The "Road to the Kentucky Derby" changes with the times. It used to run through tracks now closed, such as Hialeah in Florida and Jamaica in New York. Now, Derby contenders are showing up at tracks offering huge purses fueled by gaming in places like New Mexico and Louisiana.
Case in point: Saturday's $1 million Boyd Gaming's Delta Jackpot Stakes for 2-year-olds at Delta Downs in Vinton, La. The pot had enough "jack" to attract some quality runners, including Texcess, a California-based In Excess gelding who had won his last two starts in California.
The loot also was attractive enough to convince Victor Espinoza he should forego a jockey championship competition in Japan to ride Texcess in the Delta Jackpot for trainer and part-owner Paul Aguirre.
The decision paid off as Texcess dueled pace-setting Cherokee Path into submission, then edged clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths, earning $600,000. Closing Argument earned a $200,000 check for finishing second and Anthony J. picked up $110,000 for taking third.
"He is getting better every day," Espinoza said. "He finished very well. I felt him strong at the end."
Next year, the Delta Jackpot's huge purse will have even more significance since the race has been granted Grade III status, effective in 2005. In the event more than 20 horses are entered for the Kentucky Derby, they are allowed into that race based on their graded stakes earnings.
Also on Saturday's card at Delta, one of the top 2-year-old fillies who did not run in the Breeders' Cup, Punch Appeal, dominated five rivals in the $250,000 Boyd Gaming's Delta Princess Stakes. With Donnie Meche up, the daughter of Successful Appeal led every jump of the way and won by 5 1/2 lengths, running 1 mile in 1:40.42. Summer Raven was second and Snipper Lou third.
In supporting features, Intelligent Male rallied from well back to win the $75,000 Sam's Town Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths over Demon's Prince, getting 7 furlongs in 1:27.64. And So Much More led a parade of double-digit longshots to the wire in the $75,000 Treaure Chest Stakes for fillies and mares, with Cat's Cat and Miss Confusion completing the $2,707.80 trifecta.
In other weekend racing:
Pellegrino, with Gary Stevens up, came up the rail in the final sixteenth to catch Megahertz and win Saturday's $250,000 Hollywood Turf Cup by a head. License To Run was another head back in third and Breeders' Cup Turf winner Better Talk Now struggled home sixth as the favorite. Pellegrino, a 5-year-old Brazilian-bred horse, ran the 1 1/2 mile on firm turf in 2:29.73 under Gary Stevens. "I got stopped a couple of times during the race," said Stevens. "I just had to bide my time but it opened up beautifully in the lane and he got the job done." Trainer Donald Burke II said he told Stevens to keep Pellegrino on the inside. "For some reason, he seems to run better down on the fence," Burke said. The poor showing by Better Talk Now probably cost him any chance of beating out Kitten's Joy for year-end honors as top male turf horse. Megahertz ran 11th in this year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
The meltdown of the Sprint division continued in Sunday's $100,000 Vernon O. Underwood Stakes as 26-1 outsider Taste of Paradise upset a field that included three starters from the recent Breeders' Cup Sprint. Watchem Smokey, winner of last year's Underwood, got the lead in the stretch but could not hold off Taste of Paradise, who won by a nose. My Master was third. Taste of Paradise, a 5-year-old son of Conquistador Cielo, ran 6 furlongs on a wet-fast track in 1:08.04. "What a nice surprise," said winning rider Jose Valdivia Jr. "But I liked him all along." Kela, who finished second in the Breeders' Cup, was fourth on Sunday. Our New Recruit, 12th in the Breeders' Cup, was fifth, and My Cousin Matt, third in the Breeders' Cup, finished last of seven in the Underwood.
Calder Race Course
The four races of Saturday's Grand Slam I produced a pair of upsets and a pair of favorite victories.
Host, the favorite in the $100,000 Tropical Turf Handicap, beat Silver Tree to the wire by just a neck, with Demeteor third, another 1/2 length in arrears. Host, a Chilean-bred 4-year-old colt, ran the 9 furlongs on a firm course in 1:45.74 for John Velazquez. "His best race in Chile was on the dirt," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "But for now, we'll keep him on the turf, probably the mile and a sixteenth race at Gulfstream in February." He referred to the Appleton Handicap on Feb. 12.
