DEL MAR: Fillies bring Puype into spotlight

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The confidence has always been there – in himself and his horses.

For the first time in his training career, Mike Puype has more than 60 horses in his care, including a team of 30 that will race at Del Mar this summer. It is a group that could provide Puype with a more visible role nationwide in coming weeks.

“My arrow is going up,” he said last weekend.

Led by the Grade 1 winner Turbulent Descent, Puype’s stable has won 35 races this year, a personal best for the trainer who will turn 45 on Aug. 4. Puype is expected to be at Saratoga that day, preparing Turbulent Descent for a start in the Grade 1 Test Stakes two days later.

Second in the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes over a mile at Belmont Park in June, Turbulent Descent will be after her fifth stakes win in her eighth start. Puype describes Turbulent Descent’s condition as “exceptional. She’ll be cutting back to seven-eighths,” he said. “She’ll get pace and get a full field.”

By early August, Puype could have 40 wins for the year. This weekend at Del Mar, his stable has runners in two stakes Sunday – Justenufappeal and Mizdirection in the $150,000 San Clemente Handicap for 3-year-old fillies and Tamarack Smarty in the $100,000 California Dreamin’ Handicap for statebred turf milers.

The San Clemente Handicap cannot arrive fast enough. Justenufappeal, co-owned by retired Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, won the Golden Poppy Stakes at Golden Gate Fields in April. Mizdirection, co-owned by television sports host Jim Rome, won her turf debut against maidens by 11 1/2 lengths at Hollywood Park in May, a performance so impressive that she was the 6-5 favorite in the Manhattan Beach Stakes for 3-year-old fillies over six furlongs on turf on June 18.

Mizdirection had a dreadful trip through the stretch and finished second after racing in traffic with a furlong remaining and bumping with a rival in the last sixteenth.

“She’ll win the San Clemente the way she ran today,” a frustrated Puype said that afternoon, walking to the jockey’s room with jockey Garrett Gomez.

Gomez is back aboard Mizdirection for the San Clemente, which is run over a mile on turf. The race is led by the unbeaten Sarah’s Secret, who is unbeaten in four starts, including the Grade 2 Honeymoon Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 11.

For Mizdirection, the Grade 2 San Clemente will be her first start around two turns and could lead to a start in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks on Aug. 20.

“If she relaxes and runs her race, she’ll be tough,” Puype said. “In her last race, Garrett had nowhere to go. You don’t know until they do it, she hasn’t routed, but her gallop outs have been good.

“If everything goes well, we’ll think of [the Del Mar Oaks], it would be the next thing. She’s got to get through Sarah’s Secret, who is 4 for 4 and will run well backing up in distance.”

Puype won his first Grade 1 with Lord Grillo in the 1997 Malibu Stakes, a race in which reigning Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm was a troubled second. Puype did not win another race at that level until Turbulent Descent won the Hollywood Starlet last December. This year, Turbulent Descent has given him a third Grade 1 win, in the Santa Anita Oaks in March.

Puype trained in California until the late 1990s, when he moved to Kentucky for a few years. He returned to this circuit in late 2002 at the end of a season in which his stable earned just $195,565 with 7 wins from 30 starters. Last year, he won 33 races from 208 starters while earning a career-best $1,782,936. Already this year, Puype has won 35 races and earned $1,455,906, pulling close to last year’s earnings mark with more than five months of the season to go.

“Every year, I’ve moved up in stakes, wins, and earnings since I came back from Kentucky,” he said. “I don’t see any reason it won’t go up this year.”

The success has caught the attention of others. Recently, Puype received a group of six unraced 2-year-olds owned and bred by Santa Anita track owner Frank Stronach.

“It’s a great addition to the stable to get the Stronach horses,” he said.

Those horses will not be ready until the autumn. By then, Puype will be nearing the end of a milestone season.