`House' enjoys Special status

He's bigger, stronger than in '97, and horse to beat here tomorrow

May 07, 1999|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

He's on top of his game at the moment.

Though the presence of last spring's Preakness winner, Real Quiet, has added luster and appeal to tomorrow's $500,000 Pimlico Special, the presence of Free House has guaranteed impact.

"Right now, you can't ask for any better from him," said Free House's trainer, Paco Gonzalez. "He's one of the best horses in the world."

Free House returned to Pimlico Race Course Wednesday evening and immediately looked comfortable in his surroundings and bigger, stronger and faster than in 1997, when the striking roan hooked up with Silver Charm and Captain Bodgit in memorable Triple Crown races.

In his last outing, Free House beat his nemesis, Silver Charm, in the Grade I, $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. He is the 6-5 overnight favorite for the Special, and that will probably drop below even money by post time.

The rest of the five-horse field will have him to catch.

"He's more mature and takes everything a lot more easily than when he was a 3-year-old," said Gonzalez. "Then, he wanted to rush too much or he'd take the lead and want to stop. But lately, he has been having company [on the lead] and he goes on. He used to look around a lot, but no more."

After the Santa Anita Handicap, Free House was rested and grew to a solid 1,170 pounds, about 100 more than when he was 3. Gonzalez considers that natural development for an older horse who stands at about 16 1/2 hands, a good size.

Owned by Canadian-born John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery of Bradbury Estates, Calif., Free House is one of 24 horses in the stable for which Gonzalez trains exclusively.

The operation first gained national exposure eight years ago when Mane Minister finished third in each of the Triple Crown races.

Gonzalez considers Bien Bien -- a grass specialist who earned $2.3 million -- Del Mar Dennis and Odyle as among the stable's leading lights. But he has never had a horse like Free House.

"He's very kind, good in the stable. He likes to bite, like all horses, but he's good to handle," said Gonzalez.

Free House experienced no problems on the long trek from California.

"We could have gotten other flights Tuesday that came through Kentucky or Ohio, but we would have had to put him in a stall for a while and then catch another flight. We decided to do it all in one day," said Gonzalez, whose brother, Sal, is Free House's regular exercise rider.

Free House will have nothing like the workout he turned in before the Preakness, when Sal sent him four furlongs in a blazing 45 3/5 seconds. He will probably only jog on the track this morning.

But, as usual, Gonzalez is concerned about the opposition.

"As long as they're in the race, they've got a chance," he said. "Real Quiet has been close to the lead the last couple races and that one horse [Fred Bear Claw] has some speed and got in at 112 pounds [12 fewer than Free House will carry]. You have to watch everybody."

He is not concerned about an off track -- a possibility with rain in the forecast -- although Free House has never run on one.

"He works good in the mud. It doesn't look like that will bother him," said Gonzalez, whose last Special prep with Free House was a 1: 01 2/5 over five furlongs at Hollywood Park, his home base, last Sunday.

David Flores rode Free House in the '97 Kentucky Derby, but lost the mount to Kent Desormeaux when Gonzalez felt he didn't follow instructions.

Alex Solis had him for his worst race, the Super Derby, before a permanent switch to Chris McCarron.

"Chris is a good rider," said Gonzalez. "I'll leave the strategy up to him."

Pimlico Special

What: Grade I, $500,000 Pimlico Special

Where: Pimlico Race Course

When: Tomorrow

Post time: 3: 43 p.m.

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

TV: Chs. 2, 7

Pub Date: 5/07/99

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