Spring has Sprung, Keeneland in Full Bloom!
MURRAY WEST | Citizen Staff
This past weekend saw spring officially welcomed into central Kentucky, with opening day at glorious Keeneland! We quickly understood that the racing world was in good order when the opening race of the meet saw Bledsoe, a two-year-old son of Iqbaal, sprint away in mid-stretch for owner/breeder/trainer Wesley Ward. Ridden by Joel Rosario, rumor has it that the only reason Wesley didn’t ride his own horse was that he couldn’t make weight, the stewards refusing to allow him to ride at 40 pounds over-weight! But that’s just rumor!
Friday’s opening day saw an excellent undercard, with three excellent stakes races scheduled. In the second race, WinStar’s very promising filly Afternoon Tea drew in off the Also Eligibles list, and used her one race experience to prevail by a resolute head in a hard-fought victory over first-time starter American Retro. The third race saw the Nick Lotz-bred Hayunevano run too well to lose against Godolphin’s regally-bred Comparative, the latter finally gaining the advantage just before the wire, while the former comfortably held the place-position, a race auguring well for both these talented sophomore fillies. In the fourth, the fans got what many hoped for, when the Italian ace, the unparalleled Lefranco Dettori, scored impressively aboard the long-striding Hurricane Dream (FR), and rewarded his multitude of fans with his high-flying leap from the saddle! Opportunities to witness this riding wonder are fast-diminishing as Dettori has announced his heralded career will end with this year’s Breeders’ Cup, so it was indeed special to appreciate his greatness and showmanship one more time! The fifth race saw Positano Sunset prevail, she a talented daughter of Spendthrift stallion Goldencents. The latter, a multiple Grade One winner including consecutive runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, and earner of in excess of $3,000,000, was bred and raised on Chuck and Lyra Miller’s Rosecrest Farm in Bourbon County. The sixth, and final prelude to the stakes events, was captured by the Irish-bred bullet Her World (IRE), she a daughter of Caravaggio (Scat Daddy) who himself was a heralded turf sprinter, a five-time graded turf sprint winner including the G1 Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh and the G1 Commonwealth Cup at Ascot. Her World gave trainer Wesley Ward his second win on the day.
The 75th running of The Lafayette must surely be in the conversation for the toughest non-listed stakes race in the country. With a purse of $400,000, this seven-furlong event for sophomores drew a highly competitive field, with five of the seven contestants having already won or placed in stakes races elsewhere. Drawing a great deal of attention were the $3,550,000 two-year-old in training sales graduate and G1 stakes placed Hejazi, trained by Bob Baffert, and the very speedy, Brad Cox trained, Corona Bolt. With an even start, Hejazi was slightly outrun by Corona Bolt from the gate but quickly found his stride. By mid-backstretch Hejazi had moved to the outside of the leader, and pressured him throughout the final ½ mile. At the quarter pole, John Velazquez moved Hejazi alongside, challenged for the lead, and inside the quarter began to inch away, gaining a seeming ½ length approaching the eighth pole. Florent Geroux and Corona Bolt were far from finished however and, showing great courage, the bay son of Bolt d’Oro battled along the inside, came again to even terms with his adversary, and in the final 70 yards proved strongest, drawing off for a one length, very hard-fought victory. Early fractions were very honest, 22.28 for the quarter, 44.80 (22.52) for the half, with the 3/4s run in 1:09.83, and a final time of 1:23.21. Two excellent sprinting colts, appearing to be very equally matched, and perhaps likely to meet again in the Pat Day Mile to be contested on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs.
The G3 Transylvania, for three-year-olds at 1 1/16th mile on the turf, lost some luster with the scratch of the much-anticipated appearance of Carl Spackler (IRE), an Irish-bred son of Lope de Vega (IRE) who brought to this race not so m
uch daunting hard-earned racing credentials, but rather the anticipation of a heralded rising turf star, that status based upon a mere two-race history. The word is that the colt was scratched because of an unfavorable outside post position, and as such we would anticipate a stakes debut in the near future, perhaps at Churchill Downs. Mo Stash under Luis Saez broke sharply from the seven hole, quickly crossed over and was able to secure the rail spot heading into the first turn. Saez backed up his opposition with an opening quarter of 23.26 followed by a pedestrian quarters of 24.63 and 25.51 seconds. When the real running began around the turn, Mo Stash had plenty in reserve, and appeared never in doubt as he kicked on with a final 5/16th in 29.19 seconds while maintaining a one length advantage over Nagirroc to the wire.
