11/30/2016 1:06PM

Win in Hollywood Derby would add to Free Roses's rags-to-riches story

Benoit & Associates
Free Rose won the Grade 3 La Jolla at 28-1 and the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby (above) at 11-1.

DEL MAR, Calif. – A gelding who won a $40,000 claiming race for maidens at Parx in 2015 and was 11th in a $20,000 claimer at Keeneland in April is a leading contender for Saturday’s Grade 1, $300,000 Hollywood Derby at Del Mar.

The rise of Free Rose from claimer to multiple stakes winner seemed impossible earlier this year, but a change in surface and a move to California has made a remarkable difference. Free Rose’s claiming days are behind him.

“It’s been an unbelievable ride for us,” said co-owner Bing Bush Jr. “He really couldn’t do anything on the dirt.”

Free Rose has finished in the first three in all six of his turf starts, two in Kentucky for trainer Tevis McCauley and four in California for Richard Baltas.

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With Baltas, Free Rose has had a meteoric rise through California’s 3-year-old turf division.

Free Rose was third in his California debut in an allowance race at Del Mar on July 23. Two weeks later on Aug. 6, Free Rose led throughout the Grade 3 La Jolla Handicap for 3-year-olds there, scoring a 28-1 upset.

Bush, who has a legal practice in Del Mar, recalls a fun – and profitable – afternoon that day. Asked if he bet Free Rose in the La Jolla, the 57-year-old Bush had a fast answer.

“Absolutely,” he said.

In his last two races, Free Rose has shown that the La Jolla win was not a fluke. He won the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby at 1 1/8 miles on Sept. 4 at 11-1 and was a game second to Frank Conversation in the Grade 2 Twilight Derby at Santa Anita on Nov. 4, when he was pressured on the lead throughout the race at 1 1/8 miles.

Free Rose raced for the McCauley family in Kentucky before Bush’s Abbondanza Racing partnership bought a share in early summer, leading to the transfer to Baltas. Currently, Nathan McCauley owns Free Rose with Bush and his Abbondanza partners – Eric Berman, Craig Kaplan, Bill Minton, and Jeff Stoke.

“I thought he’d do well out here and in Richard Baltas’s barn,” Bush said.

The team intended to run Free Rose in the Oceanside Stakes at Del Mar on July 15 but could not gain a berth in the race. That day, Bush was encouraged when another Kentucky shipper, Monster Bea, won the Oceanside. Monster Bea and Free Rose had finished second and third in an allowance race at Churchill Downs in May.

“I thought our horse was every bit as good as Monster Bea,” he said.

Monster Bea finished behind Free Rose in the La Jolla Handicap, Del Mar Derby, and Twilight Derby.

In the Hollywood Derby, Free Rose will face a stern test. Frank Conversation is expected to start. New York trainer Chad Brown has three formidable candidates – the stakes winners Beach Patrol and Camelot Kitten and the stakes-placed Annals of Time.

Baltas also has been amazed at Free Rose’s accomplishments. The gelding needed a bit of extra care before he settled into his California environment this summer, Baltas said.

“There was nothing major wrong with him other than minor foot issues,” Baltas said. “He started gaining weight. We stuck him in an outside pen because he can be a little nervous.

“The horse has overachieved, there’s no doubt. He has a lot of grit and determination.”

In the Hollywood Derby, Free Rose is expected to be near the front. He is likely to face pressure throughout, much like he did in his two stakes wins at Del Mar during the summer.

“He’s such a gutsy horse,” Bush said. “I think he showed a lot of heart in the Twilight. He had every excuse to quit.

“When he won the La Jolla, a wall of horses were coming after him. In the gallop-out, he wasn’t having any part of it. This is a horse that doesn’t like to get passed.”