As the first race in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" scoring series, and a "Win & You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Saturday's Grade 3, $115,500 Iroquois Stakes featured several promising two-year-olds at Churchill Downs. It wasn't the leading fancies, however, but the 11-1 shot Lucky Player who earned the Breeders' Cup ticket, and the 10 points toward the 2015 Kentucky Derby. Edging stablemate Bold Conquest by a neck, he topped the Steve Asmussen-trained exacta and also gave his freshman sire, two-time champion Lookin at Lucky, his first graded winner.
Jerry Durant's Lucky Player had broken his maiden beneath the Twin Spires on May 23, but he was coming off a pair of losses in stakes company. A distant fourth in the June 28 Bashford Manor in his last appearance at Churchill, Lucky Player was most recently outdueled by Private Prospect in the August 9 Prairie Meadows Juvenile Mile, his first route attempt.
Bettors therefore overlooked him in favor of others, led by 6-5 favorite Mr. Z, who was runner-up in both the Sanford and Saratoga Special, and the 7-2 second choice Hashtag Bourbon, smashing winner of the Mountaineer Juvenile in his latest. But Lucky Player, likely benefiting from that two-turn experience at Prairie Meadows, upstaged them all.
As Mr. Z went to the early lead, Lucky Player prompted him through splits of :24 2/5, :49 2/5 and 1:14 4/5 on the fast track. Hashtag Bourbon raced keenly in the next flight on the rail, covered up by Cleveland Sound. Bold Conquest was also within striking range on the outside, along with Danny Boy.
Turning into the stretch, Lucky Player readily dispatched a weakening Mr. Z, and Bold Conquest advanced to join the fray. Still trapped behind them was Hashtag Bourbon, full of run with nowhere to go at a crucial point. By the time that the son of 2010 Kentucky Derby hero Super Saver finally found a seam, it was too late for him to make more of an impact.
Lucky Player and Bold Conquest were both finishing strongly off the slow pace. Although Bold Conquest briefly headed Lucky Player, the eventual winner came again to deny his stable companion and completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:45 3/5. Lucky Player rewarded his backers with a $25 win payout.
"He had a clean trip; he's a really nice horse," winning rider Ricardo Santana Jr. said. "He relaxed really nicely. When we were turning for home and I asked him, he really showed his class in this race. I was pretty confident going into this race.
"When I rode him at Prairie Meadows and he came down the stretch and saw all the lights, I think he almost got caught in it a little bit. I had more confidence in him running during the day. He's a nice horse. I told Mr. Asmussen after I broke his maiden here that I definitely wanted to ride him again."
"Lucky Player was laying extremely well, he was in a perfect spot," Asmussen said. "Ricardo gave him a great trip. I think he benefited a lot from his two-turn race that he had previously, and then Bold Conquest, I think he was a little wide early, not a lot of pace but he still continued well.
"I thought they both looked well, they looked good under the wire, they maintained the margin and I think both horses will get better with experience.
"I think with Lucky Player, with four races already, and a different type, (and) Bold Conquest being a bigger and heavier horse with the two turns, he would most likely come back sooner. We'll see how they come out of this attitude-wise and see how they go back to the track."
Asmussen was not the only one celebrating the exacta. The result was also a triumph for leading sire Smart Strike, for the top two are both by two of his best sons at stud -- Lucky Player being by Lookin at Lucky and Bold Conquest by Hall of Famer Curlin. Thus the Iroquois could be a harbinger of a long-term influence from the Smart Strike sire line.
Hashtag Bourbon checked in another 1 1/2 lengths back in third, and Danny Boy was a one-paced fourth. There was a 6 1/4-length gap back to Mr. Z, followed by Cleveland Sound, Holy Frazier, Dekabrist and The Gorilla Man.
Lucky Player improved his mark to 4-2-1-0, $115,691. His near-miss in the Prairie Meadows Juvenile Mile has turned out to be a key race. Aside from his coming back to take the Iroquois, the Prairie Meadows feature also produced the top two in Saturday's Arlington-Washington Futurity -- Recount, third in the Juvenile Mile, gained narrow revenge on Juvenile Mile winner Private Prospect.
Bred in Florida by Destiny Oaks of Ocala, Lucky Player failed to reach his reserve at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga last August when bringing a bid of $175,000. The bay is the first registered foal from the Storm Cat mare Janetstickettocats, a half-sister to multiple Grade 2 winner Runway Model, multiple Grade 2-placed stakes scorer Mambo Train and Grade 3-placed Elena Strikes. Another of the mare's half-siblings, Mama Tia, produced this season's Winning Colors victress Southern Honey, most recently third in the August 30 Prioress.