Mill House's homebred Brilliant, the 4-5 favorite, kicked his way to the front at the sixteenth pole and stayed unbeaten on the turf in three starts with a half-length victory in the Jefferson Cup (gr. IIT) for 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs Saturday.
The Jefferson is the first of six graded stakes on the Churchill Downs program, which is capped by the $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I).
Brilliant, ridden by Robby Albarado, was making his graded stakes debut for trainer Neil Howard. The Kentucky-bred son of War Chant
-Fairest (Known Fact) overtook pacesetter Tahoe Warrior just past the sixteenth pole and won in a full drive to the wire after a comfortable ground-saving trip.
"The best way to describe his performance is that he ran to his name, Brilliant," said Albarado. "He does everything so well. He's such a classy horse. This horse is going to go on and do some bigger things."
Tahoe Warrior, Garrett Gomez aboard, held second by a long neck over the closing Storm Treasure and Shaun Bridgmohan.
The final time for the 1 1/8-mile test on firm turf was 1:48 2/5.
Yate's Black Cat, the morning line favorite, was scratched by trainer Dale Romans.
Tahoe Warrior tugged his way to the front while veering out soon after the start, set pedestrian fractions of :24 2/5, :49 and 1:13, coming under heavy pressure from Obi Wan Kenobi on the far turn. Tahoe Warrior shook off that challenge in the stretch but could not withstand the charge of Brilliant, who sat patiently while tucked in along the inside by Albarado.
"I was able to set some fractions out there that I was very comfortable with," said Gomez of Tahoe Warrior. "When I turned for home, he sprinted for me and laid his body down and went to running, and the one horse ran by us late. He ran a really good race."
Brilliant had a maiden win to show from five starts before Howard shifted the dark bay colt to the lawn in April. Brilliant clicked off back-to-back allowance scores on the Churchill Downs turf course in April and May and has now won three races in succession. Overall, he possesses a 4-3-1 record in eight starts.
"He had to lay it down the last three-sixteenths of a mile," Howard said. "I was impressed with him.
"Hopefully off this, he'll fit into the 3-year-old turf picture and then beyond that we'll just have to see as far as older horses go," the trainer added. "I'm not crying at the fact that he likes this turf course either with the Breeders' Cup here this fall."
Brilliant paid $3.80, $2.40, and $2.10. Tahoe Warrior, the 3-1 second choice for trainer Todd Pletcher, returned $3.60 and $2.60. Storm Treasure, making his debut on grass and his first start since an 11th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), was $2.40 to show.
Obi Wan Kenobi finished fourth.