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Keeneland has provided a training option for Derby hopefuls

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — While the path to the Kentucky Derby has wound through Florida, New York, California and other places, some hopefuls have found a quiet little stopover down the road from Churchill Downs at Keeneland.

No matter what happens in the 142nd Run for the Roses on May 7, some trainers have found a comfort zone for preparation at the picturesque little track in Bluegrass country.

Keeneland has stabled four of 20 Derby qualifiers for various stints this month and even more filly hopefuls in the Oaks on May 6. The Blue Grass Stakes produced a possible Derby contender in winner Brody’s Cause, who has another Grade 1 victory along with a third in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile here.

A peaceful setting including lush, rolling meadows might explain his love of the track.

“It’s laid out for horses,” said trainer Dale Romans, who quickly moved Brody’s Cause and Cherry Wine, who finished third in the Blue Grass, to Churchill Downs.

“It’s big and nice, almost like a park environment. I think the horses enjoy being there.”

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Many have returned this spring.

Keeneland welcomed 45 horses who competed in the Breeders’ Cup last October, including four winners who raced during the spring meet that concludes on Friday.

Blue Grass runner-up My Man Sam has also trained at Keeneland before moving to Churchill a couple of weeks ago.

One notable Breeders’ Cup champion at Keeneland has been Juvenile winner Nyquist, who has trained here since winning the Florida Derby on April 2. The unbeaten colt figures to draw a sizable crowd for Friday’s final workout on the main track before heading to Louisville, and trainer Doug O’Neill is eager see him take another big step toward the Derby.

O’Neill has an Oaks hopeful in Land Over Sea here as well and has been pleased with all of his horses’ workouts and temperament. He credits being at Keeneland for providing a friendly training atmosphere.

Bad weather hasn’t been a deterrent thanks to a training track with a synthetic surface that sits just below the main track that switched to dirt nearly two years ago. The view is pretty good, too.

“It’s the best of both worlds here,” O’Neill said of Keeneland. “If every race track had enough real estate to add a synthetic track as a training track, it’s really gold. It has a big barn area, a full barn area, yet it’s spread out. It’s a place where horses are happy.”

Though Nyquist didn’t race at Keeneland, O’Neill praised track officials for making him and his horses welcome and comfortable during their extended visit. Those qualities didn’t surprise him nor Romans, who added that horsemen have always received “first class treatment” there.

Whether Nyquist’s comfort level helps him earn the garland of roses in eight days remains to be seen. O’Neill certainly believes being here trumped the logistics of trying to ship the horse back to his California base.

Keeneland vice president of racing W.B. Rogers Beasley said creating that option was part of the plan. The goal was bringing the track in line with the industry in hopes of attracting top-flight competitors, trainers and events such as the Breeders’ Cup.

Keeneland’s plan came to fruition with the track’s first Breeders’ Cup and paid off with the presence of Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, who capped his stellar career by dominating the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The subsequent return of past competitors and Derby contenders suggest good feelings remain.

“Having all those horses come and run here, especially for a lot of people from California who would not come in very often, I think it was a big boost for us,” Beasley said. “That tells you several things: how much they liked racing here and how much they liked the services.”

Beasley is hopeful that horsemen will spread the word and help lure others to Keeneland in prepping for the first jewel in racing’s Triple Crown. For now it’s just a matter of whether training here produces a Derby champion, a prospect Romans feels good about.

“It’s by far the best choice I’ve had there,” he said. “I like prepping at Keeneland and doing all my work in Kentucky.”

Tiger Roll wins Grand National in photo finish

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AINTREE, England — Tiger Roll won the Grand National Steeplechase in a photo finish over Pleasant Company as Irish horses dominated the world’s most famous steeplechase at Aintree on Saturday.

A 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) race was won by a matter of inches in the closest finish to the Grand National since 2012, when Neptune Collonges won by a nose.

Tiger Roll, a 10-1 shot, was leading by as much as 10 lengths in the long run to the line, but only just held off the fast-finishing Pleasant Company (25-1) to win a first prize of 500,000 pounds ($710,000).

“I did have a big fear,” said jockey Davy Russell, who won the race for the first time at his 14th attempt. “It would have been heartbreaking.”

The first four horses home in the National were from Ireland, including Bless The Wings (40-1) and Anibale Fly (10-1).

It was the second National victory for both trainer Gordon Elliott, who also won with Silver Birch in 2007, and owner Michael O’Leary, who had 2016 winner Rule The World. O’Leary is chief executive of budget airline Ryanair.

“We bought the horse as a pint-sized hurdler,” O’Leary said, “but he’s got a heart of a lion.”

Russell grew up dreaming of winning the National. As a child, he erected Aintree-style fences in his garden and pretended to ride a horse over them.

“I’ve won this race thousands of times (in my head),” Russell said. “But not like this.”

David Mullins, the jockey of Pleasant Company, said he thought he was well-beaten after jumping the next-to-last fence.

“Davy was going so much better than me,” Mullins said.

That seemed to be the case as the horses made it past the elbow in the run to the line, but Pleasant Company closed in as Tiger Roll faded. It was too close to call as they crossed the line and the 171st edition of the race required a photo finish to separate them.

Total Recall went off as the 7-1 favorite but fell.

 

Baffert: McKinzie won’t run in Santa Anita Derby

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) McKinzie will miss the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 because of an unspecified problem.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert confirmed the colt won’t run in the West Coast’s major prep for the Kentucky Derby due to an issue in one of his hind legs. X-rays and scans haven’t confirmed what it is.

Baffert said Saturday in Dubai that McKinzie is “definitely out,” according to multiple media reports. He says he’s being “very cautious.”

The colt edged Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes on March 10, but was disqualified and placed second for interference in the stretch.

McKinzie was 10th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 40 points for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. The colt won the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 9 and the Sham Stakes on Jan. 6.

Baffert was in the Middle East to saddle West Coast and Mubtaahij to second- and third-place finishes in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.