CHARLES TOWN: NICO MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME
Following a very promising start to his career when he won twice and then finished second in a pair of West Virginia-bred stakes races as a two-year-old, Nico missed his entire sophomore season dealing with quarter crack issues.
But the O’Sullivan Farms homebred trained by Javier Contreras is making up for lost time at age four and could be poised for stakes action this fall.
Now a four-year-old, the Trappe Shot colt finished second in his belated seasonal debut in May and has since reeled off two straight allowance victories. In his second start this year, Nico easily lived up to his role as the 8-5 choice in a one-turn allowance dash for state-breds when he romped home 10 1/2-lengths clear in 51.23, an eye-opening clocking over the sloppy strip.
Then in his most recent start on July 9, Nico was able to stretch his speed two turns when he edged clear in the lane to capture a 6 1/2-furlong state-bred allowance in 1:18.67 – a time that compared favorably with that recorded later on the same card by North Atlantic, the durable Jeff Runco trainee who has been a fixture in numerous West Virginia-bred stakes, in a seven-furlong allowance.
“He’s come back really good,” said John Funkhouser, who confirmed that Nico’s dam, Cleft in the Rock, is now in foal to Mohaymen. “He looked like he was going to be a really good three-year-old, but he had those quarter crack issues and he needed time off. He was basically off all last year and Javier did a great job bringing him back. I think we were really nervous watching him in his first start and even still nervous in that second start with that wet track.”
Two years ago Nico made his career debut in a one-turn maiden special weight dash for state-bred freshmen that would have a familiar theme throughout his juvenile campaign. Nico finished second as the 4-1 third choice in a race won by overlooked 24-1 longshot Hypothesis. While Hypothesis went to Colonial Downs for a stakes race on the grass next out, Nico easily garnered his diploma in his second start by romping home six lengths clear in 52.55 as the 1-9 choice.
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Nico would then finished second in each of his next two starts, the $50,000 Henry Mercer Memorial and the Vincent Moscarelli Memorial Breeders Classics, running second behind Hypothesis in each. Nico was actually the even-money choice in the Mercer, but yielded the favorite’s role to Hypothesis in the Moscarelli, and the Crystal Pickett trainee easily garnered state-bred juvenile male honors for 2019.
Still, it was a solid opener for Nico, who concluded his juvenile season with an allowance victory that left him with two wins and three seconds from five starts.
“He ran five times and he ran his race in all five starts,” Funkhouser said of Nico. “We had high hopes for him. We had been selling off a lot of our better yearlings, then we started to keep most of the good ones about five years ago. It’s been a while since one of our homebreds has won a Breeders’ Classic. That’s really the goal moving forward.”
Nico missed all of his sophomore campaign while recovering from quarter crack issues. He has returned fresh and fit and won twice in three starts this year. Funkhouser is eyeing the West Virginia Onion Juice Breeders’ Classic, a seven-furlong contest, although he expects Contreras to use two more allowance events as springboards to the October highlight rather than aiming him for the $75,000 Frank Gall Memorial first.
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That schedule will have a couple of benefits. For one thing, it’ll help Nico get fitter and more seasoned before he faces the tigers. For another, it will allow Funkhouser to keep Nico and Bubba Grump, another O’Sullivan runner trained by Contreras, apart. He expects Bubba Grump to try his luck in the Gall and then, perhaps, the Classic.
Nico’s long break and impressive return have Funkhouser recalling an earlier O’Sullivan Farms runner, one who won the 2002 West Virginia Breeders’ Classic, missed the next three seasons, and then returned to win two more WVBC races.
“I remember when Confucius Say came back from a 3 1/2-year layoff and didn’t have enough earnings to make the Classic,” Funkhouser said. “He won the Onion Juice and I think he would have won the Classic if he had enough money to get in it.”