Being a top assistant to one of the world's foremost thoroughbred trainers brought a young horseman in daily contact with some of the sport's biggest stars. Jonathan Thomas travelled the country executing a master game plan and shared the joy of winning some of the most prestigious races. He learned how to cultivate young horses into top-class runners, including the likes of Uncle Mo, Super Saver, and Eskendereya.
On the flip side, assistant trainers are first to arrive at the barn in the dark early morning hours and last to leave after sundown. They check legs and feet for signs of inflammation, refill feed tubs for missed meals, and school young runners at the starting gate. The list of duties goes on and on. There is much personal sacrifice, heartbreak and countless setbacks. And for assistant trainers anonymity comes with the territory.
The unsung status could change on Saturday when Ocala-based Thomas saddles Catholic Boy in the $1 million Florida Derby run at 1 1/8 mile at Gulfstream Park. Sitting on 14 Derby qualifying points, Catholic Boy needs a solid first or second place finish to put him into the starting gates at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 5.
In the Florida Derby Catholic Boy is likely to tangle with a trio of speedy colts, including Fountain of Youth winner and Dale Romans trainee Promises Fulfilled and the runner-up Strike Power, trained by Mark Henning. Another prominent colt is trainer Todd Pletcher's Audible who has won his last three races, including a 5 1/2 length romp in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park.
A multiple graded stakes winner last year, Catholic Boy has won three of five starts with earnings of $354,000. Thomas is pleased with how his colt is doing entering the biggest test of his career.
"I think he's progressed well from the last race he ran and his energy level is good," said Thomas, for six years a pupil of Todd Pletcher, a seven-time Trainer of the Year. "He got a two-turn effort under his belt and we learned how he likes to be ridden. He broke his maiden at Gulfstream on the turf. He summered last year, so it’s a familiar place for him.”
The son of More Than Ready is owned by Robert LaPenta, who owned Florida Derby winners Ice Box (2010) and Dialed In (2011), and Madaket Stable. The bay colt was purchased as a yearling for $170,000. Catholic Boy was a fast-finishing debut winner going 7 1/2 furlongs on the grass at Gulfstream Park last July. He followed it up with a turf win in the With Anticipation Stakes (Grade-3) at Saratoga earning a trip to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf where he rallied to finish fourth, less than two lengths behind victorious Mendelssohn.
Catholic Boy made his first start on dirt a winning one surging to lead on the far turn and powering home with a decisive 4 3/4 length score in the 1 1/8 mile Remsen Stakes (Grade-2) at Aqueduct December 2. He kicked off his 3-year old campaign with a dogfight down the stretch versus Flameaway coming up a half length short in the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa on February 10.
Thomas has been with Catholic Boy from the very start.
"He was purchased as a short yearling, we got him started under tack here at Bridlewood," said Thomas, 37. "It’s been fulfilling and a lot of fun, but there’s also a lot of responsibility. The aim is to do the best thing you can for your client and your horse. It's an honor to train at this level.”
Thomas was born and raised on Paul Mellon’s famed Rokeby Farm in Virginia where his grandfather worked on the dairy farm. His parents both broke horses for Mellon's legendary stable that saw Sea Hero capture the 1993 Kentucky Derby. A couple of years into his steeplechase jockey career, Thomas suffered a severe spinal injury in a bad fall that left him paralyzed in 2000. Doctors told him he would never walk again. After two surgeries and months at a medical center he returned to competitive riding in 2002.
Thomas embarked on a training career with Christophe Clement in 2007 and a year later joined Pletcher's barn. It was the equivalent of going to graduate school. Based at Belmont Park and Saratoga, Thomas wore out a path to the winner's circle during. Pletcher has praised him for his astute horsemanship, work ethic, communication and ability to train horses on an individual basis.
He left Pletcher accepting his dream job at Bridlewood Farm when it was purchased by John and Leslie Malone in 2013. Spanning five decades, the 800-acre Ocala training farm has meant success at the highest levels of thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales. Malone is chairman of Liberty Media Corp., whose holdings include Sirius Radio and the Atlanta Braves. He also owns the 150-year old Humewood Castle in Ireland.
One of Thomas' favorite duties is handling the young racing stock, watching them learn, grow and develop for a variety of owners. His recent Grade-1 training grads include the 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, Tapwrit, Destin and Carina Mia.
"As a horseman, it’s a dream come true to help identify talented young stock, polish them up and send them off to compete at the highest level," Thomas said.
Thomas credits the Malones and General Manager George Isaacs with supplying the resources to get the young horses ready to compete as well as giving him ample time to figure out their personalities. Bridlewood has a seven-furlong dirt course, a three-quarter-mile turf track, and a five-eighths uphill Tapeta (synthetic) track, saltwater spas and a host of other top amenities.
"It's a world-class training center so we’re able to take horses a step further than at a traditional farm," Thomas observed. "One big advantage is that we can use the turf course anytime we want. With the variety of the farm's terrain we’re able to build a strong foundation into a horse, whereas it might be hard to do at some other places. As a trainer I'm able to set up individual training programs for each horse in a very laid back atmosphere.”
The Kentucky Derby champion has raced 24 times in the Florida Derby field– more than any other prep race. Fourteen winners of Gulfstream Park’s marquee event have gone on to glory at Churchill Downs, including the two most recent winners-- Always Dreaming (2017) and Nyquist (2016).
Catholic Boy tuned up for the Florida Derby with a final breeze over Gulfstream’s main track last weekend.
“It looked like he got over the track really great. I like the way he sat with the other horse and pulled away when asked to,” Thomas said.
This year's Florida Derby is shaping up as a good spot for Catholic Boy with Audible, Promises Fulfilled and Strike Power likely gunning for the lead out of the gate. A highly contentious battle is exactly the scenario Catholic Boy needs for his off the pace style where he comes with one big run as he did in the Remsen Stakes, when he powered home to a 4 3/4-length triumph over highly touted Avery Island.
Coverage of the Florida Derby can be seen Saturday on NBCSN starting at 6 p.m.
Photos courtesy of Del Mar Racetrack and Bridlewood Farms