OCEANPORT, N.J. — Trainer Rick Violette Jr. has stopped trying to come up with excuses for Upstart's performance in the Kentucky Derby.
Violette's concern lessened but his frustration increased about 15 minutes after the race when his dark bay ridgling cooled out content as could be.
The weeks and months since Upstart's last-place run in the first leg of the Triple Crown revealed no grandiose answers, no physical malady to explain away such a non-effort from a horse who spent much of the winter as one of the leading sophomores on the Derby trail.
And so, Violette is drawing a line through that stumbling block and giving Upstart his chance at a mini do-over Sunday against the horse who was 601/2 lengths in front of him on the first Saturday in May, and now towers over the entire sport.
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For his first start back since his head-scratching Kentucky Derby run, Upstart is going against the ultimate measuring stick in Thoroughbred racing as he faces Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and six others in Sunday's Grade I, $1.75 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
Saying there is a good time to face the first horse in 37 years to sweep the American classics is a little like trying to jump onto a moving train.
That said, Violette is confident that Upstart — the 6-1 second choice on the morning line — will at least run like the horse who captured the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes last January, the horse who — not so long ago — was pegged as a potential breakout star among this year's 3-year-old class.
"We were vacillating between the Jim Dandy (at Saratoga on Saturday) and the Haskell all along but ... if you are going to take on American Pharoah this might be the race," Violette said. "It's his first race back after a really arduous campaign where he ran three weeks, three weeks, two weeks, three weeks.
"We hope (American Pharoah) encounters some traffic problems, maybe (jockey) Victor Espinoza forgets to take a left-hand turn. You know I'm not wishing bad luck on them but I'm hoping our luck is better than theirs. And frankly, our numbers earlier in the year actually suggest you could make a very good case that there is enough in our tank to take American Pharoah on."
It seems a distant memory, but Upstart owned a good piece of the winter-book hype as he followed his third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with his 51/2-length victory in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 24.
Though he was disqualified to second in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes for interfering with Itsaknockout, few could argue he was the best horse in the race as he hit the wire 23/4 lengths in front. Upstart spiked a fever in the weeks after his runner-up finish in the Grade I Florida Derby, but fired two bullet moves coming into the Kentucky Derby, further leading Violette to expect far better from the Ralph Evans and WinStar Farm runner.
"For whatever reason he didn't run," Violette said. "(Jockey) Jose Ortiz said he hated the racetrack and was stumbling, fumbling around there. I hate to blame that because he had run from California to New York to Florida on all kinds of tracks including two deserts at Gulfstream.
"I don't know (what happened in the Derby) is the short answer. We gave him a few weeks on the farm and brought him to New York ... and we had kind of the luxury of time knowing we were going to do either the Jim Dandy or the Haskell."
A horse who loves his job makes for an equally happy trainer, and Upstart has adjusted his attitude accordingly the more Violette has thrown at him.
Violette said his charge didn't really "light up" until he started cranking up his gallops and putting him back on the worktab.
"He turned into a racehorse again," he said.
Now he just needs to behave like a very good one, again.
"Do I think we can beat (American Pharoah)? Yeah. But I'm not going to mortgage my house either on it," Violette said. "It is racing and there have been a lot of 1-5 and 1-9 shots beaten. There is no such thing as a lock. We're going to test him."
Competitive Edge confirmed for Haskell
Three-time Haskell winning-trainer Todd Pletcher reported from Saratoga Race Course that Grade I winner Competitive Edge will start in the Haskell on Sunday rather than the Jim Dandy at Saratoga on Saturday.
Pletcher said that his trio of Haskell runners are good to go with Competitive Edge, Nonna's Boy and Dontbetwithbruno all galloping there this morning and all "went great."