Protonico fights off Noble Bird to win the Alysheba Stakes. <br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Protonico fights off Noble Bird to win the Alysheba Stakes.
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Anne M. Eberhardt

Protonico Surges in Alysheba Battle

A 19-1 shot gave the 7-5 favorite what-for, but he turned back the challenge May 1.

A 19-1 shot gave 7-5 favorite Protonico  what-for in the $400,000 Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) on the Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) undercard, but the 4-year-old Giant's Causeway  runner surged back in the last jump to deny his challenger May 1 at Churchill Downs (VIDEO). 

Mark Casse trainee Noble Bird  came with an outside run after tracking third behind Protonico and pacesetter Den's Legacy , who led the field of 10 through early fractions of :23.94, :48.56, and 1:12.88. But Protonico, who had taken a narrow lead headed down the stretch through a 1:36.30 mile, was able to get a head in front on the line.

"Shoot. Really a tough beat," jockey Shaun Bridgmohan said of the narrow loss with Noble Bird. "He ran as hard as he could run. I hate losing races like this."

"He's game," Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez said of Protonico, who helped him secure a record third victory in the race. "(Trainer) Todd (Pletcher) told me before the race, if he's laying behind somebody, when he passes, he's going to wait. And that's exactly what he did. As soon as he passed (Den's Legacy), now he waited. And now he has (Noble Bird) on the outside. (Noble Bird) passed him. Now he realized he had a horse next to him, and then he started running back. (Noble Bird) got a good neck (on Protonico). It was hard to come back, but eventually he did it."

Final time for the 1 1/16-mile test presented by Big Fish Games was 1:42.34 on a fast track.

Protonico came off a five-length victory for Sumaya U.S. Stables in the April 11 Ben Ali Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland to secure his first grade II win, improving his record to 6-1-1 from 11 starts for earnings of $826,187. He was bred in Kentucky by International Equities Holding out of the A.P. Indy mare Alpha Spirit.

"He's a horse that has won on the lead and from last," Pletcher said, "but the one thing that he always seems to do is idle when he makes the lead. Johnny said he tried to wait and he let (Noble Bird) put a head in front before he decided to fight back. It was a courageous effort. My only concern was the 22 days between races was too short, but we knew he liked this track and since we are thinking about the Stephen Foster (gr. I on June 13), we decided to take a chance."

Protonico paid $4.80, $3.40, and $2.60, while Noble Bird brought $11.60 and $7.20. Neck 'N Neck paid $4.20 when running third. Den's Legacy, Honor Code , Cougar Ridge, Midnight Cello, Call Me George, and Ride On Curlin  completed the order of finish.

Jockey Javier Castellano, who rode multiple grade II winner Honor Code, said his mount did not handle the surface well in his second start of 2015. 

"I got the (closing) kick (from him), but I think I blame it on the track a little bit," Castellano said. "Unfortunately, the track is kind of loose a little bit and horses have to like it. I don't think he liked it very much today."

"He just got way too far out of it," trainer Shug McGaughey said of Honor Code, who trailed the field before closing mildly to get fifth. "Javier didn't feel like he handled the track the way we'd hoped he would."