Though Zulu Alpha, the top-ranked turf horse in the country, will sit out the $100,000 Louisville Stakes (G3T) June 13 at Churchill Downs to await the $175,000 TVG Elkorn Stakes (G2T) at Keeneland in July, Saturday's race is not without a grade 1-winning alternative.
Among the cast of 12 is Arklow, who won the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes (G1T) at Belmont Park last fall for trainer Brad Cox and owners Donegal Racing, Joseph Bulger, and Peter Coneway. That race, like the Louisville, came at 1 1/2 miles, a trip over which the 6-year-old son of Arch has excelled over the past two years. He took the Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup Stakes (G3T) at the distance in 2018, followed a year later by a runner-up finish in the same race.
Arklow didn't get quite enough ground in his most recent start when racing in the 1 3/16-mile Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Stakes Presented by Runhappy (G1T) Jan. 25 at Gulfstream Park, nor enough pace. Bumped at the break, he was jostled passing the stands for the first time as the field compressed in a tight pack, then was hung five wide on the second turn as Zulu Alpha slipped up the inside on his way to an upset. Arklow finished fifth, beaten 5 1/4 lengths.
"Horrible trip—not much more you can say," said Jerry Crawford, the president of Donegal Racing. "That track does not suit Arklow. It's more of a speed-favoring track, and that's just not our ballgame."
The Churchill Downs grass course is a different story. In three starts there, he has a win in the 2017 American Turf Stakes Presented by Ram Trucks (G2T) and fourths in both the 2018 Old Forester Turf Classic Stakes (G1T) and 2018 Longines Breeders' Cup Turf (G1T).
He also ran deceptively well in the Breeders' Cup Turf last fall at Santa Anita Park, finishing a wide eighth, beaten only 2 3/4 lengths by winner and Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar. According to Trakus, he raced 100 feet farther than runner-up United and third-place Anthony Van Dyck, who saved ground for much of the race.
The Louisville will be Arklow's first start in 4 1/2 months and over a distance that will test his fitness, but Crawford is excited about reports he has received from Cox leading up to the race.
"He's been training very well—Brad has been very pleased with him," he said. "In his breeze last week, he had a very strong gallop out, which is a key that you look for when you are going to run a mile and a half. So I think it's all systems go."
Florent Geroux, the primary rider in Kentucky for Cox, will pick up the mount on the half brother to 5-year-old Maraud, who won the American Turf in 2018.
Although trainer Mike Maker will not run Zulu Alpha, the sixth-ranked horse in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Top Thoroughbred Poll behind five dirt horses, he will start two horses in the Louisville: Olympia Star's Golden Dragon and Justice Racing Stables' Apreciado.
Golden Dragon, a 5-year-old gelding by Skipshot and a full brother to top older grass mare Vasilika, joined Maker's stable over the winter. He was unplaced in three starts in upper-level allowances at Gulfstream this year, though he was beaten a total of 5 1/2 lengths. Each race was shorter than 1 1/2 miles.
"Every race he was in looked like a graded stake, but it didn't have the purse or the grade," said Maker, who won the 2013 Louisville with Dark Cove. "I feel like he can stretch out."
The 6-year-old Apreciado, another gelding by Skipshot, is graded-placed at 1 1/2 miles on turf. He was third behind winner Spooky Channel and Cross Border in the Jan. 25 W. L. McKnight Stakes (G3T) at Gulfstream.
"Crazy as it seems, he got excluded from the Kentucky Cup Classic and with (COVID-19) got sent to the sidelines," Maker said of a stakes race at Turfway Park March 14 that preceded the shutdowns. "But he's doing well and he always shows up."
A $16,000 claim in February 2019, Apreciado ran second in the Claiming Crown Emerald Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on turf one start before the McKnight.
Canadian raider Tiz a Slam is the race's defending champion, winning a softer renewal on the lead before taking two graded stakes at Woodbine. He started a couple of times last year before his Louisville victory but is unraced in 2020. His most recent start was a seventh in the Nov. 23 Red Smith Stakes (G3T) at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Tiz a Slam and Arklow carry high weight of 124 pounds, spotting the other entrants four pounds apiece.
Churchill Downs, Saturday, June 13, 2020, Race 11
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Perfect Tapatino (FR) Adam Beschizza 120 Roger L. Attfield 20/1 2 2Sky Promise (KY) David Cohen 120 Robertino Diodoro 20/1 3 3Apreciado (KY) Martin Garcia 120 Michael J. Maker 12/1 4 4He's No Lemon (KY) Rafael Bejarano 120 H. Graham Motion 15/1 5 5Arklow (KY) Florent Geroux 124 Brad H. Cox 8/5 6 6Tiz a Slam (ON) Tyler Gaffalione 124 Roger L. Attfield 7/2 7 7Lombo (KY) Tyler Baze 120 Philip D'Amato 30/1 8 8Jais's Solitude (FL) Corey J. Lanerie 120 Eddie Kenneally 20/1 9 9Golden Dragon (KY) Joseph Talamo 120 Michael J. Maker 30/1 10 10Fearsome (GB) James Graham 120 Cyril Murphy 15/1 11 11Ry's the Guy (KY) Chris Landeros 120 Ian R. Wilkes 20/1 12 12Admission Office (KY) Julien R. Leparoux 120 Brian A. Lynch 3/1
Churchill Downs, Saturday, June 13, 2020, Race 11