Lea justifies favoritism in Commonwealth Turf

Claiborne Farm and Adele B. Dilschneider's homebred Lea capitalized on a textbook stalk-and-pounce trip to capture Saturday night's Grade 3, $117,100 Commonwealth Turf at Churchill Downs, and in the process, the lightly-raced colt stamped himself as one to follow next year. Bet down to 5-2 favoritism off his late-running third in the Grade 3 Hawthorne Derby last out, the Al Stall Jr. trainee took up much better early position this time for new rider Brian Hernandez Jr., and produced a strong kick down the stretch.

Lea, who was making just his fifth career start, dispatched a seasoned field of graded stakes veterans. Among the vanguard passing the stands for the first time, the son of First Samurai eased back slightly into a stalking spot on the outside. Finale held a narrow lead from Casual Trick through an opening quarter in :23 2/5, but inched clear of his pace rival through a half in :47 1/5.

By that point, Lea was on the march, and he drew up to Finale rounding the far turn through six furlongs in 1:11 4/5. Despite a green stride or two at the head of the lane, Lea soon stamped his authority and pulled away by three lengths. Lockout was the first to rally, but could not make much of a dent on Lea. Then King David erupted in deep stretch and gained ground boldly, but Lea already had his first stakes victory in the bag, by three-quarters of a length.

After negotiating 1 1/16 miles on the firm turf in 1:42 1/5, Lea returned $7.40, $4.20 and $3.60.

"He left there like he normally does, and he fought Brian just a hair, which he does," said Stall, who now has a fantastic nine wins from 16 starters this meet. "Once he came back to Brian, it was his race to win or lose. He opened up and then started waiting, but that's what turf horses do, especially ones that lay close."

"We had a clean trip," Hernandez said. "We knew he was fast, and so we wanted to give him the best trip we could and stay out of his way. I was a good passenger and, when I called on him, he spurted home pretty good.

"I definitely don't think we've seen the best of him," the winning rider added. "He's got room for improvement and looks like he'll just keep getting better and better."

King David proved his upset win in the Grade 1 Jamaica last out was no fluke, and finished a clear second by one length over Lockout. Skyring checked in another 2 1/2 lengths back in fourth. Next came Any Given Royal, Artest, Finnegans Wake, Excaper, Quick Wit, Finale, Film Shot, Two Months Rent, Burn the Mortgage and a tailed-off Casual Trick. The also-eligibles General Logan and Ol Army didn't draw into the field.

Lea's resume now reads 5-3-1-1, $200,728, all compiled on turf. Unraced as a juvenile, the chestnut was an encouraging second in his career debut over Churchill's Matt Winn Turf on June 10. Lea won his next two starts at Saratoga, wiring a July 21 maiden and rallying from a tracking position in an August 30 allowance.

The up-and-comer was expected to continue his progress in the October 13 Hawthorne Derby. The 3-1 favorite in his stakes debut, Lea dropped uncharacteristically far back early, but closed well on the soft ground to grab third. In an entirely different set-up on Saturday, Lea turned the tables on the top two from Hawthorne, Two Months Rent and Film Shot.

Stall has his game plan for 2013 already in mind.

"He'll go to South Carolina and then prep for something in the summer, like the (Grade 2) Firecracker (Handicap at Churchill Downs) and then go to Saratoga," Stall said.

Lea hails from a productive turf family. The Kentucky-bred is the first foal from the multiple stakes-placed Galileo mare Greenery, who is herself a half-sister to multiple Grade 2 winner Grassy, most recently runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Marathon; Group 2 heroine Lady in Waiting; Group 3 victor Savannah Bay; and Group 3-placed Desert Destiny.

Others in the family include current multiple Group 2 queen Welwitschia, who has also placed in a pair of South African Group 1s; Group 3 winner Tremar; Patrol, a Grade 1-placed multiple stakes scorer; and the classy Stroll, winner of the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill in 2004.

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