Less than a month ago, the prospect of Hold Me Back as a legitimate Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) contender was a longshot. After all, the son of Giant's Causeway was still being handled with care in Florida and had yet to make his 3-year-old debut.
What a difference three weeks can make. On March 21 at Turfway Park, Hold Me Back made a devastating last-to-first run to win the Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II) by 1 3/4 lengths and now the dark bay colt was installed as the 3-1 morning-line favorite in the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) on April 11 at Keeneland.
“He’s come along fast, but in recent years it seems like the horses that are freshest and develop late are the ones that have been doing the best in the Derby,” said Elliott Walden, vice president of WinStar Farm, the owner and co-breeder of Hold Me Back. “He’s grown so much from 2 to 3 and I think that’s the biggest reason for improvement. Hopefully, he’ll move forward again in the Blue Grass.”
A 1 1/8-mile test on the Polytrack, the Blue Grass is one of the final major Derby preps on the calendar. An evenly-matched field of 11 was drawn, all but three of them stakes winners. The race will be shown live on TVG and on tape delay during ESPN2’s hour-long telecast, which is from 6-7 p.m. EDT. Blue Grass post time is set for 5:15 p.m.
Nineteen horses have come out of the Blue Grass to take the roses. The most recent horse to win the Blue Grass and Kentucky Derby was Strike the Gold in 1991.
Walden said that Hold Me Back was slightly built as a juvenile but has gained more than 150 pounds since the beginning of the year. And although he still has growing left to do, he's capable of running three times in a six-week span, which is what he’ll have to do if he makes it to the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Hold Me Back, who is out of the Unbridled's Song mare Restraint, has won three of his four career starts for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. He broke his maiden at Arlington, won a two-turn allowance at Keeneland in October and then finished a well-beaten fifth in the Remsen (gr. II) at Aqueduct.
Hold Me Back drew post 10 for the Blue Grass and will be ridden by Kent Desormeaux, who was aboard for the Lane’s End victory.
“We’ll let him fall out, so I’m not too concerned about the post,” Walden said. “I hope we see a repeat of the Lane’s End, but we really just want to see him run well. You never want to go to the Derby off of a poor performance.”
Samotowka Stables and partners’ Theregoesjojo is one of the three horses without a stakes win, but was installed as the 7-2 second choice nonetheless. The oddsmaker’s confidence is based on his runner-up to Quality Road in the Feb. 28 Fountain of Youth (gr. II) and third-place finish in the March 28 Florida Derby (gr. I), when he had to be checked at the top of the stretch. Theregoesjojo defeated Quality Road in a Jan. 10 allowance race at Gulfstream.
Trainer Ken McPeek, whose wife, Susan, co-owns the colt, assigned Calvin Borel to ride Theregoesjojo for the first time. The son of Brahms drew post 3.
“He’s doing great since the (Florida Derby),” McPeek said. “I had babied him between races and he had a little bit of trouble. That race was a good test against two very good horses. Our horse is doing well and I think he's going to love Polytrack. We should learn a lot. He was anxious early in the Florida Derby, so we hope he'll relax better this time. I don't think distance will be a problem. I think the key will be just getting away from Quality Road."
As unlikely as Hold Me Back’s path to the Derby would be, it would be even more so for Mr. and Mrs. William Warren Jr.’s Charitable Man. The son of Lemon Drop Kid was undefeated in two starts as a juvenile, including a one-length victory in the Futurity (gr. II) at Belmont last fall, but sustained a saucer fracture of his shin which forced him to the sideline. This will be his first start since the injury, a span of seven months between races.
“He has recovered from that really well,” assistant trainer Neil McLaughlin said. “He had a great winter in Ocala (Florida) and came to us in great shape. It’s tough (running off the layoff), but he is a special horse. He has exceeded our expectations in every other race so far. We really felt he deserved the chance to get to the Derby. He really is a special animal.”
Charitable Man, the 4-1 third choice, drew post 9 and will be ridden by Alan Garcia.
Adele Dilschneider’s Terrain did not have an injury, but did have an illness in the early part of the season which forced him to miss the Risen Star (gr. II) in February. The Sky Mesa gelding made his 3-year-old debut in the Louisiana Derby on March 14 and finished a respectable third. Terrain was runner-up to Square Eddie in last fall’s Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland. The chestnut is 3-1-1 from seven starts.
“This is his home track,” said trainer Al Stall Jr. “He trained here all summer, so he might prefer it. We caught Friesan Fire in his fourth race in 80 days (in the Louisiana Derby) and we were running for the first time all year. He needed the race.”
Terrain (6-1), who won the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. III) by disqualification last September, will get Julien Leparoux for the Blue Grass. They drew post 6.
Also coming out of the Louisiana Derby is IEAH Stables and partners’ Patena (10-1). The Seeking the Gold colt ran a disappointing eighth in the slop that day after a solid runner-up finish in the Jan. 10 LeComte. Patena’s last win came in the Display Stakes on Woodbine’s Polytrack in December. Robby Albarado will ride from post 1.
Also at 10-1 on the morning-line is Join in the Dance, who is expected to be part of the early pace scenario. The Todd Pletcher trainee nearly took the field nearly the whole way in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) last month but was caught at the wire by Musket Man, who went on to take the Illinois Derby (gr. II) last weekend.
Join in the Dance, owned in part by Orlando Magic all-star Rashard Lewis, has won just once in seven lifetime starts. John Velazquez will be in the irons.
One horse that seems to be improving is Frankfurt Stable’s Massone (12-1). The Menifee colt has made all nine of his lifetime starts in California, including the Feb. 14 El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) at Golden Gate when finishing only a half-length back of Chocolate Candy. Top jockey Garrett Gomez will get the mount for the first time and they drew post 11. Ron McAnally trains.
“Ron McAnally thought it would be a good spot for him,” said co-breeder Arthur Hancock. “He was second in the El Camino Real Derby and he was checked just as he was about to catch Chocolate Candy. And he also was beaten just a length and a half by I Want Revenge out there. So I think they thought this was a good spot for him, and it’s run on Polytrack, so here he is.”
Also in the deep field is English-bred Mafaaz, who won the March 18 Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton Park near London to earn an automatic berth in next month’s Derby. Owned by Sheikh Hamdan and trained by John Gosden, Mafaaz has won two of his three career starts. Both of his wins came on Polytrack. He shipped to the U.S. on April 4.
“I am happy with the post,” said Les Reynolds, assistant to Gosden. “The way he runs, he should track the leaders and it is not too far out. It is a perfect spot. He has settled in nicely here and trained well and we have our fingers crossed for a good effort Saturday.”
Rounding out the field is Rushaway winner Cliffy's Future, Turfway Prevue winner Loch Dubh, and General Quarters, who scored in the Sam F. Davis (gr. III) at Tampa Bay in February before running fifth in the Tampa Bay Derby.