Lucky Player took the first major step toward next year’s running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) and earned a guaranteed spot in the starting gate for this year’s $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) when he held off stablemate Bold Conquest in deep stretch to score a neck victory in the 33rd running of the $115,500 Iroquois (GIII) for 2-year-olds, one of four stakes races run on the first Saturday of Churchill Downs’ 12-date September Meet.

Steve Asmussen trains the top two finishers in the field of nine for the 1 1/16-mile Iroquois and won the race for the third time in his career. Ricardo Santana Jr. rode the winner, an 11-1 longshot who tracked a slow early pace set by favored Mr. Z and out-kicked Bold Conquest and Joel Rosario in the final yards to collect first stakes victory. Hashtag Bourbon, bottled up along the rail in traffic for much of the race, finally found room in the stretch and rallied to finish third, 1 ½ lengths behind the runner-up.

With the victory by Lucky Player, owner Jerry Durant’s son of Lookin at Lucky became the early leader in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” (“RTTKD”) points system that will determine the eligibility of horses vying to be part of the maximum field of 20 3-year-old Thoroughbreds that will compete in next spring’s Kentucky Derby. Lucky Player earned 10 RTTKD points with his Iroquois triumph, while Bold Conquest picked up four for his runner-up effort.

Along with its implications for the 2015 Kentucky Derby, the Iroquois also was the first event in the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In Juvenile Division” and the win guaranteed Lucky Player a spot in the starting gate for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) at Santa Anita on Saturday, Nov. 1. He also will receive a travel stipend of $10,000 for his journey to the Arcadia, Calif. track.

Lucky Player covered the 1 1/16-mile distance over a fast track in 1:45.76 and returned $25, $8.40 and $5.60. Bold Conquest, a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin owned by Ackerley Brothers Farm, paid $6 and $4.20. Hashtag Bourbon, a son of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver trained by Kellyn Gorder, rallied under Brian Hernandez Jr. to finish third and returned $3.60 to show.

“Lucky Player was laying extremely well, he was in a perfect spot,” Asmussen said. “Ricardo gave him a great trip. I think he benefitted a lot from his two-turn race that he had previously [in the Prairie Juvenile Mile at Iowa’s Prairie Meadows], and then Bold Conquest – I think he was a little wide early, [and there was] not a lot of pace, but he still continued well.

“I thought they both looked well, they looked good under the wire, they maintained the margin and I think both horses will get better with experience.”

The Iroquois victory improved the career record for Lucky Player to 2-1-0 in four races, with his earlier victory coming in his May 23 debut at Churchill Downs. The winner’s purse of $68,746 increased his career earnings to $115,691.

Favored Mr. Z, trained by Hall of Famer and four-time Kentucky Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas, jumped to the lead from post two with Lucky Player in closest pursuit and jockey Corey Lanerie guided the leader through modest fractions of :23.41 for a quarter mile, :49.51 for the half-mile and six furlongs in 1:14.82.  Lucky Player and Santana challenged the leader and grabbed a narrow advantage on the far turn while Bold Conquest rallied five-wide to take on his stablemate. Hashtag Bourbon, who had broken from the inside post, was bottled up behind the leaders and hemmed-in from the outside by Cleveland Sound into upper stretch, while Danny Boy, who had settled on the inside near the back of the field, launched a five-wide bid on turn. Lucky Player and Bold Conquest battled through the stretch, and the latter stuck his head in front in mid-stretch as the two horses brushed. Hashtag Bourbon managed to get free and swing to the outside late, but could not make up enough ground on the top pair. Danny Boy rallied for fourth.

Mr. Z, the pacesetting favorite, faded to fifth, and was followed by Cleveland Sound, Holy Frazier, Dekabrist and The Gorilla Man.

Hashtag Bourbon’s third-place run was good for two “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points, while Danny Boy collected a single point for his fourth-place run.

IROQUOIS QUOTES

STEVE ASMUSSEN, trainer of Lucky Player and Bold Conquest (winner and runner-up): “Lucky Player was laying extremely well, he was in a perfect spot. Ricardo [Santana] gave him a great trip. I think he benefitted a lot from his two-turn race that he had previously [Prairie Juvenile Mile], and then Bold Conquest, I think he was a little wide early, not a lot of pace but he still continued well.”

“I thought they both looked well, they looked good under the wire, they maintained the margin and I think both horses will get better with experience.”

“I think with Lucky Player, with four races already, and a different type, (and) Bold Conquest being a bigger and heavier horse with the two turns, he would most likely come back sooner. We’ll see how they come out of this attitude wise and see how they go back to the track.”

RICARDO SANTANA JR., jockey of Lucky Player (winner): “He had a clean trip; he’s a really nice horse. He relaxed really nicely. When we were turning for home and I asked him, he really showed his class in this race. I was pretty confident going into this race. When I rode him at Prairie Meadows and he came down the stretch and saw all the lights, I think he almost got caught in it a little bit. I had more confidence in him running during the day. He’s a nice horse. I told Mr. Asmussen after I broke his maiden here that I definitely wanted to ride him again.”

JOEL ROSARIO, jockey of Bold Conquest (runner-up): “We had a good trip; the race broke fast and my horse broke a little slow. He finished well and did everything right after that. I just think the other horse was a little better today. If Steve asked me to get on him again I’d be more than happy to ride him next time.”

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