna in the late 1960's, and learned his lessons well. Penna trained champions on three continents.
"Someone like Penna, they don't tell you anything," Perdomo went on. "You've got to be ready to pick it up. You could work for them 30 years, and if you ask them a question they would say, 'You watch. Don't worry about it.' Then you keep it in your own soul, and someday you might need it."
Perdomo will need it if Gourmet Girl is going to fulfill the promise of the Vanity. At the age of 58, Perdomo is at a stage in his training career that begs the question, "Is there more?" He gave voice to such sentiments last April, shortly after the Apple Blossom, as he looked around his Hollywood stable.
"Sometimes it is very hard, coming to work, when you know you don't have the horses," Perdomo said then. "You get very frustrated. You know you have the ability, but you don't get the chance."
So you make the most of what is provided. Other than Gourmet Girl, his best runners have been Stalwart Charger, winner of the 1990 California Derby, and Jetin Excess, a fast filly who was narrowly beaten in the Starlet Stakes at Hollywood last December. He also has a promising South American named Not for Me nearing his U.S. debut and the vibes have been good, especially since he is a son of the Penna-trained grass star Equalize.
Gourmet Girl could give Perdomo the recognition he has worked toward. But that possibility will not change the way he trains his mare. If he has his way, he will let the rest of the division burn themselves out in the sweltering heat of the Delaware Handicap on July 21 and wait for the Clement Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 5. After that, he will send his mare east without hesitation, aiming for the Ruffian or the Beldame before taking on the Distaff right there at Belmont Park.
Perdomo has reason to be hopeful. Last year, Riboletta won the Ruffian by 7 1/2 lengths, rendering the opposition all but invisible. Still, the result was clear to Perdomo. Gourmet Girl finished second. And more than that, she loved the racetrack.