A year ago, trainer Graham Motion sent a promising three-year-old with just a maiden victory to his credit to run in the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes. The rest is history.
Animal Kingdom captured not only the Spiral, but also the Kentucky Derby en route to an Eclipse Award as champion three-year-old of 2011. In 2012, another single-race winner will represent Motion and owners Team Valor International and Mark Ford: Went the Day Well.
After a tough-trip fourth in his U.S. debut on February 4 at the Spiral distance of 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream, Went the Day Well came back to break his maiden on March 3 at Gulfstream in a 1 1/16-mile contest.
"He came from Europe and got held up in quarantine," Motion said. "That caused him to lose some fitness, and so we were playing catch-up with him. We've always liked him a lot, and he seems like a horse who wants to go long on dirt. We'd kick ourselves in June if we were to find out then that he is that kind of horse. With Went the Day Well having no graded earnings, the Spiral is a race he can get in to."
Despite some reports to the contrary, Motion is not planning to run State of Play in the Spiral. The son of War Front won the final local prep for the Spiral, the John Battaglia Memorial, on March 3. But in the aftermath of the Battaglia, Motion was not seriously considering the Spiral as a next race for State of Play.
"We're going to point him to the (Grade 3) Transylvania Stakes at Keeneland (on April 6)," Motion said. "We think he's more of a grass horse."
John Velazquez will have the Spiral riding assignment on Went the Day Well, his first race atop the New York-bred son of Proud Citizen. It was Velazquez who piloted Animal Kingdom to victory in last year's Kentucky Derby.
Went the Day Well will be flown from Florida to Motion's Keeneland base on Thursday. The horse will van to Turfway on Saturday morning.
Arguably the most accomplished horse in the likely Spiral field is California shipper Handsome Mike, who has competed in graded stakes events in each of his last four starts. Last time out, the son of Scat Daddy was third in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields at the Spiral distance. Handsome Mike was sent off the 2-1 favorite in that February 18 race and attended the early pace before surrendering late to Daddy Nose Best and Lucky Chappy.
"We were happy with it," said trainer Doug O'Neill of the El Camino Real Derby effort. "We were hoping we could get him to settle a little more. A long shot went with him and that took a toll. He's been progressing in his maturity since then. By now, he should be able to take off another horse and not have to be on the early lead. I think he'll put in a big effort. His top effort should be pretty competitive on Saturday."
Handsome Mike wore blinkers for the first time in the El Camino Real Derby, and O'Neill says the shades will stay on for the Spiral.
"Blinkers sort of have the reverse effect with this horse," O'Neill said. "They tend to settle him down. He has a lot of natural speed, and we've found the blinkers help him shut off and become a little more relaxed."
One thing that will change for Handsome Mike on Saturday is his rider. Top California jockey Joel Rosario will journey to Turfway Park to pilot Handsome Mike for the first time.
Handsome Mike is expected to arrive at Turfway on Wednesday, with O'Neill arriving Saturday morning to personally oversee last-minute preparations.
One member of the prospective Spiral field is a maiden -- but one who has kept some pretty heady company. Coach Royal was second last out in a Gulfstream Park maiden grass event on February 19. The race was Coach Royal's first since Jim Covello purchased him privately and handed him over to trainer Justin Sallusto. One thing that appealed to Covello and Sallusto was the list of horses Coach Royal faced last year and this year in those maiden races.
"The horse that beat him last year at Saratoga by a head (Daddy Nose Best) went on to win the El Camino Real at Golden Gate," Sallusto said. "(Coach Royal) also finished very close behind Optimizer, who ran a big second in Arkansas last weekend. The horses he has been running against have seemed to escalate and become stakes horses."
Grade 2 Risen Star winner El Padrino and Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Golden Ticket are other names that pop up in Coach Royal's company lines. All that aside, however, Sallusto also likes the way his horse is coming up to Saturday's race.
"He has made a dramatic improvement since the time that I got him, and also since the last race at Gulfstream," Sallusto said. "That day, he was beaten by a very nice horse of Chad Brown's. I think if he adapts to the Polytrack, which I think he will, he will be formidable."
By Lemon Drop Kid out of an A.P. Indy mare, Coach Royal has the kind of pedigree that could serve him well as the race distances get longer. Coach Royal also gets blinkers for the first time on Saturday.
"To me it seems that many of the horses on Saturday won't want the mile and an eighth," Sallusto said. "I know my horse will go a mile and a half. We've also made the addition of blinkers today to keep him focused. In past races, he seems to hang when he makes the lead. So putting everything together, maybe we'll surprise the world."
Fernando Jara will have the mount on Coach Royal, who will ship by air to Turfway on Thursday. Sallusto will arrive Saturday to saddle his horse.
A strong performance by Coach Royal would represent a second great Spiral day for owner Covello, who last year won the Rushaway with Swift Warrior. Covello also watched his Lilacs and Lace run fourth in last year's Grade 3 Bourbonette Oaks, a precursor to her upset win three weeks later in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland.
D. Wayne Lukas has 36 stakes wins at Turfway Park, more than any other trainer, so taking a chance with Red Jack in the Spiral is perhaps less chance than calculation.
"We know this is a stretch for him," Lukas said. "He has to step up against a field of this caliber. So we're taking a flyer with him, and maybe he'll get a piece of it. We're realistic; we don't have any grandiose ideas that he's going to run away from this field. But we also know this race can be peculiar, with horses not always running to form. And we've been lucky at Turfway before."
Third last out in an Oaklawn claiming race, Red Jack has just one win in nine career starts. On the plus side, that win came at the Spiral distance on the Churchill Downs turf.
"I think he'll take to the (all-weather) surface, and the distance will be of no consequence," Lukas said.
A son of Exchange Rate and grandson of Danzig, Red Jack is owned by Bluegrass Hall LLC. He is stabled at Churchill Downs and will ship to Turfway on Saturday. His rider has not yet been named.
Two days ahead of the draw on Thursday, probables for the Spiral are Coach Royal, Heavy Breathing and Holiday Promise, Went the Day Well, Ill Conceived, Stealcase, Tizanexpense and Mr. Prankster, Red Jack, Handsome Mike, and Russian Greek.
The Spiral Stakes is the 10th of 12 races on Saturday. Supporting the feature are three other stakes: the Bourbonette Oaks at one mile for three-year-old fillies; the Rushaway at 1 1/16 miles for three-year-olds, and the Hansel at six furlongs for three-year-olds.
First post Saturday is 1:10 p.m. (EDT). Post time for the Spiral is approximately 5:45 p.m.