Watching the replay of the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland on April 13, owner Charles Fipke could not help expressing amazement at where his eventual Blue Grass winner, Java's War, was racing after three-quarters of a mile.
"We're still last!" he exclaimed, bringing chuckles from the press corps gathered at the post-race press conference. "Oh, here we come, here we come, three-quarters of a mile and he's finally coming... unbelievable, eh?"
From last to first in a 14-horse field, Fipke's homebred overcame a hesitant start but moved into contention readily through upper stretch under jockey Julien Leparoux, earning his way into the May 4 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) with victory by a neck over Palace Malice (VIDEO). Charming Kitten, a 22-1 shot, was another neck back in third. Palm Beach Stakes (gr. IIIT) winner Rydilluc, the 7-2 favorite, finished fourth.
Java's War, a 3-year-old son of War Pass, was awarded 100 points on the road to the Kentucky Derby, coming off a runner-up finish three lengths behind eventual Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Verrazano in the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) to get the score for trainer Kenny McPeek. He now has 122 points and is ranked fourth on the leaderboard for the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. Runner-up Palace Malice earned 40 points for his effort to boost his total to 50, which puts him 13th on the list to make the Derby field.
"It reminded me of Tampa when he came late," said McPeek, who earned his second Blue Grass victory after taking the 2002 edition with Harlan's Holiday. "He actually broke better today than he did in Tampa. But this is his running style. I wasn't at all worried. I was watching the front thinking,'Ok, if they set a little pace for us the first half or even in the middle, we'll get a good chance here."
That was exactly what happened as Rydilluc and 21-1 shot Undrafted contested a moderate pace for a quarter in :23.81. Rydilluc took the lead and opened a daylight margin for a half in :48.04, and Java's War bided his time at the tail of the field while the favorite increased his advantage to 1 1/2 lengths for three-quarters in 1:12.76. The eventual winner was wheeled about seven wide on the second turn and still had about half the field to pass coming into the stretch.
"He didn't really break, but he traveled very nice for me," said Leparoux, who won his first edition of the Blue Grass. "At the three-eighths pole, I tried to catch up a little bit, and he ran big the whole way through the stretch."
Down to the wire, it was Palace Malice who Java's War had to put away. The Dogwood Stables runner struck the front with less than a furlong to run after attending the pace on the inside, but was nipped after a mile in 1:37.29 as Java's War closed strongly to get up just in time. He ran 1 1/8 miles on the Polytrack in 1:50.27.
Off at odds of 9-2, Java's War paid $11.20, $5.60, and $4. Also 9-2, Palace Malice returned $6 and $4.60, while Charming Kitten brought $11.20. After Rydilluc came Fear the Kitten, Balance the Books, My Name is Michael, Channel Isle, Dynamic Sky, Uncaptured , Tesseron, West Hills Giant, Undrafted, and Footbridge.
Java's War was bred in Kentucky out of the Rainbow Quest mare Java. He improved his record to 3-1-1 from seven starts with earnings of $672,091 while recording his first graded stakes score.
Last year in his only other Polytrack start, the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland, Java's War was third.
"It's harder to win as a homebred, so I take that much more joy in it," Fipke said. "To me, to go and buy a bloody horse and win, I don't get anything out of it. When you breed them yourself and you work every day at finding the right combination to get the result, it's wonderful."