by Steve Bailey
Harlan's Holiday cemented his position as Kentucky Derby favorite by romping to a 4 1/2-length victory Saturday over archrival Booklet in the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
The brown Ohio-bred son of Harlan caught Booklet midway through the far turn, raced neck-and-neck with him down the stretch and drew away over the final furlong with Edgar Prado aboard. The victory was Harlan's Holiday's second straight grade I triumph following an impressive 3 1/2-length victory in the Florida Derby. He now has six wins and four seconds in nine career starts for owners Jack and Laurie Wolf.
Trainer Ken McPeek, a Lexington native, also found redemption with his first Blue Grass victory. McPeek saddled favored Tejano Run in the 1995 Blue Grass and was disappointed when the colt got boxed in and finished a disappointing third.
The crowd of 28,270, the fifth-largest in Keeneland history, roared its approval as the Harlan's Holiday and Booklet engaged in their much-hyped showdown through the stretch. The two had been in that position before, with Booklet edging Harlan's Holiday at the wire in both the grade I Fountain of Youth and grade III Holy Bull. Prado did little to urge Harlan's Holiday over the final strides at Keeneland, however, as the Harlan's Holiday evened the series with Booklet at two wins each.
Ocean's Sound came in another 1 1/2 lengths back to finish third, 14 lengths ahead of the Nick Zito-trained Straight Gin. Bob's Image, who led the six-horse field through much of the race, faded late to finish fifth ahead of Azillion.
Harlan's Holiday covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.51, the slowest time since Granacus beat Intensive Command by three lengths in 1988.
Booklet jumped out of the gate strong and set the pace with Bob's Image entering the backstretch. The speedy son of Notebook pulled ahead midway through the backstretch and held a slight lead over Bob's Image until Harlan's Holiday made his move on the pacesetters entering the far turn.
Harlan's Holiday, the 3-5 favorite, returned $3.40, $2.20, and $2.10. Booklet, the 5-2 second choice, paid $3 and $2.40, and Ocean's Sound paid $2.80.
John Ward Jr., Booklet's trainer, has not decided wheter to go on to the Kentucky Derby.
"The thing that would make us run in the Kentucky Derby is the attrition over the next couple of weeks. You are not going to take yourself out of the game early," said Ward, who trained last year's Derby winner. "But it will be up to (owner John) Mr. Oxley. Harlan's Holiday is an extremely solid horse on an upward curve. It looks like we have the second-best horse right now. I am just glad we beat him twice."
Trainer Jim Cassidy was pleased with Ocean Sound's race, but said he'd wait to make a decision on the Derby.
"It was a great run," the conditioner said. "I was really pleased. He ran great. I am going to wait and talk to the owners before deciding on whether to run in the Derby. I am 50-50 right now."
Nick Zito said he would run Straight Gin in the Derby if the son of Go for Gin had finished second Saturday, but now seems more likely to try the Preakness (gr. I) two weeks later.
"The horse ran well," Zito said. "I wish we were second. There would be no doubt about the Derby if we were second. He could have been second were it not for all the trouble at the start when he got squeezed. The Preakness is in five weeks, so we might go there. He is a real mile and a quarter horse and when you have one it is hard to find races for them." (Chart, Equibase