Steve’s Sleepers: Commandperformance

This is the first of a series of columns to be posted periodically through the start of Derby Rankings in mid-January. During that time let’s all play bloodstock agent and see if we can uncover some live sleepers for next year’s Kentucky Derby before they become well-known. They would be mostly horses who are still maidens, but left a big impression in defeat. Or maiden winners that are still flying under the radar. I will look for an interesting back story regarding each horse to bring them to life so people can follow them right from the beginning. If anyone sees a horse, male or female, who fits that bill you can email me at and I will check them out. Hope you enjoy this new series. ~ Steve Haskin

Steve’s Sleepers: Commandperformance

By Steve Haskin


Whether you are a bloodstock agent or racing manager touting an under-the-radar Kentucky Derby prospect to your owner for possible purchase or just a simple journalist playing those roles, it is disheartening to “discover” a hidden talent, going out on a limb, and then seeing that horse turn into a bust. But as any racing person knows, it is going to happen more times than not. We are not risking anyone’s money here; just having fun and seeing if we can all find untapped talent, tell their story, and then following those horses hoping one or two can buck the odds and make it to the Kentucky Derby.

The first sleeper who caught my eye was a handsome gray Union Rags colt trained by Todd Pletcher named Commandperformance. If he didn’t have such an eventful trip in his career debut he probably would have won, and being trained by Pletcher and owned by the powerful team of St. Elias Stable and Mike Repole, he no longer would qualify as a sleeper. So let’s hop on his bandwagon now and tell his story and the story of his dam Smitten.

First, going back over his maiden race, he went into the six-furlong event at Saratoga on September 6 coming off two strong five-furlong works in 1:00 and change and then a half-mile drill in :47 3/5 from the gate, fifth fastest of 134 works at the distance. As soon as they crossed the finish line I knew this was a horse worth following.

Breaking from the disadvantageous inside post first time out, he was slammed into hard from a chain reaction and was bounced sideways about a dozen feet, winding up just inches from the rail. By the time Irad Ortiz was able to gather him he had one horse beat in the nine-horse field and was still down on the inside getting mud kicked in his face.

At the three-eighths pole, Ortiz eased him out a couple of paths, but he was still some six lengths behind the 5-2 favorite Don’t Wait Up, who was coming off a nose defeat to one of Pletcher’s promising colts Power Agenda.

Still bottled up in traffic turning for home, Ortiz kept waiting for a hole to open. And when none did, he hit Commandperformance three times left-handed to try to get him to the outside. But when he saw the colt was getting out too far, he switched to a right-handed whip and Commandperformance found another gear and quickly surged forward. But he was still fourth at the eighth pole with Don’t Wait Up drawing well clear of the field. Ortiz let the colt come home on his own under a hand ride and he narrowed the favorite’s four-length lead to two lengths at the wire, while finishing nearly three lengths clear of the third horse in a field strung out 25 lengths from first to last. They covered the six furlongs in a sharp 1:10 2/5 with Commandperformance closing his final eighth in a swift :12 1/5.

But what really impressed me about him was the way he shrugged off several obstacles on a muddy track in his career debut, the fluidity of his stride, the smoothness of his lead change, his turn of foot in the stretch, and how perfectly he holds his legs under him. In other words, mechanically he was flawless.

I’m not so sure he needs another maiden race, as this to me was equivalent to a victory and I saw all I needed to see to convince me he is ready to take the next step up.

Pedigree-wise, he is by Belmont Stakes and Champagne winner Union Rags, the sire of the St. Elias-Repole 3-year-old stakes winner Dynamic One. He also has the unique distinction of being inbred top and bottom to a U.S. Triple Crown winner (Seattle Slew) and an English Triple Crown winner (Nijinsky, the only horse to sweep that Triple Crown in the last 51 years).

Commandperformance, who was purchased at the Keeneland yearling sale for $220,000, is out of the Tapit mare Smitten, who was bred in Kentucky by Extern Developments. She sold as a weanling for $175,000 then pinhooked to the Keeneland Yearling Sale, where she was purchased by Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm for $280,000. What stands out in Smitten’s pedigree is that her dam, Hi Lili, s out of multiple stakes winner Snit, who is a daughter of Rokeby Stable’s Fit to Fight, the last of only four horses to sweep the old Handicap Triple Crown (Met Mile, Suburban, and Brooklyn Handicaps), previously won by Whisk Broom II, Tom Fool, and Kelso.

On July 27, 2011, Smitten’s half-brother J C’s Pride, by Henny Hughes, broke the track record for five furlongs at Saratoga, winning a race maiden in :56.54 by 3 1/4 lengths.

