Haskin's Derby Trail: Who is the Real News Pending?

News Pending burst on the scene with his surprising second-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at odds of 27-1. But who exactly is this horse? Watching his races, he is a horse you cannot handicap, because he still hasn’t figured out who he is or what he is. And that in its own odd way is what makes him so dangerous and what makes his performance in the Fountain of Youth so fascinating.

In his previous races, he has been on the lead, he has stalked the pace, and he has come from far back. He’s been on the inside, between horses, and wide throughout, and all this on the dirt and grass.

In the Fountain of Youth he stayed true to character by running three different races in one. While his startling move on the first turn, in which he went from sixth to challenging for the lead, didn’t rival Secretariat’s first-turn explosion in the 1973 Preakness, it’s the closest thing we’ve seen since. After engaging the 4-5 favorite Discreet Dancer leaving the clubhouse turn and battling with him all the way to the quarter pole, he was inhaled by Union Rags, who quickly opened up by daylight. But he proceeded to put Discreet Dancer away and kept running on like a fresh horse, and wasn’t losing any ground to the winner in the closing stages. If you had turned on the race at the eighth pole, you would have thought News Pending was rallying from off the pace to finish second, he was moving with such authority. He was just outrun by a much more accomplished and talented horse.

Kent Desormeaux is the perfect jockey for him, because, like the horse, you never know what Desormeaux is going to do. He no doubt is the most unconventional of the top jockeys, and sometimes you’re going to pay the price for that unconventionality and sometimes it’s going to put you in the winner’s circle. When Desormeaux is on he is as good a money rider as there is in the country.

Let’s go back over News Pending’s career. His debut last year on the dirt at Saratoga was a disaster, but his second start stretching out on the grass was an improvement, as he finished fifth, beaten 2 ¼ lengths, after breaking from the far outside and losing ground.
Now is when it gets interesting. In a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Belmont, he shot to the lead, set the pace, and dug in gamely when challenged, only to be nipped by the narrowest of noses in a head-bobbing finish. So, when he returned in a 1 1/8-mile race at Aqueduct, it was naturally assumed he’d be on or right off the lead, but was fanned four-wide going into the first turn and remained four-wide the entire race. He raced in fourth and stayed there, getting beat 6 ½ lengths.

Then came the race that would alter his career. Trainer Dale Romans put him back on the grass, going 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream. With Rajiv Maragh, his fourth different jockey in five races, aboard, he saved ground along the inside in third, and at the head of the stretch, two horses came charging up on his outside, putting him in an apparent box. Fortunately the two horses in front of him spread apart, giving him a gaping hole. At first, it seemed as if he had no desire to take advantage of it and he appeared to be going nowhere. Then in the final sixteenth, it was if the light bulb went on. He accelerated and outran the outside closers to win by a half-length and then opened up six lengths in the gallop-out, with the outrider having to chase him down. It was in that final sixteenth that he became a racehorse.

Romans kept him on the grass, but stated before the race he was looking forward to getting him back on the dirt and onto the Derby trail. Just when you thought you knew this horse’s running style, he ventured into new territory by dropping far back off the pace, a dozen lengths back. He began his move leaving the three-eighths pole, but was hopelessly out of contention. Turning for home he swung out to the middle of the track and kicked into a gear no one had ever seen from him. He flew by horses in the final furlong, but Exothermic, an up-and-coming star in his own right, was long gone by then. He still kept passing horses as if moving in another time frame and managed to get up for second, beaten 1 ½ lengths.

Romans felt he was now developing into a top-class horse and was getting so good he decided to run him in the Fountain of Youth, despite the presence of Union Rags, the ill-fated Algorithms, and Discreet Dancer.

So, what does one make of this horse? Did he finish second because someone had to or is he developing into a major Derby contender? Judging from his explosive early and seemingly premature move, the way he put away a good horse in Discreet Dancer, and the way he was still striding out strongly at the end, it would seem this horse can do just about anything…and from anywhere on the racetrack.

Romans said the plan going into the Fountain of Youth was to take him back and “come running,” as he had done in his previous start. But the horse was moving so smoothly, with his ears up, Desormeaux decided to let him “do his thing.”

Now that we know what his “thing” is, or at least we think we do, there’s no telling what to expect from him as he continues on his oddly paved road to Louisville.

By the way, the horse who finished fourth in the aforementioned grass allowance race, a length behind News Pending, was stablemate Finnegan’s Wake, who is by a grass sire and whose only dirt start was a 26-length drubbing in the slop in his career debut at Churchill Downs. But Romans will take another shot and run him in Saturday’s Gotham Stakes, hoping he handles the dirt. Does anyone really want to speculate what this horse is going to do? When it comes to Romans don’t even bother.

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