The race of a lifetime

"I saw the first two horses in front, and then I looked to my outside and I saw Groupie Doll and felt her presence. I said, 'Let me see how Purely Hot reacts to this,' because horses sometimes react like they can't handle another runner's presence, or they can kick in and really go smooth with them. And she went from laying third to really going very smooth, and that's a real heads up right there. I enjoyed that part of the race, that three-sixteenths of a mile with Groupie Doll closing in on her and her running her eyeballs out to the very end. I got the chills, because she did more than we could ever have imagined around that point of the race. She went along like a true champion, just like she had done it before." -- Harry Vega on Purely Hot's Presque Isle Masters run

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- On Saturday inside the gracious confines of Keeneland Race Course, a 24-year-old trainer named Nick Caruso will saddle a tiny bay mare for the race of a lifetime. She was his first graded stakes contender and will be his first starter at the Lexington oval, an unlikely competitor in the $200,000 Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes. This is her time to shine.

In the walking ring, the runner named Purely Hot will be on the muscle. She will arch her neck and prance proudly out onto the wide old oval under Harry Vega -- a veteran jockey who has ridden more than 4,000 winners, yet has only raced once at this track before.

When the gates open, Purely Hot will break like a shot, and she will run with the fierce determination that has become her trademark, and she will look like a million dollars.

Back in January, you could have bought her for $4,000.

* * *

Nick Caruso is at Keeneland because of Purely Hot, the other five horses in his modest string simply tagging along for the ride. He culled his stock to come here and they shipped over from Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania on Friday, the 5-year-old mare striding off the van with the poise of a champion. The kid hasn't presented himself in a half-bad manner, either. Bolstered by the confidence of his improving contender, he has handled his arrival in the national spotlight with class.

Purely Hot's story began as one that plays out far too often at tracks across the country -- a runner starts with promise, then somehow slips through the cracks. But young Caruso and Purely Hot's majority owner, 41-year-old Mike Tuozzo, saw something special in the sprinter who had dropped to a low-level claiming event at Penn National early this year.

"There's no reason she ever should have been in a $4,000 race," Caruso said. "No one had any patience with her. She just never had a shot."

The trainer, a Pennsylvania native and graduate of the high school rodeo circuit, grew up traveling to tracks with his father, a horseplayer and longtime racing fan. Young Caruso did time as an assistant, then took out his license late last fall. Of his 11 wins so far this season, five in a row were notched by Purely Hot.

Bred in Maryland, this daughter of the stallion Pure Prize turned up for that $4,000 tag at Penn National, the casino-fueled racetrack in Grantsville, Pa., on a cold winter afternoon. She hadn't always run at that level; in fact, in June 2012, she'd started in -- and won -- a $25,000 claiming race at Presque Isle Downs. Tuozzo and Caruso remembered that and thought, with five wins already under her belt, she'd be worth taking a shot on. They made the claim and took her home.

Tuozzo is no stranger to giving chances. A thoroughbred owner for the past 10 years, he initially hired Caruso to run a few horses at Presque Isle for him at the recommendation of another trainer. He found himself increasingly comfortable with the young man's approach.

"He may be young, but I started from the bottom working my way up, and I'm the guy that likes to give everybody an opportunity," Tuozzo said. "He may be inexperienced being on his own as a trainer, but he's very knowledgeable. I don't feel like I have to be in contact with him all the time; I trust him with my horses. He's very honest about everything, and if he's not sure about something, he lets me know. We understand each other."

It was mid-February when Caruso saddled Purely Hot for the first time, starting her for an $8,000 tag at Penn. The race was a six-furlong sprint on the dirt; she finished second by half a length, surrendering the advantage after setting the pace when a closer passed her in an all-out drive.

No one was supposed to claim her. It was twice the amount she'd been acquired for when Tuozzo and Caruso picked her up just one race previously. But trainer John Locke, who had lost her for $4,000 when Caruso made the first claim, wanted his runner back. He and owner Peggy Serviss put up double the money to take the mare home again, and just like that she was out of Caruso's hands. The trainer and Tuozzo walked away in a daze.

"He looked at me with a blank stare, like, 'Are you kidding me?!'" Caruso recalled. "We never thought that would happen. We were shell-shocked."

"Whatever this trainer puts her back in for, you fill out a [claim] slip for me," Tuozzo told the kid. "Let's get her back to where she should be."

Their opportunity came little more than a month later, when Locke entered the runner for $10,000 in another six-furlong race at Penn. It was March 20, and Purely Hot was making her 18th start. For 16 straight months, since breaking her maiden at first asking on Dec. 3, 2011, she'd run approximately every 30 days, except in June and July 2012, when she raced twice in each month. Caruso was the fourth trainer to take her home; Mike Trombetta and Todd Beattie both had her before Locke.

Caruso, who got the mare back that day, said she's put on weight since moving back to his barn. "That's why I took her to the farm after that," he said, "to give her a break."

The mare also injured her hock, resulting in a longer downtime than originally planned. Rested from March until May, she went to Presque Isle Downs with Caruso's other runners. She made her first start back for her new connections on May 29, and that's when the ride really began. Bounding around the dull gray oval, Purely Hot won her five races in a row -- and did so impressively, beating up on the local competition for a combined win margin of 20¾ lengths.

