Battle Hardened rallied to the lead in deep stretch and posted his first career victory in Saturday's $200,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes, winning the Grade 3 test for three-year-olds by a comfortable 1 1/4-length margin. The Eddie Kenneally-trained colt completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:44 2/5 with jockey Julien Leparoux.
Owned by Coolmore principals Michael Tabor and Mrs. John Magnier, Battle Hardened opened his racing career last fall, finishing fourth at six furlongs prior to a runner-up at 1 1/16 miles, both maiden special weight events at Churchill Downs, and entered the Sam Davis off a head second in a 1 1/8-mile maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park on New Year's Eve.
He took a big step toward making the Kentucky Derby field on Saturday, picking up $120,000 in graded earnings while improving his overall ledger to 4-1-2-0, $138,855.
"This was a really good bunch of quality horses, but no stars, and that was one reason we decided to take a shot today," said Kenneally, who cross-entered Battle Hardened to a maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park Saturday before opting for the Sam Davis. "He's been training brilliantly and we were happy with how he was coming into the race, so we decided to come here and get some of the big money.
"He showed a little more professionalism today. He relaxed nicely in the thick of things. He was in a group of horses in tight and he had plenty of reasons to back out of there if he wanted to, but he showed a little bit of gameness and a little bit of toughness like you want to see going forward to the bigger races down the road."
Despite being winless, the son of Giant's Causeway was well-regarded by the betting public on Saturday, leaving the Sam Davis starting gate as the 9-2 third choice among 11 rivals. He stalked the pace from his inside post, racing within a couple of lengths in fourth during the early stages as State of Play showed the way on the lead in fractions of :23 3/5 and :47 4/5.
Battle Hardened launched his rally while four wide on the far turn and entered the stretch full of momentum. Gulfstream Park Derby hero Reveron, who raced within striking range during the early stages, was the first to pounce upon a tiring State of Play, opening up a short lead in midstretch as he passed the mile mark in 1:38, but weakened in the final sixteenth as Battle Hardened surged clear.
"He was very professional today," said Leparoux, who was riding Battle Hardened for the first time. "He broke good and put me in the right spot right away. In a big field, I knew we'd be in traffic. When he settled near the inside, he relaxed the way I wanted him to.
"On the second turn, I was able to get out and this horse has a long stride and he kept going. Eddie told me to warm him up good and it went well. I knew he was a maiden, of course, but Eddie told me his last race at Gulfstream was kind of like a win because he had a bad post and some bad luck. He ran big today."
It was a blanket finish for second, with 7-2 second choice Prospective edging the 5-1 Reveron by a nose, and 69-1 longshot Ravelo's Boy was another nose back in fourth. Neck 'n Neck, Fox Rules, State of Play, Burning Time, Moroccan Brew, Holy Highway and 7-2 favorite Ecabroni rounded out the order of finish.
Bred in Kentucky by Lakeside Farm, Battle Hardened sold for $170,000 at the 2010 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling sale. He is out of stakes-winning Northern Fashion mare Jen's Fashion, the dam of 2004's Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap winner Colonial Colony. The 12-year-old broodmare produced a Majestic Warrior colt this year.
"We'll definitely take a real good look at the (Grade 2) Tampa Bay Derby (on March 10) and it's very likely," Kenneally said when asked about future plans. "We knew when his races started to go longer he was going to be a better horse. Two-turn races are what he wants to do and he is very good at it."