As we move along on these slow December days while anxiously awaiting the start of the Triple Crown season, it helps to pass the time by keeping an eye on some of these impressive maiden winners. Within the last week, trainer Neil Howard had a pair that caught my eye.
On Friday, Howard sent out Wilkinson in a 1 mile and 40-yard maiden special weight at Fair Grounds. I've been following this horse ever since I was tipped off that he had been working very strongly at Churchill this fall. After a pair of runner-up efforts in October and November, Wilkinson put it all together in his third start, stalking the pace and winning by a length under Robby Albarado. He ran a nice race considering he was caught inside the whole way and was chasing the pacesetter who had an easy lead. Here's the video.
Wilkinson is by Lemon Drop Kid, out of the Afternoon Deelites mare Tasha's Delight. Howard is optimistic that he can develop into a very good 3-year-old and would like to give him his opportunity on the Triple Crown trail. Look for him in about three or four weeks in an allowance race at Fair Grounds before hopefully moving on to stakes company.
"We took our time with him," Howard said Tuesday. "He had some stuff going on this summer--shins, coughing, the normal 2-year-old problems. But once he got that behind him he trained well.
"He ran well in his first two races. The first race was seven-eighths (at Keeneland). We think he is more of two-turn horse but he still ran a good race (beaten a head). In his next race he was victim of being caught wide on both turns. But this last race went smoothly.
"We're all a little at the mercy of the condition book this time of year, but we want to keep his races spaced anyway. We'll look for something in maybe three, four weeks. I learned not to get too far ahead of yourself with these young horses, but yes, I would say he (will get a chance on the Triple Crown trail). He has the pedigree and conformation; he's well-balanced and the way he's trained has been impressive so far. We're definitely looking in that direction."
Gaillardia Racing is the breeder/owner of Wilkinson.
Howard is also high on Prime Cut, who broke his maiden on Sunday at Fair Grounds going six furlongs in his second try (video). By Bernstein, out of the Stravinsky mare Life Happened, the bay colt has more of a turf pedigree but has gotten his first chances on dirt. He was a $475,000 yearling, bought by Don Adams' Courtlandt Farms.
Prime Cut made his debut way back in June at Churchill (fourth) but had a major illness that forced them to give the colt plenty of rest before returning him to the track. He came wide and from off the pace in his maiden win last weekend, and even though it was a sprint Howard says horses sometimes get more out of one turn races at Fair Grounds because of the long stretch. Like Wilkinson, he will also be sent into an allowance contest within the next month with a goal of trying a Derby prep at some point.
"He was picked out by Mike Ryan with help from Mr. Adams and his farm manager, Ernie. He's a beautiful colt and trained very well for his first start. We we're very encouraged. He ran Ok, we were a little disappointed, but then a few days later he came down with a serious respiratory problem that developed into pneumonia. We gave him the rest of the summer off and took it easy with him when he came back.
"Robby (Albarado) worked him a few days before the race and gave us the green light. He ran well. He does have turf in his pedigree and we wouldn't hesitate to run him on it later, but right now we're looking at seeing what he can do (on dirt)."
Howard, who is based at Churchill and has a stable in New Orleans during the winter, won his only Triple Crown race with Summer Squall in the 1990 Preakness, is hopeful that both colts can make a splash on next year's Triple Crown trail. He thinks the talent is there for each.
"Both are sturdy, strong horses. It's time to move them along and see what they can do," he said.
Along with Summer Squall, Howard is also best known for training 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft. On Tuesday, Howard was in Central Kentucky to see his former charge at Lane's End.
"He's doing great, looks fabulous," he said. "I haven't seen him in a while but he's always so happy-go-lucky."