Bert Sonnier is a soft-spoken midwestern trainer not prone to make outlandish statements about his horses. But after his 2-year-old colt Meadowlake won a stakes race in Chicago Saturday, Sonnier couldn't contain his enthusiasm.
"This horse," he declared, "can run like Secretariat -- or maybe better. He's unbelievable."
Such an assessment is ridiculously premature, since Meadowlake has raced only twice in his life. But it is safe to say that the colt is one of the most brilliantly precocious 2-year-olds who has come along in the last few years.
In fact, his generation may be one of the most gifted in years. United States racing hasn't had a genuine star since Spectacular Bid retired, but early indications suggest that the current crop may be loaded with talent.
Sonnier bought Meadowlake, a son of the stallion Hold Your Peace, for $185,000 at a yearling sale last fall. "When we looked at him, I thought he did look like Secretariat, and he had good moves. We sent him to South Carolina for the winter, and he came to me in June. He worked awfully good, but I was still amazed by the way he won his first start."
Meadowlake ran away from his rivals in a maiden race at Hawthorne, winning by an astonishing 22 lengths. He ran six furlongs in 1:09 3/5, the fastest time of the meeting. On the same day, older allowance-class horses covered the distance in 1:10 4/5.
The victory was so impressive that Sonnier entered Meadowlake in the rich Arlington-Washington Futurity in Illinois. It looked like a tough assignment. Papal Power, the Maryland colt who had run away with Saratoga's historic Hopeful Stakes, had come to Chicago for the race. But Meadowlake blew him off the track.
Meadowlake fought for the lead briefly and then drew away to win by nearly nine lengths. He made a convert of Charlie Peoples, Papal Power's trainer. "He's the best young horse I've ever seen," Peoples told the Baltimore Sun.
After the race, Sonnier discovered that Meadowlake's shins were sore -- a common affliction of 2-year-olds. The trainer decided immediately to rest him for the remainder of the year. "I'd rather have the 3-year-old champion than the 2-year-old champion," Sonnier said. "We're going to fire his shins, put him back in training at the end of November and bring him back out in Florida." Sonnier's goals are the Florida Derby, the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby.
Racing fans already can start anticipating excitement in the 3-year-old classics. After several uninspiring years of competition among Derby-age colts, 1986 has the makings of a banner year, judging from the early performances of the 2-year-olds this fall:
*Ogygian scored his third straight victory by winning the Futurity Stakes at Belmont by 9 1/2 lengths. He is the favorite for his class's Eclipse award.
*Ketoh, part of trainer Wayne Lukas' powerhouse group of 2-year-olds, made his debut at Belmont two weeks ago and won by 12 lengths, covering six furlongs in 1:10 1/5.
*Prosper Fager, a son of Mr. Prospector, made his debut at the Meadowlands Friday night and won by 13 1/2 lengths in time that would have been worthy of an established stakes horse.
Bert Sonnier, however, is unafraid of anything that lies ahead of Meadowlake. "When he won the Futurity, the jockey said he could have won by much farther if he'd wanted to," the trainer said. "Nobody knows yet how good this horse is. I've been training since I quit college when I was 19. I trained Nodouble. I trained three of the last five winners of the Arlington-Washington Futurity. But I've never trained or even seen anything like this horse."