Tom Walters’ Elite Squadron took the lead out of the gate and never looked back in posting a front-running 4 1/2-length victory in the 74th running of the $282,000 Churchill Downs (Grade II), the first of six graded stakes on the Kentucky Derby 134 card at Churchill Downs on Saturday afternoon.
With John Velazquez aboard, Elite Squadron blazed through fractions of :21.98 and :43.70 after breaking from the inside in the field of eight four-year-olds and up. At the head of the stretch, Elite Squadron repulsed a challenge from Hewitts and drew off to cover the seven furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.53. It was the second win in the Churchill Downs for Velazquez.
The victory was worth $169,594 and raised his career total to $433,705 with five victories in 12 starts. Trained by James Baker, Elite Squadron is a four-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Officer out of the High Brite mare Sweet Mama.
Elite Squadron, who just missed by a head at 38-1 odds in the Grade II Commonwealth in his most recent start at Keeneland, returned mutuels of $10.80, $5.60 and $4. Favored Noonmark, ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan, rallied to nip Hewitts for second by a head to pay $4.60 and $3.80. Hewitts, under Kent Desormeaux, paid $3.80 to show.
Churchill Downs, the world’s most legendary racetrack, has conducted Thoroughbred racing and presented America’s greatest race, the Kentucky Derby, continuously since 1875. Located in Louisville, the flagship racetrack of Churchill Downs Incorporated (NASDAQ Global Select Market: CHDN) also operates Trackside at Churchill Downs, which offers year-round simulcast wagering at the historic track. Churchill Downs will conduct the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 3, 2008. The track’s 2008 Spring Meet runs from April 26 through July 6. Churchill Downs has hosted the Breeders’ Cup World Championships a record six times. Information about Churchill Downs can be found on the Internet at www.churchilldowns.com.
STAKES QUOTES: THE CHURCHILL DOWNS
John Velazquez (winning jockey, Elite Squadron) – “It’s a fast track today and he’s a fast horse. He was doing it comfortably. I learned a lot from last time (when second in the Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland). I knew I needed to save some for the end. I waited until they came at me at the quarter pole and he had plenty.”
James Baker (winning trainer, Elite Squadron) – “This horse has lots of speed and it’s obvious speed is holding today. I just told Johnny, ‘Ride your race and see how it breaks and nurse him along.’ He did a wonderful job with him. He loves the track – horses for courses. I was a little worried when I saw :43 for the half. I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I was ready to cry I’m so happy.
“I think we’ll run in the Aristides (Grade III at Churchill Downs on May 31), I’d have to say.”
Shaun Bridgmohan (jockey, Noonmark, 2nd) – “I had a good trip. He settled nice for me. The winner ran a real nice race today. A ton of speed. I expected it to come back a little bit after going so fast for the distance, but my horse ran a very credible race and he ran hard all the way to the wire.”
Steve Asmussen (trainer, Noonmark, 2nd) – “The winner went wire to wire. That’s a concern for later today. The racetrack’s lightning tight. The question will be if you can reel ‘em (the frontrunners) in.”
Kent Desormeaux (jockey, Hewitts, 3rd) – “He slipped leaving the starting gate and that kinda lost a little position there. But he put me right back in the race and I was enjoying a catbird ride, that perfect stalking position. The winner ran awesome so I was happy with my horse’s effort.”