This was Coronado's Quest, the transformed version -- at least that's what the colt's trainer Shug McGaughey and owner Stuart S. Janney III hope. And all indications point that way, including Friday's schooling in the paddock at Monmouth Park in preparation for today's $1 million Buick Haskell Invitational Handicap.
As Coronado's Quest left the paddock, his shiny coat again reflecting the sun, Buzz Tenney, McGaughey's assistant, declared: "That was perfect. You couldn't ask for anything better than that."
Since Coronado's Quest left Florida in March after a disheartening and sometimes frightening winter, he has behaved admirably in New York. The handsome colt has given McGaughey and Janney, who lives in Butler, hope that his pre-race antics are a thing of the past and the Eclipse award for 3-year-old male a thing of the future.
A victory today over five competitors, only two of which stand a chance of beating him, would begin the colt's quest for the 3-year-old championship. Although he is the 6-5 second choice by the morning line, he may end up favored over Victory Gallop, the early even-money favorite. The other contender, Grand Slam, is 9-2.
"He's been great ever since he left Florida," McGaughey said of Coronado's Quest. "I'm cautiously optimistic heading to Monmouth. I'm not going to say he's going to be perfect, because I've seen the side of him that's not perfect. I hope I never see it again."
Before some races last year as a 2-year-old and before his three races this winter in Florida, Coronado's Quest behaved like a rogue. He froze on the way to the track, unseated his jockey and bucked. His eyes flashed fire.
After a dismal fifth-place finish in the Florida Derby, the third of the Florida races, Coronado's Quest underwent minor throat surgery to repair a breathing problem. Then he returned to his familiar barn at Belmont Park.
Although still a hot-blooded son of Forty Niner and the temperamental mare Laughing Look, whom Janney owns, Coronado's Quest has not misbehaved and reeled off three straight wins, including the Wood Memorial Stakes in which he ran the second fastest nine furlongs (1: 47 2/5) in the 74 renewals of the race.
McGaughey can't say for sure that the throat surgery improved the colt's behavior. But if he was encountering breathing problems on the track, that might explain why he so sternly resisted going there.
Tenney, McGaughey's assistant, said he believes Coronado's Quest, for whatever reasons, disliked being stabled at Gulfstream Park. While there he didn't win, finishing second twice and fifth once.
If you cross out the Florida races, Coronado's Quest has a phenomenal record: eight wins in nine starts, none by less than 1 1/2 lengths. And that one loss, a fourth last year in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, could be attributed to a lung infection that bothered the colt last summer.
On the other hand, the two races in which Coronado's Quest flopped -- the Hopeful and the Florida Derby -- were both Grade I, the only Grade Is in which he's run. Could that mean he's not capable of competing in the toughest races, such as the Haskell, which is also a Grade I?
"I think I've got a very good horse," McGaughey said, "but we've still got questions to answer. Some of the others have been to the battleground. We know what they can do. We've been in the minor leagues trying to get to major leagues."
Victory Gallop won the Grade I Belmont Stakes after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He also won the Grade II Arkansas Derby, handing Favorite Trick, the 1997 Horse of the Year, his first defeat.
Grand Slam won two Grade I stakes last year -- the Futurity and Moet Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park -- but that was before suffering a terrible injury in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a severed tendon in his left hind leg.
Since coming back he has won only once in five tries. And he has never won around two turns. But Jerry Bailey, his three-time Eclipse-award winning jockey, has stuck with him.
Breaking from the rail today, he probably will rush for the lead. That means Coronado's Quest would have to overtake Grand Slam and then hold off Victory Gallop's fierce charge down the stretch.
"We'll be happy to sit behind him," McGaughey said. "I think Coronado's Quest is just a tad bit better when he's got something to run at."
But is he good enough to beat Victory Gallop, who, after running fifth in his first start last year for the Pimlico-based Mary Eppler, has finished first or second in nine straight races?
"We're looking forward to the opportunity of seeing how we measure up against the likes of Victory Gallop," McGaughey said. "Hopefully, we'll be up to the task."
Haskell Invitational field
PP, Horse, Trainer, Jockey, Last race, Earnings, Wt., Odds
1, Grand Slam, Lukas, Bailey, 2nd Swaps, $584,622, 118, 9-2
2, Arctic Sweep, Reid, Mojica, 3rd Long Branch, $77,293, 114, 30-1
3, Ian's Thunder, Pletcher, Wilson, 2nd Dwyer, $150,690, 115, 15-1
4, Coronado's Quest, McGaughey, Smith, 1st Dwyer, $860,790, 124, 6-5
5, Victory Gallop, Walden, Stevens, 1st Belmont, $1,469,880, 125, Even
6, Tomorrows Cat, Hennig, Davis, 2nd Long Branch, $104,410, 114, 20-1
What: Haskell Invitational Handicap
Where: Monmouth Park, Oceanport, N.J.
When: 5:42 p.m. today
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
Purse: $1 million
Favorite: Victory Gallop
Maryland connection: Coronado's Quest, owned by Stuart S. Janney III of Butler
Pub Date: 8/09/98