Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey thought about running Mr Speaker in the April 12 Blue Grass at Keeneland, but decided to pass the hurly-burly of a big field in that major Kentucky Derby prep, and instead opted for Saturday's Grade 3, $200,000 Lexington Stakes over the same track. Judging by how the Phipps Stable homebred stormed four lengths clear in his first attempt on synthetic, it's worth wondering how he might have fared one week ago.
With the Lexington being the final points race on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" scoring system, Mr Speaker earned 10 points toward the Run for the Roses. But McGaughey was quick to dismiss any thoughts of hoping to make the Derby field with Mr Speaker, who was seventh in the January 25 Holy Bull in his only try on dirt.
"I think one of these days we'll try him again (on dirt)," McGaughey said, "but it ain't gonna be in two weeks!"
Mr Speaker was a poignant winner on Saturday, a week after his "aunt," millionaire My Flag, died at Claiborne Farm. The 21-year-old mare succumbed after delivering a Bernardini colt. My Flag was a half-sister to Mr Speaker's dam, Grade 2-placed Salute.
Best known as a turf performer so far, Mr Speaker was dispatched as the 2-1 favorite. The royally-bred son of Pulpit sat a perfect, ground-saving trip from the rail. Regular rider Jose Lezcano tucked him just behind the vying pacesetters, Solitary Ranger and Supermonic, through fractions of :24, :48 and 1:13 on the Polytrack. Tipped out at the top of the stretch, Mr Speaker exercised his authority and drew off to complete 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.
"I thought Jose (Lezcano) rode a great race on him," McGaughey said. "He had him in the slot the whole way there and was just kind of waiting. I saw him reach up and grab him again around the 4 1/2 (furlong) pole, and I thought, 'Well, he's got a lot of horse. We'll just see what happens when the running starts.'"
Divine Oath, who didn't draw into the Blue Grass from the also-eligible list, was rerouted to the Lexington as Plan B. Slowly away after brushing the gate, he got up for second, denying Supermonic by a head.
"We were hoping to get a crack at the Blue Grass Stakes, but this was always the back-up plan," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "I think he would have made a good showing of himself like he did today. He ran well today."
"Unfortunately, I kind of missed the break out of the gate," jockey Javier Castellano said of Divine Oath. "I think that could have cost me my position in the race. I expected to be closer to the pace but unfortunately, the way (the race) unfolded, I had to come from behind. But that's the way the race developed."
Ami's Holiday, who raced in tandem with Mr Speaker early, wound up fourth in this seasonal reappearance. Ami's Holiday was the only entrant who could have leapfrogged into the Derby field with a victory on Saturday. Owner Ivan Dalos had already dismissed the idea of wheeling back in two weeks at Churchill, however.
Next came Solitary Ranger, Poker Player, Z Lucky and Ride Away. Dynamic Impact and Global Strike were scratched in favor of Saturday's Grade 3 Illinois Derby, while Morning Calm was likewise withdrawn.
Mr Speaker paid $6.20 to win and increased his earnings to $269,880 from a record of 7-3-1-1. The dark bay made his debut on the Saratoga turf last August, checking in sixth behind Bobby's Kitten, and improved to finish third over the Widener course at Belmont the following month. Mr Speaker broke his maiden on Belmont's inner turf in October, and promptly captured his first stakes in the December 21 Dania Beach at Gulfstream. That earned him a crack at the Holy Bull on the main track, where he faded to seventh.
"We ran him on the dirt one time, and I don't think that was a true indication of his dirt form," McGaughey said. "I think he probably will handle the dirt. He laid up maybe a bit closer than we wanted him to (in that race), maybe (was) a little eager, and I don't think Jose wanted him eating the dirt."
After failing to do himself justice on the Gulfstream dirt, Mr Speaker reverted to turf and finished a rallying second in the March 1 Palm Beach.
"This horse we've been high on," the trainer noted. "I brought him here with the idea of running in the Blue Grass, but when it came up a big field I decided not to. Racing Secretary (Ben Huffman) told me last week they were going to have six (in this race) so I decided to go, and it ended up with 11 (before scratches whittled the field down to eight)."
The Kentucky-bred is the second winner produced by Salute, who was runner-up in the Demoiselle and third in the Tempted as a juvenile in 2004. Salute is a daughter of Unbridled and unbeaten Hall of Famer Personal Ensign, making her a half-sister to Grade 1-winning sires Miner's Mark and Traditionally, multiple Grade 1-placed sire Our Emblem and to the aforementioned My Flag.
A four-time Grade 1 star, My Flag landed the 1995 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and 1996 Coaching Club American Oaks, Ashland and Gazelle, and she also placed third versus males in the Belmont Stakes. The Easy Goer mare became a successful producer as well, responsible for 2002 champion two-year-old filly Storm Flag Flying, stakes scorer With Flying Colors, stakes-placed sire Leading the Parade and Grade 3-placed On Parade, the dam of Grade 2 hero Parading.
Like Mr Speaker, Parading is himself a son of Pulpit, and primarily a turf horse, who took his game to synthetic at Keeneland and ran away with the 2009 Ben Ali. He ended his career with a second in the Fayette over the same track that fall.