Bolton looks to return to Preakness winner's circle with Astrology

Owner returns to hometown hoping to replicate victories with Curlin, Rachel Alexandra

May 15, 2011|By Ken Murray, The Baltimore Sun

His partnership with the late Jess Jackson put George Bolton in the Triple Crown spotlight in 2007 when Curlin won the Preakness. Two years later, Bolton returned to his hometown of Baltimore to celebrate with Jackson another Preakness victory, this one by the remarkable filly Rachel Alexandra.

Now Bolton wants to do it again with a colt named Astrology — after another two-year interval — and he's going to retrace as many of his steps as he can in pursuit of the 136th Preakness.

That means he will race Astrology, like Curlin, in the silks of Jackson's Stonestreet Stables, hold the same party for connections, friends and family at his parents' home in Brooklandville, and visit the colt every morning at Pimlico Race Course.

"That evening had good energy," Bolton, 47, said of the party he held at his parents' home in Baltimore County in 2007 and 2009.

This one will be tinged with sadness. Jackson, 81, died April 21 of complications from cancer. His widow, Barbara Banke, will attend the party, and the next day she'll watch the horse she and Jess bred and came to cherish. She and Bolton are co-owners of Astrology.

"We love the racetrack; we love the Preakness," Banke said. "The two times we've gone were very, very nice."

If Bolton and Banke can win their third Preakness with Astrology, it will be another resounding example of Jackson's wisdom — and love — for thoroughbreds.

Before Jess Jackson died, he and Banke withdrew Astrology from the Kentucky Derby because the colt had missed a month of training to illness in December. Even though the son of A.P. Indy and Quiet Eclipse (by Quiet American) had five aggressive starts as a 2-year-old, Jackson and Banke decided he wasn't ready for the cavalry charge of Churchill Downs. Instead, they wanted to send him to Aqueduct in New York for the Grade II Jerome Handicap.

"It ended up, it was the right thing for the horse," Bolton said. "It was not the right foundation to dump a 3-year-old in. It was Jess Jackson and Barbara's decision, which was so nice for the horse."

Two days after Jackson died, Astrology came in a heartbreaking second on a sloppy track at Aqueduct.

"It was very emotional for all of us," said Bolton, who had minority interest in Curlin in 2007. "It was another example of how Jess Jackson always did what was right for the horse. He [knew he] was probably watching his last Derby, and it was very momentous, very unselfish" not to run Astrology anyway.

Banke said that "wasn't a consideration. … The Derby is such a scene with 20 horses. We didn't feel he was quite ready."

Then, in acknowledgement of a field diluted by defections and won by long shot Animal Kingdom, Banke said, "Maybe we should've put him in."

It has been a topsy-turvy spring for Bolton. He has three promising 3-year-olds, but none ran in the Derby. The Factor was pulled out after finishing seventh in the Arkansas Derby. He underwent a throat procedure to correct a breathing problem and may be looking at the seven-furlong Woody Stephens. Before Arkansas, he had won three straight races and loomed as a potential Derby favorite.

Dominus, the third of Bolton's colts, was nipped at the wire by Machen in the Derby Trial in another heartbreaker.

"In this business, you know there is an uppercut coming," Bolton said. "You just don't know when and where. But I have the luxury of having three nice colts. We'll go to the next one while one's in the body shop."

Astrology, meanwhile, has never finished off the board in seven career starts under trainer Steve Asmussen. He won two as a 2-year-old, including the Grade III Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs, and finished second twice this season (including the Sunland Derby).

"He's a much better finisher than he was last year," Bolton said. "He would get a lead and go, 'What do I do now?'"

Astrology has been a favorite of Banke's from the beginning.

"We love him, we raised him, we've seen him grow from a baby," she said. "He was the most beautiful foal. He had a little setback early in the year, but we think he's a really good colt. We think he's on the upswing."

Bolton hopes the colt runs as well as he looks.

"When I bought half of him from Mr. Jackson, obviously, it was risky when you do it as a yearling," Bolton said. "I think he was the best-bred, best-looking thing at the sale in 2009. So we always thought if he could run to his looks, he could be special."

In the 1 3/16-miles Preakness, Bolton and Banke will find out whether he can run with Animal Kingdom. Bolton is cautiously optimistic.

"We'll see if two weeks' rest is enough," Bolton said. "If Animal Kingdom bounces, we're competitive. If he puts a hole in the wind, he'll be tough to beat. We've had a very solid start to our year."

Bolton is chief investment officer with WestEnd Capital Management, a San Francisco-based asset management company. He spent nearly 20 years with Alex Brown & Sons until 2003.

"Coming back to Baltimore is tons of fun for me," he said. "Before they sold Alex Brown, I used to come home once a month. Now I come home once a year."

But he usually winds up in the winner's circle when he does.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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