Farm Tour Feature: Saturday, Oct. 16

This weekend’s Secretariat Festival has something for everyone, including tours to some of the Bluegrass’ most prominent breeding farms, where visitors will be greeted by a Who’s Who of stallions. To whet your appetite I have provided a close-up look at several of the stallions so everyone will get to know them more intimately and learn their background and the story behind their success. We start with Saturday’s tours that will feature the popular young stallions Catholic Boy and Vino Rosso. ~ Steve Haskin

Festival Farm Tour Saturday: Catholic Boy and Vino Rosso

By Steve Haskin

If you want to see champion racehorses and stallions up close and personal, this year’s Secretariat Festival will make that happen with visits to historic Claiborne Farm and Spendthrift Farm on Saturday, October 16 and Darley at Jonabell and Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa Farm, as well as the always fun visit to Old Friends on Sunday, October 17. Here is the back story of two stallions you will see on Saturday.


Claiborne Farm has been home to many of the greatest racehorses and stallions in the history of the sport. But when it comes to versatility, Claiborne stands alone in changing the face of racing, going back to Round Table, the first horse to excel in top company on both dirt and grass. It was the son of Princequillo who opened the door for top-class dirt horses to try the grass at a time when grass racing in America was still in its infantile stages. Of course, we all know the impact another Claiborne stallion, Secretariat, made when it came to transitioning from dirt to grass.

That tradition continues today at Claiborne with the addition of two of its newest stallions Catholic Boy and War of Will, both of whom have accomplished the rare feat of winning Grade 1 stakes on dirt and grass. Catholic Boy became only the third 3-year-old in history to pull that off in 2018, following California Chrome and Secretariat. War of Will did it in separate years, winning the Preakness in 2019 and the Maker’s Mark Mile in 2020. But  Catholic Boy is the only 3-year-old to win Grade 1 stakes on dirt and grass in back-to-back races. 

I first saw Catholic Boy in the paddock at Aqueduct before the Remsen Stakes and it was love at first sight. I immediately became enamored with him. He had an elegant, chiseled look about him, was very alert and intelligent, and just looked like a classic racehorse. And he ran like it, gliding over the surface, whether it was dirt or grass. He showed that day in the Remsen, his dirt debut, he, like many More Than Readys, could handle any kind of surface.

When Robert LaPenta purchased the ridgling, who is out of the Bernardini mare Song of Bernardette, as a yearling at the Keeneland January Mixed Sale he had no idea what kind of impact he would have on his life and the lives of his family. He also would help take some of the sting out of his failure to purchase another yearling from that same crop later to be named Justify. La Penta had bid $450,000 on the handsome son of Scat Daddy and stopped there. The colt, who was destined for Triple Crown immortality, sold for $500,000. LaPenta called his dropping out a “$70 million mistake.”

It was trainer Jonathan Thomas who found Catholic Boy at the Keeneland January mixed sale and purchased him privately for LaPenta after the colt was bought back for $170,000. Thomas was training for Bridlewood Farm (where Catholic Boy was raised) at the time and stabled his horses at the farm.

“I’m a sucker for an elegant-looking horse who has that old fashioned refined classic look,” Thomas said. “He had a long beautiful neck and clean lines and I was just drawn to him aesthetically. Little did I know he would take us all on the ride of a lifetime.”

Because Thomas had found the horse and saw something special in him, LaPenta felt he deserved to train the horse. Thomas had ridden briefly in steeplechase races, but suffered a broken back and paralysis, and it took him a whole year before he could walk normally.

“It was a critical injury,” LaPenta said, “and the doctors told him he may never walk again.”

“Following the purchase of Catholic Boy, LaPenta’s staff, including racing manager John Panagot, rated the colt a “C+” or a “B,” but Thomas assured LaPenta, “There’s something different about this horse.” Although he was just starting out, Thomas was no stranger to good horses, having worked for Christophe Clement, Dale Romans, J.J. Pletcher, and Todd Pletcher, as well as King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.

