Starlight Racing's Intense Holiday utilized every inch of the long stretch run at Fair Grounds Saturday, closing furiously to catch Albano in the final strides of the Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star. By virtue of the nose decision, the Todd Pletcher-trained colt vaulted to the top of the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard. Hall of Famer Mike Smith was in for the ride.
The son of Harlan's Holiday pocketed 50 points on Saturday, as well as the $240,000 winner's share for his first stakes victory, to increase his total to 53. Intense Holiday earned a point when concluding his juvenile season with a fourth in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct and netted another two points for a third in his three-year-old debut, the Grade 2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. His career mark now reads 7-2-0-1, $351,900
Albano broke running from his innermost post position and entered the first turn unopposed, completing the first quarter-mile in :24 1/5 on a one-length advantage. Intense Holiday broke well, settling into midpack soon after the start, but was forced to check in tight quarters midway around the first turn. He was seventh, six lengths back of the pacesetter after a half-mile in :48.
Rise Up attempted to apply pressure midway down the backstretch, but Albano shook off his rival and entered the far turn with a clear lead, passing the three-quarters mark in 1:13. Intense Holiday was in the clear to the outside of rivals on the final bend but didn't start to make serious headway until entering the stretch drive.
Vicar's in Trouble launched a bid four wide on the far turn and nearly drew even with Albano turning for home, but the front-runner had more in reserve and kicked clear with a sixteenth of a mile remaining. But Intense Holiday was charging on the far outside and rallied determinedly in deep stretch to get the glory.
"Well, in the very beginning he kind of slipped leaving there which turned out to be a good thing," Smith said. "It kind of scared him and he got up on the bridle which I wanted him to be but he was a bit too keen early.
"So when I finally talked him out of it he just completely let go and I was like 'uh no, not that much.' I asked him again and he jumped back on it again and I had to talk him out it or he would let go too much."
Intense Holiday completed the 1 1/16-mile prep race in 1:43 4/5 on the fast oval.
"There was a lot of room to improve there and a lot of room to grow," Smith added. "What I really liked at the end was galloping out, after I stopped him, you can tell when a three-year-old has had enough. He took one breath and came back so we did not get to the bottom of him."
Off as the 5-1 fourth choice among 14 rivals, Intense Holiday paid $12 to win.
Albano easily held second, 5 1/2 lengths better than third-placer Vicar's in Trouble.
"I thought I was home at the sixteenths (pole)," said Kerwin Clark, jockey of Albano. "He was still running. I looked over inside the eighth pole and didn't see anyone coming. I can't believe that horse came and got us, to be honest, because my horse never stopped one bit.
"It was disappointing, but it's what I wanted to see from him -- improvement that sets us up for the big one."
Vicar's in Trouble, the 5-2 favorite off his victory in the Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds, finished 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Hoppertunity in fourth. Next came Gold Hawk, Commanding Curve, Rise Up, Flat Gone, Son of a Preacher, Quick Indian, Vigorish, Emmett Park, Interchange and Extra Luck. Bond Holder was scratched and Teniente Coronel did not draw in from the also-eligibles list.
Bred in Kentucky by Machmer Hall and Haymarket Farm, Intense Holiday is out of the mare Intensify, a daughter of Unbridled's Song who is closely related to multiple Grade 3 winner Crafty Shaw and stakes vixen Her She Kisses. This is also the immediate female family of Grade 2 winner Shawklit Mint, Grade 3 hero Mr. Shawklit, stakes victor Shawklit Man and Grade 1-placed Shawklit Won.
Intense Holiday sold for $380,000 as a yearling at the 2012 Keeneland September sale. The dark bay wound up fifth when making his debut in a maiden special weight at Monmouth Park in late July and broke his maiden second-time out at the New Jersey track a month later. He finished fifth when making his stakes bow in the Grade 1 Champagne and followed it with a fourth in the Grade 2 Nashua prior to the Remsen.
Starlight's Jack Wolf said Intense Holiday will likely return to the Fair Grounds for the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby on March 29.