Jesus’ Team, the plucky, one-time $35,000 claimer-turned-millionaire, returns Sunday, headlining the field for the City of Dania Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Jesus' Team-Return
Jesus’ Team won December’s Claiming Crown Jewel Stakes for his only stakes victory. The one-time claimer returns to the track as a millionaire for Sunday’s City of Dania Stakes at Gulfstream Park. (Image: Lauren King/Coglianese Photos)

That one-mile test is for 3-year-olds and up. And should Jesus’ Team pass that test to the satisfaction of trainer Jose D’Angelo, next on his agenda is the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga Aug. 7. That’s only one of the premier older horse races in the country.

“He’s doing well. He’s ready to run next weekend,” D’Angelo told Gulfstream Park last weekend. “I think he needs this race to get ready and get back to what we did last year and qualify for the Breeders’ Cup.”

What Jesus’ Team did last year provided motivation to every claiming horse and claimer owner in barns around North America. He ran 10 times in 2020, starting with an eighth in a January maiden claimer at Gulfstream and finishing with a victory in the Claiming Crown Jewel Stakes at Gulfstream in December.

Jesus’ Team opened a lot of eyes in 2020

In between, the one-time claimer won two more claiming races and finished second in an allowance. He then finished fourth in the Grade 1 Haskell, second in the Listed Pegasus Stakes, third in the Grade 3 Jim Dandy, third in the Preakness (at 40/1) and second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (at 62/1).

That’s going from an eighth in a maiden claimer to a stakes victory in less than 11 months. Oh, and hitting the board in five stakes races.

Jesus’ Team hasn’t run since his sixth at the Dubai World Cup in late March. That broke a string of six consecutive in-the-money finishes dating to that Pegasus Stakes runner-up last August. The 4-year-old son of Tapiture opened his 2021 campaign finishing second to Knicks Go in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational.

The horses who beat him read like a Who’s Who

When you look at who Jesus’ Team has tangled with, it’s a deep and talented list. Putting aside his Claiming Crown win, the winners of his last five races were Mystic Guide, Knicks Go (twice), Swiss Skydiver and Mystic Guide again. That’s a lot of firepower. And should he run the Whitney, Jesus’ Team will likely see Knicks Go yet again.

To get back to that form, D’Angelo worked Jesus’ Team out three times in June and last Saturday at the Palm Meadows Training Center near Gulfstream Park. Saturday’s five-furlong work was a bullet 1:00.65 breeze that was the fastest of four at that distance.

Jesus’ Team showed versatility distance-wise. The Claiming Crown, his only stakes score to date, came at 1 1/8 miles. That nine-furlong distance accounted for his Pegasus World Cup and Jim Dandy placings. He finished third in the Preakness at 1 3/16 miles.

A $35,000 purchase banked more than $1.3 million

“He’s good at a distance, but he ran well in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. He just needs a good pace in front of him,” D’Angelo said. “Coming off the layoff, he’s good at one mile at Gulfstream.”

Jesus’ Team is 3-5-3 in 15 career starts, good for $1,338,540 in career earnings. Just this year in his two races, he banked $820,000. Not a bad two months for a horse who sold for $30,000 at the 2018 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.