HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (KTHV) -- You don't need stopwatches or tip sheets to tell how confident trainer Larry Jones feels after his stable stars worked earlier this week at Oaklawn Park. The important tool he was using Wednesday morning were hair clippers on his trusted pony Pal.
"We just got him back from his winter break and he needed a shave," said Jones. "He's my Derby pony, and we can't go up to Louisville looking shaggy."
Jones admits he's probably not going to get into the Kentucky Derby (G1) this year, but he appears fully loaded for several other major races both here and at Churchill Downs, including the Kentucky Oaks (G1), where two 3-year-old fillies he trains, Joyful Victory and Summer Soiree, continue to progress toward that goal in Saturday's $125,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3).
Joyful Victory, who races for Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm, will enter her first race of the year off a bullet workout posted Monday morning when she covered five furlongs in 58 4/5. She will bid to give the Jones Family their fourth straight Honeybee victory and help Porter win the race for the second time after scoring in 2008 with eventual Derby runner-up Eight Belles. Jones also won the race in 2009 with Just Jenda, while his wife, Cindy, won last year with No Such Word. Joyful Victory has been training at Oaklawn throughout the winter after capping her 2-year-old season with a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) in November.
Summer Soiree is looking to build on a 9 3/4-length allowance victory Jan. 30. The daughter of War Front is a homebred for Brereton and Bret Jones, who race her along with Wahoo Partners, a group headed Deborah Easter. She worked in company with Joyful Victory, getting five furlongs in 59 1/5. The two fillies were the only ones of 30 workers at that distance to post sub-1:00 times.
While the two 3-year-olds finished on relatively even terms, the blowout workout by the Fox Hill's Havre de Grace over Payton d'Oro in their training run has Jones excited about the 4-year-old daughter of Saint Liam's chances entering her seasonal debut in the $150,000 Azeri Stakes (G3) on March 19.
"She left no doubt she's ready after she did what she did to Payton d'Oro," said Jones of Havre de Grace's bullet five-furlong move Tuesday morning in 59 2/5. Payton d'Oro finished her workout about five lengths behind her in 1:00 2/5. "We sent them together, but 'Grace' pretty much said she didn't need any company to go with her and she did it awfully easily. She showed she is very talented. We wouldn't want to come out of that race with a gut-wrencher, but she stamped herself and said 'don't mess with me.'"
And while there was also a clear winner and loser in the works by his younger fillies, he is encouraged by both efforts coming into this weekend.
"We are definitely happy with our fillies," he said. "There wasn't near as big a difference between the two of them in their works, and Summer Soiree ended up pinned along the rail at one point during it, and we know that ain't happening in a race."
Jones said the jockeys in charge of making sure that "ain't happening" will be Hall of Famer Mike Smith on Joyful Victory, and Gabriel Saez, who was aboard Eight Belles when she won the Honeybee three years ago. It will be Smith's first trip back to Oaklawn since guiding 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta to victory in the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) last spring.
Smith will also be aboard Winslow Homer, the 4-year-old Fox Hill color-bearer slated to start his year in Saturday's $150,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) for older horses. The Graded stakes-winner is on the comeback trail from various ailments last year, and the son of Unbridled's Song's last start was a huge win in the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga last August.
"He needed a pony to catch him after he worked the other day," said Jones after Winslow Homer worked five furlongs Monday in 1:00. "I went and tried to catch him, and he was still coming at a good rate of speed."
All three of the stakes race the Jones barn is pointing toward appear to be coming up strong, although the trainer isn't worried about excuses or different scenarios despite the expected stiff competition.
"We know what we've got going over there," he said. "I try not to worry about who all is going in what races. I just try to make sure we go over there with a loaded gun. Winslow Homer doesn't have to worry about any pace scenarios, and the girls have all come back well and are bouncing around. We are very happy with where we are at."
Win Willy, Picko's Pride Prepared for Major Tests Next Two Weekends
After two tough races under testing conditions for one star and following a surprisingly good effort for a rising star, trainer Mac Robertson is ready to send Jer-Mar Stables' Win Willy into action as the high weight Saturday in the $150,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) and send Barry and Joni Butzow's 3-year-old colt Picko's Pride toward the $300,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 19 at Oaklawn Park.
Win Willy upset the Rebel in 2009 at 56-1 and has finished first under the wire five times in nine starts in Hot Springs. Picko's Pride finished fourth as a longshot in the Southwest Stakes (G3) in his first attempt to join the trail toward this year's $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) trail.
According to Robertson, Win Willy has been fighting uphill this season, rallying to win the Fifth Season Stakes by a neck Jan. 16, and coming up three-quarters of a length short of front-running Kate's Main Man in the Essex Handicap Feb. 13. In both cases, the races were moved from their originally scheduled dates because of weather-related cancellations. That freaky weather led to tracks that Robertson believes weren't conducive to Win Willy's closing style.
"I think, based on what I've seen the last week or so, that the track is going to be more fair," said Robertson Wednesday morning. "When it looked like the horse on the lead (Kate's Main Man) was going to break into a jog last time, I was not feeling so good when we were sitting in last."
Win Willy worked Tuesday morning an easy five furlongs in 1:04 2/5, satisfying Robertson with the way he stuck to his closing ways, even in the breeze with regular rider Cliff Berry.
"He was ready to run off the day before, and he did the last quarter in 24," said Robertson. "Cliff had him in control, and that's all he needed. He's fit."
Picko's Pride has yet to garner many headlines in the crowded 3-year-old scene this year, but Robertson is happy with how the son of Cactus Ridge is progressing from runaway-train juvenile to a more relaxed sophomore.
"I don't know if my horse is blossoming, because he's still not very big," said Robertson. "But at this time of year you're hoping your 3-year-olds will continue to run better and are still going the right way. They get into these stakes races, where it's monsters against monsters, and they end up running too fast and start going the other way. My horse has shown me he can just relax and sit way at the back of the pack, and if they go too fast, they're going to get to the quarter pole and be all 'whoa, what happened?'
Hopefully my horse can come get them then."
Picko's Pride breezed a half-mile Monday in 49 1/5.
Peitz Weighing Options for Arienza
Trainer Dan Peitz said Wednesday that arguably the best-bred horse in his barn, Arienza, has come out of her impressive maiden win Sunday in good order and was "kicking and playing."
The 3-year-old daughter of Horse of the Year Azeri and Giant's Causeway has big expectations placed on her because of her parentage.
"I am unsure what her next start will be," said Peitz. "If a non-winners of two would fill against her, that would likely be the right spot. However, we haven't dismissed the Prima Donna here March 20. Running a filly who has just broken her maiden back in a stakes is asking a lot, but Arienza is a special filly."