After a third in the Miller Lite Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) following fourths in the Remsen (gr. II) and Nashua (gr. II) and a fifth in the Foxwoods Champagne Stakes (gr. I) last year, Intense Holiday made a sweeping move off the turn and ground down longtime pacesetter Albano in the final furlong to take the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star.
Victory in the $400,000 event was the first for the 3-year-old son of Harlan's Holiday since his maiden win for trainer Todd Pletcher last August at Monmouth Park. He earned 50 points on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), that number sending him to the top of the leaderboard with 53.
"In the very beginning he kind of slipped leaving there; it kind of scared him and he got up into the bridle," Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith said. He went on to describe how he had to alternately steady and hustle the colt throughout the 1 1/16-mile event while weaving his way through the 14-horse field.
"There's a lot of room to improve and a lot of room to grow...we didn't get to the bottom of him," he said.
Keen from the start after being fractious in the paddock, 5-1 shot Intense Holiday raced midpack in seventh while Albano struck the lead with overeager Delta Jackpot (gr. III) winner Rise Up in rank pursuit. Albano galloped through easy fractions of :24.30 and :48.14, and appeared poised to carry on despite the pressure through three-quarters in 1:13 flat. Meanwhile, Smith was shifting his mount to the outside, and followed Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) winner Vicar's In Trouble around the far turn.
The Lecomte winner put in a good run while favored at 2-1, but could not get to his front-running rival. It looked as if Intense Holiday would have to settle for second as he passed Vicar's In Trouble through a mile in 1:37.42, but then the bay colt really got rolling. He needed every bit of the remaining ground; the race was decided in the final stride with Intense Holiday nosing out Albano just in time.
"We had this long final run here, that's the difference," Starlight's Jack Wolf said of how Intense Holiday found his graded stakes win. "I was at a bad angle and I didn't think we had (won it), but I'm glad I'm wrong."
Intense Holiday paid $12, $6, and $4 while carrying 116 pounds, while 14-1 Albano brought $12.20 and $6.80. The runner-up earned 20 points for his effort under jockey Kerwin Clark and is now third on the Derby list with 24, behind Besilu Fountain of Youth (gr. II) winner Wildcat Red at 50.
"I thought I was home at the sixteenth pole," Clark said. "He was still running. I looked over inside the eighth pole and didn't see anyone coming. I can't believe that horse came and got us, to be honest, because my horse never stopped one bit. It was disappointing, but it's what I wanted to see from him—improvement that sets us up for the big one."
Completing the order of finish were Vicar's In Trouble ($3.40), who was co-highweight at 120 pounds with Rise Up, Hoppertunity, Gold Hawk, Commanding Curve, Rise Up, Flat Gone, Son of a Preacher, Vigorish, Emmett Park, Interchange, and Xtra Luck. Bond Holder scratched due to an injury suffered earlier in the week (full story here), and also-eligible Teniente Coronel did not draw in.
Bred in Kentucky by Machmer Hall and Haymarket Farm out of the Unbridled's Song mare Intensify, Intense Holiday was a $380,000 purchase when selected by agent Frank Brothers at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale. His earnings now stand at $351,900 with a 2-0-1 record from seven outings.
"He was one of the best horses he wanted to buy (at that sale) and one of the last horses we bought, so blame it all on Frankie Brothers," Wolf said.