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Feature: Pants On Fire Back for Round 2 in Saturday's Grade II Risen Star Stakes

Jockey Joe Bravo rode Pants On Fire for the first time at Monmouth Park in the summer of 2010. That didn’t last very long.

“That afternoon in the post parade he shied from something,” Bravo recalled. “He’s so powerful and strong, next thing I knew, he dropped me on my keister. He’s real talented, just a big playboy.”

Thursday morning at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, trainer Kelly Breen kept a watchful eye on the Jump Start colt, one of 10 starters in Saturday’s Grade II, $300,000 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford. It was Pants On Fire’s second visit to the Louisiana oval – he was runner-up to Wilkinson in the Jan. 22 Lecomte Stakes – and second for Breen as well. Both horse and horseman seem to like it here.

“Last time he shipped from New York and when he got here I think he was a little more nervous,” Breen said. “He shipped better this time, coming up from Florida. We sent him in a day earlier so it wasn’t as close to the race. He’s an intense kind of horse anyway, but since he’s been here on the track today, he was looking around just a little bit, a lot more relaxed and content this time than he was before.”

In Pants On Fire, Breen may have found himself a solid player on the Kentucky Derby trail. Although the colt hasn’t won a race since breaking his maiden by seven lengths in the Delaware slop last Oct. 4 (Bravo managed to stay aboard then and in subsequent starts), he was nipped on the wire in a $75,000 allowance score going a mile and 70 yards on Dec. 19 at Aqueduct, then set the pace in the Count Fleet at that same track on Jan. 1 before getting passed to finish third. In the Lecomte he set a moderate pace while racing wide on the turns and looked to be the winner turning for home before the late-closing Wilkinson got up by a head.

“He ran a great race last time out,” Breen said. “Joe tried to wait as long as he could before he pulled the trigger on him, and we knew this track has a long stretch. There’s a lot more speed in this race coming up, so we’re going to play it by ear whether or not we’re going to send. This race is tough with a couple of new shooters, but we’re coming in with a fit horse and when we got him back to Florida after the Lecomte he was full of energy, so we figured we’d try the next dance with him.”

A solid four-furlong work in :50.50 at Palm Meadows on Monday helped solidify the decision to enter the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star, which has drawn Kentucky Derby hopefuls such as Rogue Romance (third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last time out), Kentucky Jockey Club winner Santiva, Neil Howard’s promising allowance winner Machen, Steve Asmussen trainee Justin Phillip, and Action Ready, third in the Lecomte last time out.

“The most exciting thing about coming back is that very impressive workout,” said Bravo, who was in the saddle that day. “Just the way he did it turning for home impressed me; he got into an acceleration I hadn’t felt from him before. He’s a big, strong animal and with a little strategy difference there’s no reason he shouldn’t step up on Saturday.”

Breen will also saddle Fair Grounds Handicap contender Sleepless Knight on Saturday. He said the 5-year-old son of War Chant, who comes off a strong allowance score at Gulfstream on Jan. 8, just makes Pants On Fire look that much better.

“Sleepless Knight is no slouch, he’s a big, stout, older horse, and Pants On Fire feels a full hand taller than him,” Breen remarked. “He’s always been a tall drink of water, a big, lanky, long-striding horse. His first couple workouts weren’t anything to brag about, but always knowing he had this long stride, we were just waiting for him to put it all together.”

Pants On Fire isn’t the only 3-year-old contender Breen has in his barn. Stablemate Sweet Ducky closed three-wide late to gain the lead in Gulfstream’s Grade III Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 30, only to be passed by Dialed In. The son of Pulpit settled for a second-place finish 1 ½ lengths behind the winner and is now training at Palm Meadows pointing for a probable Florida Derby start. Another Breen trainee, 2010 Sanford Stakes runner-up Nacho Saint, is possible for the March 5 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. All are among the 35 horses owned by George and Lori Hall, for whom Breen, a 42-year-old native of Old Bridge, N.J., has trained privately since 2007.

The couple keeps about 35 horses in training divided between Florida and New York, and they also own 385-acre Annestes Farm in Versailles, Ky. In 2009 they had Kentucky Derby contenders West Side Bernie and Atomic Rain, Breen’s first starters in the Run for the Roses. Those two finished ninth and 16th, respectively, before both were sold to Godolphin Racing.

“Last year we tried to get Nacho Friend there, and he was just a cut below it,” Breen said. “Now this is the most 3-year-olds we’ve ever had before. We’ve tried to diversify and I’d say we have a couple nice horses. If they step up, we have a legitimate shot (at making the Derby).”