A trio of impressive tune-ups sets the stage for the Kentucky
It may not have been the fleetest or most powerful performance
by a 3-year-old this season, but High Yield's run at Keeneland
last Saturday made the Blue Grass Stakes an unforgettable race.
It also elevated the chestnut colt to the handful of top
contenders in the May 6 Kentucky Derby. "It was a heroic
effort," jockey Pat Day said afterward. "He's incredibly game."
The race was a thing to behold from the instant High Yield,
snorting fire, pulled Day to the lead around the first turn and
then dared Hal's Hope, the Florida Derby winner, to get by him.
The Keeneland track has a decided rail bias, with an advantage
going to horses racing on the inside, so that's where Day put
High Yield. The two hummed through the crisp Kentucky air--a
half mile in 46 seconds and three quarters in a crackling
1:09 4/5--with Hal's Hope never more than a neck behind. "I knew
we were goin' quick," said Day.
The drama quickened as the two horses smoked around the turn for
home. Fast as he had been traveling, Day sensed he was in for
one of those neck-straining battles to the wire, with at least
one other stretch runner sure to pounce on him. Hal's Hope
suddenly quit near the top of the lane, as though he had bled
from the lungs, but no sooner had he surrendered than a dark
brown bullet named More Than Ready, lately dismissed as a
sprinter, roared up to High Yield's side. When Day glanced right
and saw who was there, he was, he says, "a bit surprised."
What ensued over the next 30 seconds had the 29,687 fans in
attendance, the largest crowd ever to see a race at Keeneland,
climbing onto their clubhouse chairs. More Than Ready kept
drifting left, repeatedly brushing his more muscular foe.
Perhaps 200 yards out, he may have briefly stuck his chocolate
snout in front, only to fall back as High Yield dug deeper. "He
kept hanging in there," said Day of his colt. "He fought back
from the 3/8 pole to the wire. He's a grinder."
High Yield prevailed by a bobbing head, with Wheelaway coming on
to finish third, 3 1/2 lengths back. The Blue Grass was only
High Yield's fourth victory in 12 lifetime starts--and just his
third stakes win--but it was also the 11th time the colt had
finished no worse than third, and this was, by far, the best,
and most important, race of his life. The nine-furlong Blue
Grass was his final start before the Kentucky Derby, and his
handlers hope it sets him up perfectly for the 10-furlong race
at Churchill Downs. "I wouldn't change places with anybody,"
says his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, who has won four of the last
dozen Derbys. "Gosh, we've got a well-bred horse that knows how
to run, and he fights back!"
High Yield was born with a silver water bucket in his stall, and
his extraordinary good looks and pedigree made him one of the
Adonises of the July yearling sale at Keeneland in 1998. For
bloodstock consultants Demi O'Byrne, an Irishman, and John
Moynihan, an American, who spent $1.05 million of their clients'
money to buy the horse, the Blue Grass was the clearest
vindication of their judgement. "Take a look at him!" said
O'Byrne, beaming like a proud father as the coppery son of the
stallion sensation Storm Cat was having a sponge bath following
the race. "He's magnificent--a perfect example of how a
thoroughbred racehorse should look. One million and 50 thousand
dollars we paid for him! Looks the part, don't he?"
Pegasus Spreads Wings
As impressive as High Yield was at Keeneland, Fusaichi Pegasus
remains the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, especially after
last Saturday's 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Racing
outside California for the first time, in a talented 12-horse
field, the sleek bay cruised over a wet track and won going
away, missing the stakes record by only three fifths of a second.
Fusaichi Pegasus has earned his lofty status by winning his last
four races, living up to the potential that led Japanese
businessman Fusao Sekiguchi to pay $4 million for him as a
yearling. Though the colt is short on experience, with only five
career starts, the talented son of Mr. Prospector is starting to
make a habit of toying with topflight competition. In the San
Felipe Stakes on March 19 at Santa Anita, he defeated The
Deputy, who won the Santa Anita Derby three weeks later. In the
Wood, Fusaichi Pegasus, a 4-5 favorite, finished more than four
lengths in front of the previously undefeated Red Bullet, under
nothing more strenuous than a hand ride from Kent Desormeaux.
Any doubts about Fusaichi Pegasus' Derby chances concern his
head, not his heart. The Wood started three minutes late because
the colt seemed more tentative about going to the post than
Barbra Streisand is about going onstage. For several minutes he
refused to walk to the starting gate, stopping during the post
parade and standing with three nonplussed outriders at the
quarter pole while the rest of the field waited in midstretch.
After his victory he balked at being led to the winner's circle,
although he did eventually make an appearance there. "He wants
to stand and look at everything," says trainer Neil Drysdale.
"It's not like he gets upset. He's not nervous. He just wants to
do things his way."
Luckily for Drysdale, when the colt wants to run, he's the best
3-year-old in the country. "He's a rebel," says Desormeaux, "but
he's a rebel with a cause."
Pletcher's Pet Shows His Stuff
Sent off as an 18-1 long shot--he had won but two of seven
lifetime starts, neither of them stakes--a chestnut colt named
Graeme Hall sailed out of the gate in the Arkansas Derby at
Oaklawn Park last Saturday and into the lead, coasted in front
to the top of the stretch and then pulverized 13 other
3-year-olds when he turned on the speed, winning by 3 3/4
lengths. Excepting those two earlier victories, Graeme Hall had
never been in front at any stage in any of his races, but he
looked like an old pacesetting hound at Oaklawn Park. "I asked
him to run, and he exploded," said jockey Robby Albarado.
The colt's decisive victory gives trainer Todd Pletcher a
formidable one-two Kentucky Derby punch, with Graeme Hall and
More Than Ready, and D. Wayne Lukas clearly feels the pride of
the old craftsman in his rising former apprentice. Pletcher, 32,
was an assistant under Lukas before he left in '96 to run his
own stable. Less than a half hour after seeing More Than Ready
nearly edge High Yield at the Blue Grass, Lukas watched Graeme
Hall's Arkansas Derby on television. Lukas then came to the
post-Blue Grass press conference wearing the sheepish grin of
the man in danger of being outdone by his protege. "I did too
good a job with Todd," Lukas said with a laugh.
Like many other observers, Lukas thinks the quality of this
year's crop of 3-year-olds is unusually high. "This is gonna be
a hell of a Derby," he says, "and a handicapper's nightmare."
Graeme Hall's triumph did not make things any easier.