Mike Trombetta has been around long enough to realize there are no shortcuts on the road to the Kentucky Derby. If you hope to make it to the starting gate in Louisville on the first Saturday in May, you have to map out your journey, one stop at a time, and avoid a plethora of potential potholes along the way.
“I don’t like to plan too far ahead,” Trombetta said Sunday morning at Tampa Bay Downs after watching Independence Hall’s final tune-up for Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes, an efficient half-mile work in :48.60.
Trombetta was in radio contact with assistant trainer and exercise rider Sarah Shaffer, telling her to pick up the pace after furlongs of :13 and :12.40. Shaffer asked and Independence Hall complied, going :12.20 and zipping down the lane in 11 seconds for the final eighth of a mile before galloping out in 1:00.80.
The work could be summarized in three words: All systems go.
“I’m very happy with this,” Trombetta said. “The way he started out you wouldn’t have thought he would work 48 and 3. He exponentially got better.”
Shaffer echoed that sentiment back at the barn after the breeze.
“I gave him his cue to pick it up in the stretch and he took off,” she said. “There’s so much power beneath him. I couldn’t be happier going into the race.”
Independence Hall shipped to Tampa five days after winning the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct on New Year’s Day, a 4-length triumph that followed some of the worst paddock behavior you will ever see from a horse.
“He beat the hell out of all of us,” Trombetta said. “It was very scary. I was worried I might not be able to get the tack on him. He was fighting us with everything he had. He wasn’t nervous, he was just angry. I hope I never see that again.”
The primary reason for shipping to Florida was to get away from the cold weather, Trombetta said, though it seems as if the relatively tranquil surroundings at Tampa have agreed with Independence Hall. Trombetta has schooled him in the paddock four times, including before the first race Saturday. Around the barn, he is acting like a gentlemen, Shaffer said.
“I put him in that stall,” she said, pointing to No. 20. “He can see and hear the races in the afternoon. This is his home.”
That may change after the Sam F. Davis, a Grade 3 Derby prep worth 10 points to the winner toward a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. The Tampa Bay Derby a month later would be an obvious option, but one of many from which the ownership group - Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Twin Creeks Racing, and Robert and Kathleen Verratti – and Trombetta can choose.
“You take things one day at a time in this business,” said Trombetta, who is hoping to saddle his third Derby starter, having finished off the board with tepid favorite Sweetnorthernsaint in 2006 and Win Win Win last year. “It’s nice to think you know what the future looks like, but we don’t always know. I’m a Ravens fan and they were going to win the Super Bowl, but that blew up. We just want to take another step toward the goal of getting us to the first Saturday in May.”
Trombetta thought he had a good one when the son of Constitution out of the Cape Town mare Kalahari Cat arrived in his barn, but it would have been virtually impossible to predict he would win his first three starts by a combined 21 lengths and register a 101 Beyer along the way.
“Every year we get young horses but they all have to prove themselves,” said Trombetta. “You really don’t know until you see them put it into action in the afternoon.”
Independence Hall made his first start in a maiden special weight at Parx Racing on the Pennsylvania Derby undercard Sept. 21. Sent off as the 8-5 favorite from the rail, he broke slow, was taken to the four path by Joel Rosario, took the lead at the top of the stretch and cruised to a 4 3/4-length win, covering the 7 furlongs in 1:24.45.
“We don’t normally run a lot of horses at Parx,” Trombetta said. “I wanted something further than 6 furlongs, but I wasn’t looking for a mile or mile and a sixteenth. Seven furlongs is a tough distance to start a horse.”
The plan was to run back in a first-level allowance at Laurel Park Oct. 25, but the track was forced to cancel racing for four days due to a broken water pipe on the apron. Trombetta shipped back to his Fair Hill base and knew he needed to find a race for his chomping-at-the-bit horse.
“The (Grade 3) Nashua was a week later, and we had talked about that race, but we figured we were going to be in deep water. To our amazement, he did what he did,” Trombetta said of the eye-popping 12 1/4-length win at 9-1 odds. With Joel Rosario in California, Jose Ortiz grabbed what might turn out to be the pick-up mount of the year.
“Everything changed,” Trombetta said. “To win a graded stakes like that, you’re going from being a nice maiden winner to ‘look at this.’ ”
Huge speed figures earned in the Nashua caused Aron Wellman of Eclipse, who is serving as managing partner, to call an audible and not run in the Grade 2 Remsen Dec. 7 as planned.
“All the numbers came back fast,” Trombetta said. “The owners thought there was nothing to be gained by running him back in (five) weeks, so we pointed to the Jerome.”
The relationship between Trombetta and Eclipse developed when the partnership bought into Remain Anonymous, a Trombetta trainee who won at first asking at Saratoga in late August last year. The first time Trombetta met Wellman in person was in the paddock before the Jerome.
If those who bet Independence Hall down to 1-9 that day weren’t feeling queasy enough after the obstreperous behavior in the paddock, he added to their anxiety by lunging at the start and coming away last. Ortiz calmly put him in the middle of the track and he made a powerful four-wide move leaving the backstretch of the one-turn mile. He led by 2 1/2 lengths at the top of the stretch and increased the margin, while, according to the official chart, shying from the whip and drifting in slightly.
That earned him a trip to Tampa, where he figures to be a heavy favorite in his first try around two turns in the Davis. Trombetta, who has more than 1,800 wins and has earned more than $3 million in purses every year since 2007, is hoping Independence Hall can keep advancing on the road to the Derby.
And a less eventful paddock experience would be nice, too.
“I hope mentally he handles all the challenges that come with it,” Trombetta said. “You’ve got to have the talent physically and mentally.”
There is something to be said for having a horse like him in the barn.
“That’s the first thing you think about every day. ‘What could it be?’ We’ll see,” Trombetta said.