Fast Falcon improving with Zito and Napravnik

There are two-year-olds that develop so quickly once they hit the racetrack the winning follows almost naturally. They might already be 16 hands. Might already weigh nearly 950 pounds. The fast maturing ones often reach the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at the end of the racing season. And then the thoroughbred that wins the Juvenile has the onus of being the best-known three-year-old when the next January 1 dawns and horses in the northern hemisphere all celebrate a birthday.

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The thoroughbreds may not feel the pressure of their celebrity status. But the owners and trainers often are burdened by the expectations brought by winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. No Juvenile champion has been able to win the next year’s Kentucky Derby for many moons.

Fast Falcon was beaten by a head by Teeth of the Dog in his last race, the Easy Goer Stakes at Belmont.

The majority of two-year-olds are brought along a careful racing schedule. Some won’t even race until July or August. And after that first race there will be only one more in that first year. Other juveniles mature so slowly that they never race at age two.

Those with no races at two can be taught enough and can infer enough that even with only two or three lifetime races they glean the winnings necessary to join the pack at the Kentucky Derby. Others join the Triple Crown series in Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes.

Those whose racing career sees them race sparingly as they mature may find them catching the industry’s and the public’s attention only after the Triple Crown series has been completed in their three-year-old season.

The term “late bloomer” is applied to some. Trainers such as seen-most-everything Nick Zito usually tell people they “have an improving horse”. By the mid-summer months of their three-year-old season the “improving” thoroughbred might be 16 hands . . . might weigh 1,100 pounds . . . might have run a total of five times . . . and might be in the right hands to win a Jim Dandy Stakes, the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park, the Jersey Derby, or the King’s Bishop Stakes.

Chestnut-colored Fast Falcon is one of the genuinely “improving” thoroughbreds in this year’s three-year-old crop. He is trained by Zito after being bought at a Keeneland auction by the trainer, who was using a $1 million nest egg supplied him by Richard Pell, like Zito another New Yorker, but who had never owned a race horse.

Pell became the owner of eight thoroughbreds after Zito emptied his million-dollar pot at the 2010 September yearling sale at Keeneland.

Fast Falcon was bought for a $60,000 bid. Zito took over as his trainer.

Zito has as much patience as he does white hair.

After a stirring stretch drive in the June 30 Dwyer Stakes where Fast Falcon was barely outdueled by trainer Michael Matz’s Teeth of the Dog, Zito had seen fit to race Pell’s bronze three-year-old only five times.

Zito didn’t have Fast Falcon in any of the Triple Crown features.

After two earlier races that didn’t bring a win, Fast Falcon was sent to Pimlico for another maiden special weight race. That was on Friday, May 11 of this year. Zito was in town for the Preakness, run the next afternoon. Fast Falcon broke his maiden against five others at the distance of 1 1/16 miles.

On June 9 at Belmont Park, Zito had decided to skip any allowance race for Fast Falcon and entered him in the Easy Goer Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. Teeth of the Dog was in that race. And Zito’s faith and judgment were both vindicated that afternoon when his still-learning student finished in second behind only Teeth of the Dog in a nine-horse field.

After the runner-up finish in the Dwyer Stakes, Fast Falcon now has a win and two straight seconds in his last three tries.

His improvement has come so fast. Three races ago he was winless. Not only was he winless but neither of his first two tries even produced a third-place finish. And now he has runner-up showings in two straight stakes races at Belmont Park.

In the Dwyer Stakes, Fast Falcon and jockey Rosie Napravnik literally overtook Teeth of the Dog early in the stretch. Since it had been Fast Falcon removing all but inches of the lead with a ground-eating move from far behind, it appeared he would get past. More than 250 yards were left to run.

Maybe it was Fast Falcon’s inexperience. Maybe it was jockey Joel Rosario on Teeth of the Dog doing yeoman work to keep his horse in front. More probable, it was Teeth of the Dog and his advantages in big-race experience and his competitive heart that kept him in front to the end.

With important stakes looming ahead through early November, Teeth of the Dog and Fast Falcon are likely to face each other again.

“Sometimes you have to take a chance. He showed he belonged. He ran a great race against Teeth of the Dog last time and had a much tougher trip than him,” said jockey Napravnik. “We got a pretty decent trip today . . . just a dogfight to the end. We lost today, but we might be able to win it next time,” the red-haired rider told the gathered media.

“Our horse looks like he’s going in the right direction,” said Zito. “We’re happy about him. It’s too early to say, but we’ll talk about the Jim Dandy and some other options.”

Owner Pell, who moved to London with his parents when he was 12, stayed in England for enough years to recall his skipping school and getting out to Epsom Downs, Kempton Park, and Newmarket to watch races.

Upon his return to America he was able to graduate from Cal-Berkeley. Before obtaining a master’s degree from New York University, he had a job as a private investigator and tried to make his way as a poker player.

Now Pell has an “improving” thoroughbred whose best efforts should be coming along as the summer gives him at least two more races. Pell seems likely to let him race as a four-year-old when Fast Falcon’s education has been completed and he is the fully-grown thoroughbred teaching the lessons.


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