Having been syndicated for a record $36.4 million last week, Conquistador Cielo will get the chance in Saturday's Travers Stakes to show he is worth it.
He will be facing the Preakness winner, Aloma's Ruler, and the Kentucky Derby winner, Gato del Sol, under conditions that seem likely to answer most of the lingering questions about his capabilities.
Although he has won seven straight races and has been widely hailed as a superhorse, Conquistador Cielo still has not proved conclusively he can run the longer distances. The only time he has gone beyond a mile and one-eighth was in the Belmont Stakes, which he won by easily taking the lead early while his rivals were foundering in the mud.
It is an axiom of handicapping that speed horses are helped when they can take an uncontested lead; that they are hurt when they have to battle head and head for the advantage. Conquistador Cielo certainly will not have things his way in the 1 1/4-mile Travers.
Trainer Butch Lenzini already has told the world what will happen in the first stages of the race. "I don't think there's a faster horse out of the gate than Aloma's Ruler," he said. "I know we'll be on the lead soon after the start. I know that my horse can go three-quarters in 1:10 and still finish. It'll be up to (jockey) Eddie Maple if he wants to press us or stay back with Cielo."
Aloma's Ruler has the perfect jockey for this situation: Angel Cordero Jr. Not only is he a masterful rider of speed horses, but he is a wily tactician. In races like this, Cordero doesn't just ride his horse, he rides against the horse he has to beat -- as he did with Codex against Genuine Risk in the 1980 Preakness.
The horse who probably could have benefited most from a speed duel between Conquistador Cielo and Aloma's Ruler was withdrawn from the Travers field this morning. Wavering Monarch, who beat Aloma's Ruler in the Monmouth Invitational, bruised his foot when he threw a shoe in a workout and will be unable to race for a week. That leaves four other horses in the field--Gato del Sol, Reinvested, Runaway Groom and Lejoli--all of whom are stretch-runners and all of whom would need the two speed horses to knock each other out if they are to have a chance of winning.
If Conquistador Cielo can duel with Aloma's Ruler, put him away and run away from the stretch-runners in fast time, he will silence the skeptics.
His trainer, Woody Stephens, expects him to do just that. His only concern is the uncertain status of Maple, who was suspended today but was expected to seek a stay Saturday. Otherwise, Stephens appears sublimely confident. His colt had a useful prep for the Travers when he toyed with Lejoli and beat him by a length in the Jim Dandy Stakes here two weeks ago. And Stephens perceives that the $36.4 million horse is in excellent condition.
"Conquistador Cielo is ready to run the race of his life," Stephens predicted. "He's been doing super since we've been here. You'll really see a show on Saturday."