The Little Horse That Could

2012 James Marvin starter Jackson Bend (photo: Kim Brewer)

"If Seabiscuit were picking runners, he'd say, 'Hey, Jackson, I want you on my team,'" one Nicholas P. Zito remarked on a Wednesday afternoon, two days before he was to send Jackson Bend postward in the $100,000 James Marvin Stakes (gr. III) at Saratoga Race Course.

It has been a quiet year for Hall of Famer Zito, but that is not to be confused with an unsuccessful year. Success for the trainer's team came courtesy of this tough, tiny horse with a heart the size of Texas, who twice this season dashed to victory in graded stakes races--most recently the $400,000 Carter Handicap (gr. I) at Aqueduct on April 7.

"It sounds crazy, this conversation," Zito went on, "and he's certainly no Seabiscuit, but if there were Seabiscuit disciples, that's what he'd be."

Per Zito, the attributes a disciple of that legendary old runner would possess are as follows: a tough little guy. Amazing. Obviously not that big, but big in spirit. A little bit of a folk hero, basically.

"The little horse that could," as Jackson Bend has affectionately come to be known, will back up to his favorite distance of seven furlongs July 20 in the James Marvin, one of two features on opening day at the Spa. Zito and main man Bob LaPenta--his owner with a penchant for both promising 2-year-olds and hard-knocking war horses--would like nothing better than to be singing the first words of that old Ray Charles standard, "Here we go again" with their gutsy runner during the meet.

Last season, Jackson Bend parlayed a James Marvin score into victory in the Forego Stakes (gr. I). It was not the first grade I for LaPenta, of course, but it was the first grade I for Jackson Bend, and the thrill of such an accomplishment brought genuine tears of joy to the owner's eyes.

Jackson Bend takes the 2011 Forego (gr. I) at Saratoga (photo: Adam Coglianese)

Even one full year later, LaPenta still gets emotional when he talks about the son of Hear No Evil. It is no surprise to see Jackson Bend coated with mud from his early position midpack or near the back of the field, rallying with determined strides to eke out victory in the final furlongs. With 26 starts and a 9-6-4 record and earnings of $1,603,450, he leaves it all on the track every time.

"He's been such a great little fighter," LaPenta remarked. "He represents what life is all about. He's undersized and doesn't have a great pedigree, but he's all heart; he just wants a win. Always fighting against the odds and fighting bigger horses, that's very inspirational."

The "big" horses Jackson Bend runs against aren't only big in stature; they also boast accomplished resumes. In the Carter he not only beat top sprinter Caleb's Posse, but 2011 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) victor Shackleford as well. In the 2011 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I), he was third behind Amazombie and Force Freeze. Last year in the Forego and James Marvin there were familiar stakes winners like Sidney's Candy, Aikenite, and Hamazing Destiny, and let's not forget current James Marvin contender Caixa Eletronica, who ran sixth of eight in the 2011 edition but seems to be coming into his own in 2012 with a recent victory in the June 9 True North Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont Park.

Jackson Bend wins the Carter (gr. I) over Caleb's Posse (photo: David Alcosser)

Even a glance at the 2010 racing season, the little horse's 3-year-old year, shows him tangling with giants. Closest of any runner to catching Eskendereya when that one was looked upon as practically the second coming of Secretariat, Jackson Bend was runner-up in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) and Wood Memorial (gr. I) off a second-place finish in the Holy Bull (gr. III). He did not fare well in the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) when encountering a bad trip over the sloppy track and a distance assuredly not to his liking, but he came flying in the Preakness to run third by just three-quarters of a length. The winner was Lookin at Lucky, that year's eventual 3-year-old champ.

"I'd say his most impressive race was the Preakness, and that was a race where again he was in against monsters," LaPenta recalled. "I still have the picture in my mind like it was five seconds ago, where he stuck his little head between four horses at the top of the stretch and came running through. He could almost run between some of those horses' legs. I've watched the replay a thousand times; he showed his grit and his will to win that day. He's always been a fighter but he's been an unlucky horse which kind of adds to the whole emotional thing when he does get through and win."

"It’s an honor and a blessing to be in these big races," Zito remarked. "Since I had Jackson, we went in the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, Wood Memorial, Kentucky Derby, Preakness..."