LaPenta named Catholic Boy after his alma mater Iona College, a private Catholic- affiliated institution in New Rochelle, New York, whose maroon colors LaPenta took for his silks. Also, from Song of Bernardette LaPenta made the connection to St. Bernardette, who he called “the saint of hopeless causes.” And finally, under his graduation photo, it read, “More than ready for success.” When the colt began racing, all the priests and nuns and bothers at Iona followed him and watched all his races.

CatholicBoy showed his ability and versatility right from the start. In addition to winning the Remsen Stakes by almost five lengths, he was beaten only 1 ½ lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, despite encountering traffic problems. After the wire he was some 10 lengths in front on the gallop-out. Following the Remsen it was on to the Derby trail, where he was beaten a half-length in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in stakes-record time, having to travel 30 feet farther than the winner, while coming off a 10-week layoff.

When he worked prior to the Florida Derby, he bled slightly, which LaPenta called, a “one” on a scale of “one to five.” But when he uncharacteristically failed to fire for the first time in his career, finishing an uninspired fourth, it was discovered he had bled a “four,” knocking him off the Derby trail.

But LaPenta at the time was having far more serious problems than missing the Derby. He became deathly ill, with his temperature soaring to a scary 106 degrees and his heart rate rising to 180 a minute. At first, doctors weren’t sure what he had until it finally was diagnosed as Legionnaire’s disease. As LaPenta said, “When they finally diagnosed it and were able to treat it I was a sixteenth from the finish line,”

When he was able to return to the racetrack, there was Catholic Boy to welcome him with two of the gutsiest victories seen in a long time in the Pennine Ridge Stakes and Grade 1 Belmont Derby, both on the grass. Ironically, in both races, Catholic Boy, like LaPenta, battled back from certain defeat at the sixteenth pole.

After the $1 million Belmont Derby, LaPenta, who had sold minority interest in Catholic Boy to Madaket Stables, Siena Farm, and Twin Creeks Racing, while retaining 60 percent of the ridgling, was unable to hold back his emotions.

“He is such a special horse,” said LaPenta, who became choked up, fighting back tears. “He has brought the entire family together and has brought us new life. Family is a big part of why I’m in this game. Everyone had tears in their eyes afterward. We had 20 family members and friends there, and they were jumping up and down and crying. It was one of those rare experiences that you hardly ever get to participate in, and it will be a special memory for many many years to come. What he did in his last two starts was unfathomable, and the Belmont Derby was a culmination of all the emotions we’ve experienced the past couple of years and months. He’s an incredible champion; a blue collar horse whose heart exemplifies what life is all about.

“It takes a lot of money, fortitude, and patience to own horses. I try to get younger people involved. When I tell them it’s about family, some find it difficult to understand it, but it does bring people together. If I was at the track by myself, even winning the Kentucky Derby, it wouldn’t be the same.”

Thanks to Catholic Boy, it was easier for LaPenta to make the memory of losing out on Justify fade into the past as he was able to focus on the present and future with his own special horse. Yes, he still has the marked-up catalogue page on Justify with all their comments on him, and the thought of what might have been still crept into his psyche once in a while.

But LaPenta had so much to be grateful for. First and foremost he had his life and he had his family and friends with whom he could share his good fortune and good times. And he had Catholic Boy, the horse who had come to exemplify the courage of the Thoroughbred and provide LaPenta with the most important element in racing — the promise of the future.

That future reached its pinnacle on August 25 when Catholic Boy returned to the dirt and ran off with the Travers Stakes, winning by four widening lengths in the solid time of 2:01 4/5.Having grown up in Yonkers, just north of New York City, La Penta had been going to Saratoga since he was 18, and winning the Travers had always been his dream. “They should make a movie about this,” an elated LaPenta said after the race.

