OLDSMAR — He was a horse with no name.
The Kentucky-bred, dark bay colt carried the identification of Hip No. 184, one of 301 horses cataloged at the 2007 Fasig-Tipton March Sale for selected 2-year-olds in training at Calder Race Course in Miami.
He never entered the auction ring. X-rays detected bone chips in a front ankle, requiring surgery at an Ocala equine hospital.
Today, War Pass runs with a chip on his shoulder.
Conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, War Pass is the undefeated 3-year-old everyone is chasing. The top-ranked Kentucky Derby contender has used a charismatic, front-running style to win five races by a total of 22 lengths, never trailed any of his 36 opponents and compiled $1,433,400 in career earnings.
A win today in the Grade III $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs and one in the Grade I $750,000 Wood Memorial on April 5 at Aqueduct Race Track in Jamaica, N.Y., would put the 2007 Eclipse Award and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner in position to be the seventh unbeaten horse in 134 years to win the Run for the Roses on May 3 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
"He's a horse that has very, very special talent," owner Robert LaPenta said. "He had a pretty aggressive 2-year-old campaign. What we were looking to do was just rest him and then slowly bring him back. There's nobody better preparing a horse for a Derby than Nick Zito."
LaPenta, 62, has used the Downs before as a Kentucky Derby steppingstone. His Andromeda's Hero won the 2005 Sam F. Davis, and The Cliff's Edge was a runnerup in the 2004 Sam F. Davis, leading to Churchill Downs appearances. Zito sent 2005 Tampa Bay Derby winner Sun King to the Kentucky Derby for owner Tracy Farmer.
LaPenta is fortunate to have War Pass. He nearly lost his standout to pinhooking, a buy-and-sell operation that LaPenta (financial support) and Zito (keen eye for talent) have mastered. Pinhookers buy yearlings, board and train them and sell the thoroughbreds at 2-year-old auctions for profit.
Bought for $180,000 at the 2006 Keeneland September yearling sale, War Pass was headed down that path. The bone chips, however, often caused by racing stress, led to his Calder sale scratch and return to Scanlon Training Center in Williston, where he had been broken and trained for six months.
"It was a disappointment to everyone," said training center operator David Scanlon, a consignor and agent for clients at sales. "He might have sold for $2-(million) (or) $3-million, maybe even more. But it couldn't have worked out any better — a blessing in disguise."
Scanlon, 38, works with about 180 horses a year.
"We've had Afleet Alex, Bernardini and Rags to Riches," he said. "War Pass has got to be right up there with all of them this early in his career.
"Right now, he's making history. He's a big, powerful horse with good size and power. He just had a beautiful way of moving. Once we asked him for just a little more, it was totally effortless. He's got natural speed and a stride that covers the ground. He produces a little sharper turn afoot than most horses."
Wintered at Palm Meadows Training Center in South Florida, War Pass has made his only start this year in a $60,000 allowance race Feb. 24 at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach.
He came off a 120-day layoff after winning the Grade I $2-million Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Oct. 27 at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., in sloppy conditions under regular rider Cornelio Velasquez. His time for 11/16 miles was 1:42.76, just off the record of 1:41.60 set by Unbridled's Song in 1995 at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
It was War Pass' second Grade I victory. His first came in the $400,000 Champagne Stakes on Oct. 6 at Belmont. He has beaten the second-rated Kentucky Derby hopeful Pyro in all three meetings. The 11/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby will be War Pass' second race at two turns.
Last year, Street Sense became the first winner of the Downs' signature event to capture the Kentucky Derby.
Detractors of War Pass suggest breeding will catch up with him in the Kentucky Derby (11/4 miles), Preakness Stakes (13/16 miles) and Belmont Stakes (11/2 miles). His sire, Cherokee Run, won the 1994 Grade I Breeders' Cup Sprint as one of six stakes victories, none longer than 11/8 miles. Vue, his dam, was a multiple stakes-placed sprinter. Vue's sire, Mr. Prospector, produced 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus.
"I think War Pass is going to surprise a lot of people with his stamina," LaPenta said. "He certainly does not like horses next to him or in front of him. For a horse to be able to stay with him for any length of time at that kind of a pace, (it) is going to be something that we'll have to wait and see what happens."
LaPenta has struck a deal to have War Pass stand at Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky., upon retirement.
War Pass is three wins from joining Barbaro (2006), Smarty Jones (2004), Seattle Slew (1977), Majestic Prince (1969), Morvich (1922) and Regret (1915) as unbeaten Kentucky Derby winners.
Early career past performances between War Pass and Seattle Slew are eerily similar. The only undefeated horse among 11 Triple Crown champions, Seattle Slew never trailed in winning his first six races, including the Champagne and Wood Memorial. He had a prerace routine that owner Karen Taylor described as "Slew's War Dance."