The feature on Friday’s card was the venerable G1 Ashland Stakes, with past winners frequently having been adorned with year-end championship honors, this celebrated group including most recently Eclipse champions Nest, Malathaat and Monomoy Girl, and more historically such superstars as Silverbulletday, Inside Information, Go For Wand, and others of similar stature. As such, the Ashland stands alone as a career-making race for the victorious filly, her value as a broodmare escalating in a quantum leap! While seven hopeful sophomore fillies faced the starter, the betting public saw this as a three-horse race, with the
emerging, lightly-raced but so impressive Punchbowl (Uncle Mo) afforded slight favoritism over last year’s two-year-old juvenile champion filly, Wonder Wheel (Into Mischief). Julia Shining, an impeccably-bred daughter of Curlin out of 2022 Broodmare-of-the-Year, Dreaming of Julia, and thus a full-sister to 2023 Eclipse sophomore filly Malathaat, was a distant third choice at 5.20:1, with the remaining four fillies in double digits. Effortlesslyelegant took the lead from the outside seven stall, crossing over before the first turn and finding the desired rail spot, with favorite Punchbowl and longshot Defining Purpose stalking one length off the pace while running as a team, followed closely by Julia Shining and Wonder Wheel. Moving into the far turn Wonder Wheel appeared rank and never comfortable, and was unable to make an impression on the leaders when set down. Defining Purpose here moved alongside the now tiring leader, with Punchbowl following closely on the rail, while Julia Shining continued racing lapped on her outside. At this point Guns n’ Graces, initially trailing the field, put in what looked to be a big run, the long-striding filly closing steadily on the outside. Into the shortened stretch, Defining Purpose now surged to the front past the fading Effortlesslyelegant, while Punchbowl and Julia Shining moved as a pair to challenge the new leader. Straightening out for the 3/16th mile run home, Brian Hernandez on Defining Purpose still had a lot of horse under him, as she responded to his urgings and quickly spurted off to a 2 ½ length lead. At the sixteenth pole Punchbowl and Julia Shing found their best strides and began to close resolutely but Hernandez and Defining Purpose dug deep and held off the closing pair by a rapidly diminishing margin, victorious in the final tally by ½ length over Punchbowl who had a similar margin over Julia Shining. It was another three lengths back to Guns n’
Graces who appeared to run rather green once clear in the stretch. And so once again Kenny McPeek has
demonstrated why he has developed such a fine reputation for his ability to recognize quality in less-than-fashionable pedigrees and to maximize the potential in these horse, Brian Hernandez continues to display that he can ride a race-horse about as well as any jockey in the game, and the stallion Cross Traffic served notice that his two year old champion filly of 2018, Jaywalk, was not an aberration, and that very good things could well come from the largest and best-bred crop of 2023 foals sired by this son of Unbridled’s Song. To the Oaks!
The Maiden Special Weight carded as race two may have revealed two special colts. The eventual winner, Equivoque, showed early speed to establish position on the pace, stamina to run the challenging seven-furlong distance in his first start, courage to battle head-and-head with the more experienced Mullikin through a quarter mile stretch drive, and the raw talent to draw off and win in a time of 1:23.31, proving 0.11 seconds faster than the G3 Commonwealth for older horses run just three races later. Most impressive indeed! In spite of his clever name, there appears nothing ambiguous about the future for this very promising chestnut son of the rising star stallion, Good Magic, who stands at Hill n’ Dale at Xalapa in Bourbon County. The future is also bright for the runner-up Mullikin, he a son of the excellent Violence, an outstanding stallion also standing at John Sikura’s most picturesque breeding farm just outside Paris.
The first of five graded stakes was the aforementioned G3 Commonwealth for older horses at seven furlongs. Another stirring stretch duel saw the grey, Here Mi Song, under jockey Alex Archard, gain the victory by the narrowest of margins over Hoist The Gold in 1:23.42. Of note, this five-year-old gelding proved to be the second graded stakes winner of the weekend for Cross Traffic after Defining Purpose in the G1 Ashland. Outstanding results, especially for a stallion reportedly standing for $7,500 at Spendthrift Farm.
