But put a question mark alongside the name of Pyro, who has been on the Derby "short list" since winning the Louisiana Derby. Pyro never ran a competitive step in the Blue Grass, finishing 10th of 12 as the even-money favorite.
Monba will be a bit of a puzzle in Louisvile, too. The Maria's Mon colt put in an impressive effort over Keeneland's synthetic surface, tracking the pace set by Cowboy Cal, then just collaring that rival in the last jumps to win by a neck in 1:49.71 under Edgar Prado. Kentucky Bear was a longshot third.
The two issues for handicappers to consider leading up to the May 3 Derby: The Blue Grass was only Monba's second start this year, following a last-place finish in the Fountain of Youth back in February; and, the Blue Grass was run on an all-weather surface while the Churchill Downs main track is real dirt.
There's a clue to the second question since Monba has run and won at Churchill Downs -- a conditioned allowance race last November. But the two-race prep schedule laid out by trainer Todd Pletcher is an imponderable.
Pletcher also trains Cowboy Cal, who won the Laurel Futurity last year and the Tropical Park Derby on the grass on Jan. 1.
"I was hoping for a dead heat right at the end, they were both running so well," Pletcher said. "You hate to see one of them lose. It was nice to see them both show up and run the way they're capable of."
Pyro's lack of effort was a mystery even to his rider, Shaun Bridgmohan.
"I asked him for run around the turn to try to set myself up pretty good and I didn't get the response I was hoping for," Bridgmohan said. "I realized on the turn that it just wasn't going to be his day."
Pyro was making his first start on an artificial surface. He won his only start at Churchill Downs.
At Oaklawn Park, Gayego ran a race similar to Monba's Blue Grass. After stalking the pace set by Tres Borrachos, Gayego dueled to the lead on the second turn and held on well to win by 3/4 length over the late-running Z Fortune. Trese Borrachos held third as the 9 furlongs on a fast track went in 1:49.63.
Gaygo was making his first start outside California and, thus, his first start on natural dirt. The Kentucky-bred Gilded Time colt started the year with a victory in the San Pedro at Santa Anita in January, then ran second to the now-sidelined Georgie Boy in the Grade II San Felipe in his last outing, March 15.
"My horse showed he could handle the dirt," said winning rider Mike Smith. "And he also showed me that he will have no problem getting the mile and a quarter in Louisville."
Z Fortune's Arkansas Derby earnings probably also earned a place in the Churchill Downs starting gate.
-- Hey Byrn, the even-money favorite, stalked the pace in Saturday's $150,000 Holy Bull Stakes for 3-year-olds, then took the lead and edged clear through the stretch to win by 2 1/4 lengths over Dream Maestro. Famous Patriot was home third. Hey Byrn, a Florida-bred son of Put it Back, ran 1 3/16 miles in 1:58.14 under Charles Lopez. Despite the impressive effort, the colt may be on the bubble of having enough graded stakes earnings to make the Derby field, depending on how many 3-year-olds are entered.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Ariege rallied from well back to win Thursday's $250,000 Stonerside Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland by 1 length over Golden Doc A. Passion, the early leader, held on to finish third. Ariege, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Doneraile Court, ran the "about" 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:25.81 under Garrett Gomez. Ariege also defeated Golden Doc A in their last meeting, the Santa Anita Oaks. "She was real responsive to what I needed her to do," Gomez said, discussing how he worked to find running room for his mount. "She came home really well."
Sherine was quickly on the lead in Saturday's $150,000 Comely Stakes at Aqueduct in New York, set a measured pace under jockey Alan Garcia and got home first, 2 lengths to the good of Ready for Fortune. Elusive Lady was third and Zaftig finished fourth as the favorite. Sherine, a New York-bred daughter of Precise End, got the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.25. "With her speed and versatility, there are a lot of options for her," said winning trainer Anthony Dutrow.
Seattle Smooth surged to the lead at mid-stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Bay Meadows Oaks and quickly distanced five rivals, winning by 6 lengths. Divine Legacy was best of the rest and Christmas Ship sailed home third. Seattle Smooth, a Kentucky-bred filly by Quiet American out of the Seattle Song mare Seattle Star, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.07. Russell Baze rode the filly for trainer Julio Canani.
