Two unexpected contenders claimed a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May by posting upset victories in the final major preps for the Kentucky Derby, which was won by 50-1 longshot Mine that Bird last year.
In the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby from Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Line of David went off at 17-1 and led every step of the way, earning $600,000 for owners Ike and Dawn Thrash, while punching his ticket to the Derby.
Making his stakes debut, Line of David set quick splits under Jon Court, opening up a clear lead on the back stretch before battling through the lane to hold off Super Saver and Dublin to his outside.
After trying his hand in southern California, Court moved his tack back to the midwest last year, and now he has his first mount in the Kentucky Derby. It was his first time riding the son of Lion Heart, which goes to show that you never know where and when a Derby mount can come from.
Line of David entered the race off wins in his last two starts, including a maiden victory, going a mile on the turf at Santa Anita Park. He has not trailed at any point in his last three starts since adding blinkers.
"It really was (the plan to try and lead the whole way). He ran a beautiful race," said trainer John Sadler, whose Sidney's Candy also punched his ticket to Kentucky in wire-to-wire fashion by winning the Santa Anita Derby last Saturday. "We’re going to enjoy this one first and worry about strategy later.”
Sadler followed Bob Baffert’s lead by sending horses from the synthetic in California to the dirt at Oaklawn. In the past couple of months, Baffert has won three stakes races at Oaklawn with Lookin at Lucky, Conveyance, and most recently Total Bull in a minor stake on Thursday.
Additionally, Gayego and Papa Clem shipped in from California to win the previous two runnings of the Arkansas Derby.
"We’re really happy. This horse had been training really, really well at home. We wanted to give him a try on a natural surface. He’s been winning on turf and he’s trained like a really good horse," said Sadler, who ran sixth with Corby in his only previous trip to the Kentucky Derby in 1993.
"We’re setting up camp at Churchill on Monday or Tuesday with Sidney’s Candy, Crisp (Kentucky Oaks contender) and a few others. We’re going to have a little division at Churchill so it’s going to be fun."
In the Grade 1, $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Ky., Stately Victor went off as the longest shot on the board at 40-1 and posted the biggest upset in the history of the race. He roared past Paddy O' Prado down the stretch under the right-handed whip of jockey Alan Garcia to score by over four lengths.
"Wow, what can I say. He was very impressive," said Garcia. "I had a good trip after he broke a little slow, but I saved all the ground. (Trainer) Mike Maker just told me to be patient and was very confident with him."
A son of Ghostzapper, Stately Victor sold for $250,000 last spring, but only had a maiden win to his credit entering the race. He hadn’t finished better than fifth in five races since breaking his maiden.
He earned $450,000 for his owner Thomas Conway.
Paddy O' Prado, who had $10,000 bet on him to win in the Dream Bet promotion by a young couple from Tennessee with a baby on the way, dueled with Odysseus for six furlongs and was able to open up a lead at the top of the stretch before Stately Victor came charging past him, finally fulfilling the potential that Maker had been waiting to see.
Stately Victor had broken from the rail in four of his first five starts, and from the outside post 14 in his lone stakes race in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity in his only other try over the poly track at Keeneland. He came into this race having closed well to miss by just under two lengths after a wide trip on the turf at Gulfstream Park in a non-winners of one allowance race, after having run a dull eighth in a similar race three weeks earlier.
“I’ve always been high on this horse. After a while when a horse underachieves you forget about him. I never quit believing in him," said Maker. "Gulfstream wasn’t to his liking on the turf course and he had bad trips. He's one of those horses you make excuses for every time."
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