Given a tremendous ride by Mike Smith, Gayego puts himself firmly in the picture for the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) with his first graded stakes victory. The winner's share of $600,000 easily qualifies Gayego for a spot in the 1 1/4-mile Run for the Roses.
“He’s flying to Kentucky on Monday,” Lobo said afterward.
Cubanacan Stables owns the Kentucky-bred son of Gilded Time-Devils Lake (by Lost Code), who was coming off a game second-place finish behind Georgie Boy in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) March 15. Lobo opted for the Arkansas Derby for Gayego's next start rather than the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) because he wanted to see how the dark bay or brown colt would handle traditional dirt.
The triumph, then, validated the form of Southern California's top 3-year-olds this season and suggests that concern over the switch from synthetic to conventional dirt may be overblown. California invaders Gayego, Tres Borrachos (third), and Indian Sun (fourth) fared extremely well in the Arkansas Derby. The final time for the 1 1/8-mile event was a solid 1:49.63.
"My horse showed he could handle the dirt," Smith said, "and he also showed me that he will have no problem getting the mile and a quarter in Louisville."
Smith may have won the race coming out of the gate in the nine-furlong event by getting Gayego into gear early and avoiding traffic down inside. The 38-1 outsider Tres Borrachos jumped to the lead from the rail with Gayego just to his outside in second. The pair soon separated slightly from the others as Tres Borrachos, leading by up to 1 1/2 lengths, carved a quick pace for the distance -- :22.71, :46.61, and 1:11.09.
Gayego bid on the outside on the final turn to put his head in front and was in command by a length in upper stretch. But Z Fortune, who had a wide journey throughout for Robby Albarado while stalking the pacesetters in fifth or sixth, stormed up in the middle of the track to challenge. Z Fortune nearly reached even terms approaching the furlong pole, but Gayego, under frantic left-handed urging from Smith, pulled away in the final sixteenth while drifting out a bit late.
Z Fortune, trained by Steve Asmussen, was a clear second by four lengths while atoning for his poor fifth-place showing as the 7-10 favorite in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes (gr. II) over the course March 15. Tres Borrachos held on gamely for third by 1 3/4 lengths under Tyler Baze, edging Indian Sun and Richard Miglore.
In recent years, the Arkansas Derby has become a major steppingstone to the Triple Crown. Gayego follows Smarty Jones (2004), Afleet Alex (2005), Lawyer Ron (2006), and Curlin (2007) to the Oaklawn winner's circle after big wins in the Arkansas Derby. Gayego's time was slightly better than what Curlin ran in winning the race by a record 10 1/2 lengths.
This was the closest Arkansas Derby since Victory Gallop’s win in 1998.
Never worse than second in five starts, Gayego won for the third time and has now banked $723,420 in his career. Smith has been aboard for all of the colt's starts.
Gayego began his 2008 campaign with a flashy 2 3/4-length victory in the 6 1/2-furlong San Pedro at Santa Anita Jan. 20, clocking an outstanding time of 1:13. He tried two turns for the first time in the San Felipe and proved a stubborn rival to Colonel John despite drifting out late, only losing in the final strides.
“He’s still learning, race by race,” said Lobo, who won the 2002 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) with Farda Amiga. “I think he’s going to improve a lot (at Churchill Downs).”
Bred by Hargus and Sandra Sexton, Gayego was a $32,000 Keeneland yearling purchase in September 2006.
Sent off as the 2-1 choice in the field of 13, Gayego paid $6.40, $4.40, and $3.80.
Z Fortune, who won the LeComte (gr. III) and finished second in the Risen Star (gr. III) at Fair Grounds prior to the Rebel, returned $.740 and $6. The $2 exacta paid $44.
“I don’t like running second but this was a big move forward for him today,” said Albarado, Z Fortune’s jockey. “He really improved over his last race and showed me he still has some more ability.”
Tres Borrachos, coming off a thrid-place finish in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) at Bay Meadows for trainer Beau Greely, was $14.80 to show.
Then came My Pal Charlie and Isabull. Blackberry Road and Golden Yank finished in a dead heat for seventh. King's Silver Son, Jazz in the Park, Ablaze With Spirit, Liberty Bull, and Shekinah trailed. Victory Pete scratched.
The Arkansas Derby is the last of Oaklawn’s three big Kentucky Derby preps. Denis of Cork won the Southwest (gr. III) in February, and Sierra Sunset won the Rebel. Sierra Sunset injured an ankle and fell off the Kentucky Derby trail.