The Road to the 2014 Kentucky Derby got off to a rollicking start in Saturday night's Grade 3, $173,250 Iroquois at Churchill Downs, with a pair of longshots owned by Donegal Racing and trained by Dale Romans -- the 34-1 Cleburne and 26-1 Smart Cover -- storming past the 2-1 Tapiture in deep stretch. Cleburne just held on by a neck from Smart Cover to earn an automatic berth to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, and 10 points toward next May's Run for the Roses.
Cleburne, who had uncorked a similar rally to capture his debut over the Ellis Park turf on August 16, sparked mutuels of $70.20, $22.80 and $12. The all Donegal/Romans exacta with Smart Cover was good for $500, the trifecta paid $4,256.80, and 2-1 favorite Ride on Curlin rounded out the $14,587 superfecta (5-10-4-9).
Ridden for the first time by Corey Lanerie, Cleburne settled off the pace and enjoyed a ground-saving trip for much of the way. Up front, Laddie Boy hustled to the lead through fractions of :23 1/5, :46 3/5 and 1:11 3/5. Rise Up and Ride on Curlin chased on the outside, and Tapiture stalked on the inside.
At the top of the stretch, Ride on Curlin advanced to challenge the tiring Laddie Boy, who came off the fence just enough for Tapiture to sneak through and thread the needle. Tapiture kicked away smartly, and briefly appeared ready to hand his connections -- owner Ron Winchell, trainer Steve Asmussen and sire Tapit -- with a big-race double, following Untapable in the Pocahontas.
But Cleburne erupted on the outside. Gaining ground fast with every stride, the son of Dixie Union overtook Tapiture and struck the front. Then Smart Cover exploded even wider out, and fell just short of catching Cleburne at the wire. The winner negotiated 1 1/16 miles on the fast track in 1:45 3/5.
Tapiture was another neck away in third. Ride on Curlin checked in a further two lengths adrift in fourth, followed by Laddie Boy, Rise Up, Stonecrusher, Solemnly Swear, Jimmy Connors and a tailed-off Honorable Judge. All Cash and Cee 'n O were scratched. Cee n' O, Romans' third entrant, ran instead in Saturday's Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity, finishing a distant third.
Now unbeaten from two starts, Cleburne has earned $118,851. The $310,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase was bred in Kentucky by Earle I Mack.
Cleburne is the first registered foal from the winning Distorted Humor mare Joyful, who equaled a course record at Laurel when zipping 1 1/16 miles on turf in 1:41.47. Joyful is a half-sister to Fifty Stars, hero of the Louisiana Derby and the ninth-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby in 2001.
Cleburne's third dam, Gay Matelda, captured the 1968 Alabama Stakes and produced multiple Group/Grade 2 star Reine Mathilde as well as multiple stakes scorer Shelter Half. Also in the family are Group 2 winners Montgomery's Arch and Lear Spear and multiple Grade 3 victor Lotus Pool.