Euphony stalked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Instant Racing Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Oaklawn Park, got to the front between rivals on the turn and held Rasierra safe in the late going to win by 1/2 length. Eagle's Song was third. The favorite, Sky Mom, was five-wide on both turns and could do no better than fourth with a late bid. Euphony, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Forest Wildcat, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.61, remaining undefeated in three career starts.
In other weekend racing:
Rebellion had to run six-wide around the turn in Saturday's $400,000 Commonwealth Stakes to get a bead on the leaders. But, with Edgar Prado riding, the 5-year-old, British-bred horse rallied just in time to win by a head over the longshot pace-setter, Elite Squadron. Medzendeekron came from last to complete a $1,092.75 trifecta. Rebellion finished the 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:21.4. H. Graham Motion trains.
Rutherienne settled well back in the pack in Saturday's $200,000 Jenny Wiley Stakes for fillies and mares, came four-wide between horses in the final furlong and won a three-way photo by a neck over Stormy West. Lady of Venice finished third. The favorite, Precious Kitten, was fifth. Rutherienne, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Pulpit out of the Rahy mare Ruthian, ran the 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:44.76. Garrett Gomez rode for trainer Christophe Clement.
Kip Deville, the reigning turf mile champion, put in a professional performance in winning Friday's $300,000 Maker's Mark Mile. After breaking sharply, jockey Cornelio Velasquez took the 5-year-old, Oklahoma-bred son of Kipling back off the pace. Turning for home, he came three-wide, got the lead with three-sixteenths to run and won by 1 length over Einstein. Thom Song, a 34-1 longshot, set the pace and held on determinedly to finish third, just another head back. Kip Deville finished in 1:36.78 on a course rated "good." Winning trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. said his horse may get a long break, targeting the Woodbine Mile as his only interim stop before the Breeders' Cup. "
Ventura rallied from next-last to win Wednesday's $200,000 Vinery Madison Stakes for fillies and mares by 1 length over Street Sounds, with Dawn After Dawn third. Ventura, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Chester House, ran the 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:22.06 under Garrett Gomez.
Mr. Nightlinger led from gate to wire in upsetting Sunday's $125,000 Shakertown Stakes, beating even-money favorite Smart Enough by 1 3/4 lengths. Fort Prado was third with his usual late run for Team Block. Mr. Nightlinger, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred colt by Indian Charlie, ran the 5 1/2 furlongs on the "good" turf in 1:03.84 under Jamie Theriot.
Prom Shoes, with Chris Emigh up, was all-out to win Friday's $100,000 Fifth Season Stakes, scoring by a neck over Encaustic. Sumac completed an all-longshot trifecta while the odds-on favorite, Jonesboro, faded steadily to finish sixth of seven. Prom Shoes, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Include, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.51.
Semaphore Man sent the right signals in Thursday's $150,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap, sitting right off the pace until the turn, then drawing clear through the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Junior College. Lovango was third. Semaphore Man, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Formal Gold, ran the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.78 under Tim Doocy.
Buy the Barrel ran clear in the stretch in Wednesday's $100,000 Bayakoa Stakes for fillies and mares, winning by 5 3/4 lengths over Best Vow. Over Under was third. Best Vow and Over Under contested the quick early pace, setting the stage for Buy the Barrel, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred E Dubai filly. The 1 1/16 miles on a "good" track went in 1:44.29. Gabriel Saez rode the winner.
Sebastian County got the lead with a furlong to run in Saturday's $75,000 Northern Spur Stakes for 3-year-olds when a rival broke down in front of him, then held on to win by a head over Poni Colada. Ide Like a Double ran evenly to take third. Sebastian County, a Kentucky-bred son of Hennessey, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.98 with Larry Sterling Jr. in the irons for trainer Don Von Hemel.
Stuck in Traffic wasn't stuck at all in Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian) Achievement Handicap for 3-year-olds. Rather, jockey David Clark took the Ontario-bred Kiridashi colt right to the lead and he never saw another horse, leading all the way and winning by 3/4 length at the end of 6 furlongs, in 1:08.62. Not Bourbon was second and Sun Hawk finished third.
