Wendell Fong will look to make the grade in the Grade 3, $200,000 Tom Fool Handicap, a six-furlong sprint for older horses at Aqueduct Racetrack on Saturday, March 6.
The Tom Fool is part of a loaded Saturday card that includes the Grade 3, $300,000 Gotham Stakes, a one-turn mile contest that provides 50-20-10-5 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top four finishers; the $250,000 Busher Invitational for 3-year-old fillies offering 50-20-10-5 Kentucky Oaks qualifying points; and the $125,000 Heavenly Prize Invitational, a one-turn mile for fillies and mares 4-years-old and up.
||Pete's Play Call
||Jorge Vargas, Jr.
||Share the Ride
Wendell Fong provided trainer Natalia Lynch - previously an assistant and exercise rider for Jeremiah Englehart - her first career win last out with a neck score in the six-furlong Fire Plug on January 16 at Laurel Park.
"He's pretty special," said Lynch, who went out on her own last year. "He has so much personality. It's his world and we live in it at the barn. He really runs the show."
Lynch helped prepare the 5-year-old son of Flat Out, previously trained by Englehart, for a winning career debut in December 2018 at Laurel. She was also along for the journey with Wendell Fong through a win in the 2019 Gold Fever at Belmont in a campaign that ended with a prominent fifth in the Grade 1 Woody Stephens at Belmont and a tenth in the Grade 2 Amsterdam at Saratoga.
Winless in six starts last season, Wendell Fong made his seasonal debut a winning one in the Fire Plug. Due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions, Lynch had to send Wendell Fong to the care of trainer Brittany Russell, who Lynch had previously worked for in Maryland.
Lynch said Wendell Fong's successful return to stakes company was very rewarding.
"When he first came to me in the fall a lot of people wanted me to put him in for a tag, but I always felt we could get him back to where he deserved to be," said Lynch. "It's been a lot of believing in him and letting him tell us what he needed. To see him win that stakes race was really special. He showed so much heart. He ran back to how he used to run and he knew he won. When he got home, he bounced off the trailer. He was really proud of himself."
Following a brief freshening, Wendell Fong worked an easy half-mile in 50.50 seconds with Lynch up on February 26 on the Belmont dirt training track.
"He went to Patty Hogan's farm for a bit of a break. He went out and played in the field for a few weeks and was a horse," said Lynch. "When he came back in it didn't look like he lost too much fitness running around the field. We gave him a nice little breeze and it felt like he handled it OK.
"I don't let anyone else sit on him. He's a handful," added Lynch "He was with me for a lot of the time in Maryland at Laurel. He came there before his first race and ended up staying through to the Woody Stephens."
Lynch said she has worked on having the strong-minded Wendell Fong return to a settle and pounce racing style. The dark bay posted a good runner-up effort from off the pace on December 3 under Trevor McCarthy on December 3 at Laurel ahead of the last-to-first score with Sheldon Russell up in the Fire Plug.
"In the Woody Stephens, they changed his running style a little bit and sent him straight to the lead," said Lynch. "After that, he kept trying to go to the lead and we had to get him back in the habit of coming from off the pace.
"The race before last, Trevor did a good job of getting him to settle and make his one run and it paid off in the Fire Plug," added Lynch. "Sheldon did the same thing last time and let him take a deep breath. He loves to stalk horses."
Lynch said a good result on Saturday could set up a return to Grade 1 company for Wendell Fong in the $300,000 Carter Handicap, a seven-furlong sprint for older horses on April 3 at the Big A.
"I hope it sets up on Saturday the way we want. I really want to get him over the surface and see how he handles it," said Lynch. "If he likes it and is doing OK, we can head to the Carter."
McCarthy has the call on Wendell Fong from the outermost post 6.
Share the Ride ,multiple graded stakes-winner trained by Antonio Arriaga for owner Silvino Ramirez, captured the Grade 3 Fall Highweight in November at the Big A and added a score in the Grade 3 General George last out on February 20 at Laurel Park.
The 6-year-old Candy Ride gelding enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2020, posting a record of 4-2-1 from nine starts.
Share the Ride will emerge from post 2 under returning rider Victor Carrasco.
Speed Pass (Karl Watson, Michael E. Pegram, and Paul Weitman), a 5-year-old son of Bodemeister trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, will make his first start outside of California.
The lightly raced gelding earned a 95 Beyer Speed Figure for a seven-length optional-claiming romp in December 2019 at Los Alamitos Race Course ahead of a third in the Grade 3 Palos Verdes in January 2020.
Speed Pass returned off an 11-month layoff last out to finish third in an optional-claiming sprint on January 30 at Santa Anita.
"He needed that race," Baffert said. "This is going to be a step up. There was a race here at Santa Anita going seven furlongs, but I think six furlongs is going to be his limit. We'll take a swing at it and see how he fits in. Those New York horses are pretty tough."
Manny Franco will guide Speed Pass from post 5.
Pete's Play Call (Michael Dubb) was claimed for $62,500 out of a winning effort in an optional-claiming sprint in November and promptly won the Gravesend on January 2 at 6 1/2-furlongs over a muddy and sealed Aqueduct main track.
The 8-year-old Munnings chestnut followed that effort last out with a pacesetting second to American Power in the seven-furlong Grade 3 Toboggan on January 30 at the Big A.
Pete's Play Call will exit the inside post under Jorge Vargas, Jr. on the slight turnback in distance.
Dubb will also be represented by Chateau for trainer Rob Atras. The 6-year-old Flat Out gelding has hit the board in 23 of 32 starts, including six wins with purse earnings of $367,769.
The dark bay used his good early foot last out to notch a gate-to-wire score in a six furlong optional-claiming sprint on January 18 at the Big A that garnered a lofty 96 Beyer.
Kendrick Carmouche retains the mount from post 3.
Rounding out the field is M and A Racing's graded stakes winner Happy Farm, who steps up from a 1 3/4-length score last out when in for a $50,000 tag on February 6 at the Big A for trainer Linda Rice.
The 7-year-old Ghostzapper gelding won the 2019 Grade 3 Fall Highweight and was second in the Tom Fool last year to multiple Grade 1-winner Mind Control. The dark bay made his seasonal debut with a troubled fifth in the Gravesend.
Eric Cancel will pilot Happy Farm from post 4.
The Tom Fool is slated as Race 7 on Saturday's 10-race card. First post is 12:50 p.m. Eastern.
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