SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) - First Dude has done just about everything in really big races except finish first.
The strapping 3-year-old bay colt ran second in the Preakness, third in the Belmont Stakes and the Haskell Invitational and has earned more than $500,000 despite only a maiden victory in nine career starts.
"We're just waiting for him to break through and win one of these big ones,'' trainer Dale Romans said Thursday before riding off in a golf cart to watch First Dude go for a morning gallop over Saratoga's main track. "He's knocking on the door in every one of them, five Grade 1s in a row, and he's right there every time.''
First Dude will have another formidable task in Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes, which drew a large and diverse field of 11 3-year-olds going 1 1/4-miles.
While Jim Dandy Stakes winner A Little Warm is the tepid 7-2 morning-line favorite, there's also Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver (6-1), Derby and Belmont runners-up Ice Box and Fly Down and a maiden winner off her only start in Admiral Alex in the mix.
First Dude is 8-1, and will be ridden by Ramon Dominguez.
"It's a wide open race with a good field of horses and anybody can win it,'' Romans said. "It's going to be a jockey's race, who gets the right trip, and who will get the mile-and-a-quarter.''
Make no mistake, First Dude has been a leading player in the 3-year-old division, where Lookin At Lucky is the clear leader but is not running in the Travers.
First Dude loves the lead and has been there in each of his last three starts only to come up short in the stretch. The colt owned by Donald Dizney lost the Preakness by three-quarters of a length to Lookin At Lucky, finished a length behind Drosselmeyer in the Belmont and was 4} lengths behind Lookin At Lucky in the Haskell.
So what's keeping First Dude out of the winner's circle?
"I think he's run hard every time and it took some nice horses to beat him,'' Romans said. "It's frustrating, but he's been the most consistent of the crop.''
Romans does plan one change for the Travers. First Dude will wear blinkers for the first time, the idea being to keep the colt more focused in the stretch.
"Ramon thinks it will give him a little more acceleration when he calls on him,'' Romans said. "Hopefully they have him a little more focused when Ramon goes to riding on him, where he won't think about (Ramon) being up there and he'll think about going. Hopefully, it gives him the little extra oomph he needs to put them away.''
First Dude's only victory came in his third start, back on Jan. 30 at Gulfstream Park. In his first two races, both as a
2-year-old, he finished second. After the win, he ran second to Fly Down in an allowance race before finishing fifth in the Florida Derby and third in the Blue Grass.
He was shut out of the Kentucky Derby due to a lack of earnings, but made his presence felt in the Preakness, nearly pulling off an upset at odds of 23-1.
First Dude may not be winning, but Romans says as long as he's competitive, "I'm going to keep him in these big races. You only get one 3-year-old season and there's a lot of big races out there.''
A Little Warm, meanwhile, is beginning to find the winner's circle again and that's just fine with trainer Tony Dutrow.
Like First Dude, A Little Warm was short of earnings for the Derby. However, he became ill and missed the Preakness but returned in June and won at Delaware Park before taking the Jim Dandy by 1} lengths over Miner's Reserve.
"We are so looking forward to the Travers with him,'' Dutrow said. "We couldn't feel better about the horse's ability or how he's coming into the race.''
The field, from the rail out, is Miner's Reserve, Trappe Shot, Admiral Alex, First Dude, A Little Warm, Ice Box, Afleet Express, Fly Down, Friend Or Foe, Afleet Again and Super Saver.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
for more features.