The other favorite home first was Better Than Bonds, winner of the $100,000 What a Pleasure Stakes for 2-year-olds. The Florida-bred son of Sweetsouthernsaint was steadied twice during the race by jockey Brice Blanc but still managed to put in a wide move through the stretch and won by 3/4 length over G P's Black Knight. Cherokee Chase was third. The 1 1/16 mile took 1:48.90. "I would expect him to improve as he gets older," said winning trainer Robert Reinacher. "We'll have to look at the new schedule at Gulfstream and see what fits him best."
Leona's Knight, at odds of 18-1, upset the $100,000 Three Ring Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Leading all the way, the Florida-bred daughter of Suave Prospect ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:49.32. She is a Rose Family Stables homebred. "Yes, this is my first stakes win," said trainer Barry Rose, son of Harold Rose, who died last year after handling such stakes competitors as Hal's Hope. Referring to his late father, Rose added, "He'll be really enjoying this up there." Rose said he is hoping to send Leona's Knight in the Davona Dale at Gulfstream. "But I have to see what's leading up to that for her."
In the $100,000 My Charmer Handicap for distaffers on the grass, Something Ventured broke last but finished first, beating Snowdrops by 1 length. The favorite, Changing World, took a huge lead down the backstretch but was reeled in during the stretch run. Something Ventured, a 5-year-old Cobra King mare, ran 9 furlongs in 1:46.79 with John Velazquez at the controls. Velazquez said he changed tactics during the race. "At first I thought I shouldn't pay attention to the horse on the lead and then I was thinking she had a pretty easy lead....I got out there and kept my filly busy and she responded for me."
Silver Impulse rallied smartly on the final turn and drew off in the stretch to win Sunday's $150,000 (Canadian) Ontario Lassie Stakes for Ontario-bred 2-year-old fillies. Simply Again was second, 4 1/4 lengths back, with Good as Gold third. Silver Impulse, a daughter of Silver Charm, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:47.46. "She's a petite filly," said winning rider Emile Ramsammy. "But, hopefully, she grows up a little more next year. Stamina seems to be her forte."
Classic Endeavor, a fan of the inner track, led early and finished first in Saturday's $100,000 Queens County Handicap, holding off favorite Evening Attire by 3/4 length at the wire. Colita was 1/2 length farther back in third. Classic Endeavor, with Aaron Gryder up, ran 1 3/16 mile in 1:57.13. Classic Endeavor, a 6-year-old son of Silver Buck, now has won three of seven starts on Aqueduct's inner track. "He was just galloping around out there," said winning trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. "Everything went his way and he loves the inner track."
Sunday, Successfully Sweet held a pressured lead through much of the $75,000 East View Stakes for New York-bred 2-year-old fillies, then held on to win by a neck over Seeking the Ante. Pelham Bay was third and the favorite, Karakorum Splendor, finished fifth after stumbling badly at the start. Successfully Sweet, a daughter of Successful Appeal, ran 1 1/16 mile on the inner track in 1:47.01.
Midway Road, the odds-on favorite, was all out to hold off Pie N Burger at the wire in Saturday's $60,000 Tenacious Handicap. With Robby Albarado in the irons, Midway Road took the early lead, then hooked up with Pie N Burger for a long battle to the finish. The 1 1/16 mile took 1:45.48. Midway Road is a 4-year-old Jade Hunter colt, trained by Neil Howard for Will Farish.
Revolutionary Act, as occasionally happens at Turfway Park, got to the lead and never looked back in Saturday's $50,000 Holiday Inaugural Stakes for fillies and mares. With Billy Patin up, the 4-year-old Boston Harbor filly eased home 1 1/4 lengths ahead of the favorite, Golden Marlin. Class Above was third. The 6 furlongs took 1:09.27. "She was going pretty fast but she's good like that," said Patin. "She doesn't want to fight you too much." Revolutionary Act was last in her last start, an ambitious spotting in the Churchil Downs Distaff.
Seeyoubychance outfinished Monster Chaser to win Saturday's $40,000 H. Steward Mitchell Stakes for 2-year-olds by a neck. Late Night Lover was third, another neck back. Seeyoubychance, a New York-bred American Chance gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:12.70.
Also Saturday, Golden Malibu led most of the way to win the $40,000 Toddler Stakes for 2-year-old fillies by 2 3/4 lengths. The odds-on favorite, Flashy Three, stumbled at the start but rallied to finish second. Hanalei Bay was third and Northern Babe was fourth and last. Golden Malibu, a Maryland-bred daughter of Malibu Moon, ran 6 furlongs in 1:13.23.