The following appeared in Florida Today and was written by Terry Conway. Catholic Boy, entered in Saturday’s $1 Million Florida Derby, is trained by Johnathan Thomas — son of Virginia Equine Alliance’s Track Superintendent J.D. Thomas. The Florida Derby highlights a stakes filled card at Gulfstream Park and is one of the key Kentucky Derby prep races.
Being a top assistant to one of the world’s foremost thoroughbred trainers brought a young horseman in daily contact with some of the sport’s biggest stars.
Jonathan Thomas travelled the country executing a master game plan and shared the joy of winning some of the most prestigious races. He learned how to cultivate young horses into top-class runners, including the likes of Uncle Mo, Super Saver and Eskendereya.
On the flip side, assistant trainers are first to arrive at the barn in the dark early morning hours and last to leave after sundown.
They check legs and feet for signs of inflammation, refill feed tubs for missed meals and school young runners at the starting gate. The list of duties goes on and on. And for assistant trainers, anonymity comes with the territory.
The unsung status could change Saturday when Ocala-based Thomas saddles Catholic Boy in the $1 million Florida Derby run at 1 1/8 mile at Gulfstream Park. Sitting on 14 Derby qualifying points, Catholic Boy needs a solid first or second place finish to put him into the starting gates at Churchill Downs on May 5.
A multiple graded stakes winner last year, Catholic Boy has won three of five starts with earnings of $354,000. Thomas is pleased with how his colt is doing entering the biggest test of his career.
“I think he’s progressed well from the last race he ran and his energy level is good,” said Thomas, for six years a pupil of Todd Pletcher, a seven-time Trainer of the Year. “He got a two-turn effort under his belt and we learned how he likes to be ridden. He broke his maiden at Gulfstream on the turf. He summered last year, so it’s a familiar place for him.”