After breaking slowly and trailing during the early stages, Java's War closed fast to catch Palace Malice in deep stretch of Saturday's Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland. Julien Leparoux rode the Kenny McPeek-trained colt, who earned a Kentucky Derby berth with the neck decision.
"I wasn't worried. That's his running style," McPeek said of the slow beginning. "He's not a horse that's quick out of there. He's a big, long-striding colt. If you try to force him away from there, you're just going to make it worse. Julien did the right thing, and he got him there. It was thrilling."
The victory was worth as 100 points as part of the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series, increasing Java War's point total to 122.
Palace Malice, who surged to clear lead when overtaking the front-running Rydilluc in midstretch, suffered a tough beat but narrowly saved the place from the fast-finishing Charming Kitten. With the 40 points from the runner-up effort, Palace Malice is also guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby field for Todd Pletcher, increasing his total to 50 points.
A Charles Fipke homebred, Java's War is from the first crop of War Pass, the 2007 champion two-year-old male who unfortunately sired only two crops before passing away. The late stallion will be well-represented in this year's Kentucky Derby with both Java's War and Louisiana Derby hero Revolutionary.
Saturday's attendance of 37,161 was the second largest in Keeneland history, surpassed only by the 40,617 on hand for last year's Blue Grass. McPeek recorded his second victory in the centerpiece event of the spring meet, also winning the 2002 edition with Harlan's Holiday, and Leparoux posted his first Blue Grass triumph.
"This isn't about me," McPeek said about his second Blue Grass win. "Mr. Fipke puts a lot of money in this game. He breeds a lot of really quality mares. He really studies it. He bred a really nice horse, and we're fortunate to have it in our hands. Yeah, it's fun for me, but listen he's the one who put up the dough and I'm thrilled for him."
"It means a lot," Leparoux said of winning the Blue Grass for the first time. "I love this track. I love Kentucky. This is big for me. Every time you get one in the Kentucky Derby, it's definitely a lot of fun."
McPeek and Pletcher also wound up finishing one-two, in reverse order, in Saturday's Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, with Pletcher's Overanalyze easily defeating Frac Daddy. The Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby completed the second leg of the Derby Championship Series Presented by TwinSpires.com.
Java's War hesitated at the start of the Blue Grass, spotting the rest of the 14-horse field several lengths in the opening jumps, and lagged behind the pack through the opening six furlongs. Undrafted showed speed from the inside and Rydilluc advanced forward from post 13 as the opening quarter-mile was completed in :23 4/5.
Rydilluc took over soon after entering the backstretch, passing the half-mile point in :48 with a half-length advantage, and stretched his lead to 1 1/2 lengths after six furlongs in 1:12 3/5. Java's War was still about 10 lengths back with three furlongs remaining.
Leparoux gave his mount a nudge approaching the conclusion of the far turn and avoided trouble by closing widest of all into the stretch run.
"He didn't really break, but he traveled very nice for me," Leparoux explained. "At the three-eighths pole, I tried to catch up a little bit, and he ran big the whole way through the stretch. I didn't really ask him big time at the three-eighths pole. I just ask him to start going a little bit."
Palace Malice, the 9-2 third choice, was never far back stalking the early pace and rounded the final turn in a perfect striking position, within a few lengths of the leader down along the inside. He responded when asked by jockey Garrett Gomez, overhauling Rydilluc inside the eighth pole, and looked strong in deep stretch.
But Java's War kicked on determinedly late, eating up ground with tremendous strides, and caught his rival in the shadow the wire. He completed 1 1/8 miles in 1:50 1/5 on the Polytrack.
"He did everything good," Gomez said of the runner-up. "Todd wanted to see if I could get him closer (to the pace). I warmed him up by himself -- kinda got his blood going and hopefully that would get him keyed up a little bit. He hopped away pretty well and got himself up in the race, traveled beautiful the whole time. I kinda let him inch up throughout the race. I ended up right behind (Edgar) Prado (on Rydilluc), and I was happy with that decision.
"He put his head down and went by (Rydilluc), but he just couldn't hold off (Java's War). He ran good though."
Off as the 9-2 second choice, Java's War paid $11.20, $5.60 and $4 to his supporters.
"I think he'll be fine," Leparoux said of Java's War Kentucky Derby prospects. "The way he relaxes the first part, I think he'll be fine for the mile and a quarter."
Charming Kitten, who was 11th after three-quarter of a mile, also rallied well late to just miss second at 22-1, finishing a neck back of Palace Malice. Rydilluc, the 7-2 favorite, held fourth after weakening in the final sixteenth of a mile.
Next under the wire came Fear the Kitten, Balance the Books, My Name Is Michael, Channel Isle, Dynamic Sky, Uncaptured, Tesseron, West Hills Giant, Undrafted and Footbridge. Divine Ambition, an also-eligible who did not draw into the main body of the field, wound up competing in the Arkansas Derby instead.
Java's War earned $450,000 for winning the $750,000 Blue Grass, more than doubling his career earnings to $672,091 from a 7-3-1-1 record. He easily broke his maiden second-time out on Ellis Park's turf last July and then posted a neck win the grassy Sunday Silence at Louisiana Downs. The bay gave a fine account of himself when trying Keeneland's Polytrack in the Breeders' Futurity last October, rallying well for third, and closed his juvenile campaign with a sixth in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs.
He made his three-year-old debut in the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby and after rating at the tail of the field, Java's War rallied boldly to finish a clear second, three lengths back of likely Kentucky Derby favorite Verrazano.
"It was a no-brainer," McPeek said of the decision to run in the Blue Grass. "He'd run well on this track already. The distance and the surface were good, and the timing was good. Who doesn't want to win at Keeneland, anyway? Let's keep our fingers crossed that the next three weeks go well.
"We didn't know coming into his three-year-old year whether he was a turf horse or a Polytrack horse, but obviously he's running over about anything we put him on," the trained added. "That race at Tampa gave us the idea that, OK, we really do fit. Today's race was huge."
The Kentucky-bred winner is out of the winning Rainbow Quest mare Java, a full sister to champion turf mare Fiji. Both are out of the stakes-winning Grade 1 runner-up Island Jamboree. Java's War also counts stakes-placed Coffee Bar as a half-brother.