Trainer Dale Romans has been persistent in his pursuit of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), and his chance at this year's edition just snapped into focus thanks to Albaugh Family Stable's J Boys Echo.
Off at odds of 6-1 and with six lengths to make up coming out of the backstretch on a front-running trio that included 2-5 favorite El Areeb, the Romans-trained Mineshaft colt shifted out from fourth on the rail and swept four-wide around the turn for home in the $300,000 Gotham Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct Racetrack. He opened up by 3 1/2 lengths to land his first graded score over 7-1 rival Cloud Computing, who dug in mid-stretch after racing third but could not match strides.
"I felt pretty good going into the last turn," Romans said. "He geared down, it was a pretty good move and he saved a little more for the next spot. He's coming around at the right time and the right way. He's been a work in progress and (partner) Tammy (Fox) deserves a lot of credit. This is her project horse. She's been on him every day since we've had him and done a great job bringing him around. He just needed to grow up.
"This was a big jump forward and that's what we were waiting on to see. We have to jump one more hurdle and we don't have to win it now, so a little bit of pressure is off. We need a performance worthy of going to the Derby next out, and keep him together for a couple more months."
The 1 1/16-mile Gotham awards 50-20-10-5 points to the top four finishers in the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings, and vaulted J Boys Echo into second on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 53 total points.
A quick tempo up front gave J Boys Echo plenty to close into under Robby Albarado after El Areeb, pushed along by True Timber, went a quarter in :23.58 and a half in :47.70 under Trevor McCarthy. Coming in with a four-race win streak that included the Withers Stakes (G3), where J Boys Echo ran third, El Areeb held through three-quarters in 1:13.59 but faded in the stretch as the eventual winner blew by. J Boys Echo finished up a mile in 1:39.57 en route to a final time of 1:46.34 on the fast inner track.
J Boys Echo broke his maiden at second asking by 5 1/2 lengths at Keeneland in the fall before wading into the deeper waters of stakes company to close his juvenile campaign with a fourth-place finish in the Nov. 19 Delta Downs Jackpot (G3). He kicked off his 3-year-old campaign in the Feb. 4 Withers and hit the board after racing wide throughout.
"Last time he drew the 10-hole here (in the Withers), and everyone was bunched up and not spreading out," Romans said. "He was wide all the way around and still ran a nice starter race. We took it as the first step and he came back today and was very impressive."
"They were moving pretty quick up on the backside," Albarado said. "I swung him out and he took off and I hand-rode him home. He was a good horse today. It was only his second start of the year. There's room for him to be better."
J Boys Echo returned $14.80, $7.30, and $2.70, Cloud Computing brought $6.50 and $3.30, and El Areeb paid $2.10. Action Everyday, True Timber, So Conflated, and Gaetano completed the order of finish. Apartfromthecrowd, Glennrichement, and Miggsy were scratched.
Trainer Cathal Lynch said the quick tempo put El Areeb at a disadvantage turning for home.
"He ran well, but you can't go :47 (for the half-mile) on this track and stay there," he said. "Trevor said he looked back twice and he said he had already committed at that point. Once they came out of the gate, they were already into the first turn. It was too late to go changing his mind at that stage.
"He ran his race and he'll come back and fight another day. There's plenty of options. This is a nice horse and he'll do well later on. I'm not sure, I'll talk to the owners and decide what we're going to do next."
Romans said the April 8 Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct and the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland on the same day will be under consideration for his runner's next target.
"It's hard for me to skip the Blue Grass," he said. "Both races were unjustifiably downgraded to grade 2 ... but we hope to be at one of them."
J Boys Echo was bred in Kentucky by Betz, Blackburn, J. Betz, Ramsby, and CNHHNK. He is out of the grade 2-winning Menifee mare Letgomyecho, and was a $485,000 purchase by his owners from the Betz Thoroughbreds consignment to the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale. He improved his record to 2-1-1 from five starts, for earnings of $299,600.