The Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve picked up another starter March 5—or at least a prospective starter—in a 3-year-old with the kind of connections worthy of a sentimental favorite.
When Morello captured Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 3 Gotham Stakes for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct Racetrack it brought together a mix of elements ranging from one of the sport’s biggest and most well-known stars and some fresh and rather young faces to the national stage in a ownership group that includes a Saratoga-based partnership and an 18-year-old high school student who heads another stable.
By winning the Gotham, the unbeaten Morello picked up 50 qualifying points to assure himself of a spot in the starting gate for the Run for the Roses.
Whether Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, the sport’s all-time leader in wins, takes advantage of that May 7 opportunity at Churchill Downs remains to be seen. Prior to Saturday’s win at a one-turn mile, Blue Lion Thoroughbreds, Craig Taylor, and Diamond T Racing’s Morello had won a six-furlong maiden race followed by a score in the seven-furlong Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, so two turns is still a mystery for the son of Classic Empire at this late point in winter.
“We’ll do whatever (Asmussen and assistant trainer Toby Sheets) tell us to do,” said Dave Lyon, head of the eight-person Blue Lion Thoroughbreds partnership centered in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Of course, while Lyon said he would be happy to run the 3-year-old colt in the Grade 2 Pat Day Mile Stakes Presented by LG&E and KU on May 7 at Churchill Downs, those 50 points are certainly reason enough to ponder the thrill of being in the featured race that day at the Louisville track.
“We’re dreaming now,” said Lyon, who has not been involved in a Kentucky Derby starter until now. “We were dreaming before but this is a game-changer today. I think we’re going to get some hotels in Louisville and then we’ll cancel if we have to. I think we might have a Derby horse, but if it’s the Pat Day Mile, we’ll be happy, too. We want to make him a stallion.
“We ran against Bob Baffert, two Todd Pletcher horses, Calumet. We’re just a small group of people from Saratoga and we ran against the big dogs today but we had the alpha today. This is going to be a fun night.”
Victoria Taylor, the head of Diamond T Racing, is also new to the Triple Crown Trail, but that’s to be expected considering she is just a senior in high school.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “It’s amazing. I’m still in shock. I was surprised at how easy he won.”
Morello, an even money favorite ($4), did win easily. Despite some problems when he was bumped twice in the early stages, he was second behind the pace-setting Dean’s List during the long run down the backstretch. But once he turned into the stretch, jockey Jose Lezcano kicked him into top gear and they rushed past the previously unbeaten Dean’s List, the 5-1 third choice. Ahead by a length at the eighth pole, he pulled away from his nine rivals in the final furlong and crossed the wire 4 1/2 lengths in front in 1:39.28 for the mile under mild urging in the stretch.
“He just gets out and runs easy. He hasn’t been hit by the stick yet,” said Sheets, Asmussen’s New York-based assistant. “I don’t know why (he can’t stretch out). He definitely acts like it.”
Bred by Robert B. Tillyer and Dr. Chet Blackey in Kentucky, Morello was bought for $250,000 from the Sequel Bloodstock consignment at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale. Out of the Congrats mare Stop the Wedding, the $264,000 earner is her first graded stakes winner from seven foals. She also has a 2-year-old Cairo Prince filly and a yearling Paynter filly.
WinStar Farm and Siena Farm’s Dean’s List, a son of Speightstown making his stakes debut for Hall of Fame trainer Pletcher, was second and collected 20 qualifying points.
He was a length ahead of Calumet Farm’s Golden Code, a son of Honor Code also trained by Pletcher. He picked up 10 Kentucky Derby points while Life Is Great received 5 for a fourth-place finish.
The Baffert-trained Rockefeller, the 7-2 second choice, hit the outside of the starting gate and stumbled at the break. Fifth after the opening quarter-mile, he never fired and finished last in the field of 10.
The final step in New York’s Road to the Kentucky Derby comes April 9 with the 1 1/8-mile $750,000 Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino at the Big A. -Bob Ehalt
Venti Valentine Draws Off to Win Busher Invitational
NY Final Furlong Racing Stable and Parkland Thoroughbreds’ Venti Valentine rallied to a decisive victory March 5 in the $250,000 Busher Invitational, a one-turn mile for sophomore fillies at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Trained by Jorge Abreu and patiently piloted by Manny Franco, the New York-bred daughter of Firing Line secured 50 Road to the Kentucky Oaks points in the Busher.
The victory provided the owners with their second Busher score following a win in the 2019 edition in partnership with Maspeth Stables with the Abreu-trained Espresso Shot, a half sibling to Venti Valentine, by Mission Impazible out of the Medaglia d’Oro mare Glory Gold.
“I think this is a better horse than Espresso Shot,” Abreu said. “Not for nothing, but she just shows more determination than Espresso Shot. Espresso Shot looked like she loved Aqueduct and her distance was limited. I think this filly—the farther she goes, the better she’ll be.”
The Kendrick Carmouche-piloted Magic Circle, last out winner of the nine-furlong Busanda, led the compact field of five through splits of :24.23 and :48.19 over the fast main track while being stalked by 1-2 mutuel favorite Radio Days under Dylan Davis.
Venti Valentine, traveling in fourth position early, advanced outside rivals approaching the turn as Magic Circle clung to a precarious lead. Radio Days faded late in the turn as Venti Valentine powered into contention, taking command at the stretch call and drawing off to a seven-length win in a final time of 1:39.65.