Grass champion Kitten's Joy drove to the front along the hedge just inside the eighth pole and drew away to win the $274,000 Firecracker Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIT) at Churchill Downs in his triumphant first start of the year.Under Edgar Prado, the 3-5 choice Kitten's Joy tracked comfortably along the inside behind the pacesetting Parker Run until room opened up for him at the head of the stretch. With the slightest urging from Prado, the 4-year-old son of El Prado took advantage of a dream trip and came through along the inside, dueling briefly with Old Forester and pulling away in the late stages for a one-length win. The late-running America Alive was a half a length farther back in third.Dale Romans trains Kitten's Joy, who won last year's Eclipse Award for top male turf horse in spite of finishing second in the John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. I) to conclude his sophomore campaign. He won six of eight races in 2004, including a pair of grade I events, and earned more than $1.6 million for owner/breeder Ken and Sarah Ramsey.Following the Oct. 30 Breeders' Cup performance, the colt underwent surgery to remove a bone chip from his left knee. Romans, who is the leading trainer at the Churchill spring meet, expressed relief following the strong effort by Kitten's Joy that ended his eight months on the sidelines. Romans said Kitten's Joy would run next in the Arlington Million (gr. IT) at Arlington Park on Aug. 13.
"It's a relief that he made it all this way, and excitement for what he's going to do the rest of the year and what I think his potential is for the rest of the year," said Romans. "I think he's better than he was last year. He's grown up, he's stronger and he's doing everything right." Prado had been aboard Kitten's Joy just once before, when they teamed to win the Virginia Derby (gr. IIIT) at Centennial a year ago."He gave me that good feeling, like he had a couple of gears," he said of that race. "He had that again today. When I asked him, he just took off." The Kentucky bred-colt won for the ninth time in 13 lifetime starts with earnings of $1,875,791. Monday's victory was worth $169,880. Kitten's Joy has a record of nine wins and two seconds in 11 attempts on the turf.There was some concern whether the one-mile Firecracker distance would be long enough for Kitten's Joy, but he accomplished the win in a non-taxing 1:35 1/5 on firm going.Old Forester, the 2-1 second choice with Pat Day aboard, stalked Parker Run in second through fractions of :24 2/5, :48 2/5 and 1:12 2/5 and finished willingly while giving way late. America Alive, ridden by Robby Albarado, kept in touch with the tightly bunched field of six and was making up ground at the end."He went by me like I was not running," said Day. "My horse dropped down and ran hard off the turn and into the stretch and all the way to the finish. He just couldn't run with the winner."
"That was fun to watch," said Albarado of the performance by Kitten's Joy. "He's one of the best grass horses I've seen in a long time. He's an amazing horse. He's a phenomenal horse." Kitten's Joy paid $3.20, $2.20, and $2.10. Old Forester returned $2.60 and $2.10 while completing a microscopic $7 exacta. America Alive's show was $2.10.Parker Run held on for fourth followed by Senor Swinger and Mighty Military.(Chart, Equibase)