Like so many of the storied races at Keenland, the G2 Appalachian Stakes is rich in history, recent winners including Rushing Fall, Lady Eli, Dayatthespa, and Winter Memories to name just a few. Leading up to this race, while there were very well- credentialed sophomore fillies entering the gate, it is likely safe to say that none were anticipated to exit this running being held in the esteemed regard of any of the aforementioned winners. Because the race is restricted to three-year-old fillies, so many older distaffers ultimately await these sophomores, and while the winning margin was but a neck, there was something about the manner of the victory which gave warning that this winner could prove something special over time. Papilio (IRE), under Javier Castellano, broke cleanly then settled in mid-pack about eight lengths off the leaders, eager but under significant restraint. She was moved forward to the pack while seeking a gap but, finding none, Castellano was forced to bide his time, running now about six lengths back rounding the final turn. Into the stretch, with no openings in front of her, Castellano was here forced to hesitate while waiting for the horses to clear in front of him, then forcefully jerked the filly to the outside while avoiding the heels of those before her, in so doing momentarily losing momentum, whereupon from here he launched a bid in the middle of the track. Passing the eighth pole she was eight lengths back but once free of restraint Papilio (IRE) here showed an outstanding turn of foot, with what appeared to be an excellent turnover rate while simultaneously lengthening her stride. She closed dramatically with this explosive move but while so doing she attempted to bear in constantly, such that at no time could Javier sit down and just ride her, constantly having to use his right rein aggressively to keep her off horses to her inside. At no time was he able to just give her head and exploit her explosive acceleration to full advantage as she was constantly threatening to impede those horses to her inside as she passed, resulting in her momentum being noticeably interrupted on several occasions. In spite of this, she demonstrated such a turn of foot that she was still able to forge from six back at the 1/16th pole to prevail by a restrained, but widening, head margin for the victory in 1:36.32. Reviewing the chart fractions and race replay, she was clearly 5 lengths back at the eighth pole with the running time of 1:24.46 for the seven furlongs. This has her running her final eighth mile in a blistering 10.86 seconds while under partial restraint from Castellano. This filly bears watching!
The G1 Madison was a delight for many reasons, not the least of which was the return of the 2022 Eclipse Award winning distaff sprinter Goodnight Olive. With a record of 7-6-1-0, two G1 victories including the Filly and Mare Breeders’ Cup Sprint, over one million dollars in earning, along with a wonderful pedigree, at age five her retirement to the breeding shed would have been fully understood. This is particularly so when her paucity of starts over a three-year career would suggest issues that had to be carefully managed. But return she did, and she did so in style! Facing a quality field of competitors, she handled the situation with comparative ease. Breaking alertly and on top, when challenged to her outside by Yugiri and Society, Irad Ortiz Jr. eased back on his dark bay filly and chose to stalk these keen leaders. Allowing them to clear, Ortiz swung Goodnight Olive out to the three path around the turn, challenged outside these two approaching the quarter pole, and as they straightened for the push home she assumed the lead and appeared to have delt with the leaders. Mounting a run from behind was Maryquitecontrary, winner of five straight this winter at Gulfstream in Florida. Looking over his shoulder, Ortiz applied just enough pressure to his Goodnight Olive to assure her victory by a comfortable length on the wire. An excellent effort by the Florida invader, but not quite enough to upset the champion. Final time for the race was 1:23.12 for the seven furlongs. The champ is back, and we’re all delighted to see her and watch this 2023 campaign!
The G3 Shakertown going 5 ½ furlongs over the turf drew a full field of sprint specialists including Caravel, the now six-year-old grey mare who proved victorious over this same turf course last November in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Again, taking on the boys today, she demonstrated last year was no fluke. Using the same tactics as last fall, the daughter of Mizzen Mast exploded to the front out of the gate and, with Tyler Gaffalione keeping her to task, she stayed strong and true through the stretch. A head in front at the quarter pole, a head at the eighth pole, and a resilient and beautiful head on the wire…and that is why they call her “champ,” because, somehow, someway, the best find a way!
The feature of the day, weekend, and Spring meet did not disappoint, with an epic renewal of an epic race. An abundance of serious contenders entered the gate, none more scrutinized than the tall, slender grey in the one hole, the very impressive Tapit Trice. Two stalls over in the three spot was Verifying, a bay son of 2018 Triple Crown winner, Justify. At the break Clear The Air forged to the lead, stalked closely by Verifying. Tapit Trice, breaking more effectively today than recently, was tight to the rail about five lengths off the lead entering the first turn. With the leading pack getting some separation at this juncture, here Luiz Saez made a pivotal move on the long-striding grey son of Tapit, moving well off the rail into the three path around the turn, shifting out even further into the four path once straightening out down the back stretch. Midway down the backside Saez asked his mount to pick it up and so he did, then moving four wide around the turn outside of Verifying who was now challenging for the lead. Hitting the quarter pole, with the long Keeneland stretch before them, here these two youngsters drew off from their competitors, turning an eleven-horse field into a virtual match race. There was no class difference here, no disparity in effort or desire or courage, for here we bore witness to two outstanding representatives of this grand breed doing what they were bred to do, and doing so at the highest level our sport has to offer. In the final analysis Tapit Trice on the outside was finally able to prevail over the equally courageous Verifying along the rail, inching ahead in the final seventy yards to prevail by a slowly widening neck margin, with 5 3/4 lengths back to Blazing Sevens in third. The Derby is upon us. It would not surprise if either or both of these colts have a significant say in the outcome of that historic race. We cannot wait!