It was just one stop on the long road to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, but last Saturdayâ€™s Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park was a dazzler.
When the timer stopped with a record clocking of 1:41.81 for a mile and a sixteenth, Florida-based Itsmyluckyday had validated his status as one of Americaâ€™s top contenders for the 139th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands with an impressive win over previously unbeaten Shanghai Bobby, the 2-year-old champion of 2012 and the early favorite for the â€œRun for the Roses,â€ in a performance that lifted the status of both horses.
The sizzling runs by the top two finishers set a strong tone for the Derby preps to follow and, despite the loss, the reigning champ continued to sit atop the point standings in Churchill Downsâ€™ new â€œRoad to the Kentucky Derbyâ€ system that will determine the starters for the Derbyâ€™s 2013 renewal on Saturday, May 4.
The top of the standings have a distinct Kentucky feel. The names include (with point totals):
1. (T-tie) Shanghai Bobby (24)
2. (T) Goldencents (24)
3. Oxbow (11)
4. (T)Violence (10)
5. (T) Itsmyluckyday (10)
6. (T) Overanalyze (10)
7. (T) Uncaptured (10)
8. (T) Power Broker (10)
9. (T) Steeler-IRA (10)
10. Will Take Charge (10)
11. River Seven (10)
A win by either of the top two could be credited as the first Kentucky Derby victory for a Louisville-based owner since Bashford Manor Farm scored its second win in the race with Sir Huon in 1906. Shanghai Bobby is owned by Starlight Racing, a partnership headed by Louisville native and managing partner Jack Wolf that includes Louisvillians Ed and Clinton Glasscock. The partnership that owns Goldencents includes Rick Pitino, the coach of the University of Louisville basketball Cardinals.
Oxbow also has strong Kentucky connections. The son of 1998 Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again is owned by Brad Kelleyâ€™s Bluegrass Hall LLC. Kelley is the onetime Franklin, Ky. tobacco farmer who is now one Americaâ€™s wealthiest citizens and largest land owners. The colt is trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who is seeking his fifth Kentucky Derby victory with Kelleyâ€™s colt and Willis Hortonâ€™s Will Take Charge, who won the Smarty Jones Stakes just over a week ago.
Lukas also has strong possible contender on the bench in Titletown Five, who is expect to return to racing in mid-March after undergoing surgery to remove a bone chip. Owned by Louisville native and Green Bay Packers legend Paul Hornung, Titletown Five was one of the most impressive winners during last fallâ€™s Churchill Downs Fall Meet and appears to have both the ability and pedigree to be a Derby contender if he bounces back well from that procedure.
For the moment, the spotlight is brightest on Holy Bull heroes Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby.
The winner was coming off a very sharp win in the Gulfstream Park Derby that was huge leap from seven previous starts. The Holy Bull proved the previous win was no fluke and, at the very least, that this fast colt loves Gulfstream Park. If things continue to go well for the winner, he would be the second Kentucky Derby hope for Calder Race Course-based trainer Eddie Plesa Jr.
The first losing effort in the career of Shanghai Bobby actually moved the champion up in this corner. It was his first start of the year and trainer Todd Pletcher did not figure to have him cranked up for his 3-year-old debut, and he drew a rail post that forced his hand in terms of tactics.
Shanghai Bobby went to the front and turned back the bid of Clear Now, but could not hold off Itsmyluckyday, who rallied from a perfect stalking spot in third to win by two lengths. The Holy Bull was his first career loss, but he finished 11 Â½ lengths in front of the third-place finisher in a race that was arguably the best race of his career.
Post-race reports indicate the Holy Bullâ€™s top two will most likely meet again the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 30.
While the top two sparkled in the Holy Bull, a couple of Churchill Downs-based Derby hopes exited the race with major questions. Trainer Ken McPeekâ€™s Frac Daddy and the Dale Romans-trained Dewey Square, the 2-3 finishers in last fallâ€™s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, finished sixth and seventh â€“ beaten by 16 Â¾ and 28 Â½ lengths, respectively â€“ in the Holy Bull.
Despite very disappointing runs by both, each remains on the Kentucky Derby trail.
Frac Daddy suffered a cut on his left front foot early in the race, known in racing as â€œgrabbing a quarter,â€ and McPeek said heâ€™ll probably be outfitted with blinkers next time out. Romans said Dewey Square appeared to dislike the track in an effort he compared to a dismal 2010 run in the Fountain of Youth by Shackleford, who rebounded to just miss a win in the Florida Derby, finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness.
Next up on the â€œRoad to the Kentucky Derbyâ€ trail are a trio of 1 1/16-mile races on the East and West coasts, each worth 10 points to the winner, on Saturday, Feb. 7: the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs and the Withers at Aqueduct.
At the end of Saturdayâ€™s racing â€“ when the clock hits 6:30 or so, EST â€“ 90 days will remain to prepare for Kentucky Derby 139.