Backtalk has already amassed more than $170,000 in graded earnings, which is likely already enough to secure him a slot in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) starting gate.
Now, the son of Smarty Jones will need to prove to his connections he is worthy of a trip to Churchill Downs. He will get that chance in the $500,000 Illinois Derby (gr. III) April 3 at Hawthorne Race Course when he leads a field of eight in the 1 1/8-mile Derby prep. The Illinois Derby will be televised by TVG.
Owned by Gold Mark Farm and trained by Tom Amoss, Backtalk accumulated his earnings through a pair of graded stakes sprints as a juvenile, scoring in the Bashford Manor (gr. III) at Churchill and Sanford (gr. II) at Saratoga—both at six furlongs. Though he failed in the Hopeful (gr. I) and Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) (fourth and eighth, respectively) later that year, Backtalk began his 3-year-old season in style by winning the one-mile Sportsman’s Paradise Stakes at Delta Downs Feb. 26 in a come-from-behind effort.
Backtalk has worked three times at his home base of Fair Grounds since his last race. His final tune-up came March 25 when he went six furlongs in a sizzling 1:09.60.
Though his running style suggests he will not have a problem with added distance, Backtalk will be travelling nine furlongs for the first time. Regular rider Miguel Mena will be aboard.
Bred in Florida by Clover Leaf Farms II and out of the Affirmed mare Apasionata Sonata, Backtalk was a $250,000 Keeneland September 2008 yearling sale purchase.
The other graded stakes winner in the field is WinStar Farm’s homebred American Lion—one of four California-based horses shipping in for the tilt. The highly-touted son of Tiznow has disappointed in both starts this year, prompting the connections of the colt ship him east for his first start on dirt.
Trained by Eoin Harty, American Lion was on the Derby radar of many as a 2-year-old after he won the Hollywood Prevue (gr. III) in his final start of the year. But he finished third to Caracortado in the Robert B. Lewis (gr. II) Feb. 13 in his sophomore debut and was a well-beaten fourth last out in the San Felipe (gr. II) March 13—both on the Santa Anita Pro-Ride.
American Lion has trained up to the Illinois Derby at Santa Anita, turning in his final work March 29 when clocking five furlongs in 1:00. He will likely be on or near the pace under David Flores in a race, on paper, that lacks discernable early speed.
Also shipping in from the west for his dirt debut is Ike and Dawn Thrash’s Dave in Dixie. Trained by John Sadler, Dave in Dixie has faced American Lion in both starts this season—defeating him by a half-length when finishing second in the Robert Lewis, then turning in a dull sixth-placed effort in the San Felipe.
Sadler will be hoping the added distance benefits Dave in Dixie, a confirmed closer who stretches out to nine furlongs for the first time.
The other left coasters are Boulder Creek, who ran fifth in the March 6 Sham Stakes (gr. III) for Craig Dollase, and maiden Stephen's Got Hope. Both will also make their debuts on dirt.
Coming in from the east are the second- and fourth-place finishers in Aqueduct’s March 6 Gotham Stakes (gr. III), Yawanna Twist and Turf Melody.
Steel Your Face Stables’ Yawanna Twist was making his third career start and stakes debut in the Gotham, and closed well to miss by 1 1/4 lengths to Awesome Act. The Rick Dutrow Jr. trainee and son of Yonaguska has worked twice since that effort. Edgar Prado will ride.
Turf Melody has already made nine starts, winning three of them for trainer Graham Motion. His biggest win came in the two-turn Springboard Mile Stakes at Remington Park in his 2-year-old finale. The Maria’s Mon colt was sixth in Fair Grounds’ Lecomte (gr. III) in his season debut Jan. 23.
On March 29, Earle Mack purchased a 90% interest in Turf Melody from Priscilla Graham, who bought the bay colt for $200,000 at the 2008 Keeneland September yearling sale. Turf Melody was bred in Kentucky by Bruce and Leslie Berenson.
Rounding out the field is Game Ball, a Tampa Bay Downs shipper from the barn of Mark Casse. Game Ball won an optional claimer in Florida March 5 and is two-for-two as a 3-year-old.
$500,000 Illinois Derby (gr. III, Race 7, 4:37 p.m. CDT), 3YO, 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt), All carry 122 pounds
PP. Horse, Jockey, Trainer
1. American Lion, David Flores, E Harty
2. Stephen's Got Hope, Julio Garcia, D O'Neill
3. Boulder Creek, Chris Emigh, C Dollase
4. Yawanna Twist, Edgar Prado, R Dutrow Jr.
5. Turf Melody, Jeremy Rose, G Motion
6. Dave in Dixie, Jose Valdivia Jr., Sadler
7. Backtalk, Miguel Mena, T Amoss
8. Game Ball, Willie Martinez, M Casse