Making the Grade, which will run through the 2020 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an impact on the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.
After making his first two starts on the grass, Sole Volante made a promising first start on the main track in January and followed with an eye-opening win in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes Feb. 8 at Tampa Bay Downs. The bay gelding closed from more than 15 lengths back and surged clear to win by 2 ½ lengths. In doing so, he overhauled highly regarded Independence Hall and landed firmly on the 2020 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve trail.
Ability: Sole Volante was a $20,000 purchase by trainer Patrick Biancone as a birthday present for his daughter Andie at the 2019 OBS Spring sale of 2-year-olds in training. He turned out to be a terrific bargain buy: The gelding by Karakontie has not run a bad race in four starts.
By a French classic/Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Karakontie out of a full-sister (same dam [mother], same sire [father]) to 2007 Epsom Oaks winner Light Shift, Sole Volante began his career on the grass and won his debut by three lengths from off the pace before closing powerfully to win the one-mile Pulpit Stakes at Gulfstream Park by two lengths Nov. 30, 2019.
He earned a strong 109 Equibase Speed Figure for the Pulpit win that seemed to indicate a bright future on turf. His connections, however, had other ideas and he made his 3-year-old bow in the one turn-mile Mucho Macho Man Stakes on the main track at Gulfstream Jan. 4.
Again, Sole Volante rallied from off the pace but this time he settled for third in his first try on dirt on a Gulfstream main track can sometimes be tough on closers. His Equibase Speed Figure dipped to a 98, but his BrisNet speed rating improved to a then-career-best 100.
In the Sam F. Davis with dirt race experience under his saddle, Sole Volante looked like a different animal. He was 15 ½ lengths back under Luca Panici after a half-mile in the 1 1/16-mile Derby prep but made up 13 ½ lengths by covering his next quarter-mile in 23.26 seconds according to Trakus data.
Sole Volante was able to sustain that rally through the finish line and he completed the final five-sixteenths of a mile in :30.53 with a final sixteenth in a powerful 6.11 seconds according to Trakus. Sole Volante’s winning time of 1:42.60 was 12 hundredths of a second off the stakes record.
The strong pace set by Premier Star and Chapalu certainly helped set up Sole Volante’s closing kick, but it is rare to see a horse capable of that type of sustained bid for a half-mile, especially on dirt.
“He’s fantastic on the turf and in America, the life is the dirt, so I ran him in a sprint race on the dirt at Gulfstream just to see if he could handle it and let him take some kickback,” Patrick Biancone said of the Mucho Macho Man Stakes. “He did everything perfectly but ran a little bit [too] early that day and struggled a little the last sixteenth. Today, I said to [jockey] Luca [Panici], let him relax and run the last three-eighths of a mile and that’s what he did.”
The 108 Equibase Speed Figure was essentially the same as he earned for his stakes win on grass, while his 96 Beyer Speed Figure and 102 BrisNet speed rating both were new career highs.
Independence Hall entered the race unbeaten with wins in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes and Jerome Stakes, but he offered little resistance to Sole Volante after stalking a strong half-mile in :46.52. While Independence Hall was no doubt softened up by the work he did early in the Sam F. Davis, it is nonetheless encouraging that Sole Volante swept past a colt most people regard as an elite prospect on the Derby trail.
The speed figures suggest Sole Volante is a serious Kentucky Derby contender and he also passed the eye test in the Sam F. Davis. It’s fair to wonder whether he got a dream setup on Feb. 8 – and he might have – but Sole Volante has finished willingly in each of his four starts and showed nice growth in the Sam F. Davis.
“This horse has a lot of stamina, but nothing is cast in stone. So we’ll see how he comes back and how he progresses,” the trainer said. “We have plenty of races to choose from — maybe we’ll come back here in a month [for the $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 7].”
Running style: Sole Volante profiles as a deep closer who conserves his energy early for a sustained late rally. This running style can be aided by a fast early pace or compromised if the early leaders are permitted to set easy fractions. Especially in the 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby, deep closers are subject to traffic trouble as a handful of horses are inevitably fading while others are launching their bids.
Deep closers like Giacomo (2005), Street Sense (2007), Mine That Bird (2009), Animal Kingdom (2012), and Orb (2013) have won the Derby in the last 15 years, but navigating a path from near the back of the field to the front in a field that large is a daunting task.
Connections: As mentioned above, Andie Biancone is the daughter of trainer Patrick Biancone, and Sole Volante is the first Thoroughbred racehorse she has owned according to Equibase stats. Limelight Stables Corp. purchased an interest in Sole Volante after his maiden win, and Equibase also lists Sole Volante as the partnership's first racehorse.
Dean and Patti Reeves’ Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, best known as the owners of 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man, came on board as co-owners after the Mucho Macho Man Stakes.
Trainer Patrick Biancone, a native of France, brought All Along to the U.S. from Europe in 1983 and she won three Grade 1 races en route to winning the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year. Biancone also trained Grade 1 winners Whywhywhy, Lion Heart, Pomeroy, Magistretti, Sense of Style, Angara, Gorella, Asi Siempre, and Irish Smoke. Lion Heart ran second to Smarty Jones in the 2004 Kentucky Derby.
Note: Biancone served a one-year suspension that ended in November 2008 for a drug violation from 2007. His trainer’s license in Kentucky was reinstated in August 2017.
Luca Panici has been aboard Sole Volante for three of his four starts. He notched his first career win in his native Italy when he was 16 years old and rode more than 500 winners in Europe, where his father was a top rider.
Panici moved his tack to Florida full-time in 2010 and has amassed 24 stakes wins, including graded stakes victories with Another Romance and Sole Volante. He has never ridden in the Kentucky Derby.
Pedigree: Sole Volante is from the first crop of Karakontie, winner of the 2014 French Two Thousand Guineas and Breeders’ Cup Mile. By Bernstein, Karakontie won five of 12 career starts but never won a race longer than one mile.
Other than Sole Volante, Karakontie’s top runners to date have all been turf horses. He is the sire of Tyro Stakes winner Karak, English Group 3 winner Kenzai Warrior, and Laurel Futurity runner-up Torres Del Paine from 43 starters to date from his first crop.
Sole Volante gets a healthy dose of stamina from the bottom half of his pedigree. His dam (mother), Light Blow, by Kingmambo, was a winner at the marathon distance of 1 7/8 miles. Grandam (maternal grandmother) Lingerie, by Shirley Heights, was winless in 12 starts but ran second four times, all in races longer than 1 ¼ miles.
While Lingerie, a homebred of the Niarchos family’s elite breeding program, was unable to reach the winner’s circle as a racehorse, she made quite an impact as a broodmare. Lingerie produced four stakes winners, including the aforementioned Epsom Oaks winner Light Shift, Group 1 winner Shiva, and multiple Group 2 winner Limnos. Light Shift, a full sister to Light Blow, produced multiple Group 1 winner Ulysees.
Lingerie also produced stakes winner Burning Sunset, the grandam of 2014 champion turf male Main Sequence; Grade 1-placed Hyades; and Group 1 producer Strawberry Fledge, dam of 2017 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe runner-up Cloth of Stars.
Sole Volante’s third dam (maternal great-grandmother) is 1984 French Oaks winner Northern Trick, by Northern Dancer.
It’s very easy to see why Sole Volante made his first two starts on the grass and, from the bottom of this pedigree, why he looked like he had plenty of fuel in reserve in deep stretch of the Sam F. Davis Stakes.
This is a talented racehorse with a strong (if unusual for an American dirt horse) pedigree. It would be a mistake to discount his chances on the 2020 Kentucky Derby trail.