Behind Catholic Boy in the Travers were Mendelssohn, winner of the UAE Derby and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf; 2-year-old champion Good Magic, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Haskell Invitational, and Blue Grass Stakes, and runner-up to Justify in the Kentucky Derby; Gronkowski, second to Justify in the Belmont Stakes and second, beaten a nose, in the Dubai World Cup; and Bravazo, second, beaten a half-length by Justify, in the Preakness, second in the Haskell, and third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Although he had a rare off day in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he returned at 4 after a six-month layoff and won the Grade 2 Dixie Stakes on grass at Pimlico. Following a second in the Suburban Handicap in 1:59 4/5, giving six pounds to the winner, and then an even fourth back on the grass in the Knickerbocker Handicap, beaten three lengths after a very wide trip, it was decided to retire him sound to Claiborne Farm.

Catholic Boy was the quintessential pro who possessed the looks and the mind, as well as the courage and explosiveness, to be a special horse. His piston-like strides generated a great deal of power, which enabled him to possess that high cruising speed than could place him anywhere on any surface and at any distance.

We don’t have horses like this come around very often, so we should embrace Catholic Boy, as we should any gifted horse who brings a distinctive flair to the sport.

Even with a name like Catholic Boy and the miracles he performed for Bob LaPenta, he could not walk on water, but he sure could run on everything else.


The crop of 2015 was far from being just about Justify, Catholic Boy, and Good Magic. It is said patience is a virtue, or in other words, all good things come to those who wait. And for those who had the patience to wait for Vino Rosso to join that elite list of Grade 1 winners, they finally were rewarded 18 months after Justify’s Triple Crown sweep and 16 months after Catholic Boy completed his rare Belmont Derby—Travers Stakes sweep.

As someone who had the audacity to rank Vino Rosso No. 1 over Justify in “Derby Dozen” the entire month of April leading up to the Kentucky Derby, I could only hope it was a matter of time before the colt fulfilled the promise of being a classic horse and leaped out of the shadow of the 2018 Triple Crown winner.

That shadow had not yet begun to form when both colts were frolicking about in the fields at breeder John Gunther and his daughter Tanya’s Glennwood Farm in Versailles, Kentucky. They were both the same color, both had excellent parentage, and both were headed to the Keeneland September yearling sale. The colt later to be named Vino Rosso sold for $410,00, but the other, later to be named Justify, topped him, going for $500,000. That was the beginning of the shadow Justify would cast over Vino Rosso, even though the latter was the more classically bred of the two. His immediate relatives included sire Curlin, grandsire Street Cry, and great-grandsire Touch Gold.

As grand a colt as Justify was it was Vino Rosso with whom Tanya Gunther fell in love when they were babies. And that is why she wept openly when she had to bid him farewell at the yearling sale.

“I burst into tears when the hammer went down at Keeneland, shocking a few people, including myself since I thought I would hold it together a little better than that or at least wait until I got back to our consignment,” Tanya said. “I remember one guy who witnessed my small outburst exclaiming, ‘What’s wrong?’ with a worried look. Maybe he thought the colt had stepped on my toe or something. But actually I had become so attached to the horse and was so proud of him that he sold well, but also sad to see him go. He was such a nice horse to be around; always relaxed as if nothing ever seemed to bother him.

“He liked to sleep a lot, a memory that stuck in my mind because my dad has always said he likes a horse that’s a good sleeper. He was easy to work with all the way through sales prep, in contrast to some colts who can become perhaps a bit too full of themselves as they become more fit and act like your arm might be their next savory meal. Then at the sale, he took it all in stride from the word go and was consistently good and well-behaved. 

“After he sold and I went back to the consignment to say my goodbyes to him. Jim Martin (racing manger for Mike Repole, who purchased him with Vinnie Viola’s St. Elias Stable) came down to see him, and that is when I discovered that Repole and St Elias were partners on him. I remember thinking well that’s some consolation, he will be in good hands, probably going to Todd (Pletcher), and he’ll get a great shot at making it as a racehorse. I thought, ‘Dreams start early, do I dare to hope?’

