Firing fresh in his first start since October, D. J. Stable's Helium took the $350,000 ,Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby with a prolonged closing run, picking up 50 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and becoming his sire's first graded stakes winner.
The son of Ironicus remained undefeated in three starts and made the switch to dirt with ease as he stretched out to 1 1/16 miles at Tampa Bay Downs, having begun his career at Woodbine on the all-weather track. Helium broke his maiden at first asking Sept. 27 going seven furlongs, then took the Oct. 18 Display Stakes at the same distance by 4 1/4 lengths.
"He trained well enough that we thought he deserved a chance," trainer Mark Casse said. "I have to give so much credit to Nick Tomlinson, who had him down at Palm Meadows for us. We had thought about running in the Grade 3 Gotham and thought, 'If we're going to try the dirt, let's run him close to home.' It worked well for us."
Off at odds of 15.40-1 Saturday with Jose Ferrer in the irons, the colt broke a bit slowly from post 10 and raced 10th early on in a field of 12, as 31-1 shot Boca Boy showed the way through a :23.23 quarter-mile. Helium steadily improved his position, and was fifth as the leader put up a :47.06 half-mile. Set to the drive by Ferrer as the field headed for the final turn, he charged four wide and struck the front through three-quarters in 1:11.38, then shifted to the rail as he straightened out for home.
Hidden Stash put in his best run after following the winner with a late rally of his own, and nearly collared Helium as the two hooked up to battle it out through a 1:37.09 mile. But the Casse trainee found more to give and broke away from his rival, drawing clear to win by three-quarters of a length. The final time was 1:43.55 on a fast track.
"This horse is something because he got away a little slow today and we had planned on him being closer," Casse said. "He made that big wide run, he made the lead but [after Hidden Stash rallied] I was going to be happy with second. I thought, 'We can build on this,' because this is only his third start and there is a lot of room for improvement.
"What was amazing is that he wasn't overly exhausted after the race. He's a beautiful horse, he's bred to run all day long, and he looks like a Derby horse, so it's exciting."
With the run for the roses a new target, the colt's connections will have to put up some cash — Helium was not among the early nominees to the 2021 Triple Crown. Late nominations, at $6,000 each, close March 29.
Helium returned $32.80 on a $2 win ticket. Hidden Stash was followed 3 3/4 lengths back by Moonlite Strike to complete the trifecta. Unbridled Honor, King of Dreams, Awesome Gerry, Sittin On Go, Boca Boy, My Liberty, Super Strong, 8-5 favorite Candy Man Rocket, and Promise Keeper completed the order of finish.
"Mark Casse gave me a great opportunity to go out there and do my job and do my thing," Ferrer said. "On the backside, I had all kind of horse under me, and I could see who had more horse and when I set him down at the three-eighths pole, I could see I had a chance. I just had so much horse and he flew down the lane. Then I think he got by himself and kind of got bored … but I still had plenty of horse and he re-broke again."
Bred in Kentucky by Teneri Farm and Bernardo Alvarez Calderon out of the Thunder Gulch mare Thundering Emilia, Helium was a $55,000 purchase by Cool Hill Farm from Taylor Made Sales Agency's consignment to the 2019 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Yearling Sale. He improved his earnings to $287,763.
All four of Thundering Emilia's starters have been winners, including Emilia's Moon, winner of the 2019 Group 1 Clasico Polla de Potrancas in Peru. Thundering Emilia herself was a group stakes winner in Peru and a listed winner in the states, and was Group 1-placed in Peru. Her unraced Classic Empire 2-year-old is a colt named Thunder Stride, she has an Accelerate yearling colt, and she was bred to American Pharoah for 2021.
Ironicus, a multiple graded stakes winner on the turf, is a son of Distorted Humor who is standing the 2021 season at Claiborne Farm for an advertised $5,000 stands and nurses fee.