The Road to the Kentucky Derby officially begins Saturday at Churchill Downs as nine juvenile prospects, led by Saratoga Special (Grade II) and Sanford (GIII) runner-up Mr. Z, go to post in the 33rd running of the $100,000-added Iroquois (Grade III) – the nation’s first two-turn graded stakes race on dirt for 2-year-olds.
The 1 1/16-mile Iroquois, which pays homage to the famous colt that was the first American-bred to win the famed English Derby in 1881, is the first of 35 races that will determine which horses qualify to the 141st running of the $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) on Saturday, May 2, 2015. Points awarded to the Top 4 Iroquois finishers will be 10-4-2-1 as part of the 19-race “Prep Season” that showcases foundation-building races in advance of the “Kentucky Derby Championship Series,” which begins in late February.
Also, the Iroquois kick-starts the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Juvenile Challenge Division, which means the winner will receive an automatic berth in the starting gate for the $2 million Juvenile (GI) at Santa Anita on Nov. 1 with pre-entry and entry fees paid plus a $10,000 travel stipend (if nominated).
Zayat Stables’ Mr. Z, a debut winner at Churchill Downs during the Spring Meet, is the most accomplished of the entrants with two seconds against graded stakes competition at Saratoga. Conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, the Malibu Moon colt was beaten a neck in the six-furlong Sanford on July 19. Three weeks later, he appeared poised for a win in the 6 ½-furlong Saratoga Special following a rough start, but was outrun down the lane by the Tony Dutrow-trained favorite I Spent It, who won convincingly by 2 ¾ lengths in 1:16.79. Mr. Z was five lengths clear of third-place finisher W V Jetsetter.
“I got out and thought I was home free but (I Spent It) just came and beat us,” said jockey Corey Lanerie, a five-time leading rider at Churchill Downs. “I think we just hit a freak. Take him out of the race and my horse looks like a superstar. I think Mr. Z is a really, really nice horse and the two turns will help him a whole lot. I think he’s got a big future. I worked him (four furlongs in :47 on Monday at Churchill Downs) and he worked great for Wayne. He looks like he couldn’t be doing any better.”
The Iroquois might be one of the few stakes races that Lukas hasn’t won at Churchill Downs. Lukas, who celebrated his 79th birthday on Tuesday, ranks second all-time in Churchill Downs stakes wins with 73 (only behind Bill Mott’s 88), but is 21-0-3-3 in the Iroquois dating back to 1987. His best finishes were seconds with Bite the Bullet (1989), Partner’s Hero (1996), Yarrow Brae (1997) and thirds with Richard of England (1991), Gold Dollar (2001) and Starbase (2006). His last Iroquois starter came in 2011 when Chalybeate Springs finished fifth.
Bourbon Lane Stable’s Hashtag Bourbon is one of two listed stakes winners in the field. The son of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver broke his maiden with a patient 4 ½-length romp in the $100,000 Mountaineer Juvenile over six furlongs on Aug. 2, which was his second career start. He rallied from fifth after the first quarter mile, about four lengths back in the field of six.
“I expect him to maybe be a little closer than he was in his last race,” trainer Kellyn Gorder said of Saturday’s race. “He’s also breaking better each time he runs. His first race (a third place finish 3 ¼ lengths back of Mr. Z in a maiden special weight on June 28), he basically just stood there in the gate; he didn’t break well at all. I think he should handle the distance fine.”Other notable entries include Ackerley Brothers Farm’s Saratoga second-out maiden winner Bold Conquest, who hopes to give 14-time Churchill Downs training champ Steve Asmussen his third Iroquois win (he won the race with Thiskyhasnolimit and Astrology in 2009-10), and Ellis Park maiden winner Danny Boy, who won at first asking at one mile on turf for Donegal Racing and trainer Dale Romans. The latter is reminiscent of their Iroquois winner a year ago, 34-1 shocker Cleburne.
Asmussen also has entered Jerry Durant’s Florida-bred Lucky Player, who was beaten a neck in the $100,000 Prairie Meadows Juvenile Mile on Aug. 9. Graham Motion, who saddled Animal Kingdom to victory in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, invades from the east with West Point Thoroughbreds’ Cleveland Sound, who’ll be treated with the diuretic Lasix for the first time following a troubled fourth-place finish in the Saratoga Special.
The complete Iroquois field from the rail out (with jockeys, trainers and morning line odds): Hashtag Boubon (Brian Hernandez Jr., Gorder, 4-1); Mr. Z (Lanerie, Lukas, 5-2); Dekabrist (Didiel Osorio, Gennadi Dorochenko, 20-1); Holy Frazier (Chris Landeros, Kenny McPeek, 12-1); Lucky Player (Ricardo Santana Jr., Asmussen, 5-1); Cleveland Sound (Shaun Bridgmohan, Motion, 6-1); Danny Boy (Miguel Mena, Romans, 5-1); Bold Conquest (Joel Rosario, Asmussen, 4-1); and The Gorilla Man (Jesus Castanon, John Bordonaro, 30-1).
Dekabrist, the winner of Gulfstream’s $43,750 Kodiak Island in June and not an original Iroquois nominee, was supplemented to the race for $3,000. All horses, except The Gorilla Man, are Breeders’ Cup nominated.
The Iroquois is one of four stakes races on the first Saturday of Churchill Downs’ 12-date September Meet. First post for the 11-race program is 12:45 p.m. ET. The Iroquois goes as Race 9 at approximately 4:55 p.m. ET. Other stakes races on the card are the $100,000-added Ack Ack Handicap (GIII) for top milers (Race 4 at 2:19 p.m.), the $100,000-added Locust Grove for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles (Race 8 at 4:24 p.m.) and the $200,000-added Pocahontas (GII), which starts the 31-race “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” (Race 10 at 5:27 p.m.).