The Story that NBC Missed Part 2: Trainer Jonathan Thomas

The reputable television network could use a few pointers regarding their horse racing coverage.

Updated: Sept. 7, 2018 • 5:10 PM ET

Several successful horses have come under the watch of Jonathan Thomas.

Some of America’s historic horse racing tracks have traditions to honor runners of the past by painting an object in the colors of the winning stable. These traditions date to the cave paintings at Lascaux I’m sure — where’s an art historian when you need one? Still, owners or jockeys don’t get to haul the trophy on a fishing trip or take a bubble bath with it, but it’s a meaningful reminder of the past winner.

If you bag a major G1 (the highest ranking of races) along the Derby Trail or of a Triple Crown race, you’re immediately ensconced in the pantheon of champions. For instance, at the much-maligned Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore, Preakness winners have a weathervane that is immediately painted, even in a torrential downpour.

The Travers at the famed Saratoga Racecourse (known as the Spa), what many consider the fourth leg, has for its winner, a canoe. Yep, that’s not a typo. Since 1961, the Travers’ winner has had the honor of having what was formerly a blue canoe, now doused in the barn of the champion. This year’s Travers champion has the canoe painted in maroon and gold. With the meet just ending on Labor Day, the canoe will be seen again next summer as Saratoga opens for another year of fabulous racing.

Another presence at Saratoga, and for that matter at other tracks from the Northeast to Kentucky and down to South Florida, is trainer Jonathan Thomas. As suggested in last week’s article, NBC missed a golden opportunity to tell us Thomas’ story. They put some lipstick on the proverbial pig at the last-minute with some poorly conceived editorial comments, as Thomas made an emotional walk to the Spa winner’s circle. What they missed was a great story about a man who has faced tragedy on Shakespearean levels.

Thomas grew up around horse breeding operations in his native Virginia, and these experiences had a profound influence on his career. His folks reared him on the breeding farms of Paul Mellon (winner of the 1993 Kentucky Derby with Sea Hero), a man who is one of only five people to be named as an “Exemplar of Racing” by the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Mellon’s family has a long connection to both horses and financing in America. What an operation for Thomas to take part in! Once he left home, Thomas earned his stripes riding as a hardscrabble steeplechase jockey, which is undoubtedly a tough business.

My all-time favorite jock is a fictitious one. He was the creation of the great British crime-horse racing writer Dick Francis (a steeplechaser himself who rode for the Queen), and his name is Sid Halley. Like Sid, Thomas was on the receiving end of a horrific injury (he broke his back) and temporarily paralyzed. Unlike Sid, however, once Thomas recovered, he didn’t become a private detective, but rather turned to training.

Thomas weaved his way through the ranks of stables that included first, Dale Romans, then Christophe Clement and finally, Todd Pletcher. It was Pletcher who interviewed him for an assistant job in his own barn while Thomas was training horses in Saudi Arabia and brought him back to America. Since then, with the support of Chad Brown and others, Thomas has built a reputation of possessing a strong work ethic.

Thomas has that special penchant for finding the horse that many are willing to write off. He saw promise with Catholic Boy and acquired him for a “fair price” for eventual owner Robert LaPenta after the asking price wasn’t met. Downgraded in Bridlewood Farm’s training division, Thomas kept at it.

This past spring after earning a paltry $34,000 in prize money back in 2016, his patience and tenacity paid off. Catholic Boy took the Remsen Stakes (G2) and switched to turf this summer, winning a major Belmont G1 on the surface. Despite his rising stock, few thought he had a chance in the Travers after Brown’s Good Magic took most of the money.

Some folks around my local track told me about Catholic Boy, including my best friend Steve, but even I didn’t listen. Catholic Boy smoked the field at 7-1 and paid a hefty $16.20 for a $2 winning bet. Nice work, Steve, Now poised to take on the Breeder’s Cup Classic, a race that boasts a $6 million purse, Catholic Boy is primed for even more.

NBC missed Thomas’ story, but they likely won’t make that mistake again. There may be a spot added during the Breeder’s Cup, but it’ll be too little, too late. Instead of focusing on the mainstream stories in horse racing, maybe they should learn to think more broadly.

When they come to Saratoga for the Travers next year, that canoe in maroon and gold will serve as an appropriate reminder.

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