With a Combination of Speed and Class, War Pass Is Reminiscent of Seattle Slew

By Andrew Beyer
Saturday, February 9, 2008

Three decades ago, a brilliant colt led all the way to win each of his starts as a 2-year-old. He captured the most important race for his age group and ran extraordinarily fast. Seattle Slew was hailed as a budding superstar, and he verified that assessment when he went on to sweep the Triple Crown.

Now another colt boasts a 2-year-old r¿sum¿ comparable to that of the mighty Slew. He led from start to finish in all four of his races. He won his most important test, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and speed figures suggest he was the fastest Juvenile winner ever. He was crowned the champion of his generation.

War Pass didn't attract special attention when trainer Nick Zito unveiled him at Saratoga last summer. Though Zito is a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, the colt was not the type with whom Zito made his reputation.

Zito is a traditionalist who believes in developing horses slowly and patiently. His archetypal runner was Strike the Gold, a colt bred for stamina and not for speed, who was unremarkable as a 2-year-old and didn't blossom until a few weeks before he won the 1991 Derby. But the game has changed since Strike the Gold's era. Owners want fast returns on their investments, and they want fast, precocious horses. The most successful trainers (such as Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen) are the ones who develop 2-year-olds successfully. Zito knew he had to adapt.

"I'd prefer to train like the old-time trainers did," Zito said, "but we're living in a society of instant gratification. You can't survive as a trainer unless you develop a style to play that game. You have to have 2-year-olds."

War Pass is a colt whom the Zito of the 1990s might have shunned. He is the son of a sire, Cherokee Run, who was a champion sprinter, and a dam whose sire was the legendarily fast Mr. Prospector. The pedigree promised speed and precocity.

War Pass delivered on that promise by winning two sprints at Saratoga. He demonstrated that he is more than a mere sprinter when he led all the way to win the one-mile Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park -- the historic race that had capped Seattle Slew's 1976 season.

In the Breeders' Cup Juvenile he was facing other formidable front-runners, but he proved to be the fastest of the fast, running away from the high-quality field to win by nearly five lengths over runner-up Pyro.

And he was very fast indeed. War Pass earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 113 -- the best single performance by any 2-year-old since Easy Goer in 1988, the first year that these racing figures were published.

The figure was significantly higher than any other Breeders' Cup Juvenile. So as racing fans begin to focus their attention on the 2008 Derby, why is there such a distinct absence of hype for War Pass? Zito's answer to that question began, "Cherokee Run."

The sire's forte as a racehorse was speed (though he did finish second in a slow running of the Preakness), and his offspring are noted for speed rather than stamina.

Of course, a similar argument could have been made against recent Derby winners Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, both of whom were progeny of stallions who had made their mark in shorter races.

In modern U.S. racing, raw ability seems more important than pedigree, and War Pass may have enough talent to overcome any deficiencies in his genes. Zito hopes so.

"He's got speed and he's got class," the trainer said. "You look at the tapes of the Breeders' Cup and he was just brilliant. I think he's a throwback to great breakaway speed horses like Gun Bow and No Robbery."

Zito plans to prepare War Pass for the Derby by running in an allowance race at Gulfstream later this month, followed by the Tampa Bay Derby and the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. Perhaps the colt will fail; plenty of 3-year-olds with great talent and shaky pedigrees have faltered on the road to Louisville.

But at the very least he will enliven the 2008 racing season. He is the most exciting type of runner, the Seattle Slew type, who is blessed with raw speed and loves to flaunt it.

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