The Pegasus Stakes (gr. III), Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III), Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II), Skip Away Stakes (gr. III), and Miami Mile Handicap (gr. III) are other graded stakes the runner competed in before going on to win the James Marvin. 

"...the Forego, a grade I, which he won, the Carter, a grade I, which he won, on and on... that’s amazing," Zito continued. "Thing about it is, to be in those races alone is a feat, forget winning. Alone, it’s an amazing thing. So he's been a blessing, it’s been a great situation. I'm happy for the LaPenta family to have had this horse to be around, happy for my team to have him around the barn, and I'm happy for me!"

LaPenta is best known for buying his horses at yearling auctions, and it is rare for him to select one off the track to make a private purchase. But when Jackson Bend caught his eye dashing to a five-race win streak as a 2-year-old--a maiden score and four of that season's Florida Stallion Series stakes at Calder Race Course, he decided to approach breeder Fred Brei about a deal. Brei, who also bred and sold undefeated Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) winner Awesome Feather among others, remains a minority partner on the horse.

"At yearling sales you don't really get a sense of what they are," LaPenta explained. "Even though it's not our typical program, it's a great advantage to be able to see a horse on the track. It was the streak and the way he did it that caught our eye. He refused to lose. He displayed the kind of heat you look for."

"Very early on as a 2-year-old, he showed us he was an extraordinarily talented runner," said Brei, who bred Jackson Bend in Florida out of the Tabasco Cat mare Sexy Stockings. "I'm so tired of hearing 'little horse,' I'd like to barf, because when you stand and look at Jackson Bend, you're looking at perfect conformation. That's my kind of horse.

"I think it's fantastic, what he's gone on to do," he continued. "It's not all about the money, it's about the horse, and he's proven that he's the real deal, he's a grade I winner and a millionaire, and there's not a lot of those out there."

LaPenta said Dr. Mark Cheney vetted the colt and was also impressed.

"He said, 'Now, he's very little, but I gotta tell you, he's got a way of moving that is so natural and so unique, it's unbelievable,'" LaPenta recalled. "He said, 'Everything's kind of put together and it's just a natural, fluid motion.'"

Jackson Bend wins the 2011 James Marvin (gr. III) at Saratoga (photo: Adam Coglianese)

Jackson Bend did not exhibit winning ways last time out. Coming off the determined Carter score, he finished fifth in the Met Mile (gr. I) at Belmont May 28, after pressing a speedy pace under Corey Nakatani. It was the first time he'd finished off the board since April of 2011.

"Once I saw him up on the pace and they're going 1:08 and change, I thought, that's the end of that race for us," LaPenta said.

Rosie Napravnik will be up this weekend, with Nakatani back in California for the Del Mar meet.

"I'm hoping he gets along well with our new jockey this Friday, and hopefully he gets a good trip and has a chance to come running," LaPenta said. "He's going back to seven furlongs and he's unbeaten at that distance; he's a little dynamite."

Jackson Bend is no pocket pet. Around the barn he's scrappy, one who will just as soon take a bite out of his groom as he will out of his hay net.

He may look goofy, but watch out for the teeth! (photo: Mathea Kelley)

"He's very aggressive and if you go to visit the barn he'll stick his head out and he'll kind of snake his head around for hours," LaPenta said. "But he's very smart, he's very aware of his surroundings; he's really just a great guy, he's a little dynamite."

"He's almost like a mascot, certainly one that makes us all pick our heads up," Zito said. "Lots of horses have personalities, but Jackson Bend wants the attention. He's fiesty all the time. A horse like him is like a safety valve, like a protection of your barn. Those horses keep the team happy, keep the help upbeat, it's a reflection of your situation. When I come in and look at Dialed In, for instance, he makes my day, every day. He's on the comeback trail. Horses like Jackson, like Albert The Great or Birdstone or Commentator, once they become 4-year-olds, it's a blessing to have them around, no question."

Last year after the hard-knocking runner fought to his James Marvin score, Zito delivered one of his classic philosophical statements.

"You gotta keep digging in, and keep trying, and keep thinking like it could happen," he said.

It's the spirit this little horse that could embodies -- all fifteen-or-so hands of him.

For a complete preview of the James Marvin, click here.

Watch Jackson Bend win the 2011 Forego Stakes (gr. I):

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