Haskin's Derby Trail: Delaware Path From Rags to Riches

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.


Leave a Comment:


Delaware Park is a jewel! Thank you Steve for writing so eloquently about it. Our usual spot on Derby day is in the picnic grove near the paddock. It is a  wonderful day of local racing + you can follow & wage on all the races @ Churchill. All midAtlantic race fans owe themselves the treat of a race day @ Delaware Park!

14 Mar 2012 4:50 PM

Mark V. will win the Louisiana Derby and El Padrino will have a hard time hitting the board in Florida.

14 Mar 2012 5:29 PM

Nurturing 2YO talent is very good. Kudos to the Delaware Park Juvenile program. No less important is the recognition of the value of seasoning /foundation and the fostering of the 2YO's classic prospects by maintaining 2YO Graded Stakes races as an integral part of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.

It is a joy to see the 2YO standouts of last season flourish on the present Triple Crowm trail. This year is looking a lot like yesteryear and could be the mystical drought breaking year for a Triple Crown winner. It would be a fitting tribute to Delaware Park's juvenile program to see the "special one", of its graduates prevail.

14 Mar 2012 6:06 PM
Don from PA/DE

Wonderful refresher course Steve, I have been so lucky to be there to see most of these young horses run first time out, and then follow them, although live racing doesn't start this year til weekend AFTER KD..$$$. But come to think of it, it was CAPTAIN BODGIT who first caught my attention at DP, and always remember the unfortuate ride by Alex Solis on him, he just missed being a super star as well...It has been also nice seeing u there several times, Don

14 Mar 2012 6:40 PM

That's some pretty compelling stuff!  I don't live far from Delaware Park and just have never made it there to watch a race.  I am definitely going to make it my new track for this year.  My first trip to Monmouth was for Big Brown and I just fell in love with that track.  It really is looking like a great racing year - knock on wood - all stay healthy!

14 Mar 2012 6:49 PM
Dr Drunkinbum

Afleet Alex is another one of those near misses for the Triple Crown that we've had in the last twenty years. It somehow seems less traumatic when it's a near miss in the first leg rather than the last leg. Afleet Alex was 3rd in The Derby but only missed by a length, then won the Preakness by almost five lengths after a bad stumble and miraculously and athletically not going down. Then romped in the Belmont by seven lengths. Just a monster. It sounds like more 2yo's should be running at Delaware since the surface is kind to them.

14 Mar 2012 7:03 PM

Sorry Draynay, Cigar Street will win the Louisiana Derby, if he is entered.  

Looking forward to seeing Street Life this Saturday.  Either at Aqueduct or Laurel.  

Hope to make it to Delaware one of these days.

14 Mar 2012 7:08 PM

Steve, your short stories would make a great book on the history of the sport.  I'm in the the DFW metroplex & I'm jealous of those who have such a privilege/pleasure to go see the youngins run at Delaware.  Keep the stories coming.  They're fascinating!

14 Mar 2012 11:21 PM
Pedigree Ann

Steve, because you are so good at writing a story, I expect you to uphold the proper use of the written language in these days of "between he and I" <yuk>.

"Union Rags would develop quicker..!?!" Try "more quickly." "Quick" modifies a verb here, not noun. A roadrunner is quicker than a chicken, but a hare is startled more quickly than a turtle. Of course, you could have just used the oddball "faster" which is the same whether it modifies a noun or a verb. (Nobody has ever said English is totally consistent language.)

My great-aunt Sadie (1880-1921) was a high-school English teacher and I sometimes channel her. She helps me 'hear' the wrongness of many modern prose misconstructions.

15 Mar 2012 8:47 AM
Criminal Type

Trebloc, I know you like those Street Sense babies, and they are performing much better at 3 then most did at two, but Cigar Street ?  I respect you judgement but, I dunno about that one. He has zero graded earnings. If your right and he is entered and miraculously wins the LA Derby, He would have enough graded earnings to get to Louisville, while leaving some horses that are already counting those earnings, out in the cold (Mark Valeski 60K). For the record, I also like Street Sense. It would seem like Castaway, who is a nice colt, would be his sires leading contender at this point in time.

I really like Mark Valeski, and love his trainer. Larry Jones is an excellent horseman. I think he will be the horse to beat in New Orleans provided El Padrino goes to Florida. If EP stays in LA, its going to be another slugfest down the stretch for EP and MV.

I'm gonna stick with Union Rag's. His potential right now is limitless given his performance in the FOY. Watch it again. He wasn't even trying. He will have to try a little harder to get the win in the Florida Derby, but I don't see him losing. His versatility is vast. He can run from anywhere in anything, except arguably, peanut butter. The detractors question his stamina based on his sire. They conveniantly ignore the bottom which has a ton of stamina and some record setters of races over 10 furlongs. I am convinced 100%.

In my mind there are only a handful of legitimate contenders. The rest are wishful thinking and dilusions of Kentucky Derby glory. Anyway, This Triple Crown trail has me more excited then any since 2007. I can't wait !

