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Trainer Keith Nations was looking for answers from Justaholic in Sunday's second race at Tampa Bay Downs, a $27,500 conditional allowance/optional claiming event for 3-year-olds racing 7 furlongs.
The Kentucky-bred son of Justin Phillip-Luxaholic, by Macho Uno, checked off enough boxes for Nations to consider nominating him to the Grade II, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, scheduled March 10 at the Oldsmar oval.
“We really like this colt,” Nations said after Justaholic posted a 1-length victory from betting favorite Hazit in a sharp time of 1:22.77. “We always thought he'd be a sprinter because he's so quick, but the way he finished today, I don't think two turns will be a problem.”
Nominations for the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, the centerpiece of the track's Festival Day card, close Saturday. Nations said if Justaholic comes out of today's effort well, he and the partners of owner Lucky Man Racing, LLC could find find themselves in a crowded paddock three weekends hence.
In addition to trainer Todd Pletcher's Hazit, a Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile participant and Triple Crown nominee, the five-horse field included another Pletcher entry, the gelding Earth; Triple Crown nominee and third-place Pasco Stakes finisher Mind Trappe, trained by Ignacio Correas, IV; and Briny Marlin, from the barn of Anthony Margotta, Jr.
Nations and jockey Jose Ferrer changed the tactics for Justaholic, who had set the early pace in each of his two previous starts, breaking his maiden by seven-and-a-quarter lengths here on Jan. 5 in a five-and-a-half furlong maiden special weight race.
“This horse needs horses around him. If he gets out by himself, he can start wandering,” Nations said. “We knew he could get to the lead if we wanted, but going 7 furlongs we didn't want to push him.
“We wanted to keep him with the pack as long as we could and Jose was able to get him settled. Then (Hazit) kind of took off and Jose had to move earlier than we expected,” Nations said.
Justaholic responded to Ferrer's exhortations in fine fashion, ranging outside Hazit on the turn and taking over at the top of the stretch. Although he ran greenly, drifting outside late, Justaholic showed no visible signs of fatigue afterward.
Earth finished third, followed by Mind Trappe and Briny Marlin.
“This horse likes to look around. He likes to play,” Ferrer said. “He's still learning how to run. When he goes by himself, he starts to getting green on me. He gets discouraged by himself; he likes company, so I tried to keep him in the pack early. It worked out perfect because (Hazit) went to the lead and I was right where I wanted to be.
“I had so much horse at the quarter-pole, and when I asked him for his best he took off.”
The final time, following fractions of 22.47 for the opening quarter-mile, 45.24 for the half and 1:09.70 for 6 furlongs, marks both Justaholic and Hazit as horses to watch next time out, and Justaholic's connections might decide they want a whole bunch of people to watch.
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