Veranda Bold posted a bold upset in Sunday's $150,000 (Canadian) Star Shoot Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. At nearly 23-1, the Kentucky-bred daughter of Rahy shrugged off traffic problems on the turn and came home fastest of all, winning by 1 length over the odds-on favorite, Authenticat. Wonderful Luck was third. Veranda Bold, under Emile Ramsammy, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:10.59.
Tiz West stalked the pace early in Saturday's $100,000 La Puente Stakes for 3-year-olds, moved to the lead entering the stretch and went on to win by 3/4 length. Afleet Ruler and Ez Dreamer both launched late bids and finished second and third, respectively. Tiz West, a Kentucky-bred Gone West colt, finished the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.38. Victor Espinoza rode for trainer Richard Mandella.
Bahama Mama finished first at long odds in Sunday's $100,000 Las Cienegas Handicap for fillies and mares, but then was set down to fourth by the stewards for interference crossing the main track while coming off the hillside turf course. Lightmyfirebaby was promoted to the win, Wake Up Maggie to second and Super Freaky to third. Lightmyfirebaby is a 5-year-old, California-bred mare by Unusual Heat. Alex Solis rode for trainer James Cassidy. The "about" 6 1/2 furlongs took 1:13.25.
Fort Drum surged to the lead in the stretch in Sunday's $100,000 Times Square Division of the New York Stallion Stakes for state-bred 3-year-olds, then held on to win by 1/2 length over Express to Thewest. Almighty Silver was third and the odds-on favorite, King David, finished last of eight after dueling for the lead through a quick first quarter. Fort Drum, a Wiseman's Ferry colt out of the Gulch mare Elmira Gulch, ran the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.87.
Like a Rose rallied between horses in the final furlong of Sunday's $100,000 Park Avenue Division for New York-bred, 3-year-old fillies and put a nose in front on the wire. Study Abroad was second, only a head in front of I Promise. Like a Rose, a daughter of Hook and Ladder out of the Tank's Prospect mare Midnight Tank, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:25.31.
Lady Digby sat well off the pace set by Mary Louhana in Saturday's $60,000 Dahlia Stakes for fillies and mares, moved to challenge leaving the turn and the two then battled to the wire with Lady Digby prevailing by a head. Montecito was 7 lengths back in third. Lady Digby, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Grand Slam, finished the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:38.92 with Jeremy Rose riding.
Illybilly, at 20-1 the longest chance on the board, got the jump on the field in Saturday's $50,000 Czaria Handicap for fillies and mares and held on gamely at the end to win by 3/4 length over Goodbye Norma Jean. The favorite, Run Right Thru, checked in third. Illybilly, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Commendable, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.33 under Brian Theriot.
Tensas Gray Girl upset Saturday night's $60,000 Hallowed Dreams Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, rallying wide to win by 1 length over another late runner, Diamondaire. Queen Rolex led briefly at the top of the lane before fading to finish third and the odds-on favorite, Elocution, got home fifth. Tensas Gray Girl, a gray daughter of Ide, ran the 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:05.55 under Edwin Maldonado-Alicea. The race is named for a remarkable filly who won 16 straight races on the Louisiana circuit in 1999-2000.
News and notes
Cliff Guilliams, a living legend in Kentucky racing, was found dead in his Louisville, Ky., hotel room Sunday morning. In a sport where characters are more the norm than the exception, Guilliams stood out -- both for his irascible ways and his love of the game. Guilliams started his association with racing as a youngster at Ellis Park in western Kentucky. He later worked as a chart caller, including many Kentucky Derby charts, as a writer and as an unofficial booster for racing and especially for Ellis. Long-time friend Carol Hebel told the Louisville Courier-Journal, "He was a man of his word and a very unique character, a Damon Runyon-type character. He was a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-living guy. As much as I'll miss him, he probably went the way he wanted to go." Added long-time friend Jude Feld, "It won't be the same in the Keeneland pressbox without Cliff's diatribes on the state of our sport, his stories of Joe Hirsch and Woody Stephens, his worried outlook about Ellis Park and the chance they may not run this summer, having a cocktail with him from his personal liquor cabinet after a long day at the races or his blowing cigar smoke through the vents to … (anger) Lexington Herald-Leader racing scribe Mary Jean Wall." Guilliams was 52. Services are pending.