It could be called the "last chance" Derby. The Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland has drawn a strong field of nine for its $325,000, 1 1/16 mile race. Some of the connections have aspirations for the rich pot, some have aspirations for the Preakness (gr. I) on May 18, and some view the Lexington as a chance to springboard their horses to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) in two weeks.
The Lexington, along with the Federico Tesio Stakes, will be shown on a tape-delayed basis on ESPN2 from 6-7 p.m. EDT.
The strongest contenders for the Lexington are Easyfromthegitgo, who was just beaten a nose by Repent in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) on March 10; Ethan Man, a winner of three of four, but has yet to go around two turns; Officer, the grade I stakes-winning Cal-bred who returned to win the Zany Tactics Stakes on April 7; and Tails of the Crypt, runner-up in last month's Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III). But they are far from being the only ones with a chance.
Easyfromthegitgo, by Dehere, is a stalker-type from the barn of Steve Asmussen. Asmussen teamed with "Easy's" onwers, James Cassels and Bob Zollars to win the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) last weekend with Private Emblem. They are inclined to skip the Derby with Easyfromthegitgo and point toward the Preakness.
The Louisiana Derby was a hard race," Asmussen said on a conference call earlier in the week. "We pointed to the Lexington as a race we could win. The mile and a sixteenth suits Easyfromthegitgo right now from where he is physically."
Prior to the Louisiana Derby decision, Easyfromthegitgo was fifth in the Risen Star (gr. III) after winning the LeComte, both at the Fair Grounds. Breaking from post three, Easyfromthegitgo will be ridden by regular rider Donnie Meche.
Ethan Man, who will break from post seven under Pat Day, was an easy winner in a Gulfstream allowance on Feb. 2 before winning the seven-furlong Swale Stakes (gr. III) on the Florida Derby (gr. I) undercard on March 16. Ethan Man defeated Easyfromthegitgo in his career debut back on Ocf. 28 last year at Churchill Downs. However, West Point Thoroughbred's son of Glitterman will be making just his fifth career start in the Lexington.
"We've been playing catch up all year long," trainer Pat Byrne said this week. "He's never been an inch past seven furlongs. There seems to be a lot of speed in the race, which is unfortunate. The way the track is playing, it looks like we have to go. We won't get a shot to sit back.
"He's a real relaxed horse in the morning. He can go in :46, or he can go in 1:03. He's easy on himself. He's not a typical, run-off type of sprinter." Ethan Man worked five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 on April 6 at Churchill Downs.
Byrne also seems to have his eye on the Preakness, but isn't ruling a shot at the Derby out. "You never say never," he said. "It's considered a light year. I think I'm fair in saying that. There seems to be a lot of sprint-type pedigrees in the mix. If we win, we'll go from there. I do think the Lexington is a great prep for the Preakness. You could face a lot of beat up horses in the Preakness."
Officer, won his first five starts last year as a 2-year-old, including the Del Mar Futurity (gr. II) and Champagne Stakes (gr. I). He finished fifth as the odds-on favorite in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). Also a consideration for the Preakness, trainer Bob Baffert isn't ruling out running a second horse in the Derby should Officier run big. The Thoroughbred Corp., Officer's owner, purchased Illinois Derby (gr. II) winner War Emblem last week with plans on making a run for the Roses. Officer, who will be ridden by Victor Espinoza, will break from post six.
Tails of the Crypt, a winner of three of eight starts, will break from post five under Emile Ramsammy for Jam Jar Racing Stable. Trained by John Ross, Tails of the Crypt is another who could make a Derby bid with a big effort in the Lexington.
Other contenders include Italo-Erin Stables' One Tuff Fox, who was scratched one hour before the Illinois Derby due to failure to comply with Illinois Lasix rules.
Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II), 1 1/16 miles, Saturday, April 20
Post Horse Rider
1 Mucho Rapido Jon Court
2 Proud Citizen Mike Smith
3 Easyfromthegitgo Donnie Meche
4 American Style Rene Douglas
5 Tails of the Crypt Emile Ramsammy
6 Officer Victor Espinoza
7 Ethan Man Pat Day
8 One Tuff Fox Eddie Martin
9 Crimson Hero Jerry Bailey