The Florida-bred son of Golden Missile, purchased by Griffin for $325,000 at Fasig-Tipton more than a year ago, won for the third time in four starts while earning his first graded victory for trainer Doug O'Neill.
Griffin, one of racing's most enthusiastic owners, was on the Triple Crown trail last year with 2005 juvenile champion Stevie Wonderboy, but the colt was injured.
“It’s alive again," Griffin said of his longtime Derby dream. "I think he ran just awesome today. He’s a powerhouse, a powerhouse of a race horse. Today, he’s Cobalt Green. You know, he was born on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, and his first big win as a 3-year-old came on Valentine’s Day. Today is St. Patrick’s Day and Derby Day is Cinco de Mayo! He’s a holiday horse.”
Facing just four rivals with nary a stakes win among them, Cobalt Blue covered the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:42 2/5 after setting all the fractions. The flashy chestnut pulled jockey Victor Espinoza to the front early while fighting Level Red for the lead through modest clips of :23 2/5 and :47 2/5. Cobalt Blue inched away from Level Red entering the stretch after a six-furlong split of 1:11 3/5 and held off the late charge of 6-5 favorite Air Commander, trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert. Air Commander, always within striking distance, finished well but could not make an impact on Cobalt Blue, who finished under strong urging from Espinoza.
"He’s a very nice horse, and the good thing about him is you can place him where you want," Espinoza said. "Today, we were on the lead, and he was going nice and easy. When you’re on his back, you can feel his power."
Air Commander was ridden by Garrett Gomez, who had the ride on Cobalt Blue in a first-level six-furlong allowance win at Santa Anita Feb. 14, Cobalt Blue's only other start this year. Gomez opted for the more experienced Air Commander, who was coming off back-to-back wins at route distances for Baffert.
"He’s tactical enough, but when they’re able to go that slow and able to sprint home ..." Gomez said with a shrug. "I put as much pressure as I could on him (Cobalt Blue) without going to the front.”
Cobalt Blue likely will have one more prep race, and Griffin indicated a few days ago his colt would run in the Illinois Derby (gr. II) at Hawthorne Park on April 7. He earned $150,000 Saturday to bump his total to $207,000. In his only other graded stakes start, Cobalt Blue ran seventh of eight in the 6 1/2-furlong Best Pal (gr. II) at Del Mar last summer.
O'Neill confirmed that the 1 1/8-mile Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Park, with a $500,000 purse, is at the top of Cobalt Blue's options.
"I sure felt confident, but you never know when a colt has never gone two turns if they’re really going to hold up," O'Neill said. "But it couldn’t have been a better debut for a two-turn race. Victor got him to relax early and turned it into half-mile sprint. Air Commander ran with us, but we kind of got in front of him early and slowed it down and that was what it did it for us today.”
Sent off as the second choice, the Adena Springs-bred Cobalt Blue paid $6.40, $3.40, and $2.60. He is out of the El Prado mare Prado Star.
Air Commander, who remains Baffert's best hope of reaching the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), returned $2.40 and $2.10. Baffert said he wasn't sure about bringing Air Commander back for the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) on April 7.
“He’s a big horse," Baffert said. "He can’t quicken. I knew we were in trouble when I saw the fractions. At the half, they were walking. When they sprinted home, he just doesn’t have that acceleration. He ran well.”
Level Red, ridden by Aaron Gryder, finished more than six lengths behind the runner-up in third, paying $2.60. Dee Rain and Grapelli trailed. Tap It Light scratched.