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The surface change was a huge factor. Horses at Presque Isle run on a synthetic product called Tapeta, similar to Keeneland's artificial Polytrack. Some runners love the man-made course, and Purely Hot was one of them.

Caruso also thinks the mare was on the upswing when she came to him, transitioning, in his words, from "Kind of talented but just had no idea" into "Wow, I'm a racehorse now."

"She got it," he remarked. "In her last 11 starts she hasn't been worse than 1-2-3, and that's not just me. She figured it out and you could see her excel."

"She's on top of the world, and she knows it," Tuozzo said of his runner, who currently has an 11-3-3 record from 24 starts, for earnings of $303,310.

Purely Hot also thrived as the star of her young trainer's modest string. He showered her with attention, pampered her with "little things."

"She's particular," Caruso said. "She's not the kind of horse for the outfit that just trains her in the morning, picks her feet, pulls her halter, gives her hay and grain and walks away. She needs a certain kind of grain. She likes to stand in ice even though she has beautiful front legs. She wears a magnetic blanket three hours every day. She's on $25 of ulcer medicine a day, because she needs it. She's high-maintenance, but she can be as high-maintenance as she wants to be."

Among Purely Hot's victories were the Satin & Lace Stakes, a $100,000 local event she won by five lengths, and a prep race for the $400,000 Presque Isle Downs Masters. She took the prep with equal ease.

"It was such a perfect combination with her," Caruso said. "The surface, her mind … she got good. She thinks she's the best. We've watched her. She's turned the corner from being a nice horse to being a great horse because of her mind. She's very arrogant and cocky. She's proud of herself, and that makes a horse tough to beat."


I truly believe these horses, especially Purely Hot, are happy under the care of Nick and everybody around him.

"-- Mike Tuozzo, majority owner of Purely Hot

Streaking down the stretch in the 6½-furlong Masters on Sept. 9, Purely Hot lifted herself from the ranks of the average to the realm of top-notch runners. Rolling hard into a quick pace, she gained the lead at the top of the final turn and dug in for the drive, fighting tough as Groupie Doll -- the Eclipse award-winning champion female sprinter of 2012 -- came grinding home on her outside. The little mare made the champ work for it, then held for second in her biggest performance to date.

"I thought we had it," Tuozzo recalled. "I was with a whole group of people, my wife and father-in-law and his wife and their friends, and when we made that turn down the home stretch it was like, 'OK, it's happening again!'"

Groupie Doll, the winner of $1.9 million and seven graded stakes, got up for the victory over the gutsy former claimer by just a length and a half.

"I was very happy with that and so was Nick and my partner who has 30 percent, Dave Baal," Tuozzo said. "I truly believe these horses, especially Purely Hot, are happy under the care of Nick and everybody around him. I give all the credit to the team that's involved in the run we're having, making Purely Hot successful. We just took a shot, and it's worked out better than anybody could have imagined."

The mare brought Caruso into the limelight, leading him all the way to this upcoming start in another Grade 2 -- this one at one of the most prestigious tracks in the nation. In spite of his youth, he has remained focused on the plan, to get his runner to one more big race this season.

"I'm one of those people that I keep blinkers on as long as I can," the trainer said. "Even Harry [Vega] has been yelling at me all summer long, 'When you going to smile, when you gonna enjoy it?' But I'm the last person that can slow down and stop and enjoy it right now. I've gotta keep going. It's not over yet, you know?"

* * *

During morning training hours at Keeneland, Caruso said, Purely Hot is a spitfire ready to run. In spite of her small stature -- she stands 15 hands, 2 inches at best, her back easily fitting under Caruso's outstretched arm -- she is compact and muscled, put together well.

"She goes bright-eyed; she's hard to get to the track," Caruso remarked. "She doesn't do anything wrong, but when it comes time to put the tack on her, she wells up and puts her head between her legs and just drags you like 'whoosh' the whole way, on or off the track. Whether she's just jogging or working, it doesn't matter. She goes like a gorilla. As the summer's gone on, too, her shoulders and hindquarters have started to get bigger. She's tuned up nicely and she's done that on her own, just jogging. She may be little, but she strides out well."

Purely Hot has never raced at Keeneland. Caruso has never saddled a starter here. Touzzo has never entered a horse at the bluegrass oval, has never even attended these races as a fan. That single victory here for 48-year-old Vega, aboard champion Xtra Heat, came in the Grade 3 Phoenix Breeders' Cup Stakes in 2002 -- 11 years ago.

That all changes Saturday. The rematch is on. And while money will be on Groupie Doll to defend her title in the six-furlong Thoroughbred Club of America -- a race she won easily last year before taking the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint -- for one spitfire of a race mare who will go up against her, the most tremendous accomplishment lies in just being here.

Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning turf writer who covers horse racing for The Blood-Horse magazine in Lexington, Ky. Follow her on Twitter @bh_cnovak and read more of her work at www.bloodhorse.com.