Back in 2004, Tim Poole, assistant trainer to Nick Zito, was about to saddle a horse at Delaware Park. Zito at the time was running a number of horses at Delaware, having had success there, especially sending out young horses. On this particular day, Poole arrived just before the race. He stopped by the receiving barn and then drove to the horsemen’s parking lot, located near the clubhouse turn.
As Poole got out of his car, the horses from the previous race were pulling up on the turn. Just then, his cell phone rang. It was Zito, whose voice was bubbling over with excitement.
“Did you see that?” Zito bellowed.
“See what?” Poole asked.
“That race. Did you see it?” Zito repeated.
A confused Poole didn’t even know what track Zito was referring to.
“Right there where you are,” Zito explained. “Get a hold of Ritchey and tell him, ‘Whatever you want for that horse name your price.’”
The winner of the race Zito was alluding to was a Northern Afleet colt named Afleet Alex, trained by Tim Ritchey, and Zito was convinced he had just seen the next Spectacular Bid. He even called the racing office trying to get through to the colt’s owners. But the owners were a fledgling partnership and had no interest in selling. Afleet Alex, of course, went on to become one of the best 3-year-olds of his era, and a number of his victims were colts trained by Zito.
This was just another of the many special moments in the life of Delaware Park, which quietly over the years has become as productive a spawning ground for 2-year-olds as any track in the country, and that includes Saratoga, Churchill Downs, and Del Mar.
In addition to Afleet Alex (Arkansas Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes), 2-year-olds since 2000 who have broken their maiden at Delaware Park include Barbaro (Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby), Bellamy Road (Wood Memorial), Tapit (Wood Memorial), Hard Spun (2nd Kentucky Derby), Ruler On Ice (Belmont Stakes), Pants On Fire (Louisiana Derby), High Limit (Louisiana Derby), Friesen Fire (Louisiana Derby), Scrappy T (2nd Preakness), Booklet (Fountain of Youth Stakes), and Mr. Bowling (Lecomte Stakes).
Among the successful fillies who have broken their maidens at Delaware Park at 2 are champions Havre de Grace (Horse of the Year), Proud Spell and Forever Together, Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles, and major stakes winners Grace Hall, Joyful Victory, Miss Shop, Sky Diva, Believe You Can, Broadway’s Alibi, and Miraculous Miss.
Which brings us to July 12 of last year, the seventh race at Delaware Park. Going off at nearly 8-1 in the five-furlong maiden event for 2-year-olds was a first-time starter trained by Michael Matz named Union Rags. The 2-1 second choice, trained by Larry Jones, was a first-timer named Mark Valeski.
Union Rags, a son of Dixie Union owned by Chadds Ford Stable, showed right off the bat he was a talented colt by turning in a powerful stretch run to win going away by 1 ¾ lengths. Mark Valeski broke poorly from the 2-hole and ran well enough to finish fourth in the nine-horse field.
“I remember thinking (Union Rags) must be something special, because Michael Matz doesn’t fire ‘em up first time out,” said Delaware’s TV host Rich Glazier. “That’s why he was almost 8-1. He started picking them up down the backstretch and really exploded down the stretch. This is why I keep telling people to always come down to the paddock for these baby races, because you never know if you’re going to see the next champion or a Breeders’ Cup winner or classic winner. It’s a fun place to be.”
Chris Sobocinski, racing information coordinator, couldn’t understand why he had no recollection of the race, which was unusual for him.
“After I realized months later what a key race that was, I kept asking myself, ‘How come I don’t remember this race?’” he said. “I always try to take notes on 2-year-old races and it was bothering me why I had no recollection of it. Then when I looked at the date again I realized that it was the day of the Delaware Handicap draw and I had Havre de Grace and Blind Luck on my mind, putting out press releases. So, that turned out to be a pretty special day, and the Delaware Handicap a pretty special race.”
Mark Valeski would come back in his next start at Delaware Park and romp by 4 ½ lengths in a sharp 1:10 flat for the six furlongs as the 6-5 favorite.
Union Rags would develop quicker than Mark Valeski, winning the Saratoga Special, Champagne Stakes by 5 ¼ lengths, and just missing by a head in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He returned with a scintillating score in the Fountain of Youth Stakes to establish himself as the consensus favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Mark Valeski didn’t make his two-turn debut until Feb. 25 and was beaten a nose by Todd Pletcher’s main Derby hope El Padrino in one of the gutsiest performances of the year.
On the weekend of March 31-April 1, Union Rags and Mark Valeski likely will be the respective favorites in the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby, thus continuing the great tradition of Delaware Park as one of the nation’s best launching pads for 2-year-olds.
“I think the surface is wonderful for training babies,” Larry Jones said. “It’s very kind to horses, so you’re not tearing them up. By running the babies here, you don’t have to ask them for 100%. You can actually start a horse off who’s only 90 to 95% and if he’s a good horse he’ll still win. If you run at Saratoga or even Churchill Downs you have to have them at 100% in order to crank them up the first time. Therefore, you don’t get a chance to develop the horse the way you’d like.”
So, come March 31 and April 1, the Derby trail will once again fall back on its Delaware Park roots to provide a solid foundation for Classic-bound horses. And for good reason. They have treaded over the path of champions.