15 Mar 2012 9:31 AM

Great article Steve,

I love 3 Year old colts and fillies.

There the future of the sport, I've never been to Delaware Park as I live a stones throw from beautiful Belmont Park,but after reading your post, I will pencil in a trip there for a weekend this spring..Thanks..and keep up the great insight on the 2012 Road to the Derby..!!

15 Mar 2012 9:40 AM
Bill Two

It certainly is true that Delaware Park has turned out some real stars and that's not just a function of the track surface.  If you look at the stables at nearby Fair Hill and those at Delaware Park you have a representation of collection of some of the best people and horses in the sport.  My only problem with the track is the everyday product.  It is mostly composed of small fields of sprinters and/or really cheap stock.  Too much racing in the mid-Atlantic area has resulted in mediocre day-to-day racing.  The track itself is a gem and the paddock is second to none.  Bring the family and have a nice day.

15 Mar 2012 10:20 AM
It aint easy being good!

Great article and I agree with Dr. D Afleet Alex needs to go into a category called beast mode! He was an amazing horse.

You guys need to hold the union rags crush until he faces some serious contenders. Also its way too early, lets say Union Rags gets the 1 hole come derby day are all of you still going to be on the bandwagon?

The best horse sometimes doesnt win the derby so hold your toungue before you start comparing Union Rags to other greats!

15 Mar 2012 11:39 AM
Don from PA/DE

Smallbrennan, interesting, I grew up on LI (Garden City) a stonesthrow from both Roosevelt Raceway & Belmont, but never went to any live racing, moved to Newark DE in 1976 and discovered DP in late 1980's and other than two trips to PARX and one trip to the new GS a few winters ago, this is only track I have experienced live racing, worth the trip, once you get past belt prkwy 100 miles south on NJP usually under 3 hr drive, enjoy...Bill 2, true fields are difficultly small most days, and speaking of local trainers, besides Fair Hill, J. Sheappard and that wierly bizzzre horse wizard...Michael ala Haas/Tapit/ Dickinson! Guess he is back in jolly old England?  Enjoy...

15 Mar 2012 12:05 PM

Criminal Type, I agree.  I have been asking the same thing for a long time now, why are most people focusing on the sire line of Union Rag's pedigree.  Very aggravating.  I look at the tail side of a horse's pedigree, before the sire side.  In my mind a colt is only as good as the mare he is bred to.  You are right, tons of stamina on the tail side.

16 Mar 2012 10:35 AM
Fran Loszynski

Delaware Park has magic at every turn.  Thank you Steve for the recap of the day Nick Zito wanted to buy Afleet Alex, great memory. I said to myself if Nick Zito wants to buy him, he is an awesome horse! Tim Ritchey, Butch Reid, and Nick Zito my favorite trainers. I still keep an eye out for when Nick Zito has a horse against an Afleet Alex foal; because Mr. Zito is on my carte blanche list of trainers.

16 Mar 2012 1:35 PM

I didn't realize how many really good horses got their start at Deleware Park.  My personal favorite is Afleet Alex; in my opinion the best colt in recent history not to win the Triple Crown.

It's good to hear it's a safe track and kind to the 2-yr olds, and presumably older horses too.

16 Mar 2012 4:59 PM
Uncle Smiley


Not only great two year olds, but DelPark is the proving grounds for some of the best riders, too.

Ramon Dominguez, and Rosie Napravnik,  have given us local habitues, and the larger racing audience, many wonderful races.

16 Mar 2012 10:15 PM

HATE TO BE THE ONE TO TELL YOU ALL........but its too late for all these horses you are all talking about! THERE ARE ONLY 5 HORSES with a chance of winning the derby......UNION RAGS

              EL PADRINO

              CREATIVE CAUSE



it is simply too late to catch up...with only 1 race to go........

16 Mar 2012 10:41 PM
Don from PA/DE

,,,"He's...Back."..!!! "Gemologist"

17 Mar 2012 3:29 AM

It is told of America's greatest breeder, Col. E. R. Bradley, that he refused to breed to any Fair Play descended stud but loved War Admiral. When chided for inconsistency, Bradley famously said "War Admiral is a Sweep."

This story is meant to illustrate many things about the Colonel except what it does, in fact, demonstrate. He was a masterful horseman with a wizard's eye.

It is biologically possible for War Admiral to be a Sweep, which would mean the Man o' War sperm that sired him carried only chromosomes from Man o' War's dam. It can happen. The trick is being horseman enough to recognize it when it races past you.

Hansen's distaff isn't reassuring, but Sir Cat was a staying Storm Cat who had splended sources of stamina on his dam side. Sir Cat won the Kent S. at 9 furlongs on soft turf, the ultimate tryer of stamina, attending an honest pace and sprinting away from his field in the last furlong. Some Ribot/Quill showing up that day.

That Hansen has speed does not disprove that he has stamina, but it's not proven yet either.

It will not break the laws of biology if he stays.