Smitten, trained by Larry Jones, was a hard-luck filly, whose career as a racehorse and a broodmare went unfulfilled, and it’s now up to Commandperformance to give her the recognition of which she was deprived.

Smitten was nothing to look at as a 2-year-old, and Jones had an array of stars in his barn at the time and paid little attention to her. But one person who fell in love with her was Jonathan Cozart, who was working for Jones as a hotwalker at the time. She became very special to him and was the horse who took the sport from a source of enjoyment to a passion for him.

Cozart eventually went to work for TVG and now also breeds Thoroughbreds. He met his wife Melissa, who works for Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Kentucky, when they both were working at Ellis Park. They have two sons ages 5 and 2.

When Smitten turned 3, she put on weight and a good deal of muscle and developed into a magnificent athlete, one who Jones started mentioning in the same breath as Eight Belles, his ill-fated filly who finished second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby. And he had major stakes winners Believe You Can, Joyful Victory, and Mark Valeski at the time.

Following two solid efforts in October at Keeneland and Churchill Downs in her first two starts, Smitten broke her maiden going a mile and 70 yards at Fair Grounds on December 16, 2012, demonstrating an excellent turn of foot. Jones said after the race he would point her for the Silverbulletday Stakes at the Fair Grounds, telling, “I think she learned a lot in that last race. She’s starting to be more of a push-button type of horse now. In fact, she’s improving so fast lately that she’s starting to remind me of where Eight Belles (also owned by Fox Hill Farm) was at this point in her career.”

Smitten by now had become such a major part of Jonathan and Melissa’s life they started a Facebook page for her on January 11, 2013, which has over 2,200 followers. The profile photo on the page is a painting Melissa made for Jonathan of Smitten before they started dating.

In the Silverbulletday on January 19, she broke slowly, dropped back to 10th, 13 lengths off the pace, and then unleashed a powerful five-wide move to finish third, beaten only 1 3/4 lengths. After she worked a bullet three furlongs in :34 3/5, Jones pointed her for the February 23 Rachel Alexandra Stakes. But shortly after the work she got a rusty nail stuck in her hock, causing foot issues from which she would never fully recover. Jones tried her on turf because of her breeding, but she did little running. After another poor effort in June at Churchill Downs, she was retired and sold to Russell Davis of Damara Farm.

In 2018, Smitten was bred to Union Rags and the following year, on March 23, she produced a beautiful gray colt. But about five weeks after foaling, she developed a serious case of colic and was sent to Rood and Riddle clinic for surgery, where she continued to nurse her foal. Whether it was from the stress of the surgery, she developed laminitis a few days later. When it became apparent that she could not be saved, Jim Herbener, at whose Herbener Farm she was residing, took the foal back home and put him on a nursemare. Shortly after, with all hope gone, Smitten was euthanized. She was 9 years old.

“I was devastated when I learned of her passing,” Cozart said. “I would love for her story to be told the world over. I hope her son affords her that chance.”

The colt grew into a “grand-looking individual,” according to Herbener. “I was very high on him physically and we were happy with the price he brought at the sale and who bought him.”

Destin Heath, the farm trainer at WinStar Farm where Commandperformance got his early training, remembers him well.

“I can’t forget that one,” he said. “At first he was difficult to be around. He was a very tough, high energy colt who was strong-willed. We couldn’t get to the bottom of him. You needed to have the right pony with him and put the right rider on him. But we were extremely high on him, so we were patient and worked with him. In general he was a very nice horse to be around. When we had him at the farm during breaking season he was physically impressive to look at; a man among boys who did everything with ease. I kept thinking, ‘Man, when he puts it all together.’ We had him on the Polytack here at the farm, but when we transferred him to our Keeneland barn and put him on dirt he really started to excel and climbed the ladder very quickly. We worked him with our better horses and he just did everything so easily. St. Elias had some good horses and I told their people they would be good early on, but this colt will be the one who has the more prosperous career. I thought he was the best horse in his maiden race and now the sky’s the limit.”

So, now here we are, with a young unproven horse at his first crossroads. The horse who beat him likely will be heading into stakes company. Will he follow despite being a maiden? Will he eventually make people aware of his dam, so her story can continue to be told? Or are we off base with him, making this column irrelevant? That is the fascinating aspect of early life on the Derby trail. There is no way of knowing what you have. You just keep digging for gold, looking for anything that glistens, and then hope you’ve hit the mother lode. And this colt sure did glisten.

Even if Commandpeformance doesn’t fulfill his promise for whatever reason, at least we know the story of Smitten. It is horses like her who had a profound effect on people’s lives that need to be recognized.

Photos courtesy of John Sparkman and Jonathan Cozart










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