Well, Tanya’s dream did start early, but it turned out to be about Justify, who became only the second undefeated Triple Crown winner in history. Whatever dreams she had about Vino Rosso had to wait.

Although Vino Rosso was able to make a name for himself on the Kentucky Derby trail by winning the Wood Memorial, he spent most of the Triple Crown futilely chasing his childhood buddy.

“I visited Vino in Todd’s barn at Churchill Downs before the Derby and it was really nice to see him again,” Tanya said. “He was still the kind, easy-going colt that I had grown attached to at our farm. He had grown into an impressive-looking young athlete, though it looked like there was a lot of developing still to do.”

Even after Justify was yanked off the racetrack and retired following the Belmont Stakes, Vino Rosso still was not able to crack the big time, falling short in the Jim Dandy and Travers stakes.

With our top horses being retired so early, it was refreshing to see Vino Rosso return at 4 to try to make a name for himself. He did manage to win the listed Stymie Stakes before traveling cross country and knocking off the leading older horse in California, Gift Box, in the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita, giving him an all-important victory over the track where the Breeders’ Cup was to be held.

In his final prep, The Jockey Club Gold Cup, he went to the lead early and then dug in gamely to hold off Travers winner Code of Honor, but was disqualified for interference during the stretch run. For a brief moment he finally had one of racing’s brightest spotlights all to himself only to have it taken away.

But the biggest spotlight was still out there another cross-country trip away, and with it would likely come an Eclipse Award as champion older male. You could almost envision Tanya’s tears starting to well up just from the thought of it. Imagine breeding a Triple Crown winner and a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner from the same crop. Tanya’s dream three years earlier had manifested itself in the form of justify, not Vino Rosso. But amazingly there was still one more chance for another dream to come true.

“I would be ecstatic to see Vino succeed in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year, especially after the DQ in the Jockey Club Gold Cup,” Tanya said before the race “I felt Vino showed such class and determination in the stretch duel and that he fought hard to earn the victory, so it was extremely disappointing to see him get his nose in front at the wire only to have victory technically taken away. Both horses ran their hearts out and I felt that any bumps down the stretch were just part of a great stretch battle where neither horse was impeded, so it seems a shame to have Vino’s credentials permanently reduced in the record books.” 

Mike Repole was much more matter of fact. The day before the race he stated simply in a text message, “Let’s win the Classic!!!!. Vino is is a fine wine that has aged over time.”

Not only did this Vino reach his peak on November 2, 2019, nearly two years to the day after his carer debut , he trounced the best horses in training, winning by 4 ¼lengths, nailing down the Eclipse Award as Champion Older Male. The spotlight finally was all his.

Going back to the beginning of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984, no horse had ever shipped cross-country twice in one year to win Grade 1 stakes in California. That is until this year when Vino Rosso accomplished the feat by shipping from New York to win the Gold Cup, outdueling the Santa Anita Handicap winner Gift Box, and then shipping back to Santa Anita to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in dominant fashion defeating California’s two best horses in McKinzie, winner of the Whitney at Saratoga; and Higher Power, runaway winner of the Pacific Classic. Finishing up the track was the horse who was placed first ahead of him in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Code of Honor. Of the 10 horses defeated by Vino Rosso in the Classic, nine were Grade 1 winners.

To put that feat in proper context, the only other Eastern-based horse to win two grade 1 stakes in California was Hall of Famer Skip Away, but he did it in different years. To ship to California twice in one year to win Grade 1 stakes is nothing short of remarkable, which is why it had never been done before.

For the Gunthers it was time once again for rejoicing. Two horses they bred, Vino Rosso and Justify, had combined to sweep racing’s Grand Slam – the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Vino Rosso was retired to Spendthrift Farm, where his great-great grandsire Raise A Native once stood, becoming one of the most influential stallions in the history of the Bluegrass.

For Tanya Gunther, there were no more tears to be shed…at least until Vino Rosso’s babies hit the track.

Photos courtesy of Claiborne Farm and Spendthrift Farm


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