17 Mar 2012 3:31 AM

If you play trainers on a daily basis like I do I like Delaware Park because I follow L Jones.I was lucky with him there the last year before he retired and I will try again to see if it was a fluke.BTW he doesnt ship many out but when he does very well especially to Monmouth.

17 Mar 2012 11:18 AM
Aaron McC

The only thing I know about Delaware Park is that it was the site of the best race last year: the Delaware Handicap mentioned by Chris Sobocinski, above.  

I know it was only a grade two, but, by far that great stretch duel between Blind Luck and Havre de Grace outshadowed for me the eventual NTRA moment of the year, Drosselmeyer's classic win.  I know an award like that has to be advertising for the sport's bigger stages, but from a serious fan's perspective - that was about as good as it gets.

I've noticed that you occasionally write reflective pieces on recent equine retirees, Steve.  I wonder if you have plans to give Blind Luck a sendoff?  Also, any insight into her potential as a broodmare?  I always thought, given the way others spoke of her that she didn't have the best pedigree or conformation (at least size-wise), but she managed to bring a good chunk at auction last fall ...

Thanks in advance,

17 Mar 2012 2:17 PM

Here is my KY Derby tribox: Castaway, Street Life and Cigar Street.  My sources tell me Cigar Street to the LA Derby.

17 Mar 2012 3:17 PM

If you're going to beat the top pics in the Derby i would have to pick Optimizer ceartainly has a late kick,if the Rebel was 9f he'd have won it the winner was getting gobbled up in the last few strides,lets hope he moves forward and he will be a force to recon with in the final furlong.Best finish i've seen so far of any preps.

18 Mar 2012 8:56 AM
Uncle Smiley

Delaware Park Redux:

Fairground, March 17, Race 9. This year.

Havre de Grace, Juanita, Ramon Dominguez plus the young rising star,  Rosie Napravnik.

Three of the four are Delaware Park graduates.  Juanita, deserves an honorary degree!

Havre de Grace displayed incredible class, as she dominated Napravnik's galiant try to defend the inner lanes.

18 Mar 2012 9:34 PM

Cassandra, biologically impossible.  Horses receive 2 sets of 23 chromosomes, one set from the dam, one from the sire. Now if you want to talk about cells and genes, another ball game.  It's complicated but I think you can handle it.  You seem to be interested in the pedigree of horses.  I like that.

18 Mar 2012 10:07 PM

KY Vet, I agree too late.  I'm going with Union Rags.  I have been with him since he won his maiden, so he's my boy.  I love him.

18 Mar 2012 10:08 PM
Karen in Texas


Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes for a total of 46. Equines have 32 pairs of chromosomes (one pair from each parent) for a total of 64.


19 Mar 2012 7:25 PM
Karen in Texas

I think I used the term 'equine' in my previous post. I meant the horse, equus caballus, specifically.

19 Mar 2012 10:26 PM
cuban chef de race

this year you will see  what  derby pedigree patterns  and patience  will get marriage  in the winner circle, this blog  will be  great to  learn and to teach,we have a lot of time to  exchange  hopes.

20 Mar 2012 12:21 AM

Mary: Horses receive 32 chromosomes each from sire and dam, giving them 64 chromosomes.

Humans have 2 sets of 23.

Time to do a little research?

20 Mar 2012 7:00 AM

There's a pretty good history of Delaware Park that I've seen lately... It's just called DELAWARE PARK and the author is Kenneth Baumgardt...check it out!

20 Mar 2012 1:16 PM

Mary:  Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes.  Horses, however, have 32 pairs of chromosomes=64.

Cassandra: Horses receive 32 chromosomes from the sire, and 32 chromosomes from the dam. So, it is biologically impossible for a horse to carry only one set.  However, it is only the dam who can pass on the Xfactor to colts and fillies, because it is part of the x chromosome (female) rather than the y (male) chromosome.  Sires can pass the xfactor only to their fillies. That is why the dam line is so important.  The xfactor passes on the athletically large heart, accounting for stamina.  To date, the xfactor has been traced back to the dam of Eclipse.

21 Mar 2012 10:40 AM

First Grammar.

Then Science (Biology).

Next: Math?  Algebra I can take.  Just don't give me that sine, tangent whatever stuff.

How about we just stick to Literature?  (Steve's post)

p.s.  Yay for the "littler" tracks.  Maybe the Breeders' Cup people should stop thinking of just two tracks and start thinking about spreading the largesse around.  (note the French?  It was my major, with a PolySci minor.  What can I say?  I thought I was going into government in a bilingual country.  Ha!)

22 Mar 2012 10:15 AM
Uncle Smiley


Great book, great track, great history of magnificent people who strive to give us the best of racing, at all different levels. And at Amazon for $5.50!

Next goal,  who will be the great jockeys to graduate from DelPark.  As of late it has been Ramon Dominguez, number one, and Anna Rosie Napravnik, numbr twelve.


18 Apr 2012 7:21 PM

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