03/31/2016 1:16PM

Airoforce looks to bounce back, earn Derby shot in Spiral Stakes

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Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Airoforce wins the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last November.

“Win and You’re In” more typically applies to the Breeders’ Cup, but since Churchill Downs initiated a points system to determine eligibility for the Kentucky Derby three years ago, the label fits snugly for some Derby preps.

This is particularly germane to the Spiral Stakes, which will be renewed Saturday as an annual rite of spring at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky. None of the top contenders for the 142nd Derby are part of the oversubscribed Spiral field, and yet the winner will get 50 Derby points and therefore a spot – if so desired – in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on May 7.

Airoforce is the 3-1 morning-line favorite in the Grade 3, $500,000 Spiral, which is run at 1 1/8 miles on Polytrack. Although the gray colt stamped himself as a viable Derby hopeful when capturing the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall at Churchill, he was effectively ruled off the Derby trail by trainer Mark Casse after finishing 10th, beaten nearly 40 lengths, in his lone start this year, the Feb. 20 Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

But wait a minute.

“I’d be lying if I said we wouldn’t consider the Derby if we won Saturday,” said Casse. “The colt has come back to train well. I think I was more disappointed and confused than anything after he threw in that terrible race. We went over him from head to tail and haven’t really found a whole lot. We’ll give him a chance to redeem himself and consider what options we have afterward.”

Airoforce had to be supplemented for $25,000 to the Spiral by owner John Oxley because of an oversight that left him off the nominations list. The colt will break from post 10 when ridden by Albin Jimenez, who will have earned his sixth straight riding title at Turfway when the winter-spring meet ends Sunday.

A couple of other Spiral favorites, both shipping in for powerhouse stables, are drawn just outside of Airoforce. They are Ralis (post 11, Corey Nakatani), in from Southern California by way of Arkansas for Doug O’Neill, and Azar (post 12, Manny Franco), in from south Florida for Todd Pletcher.

Ralis, like Airoforce, enters off a weak race, having finished 10th in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park just two weeks ago, but O’Neill is banking on the colt returning to the form that led to a 5 3/4-length score in the Grade 1 Hopeful last September at Saratoga.

“He came out of [the Rebel] in great shape, and we’re going to see how he acts on the synthetic,” said O’Neill.

Azar had been strictly a turf horse, winning the Grade 2 With Anticipation at Saratoga among his first six starts, before Pletcher spotted him on dirt Feb. 28 at Gulfstream Park, where the colt came through with a victory in a first-level allowance.

Other Spiral considerations include Surgical Strike (post 2, Orlando Mojica), the winner of the local prep, the March 13 John Battaglia Memorial; Jensen (post 3, Florent Geroux), an easy last-out winner of a Fair Grounds allowance; Don’t Be So Salty (post 4, Cornelio Velasquez), the winner of the Display Stakes on the Woodbine synthetic last fall for New York-based Gary Contessa; and Kasseopia (post 8, Alan Garcia), a British-bred with valuable experience on synthetics.

The two also-eligibles for the Spiral, Crescent Drive and Diplodocus, can run only in the case of defections prior to the scratch deadline Friday morning.

This is the 45th running of the Spiral, which has been known under a variety of names since its 1972 inaugural. Seven of the last nine winners have run back in the Derby, although two of the last three, Black Onyx (2013) and Dubai Sky (2015) were sidelined beforehand by injury.

First post for a 12-race Saturday card is 1:10 p.m. Eastern, with the Spiral (race 10) set for 5:43.

Two other stakes, the Rushaway and Bourbonette Oaks, directly precede the Spiral on Turfway’s signature day of racing. They’re all tied into a pick four wager (races 7-10) with a 14 percent takeout.

KEY CONTENDERS

Airoforce, by Colonel John

Last 3 Beyers: 28-87-87

◗ Casse said he is optimistic that the colt will revert to his better efforts, which not only include the Kentucky Jockey Club win but a runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.

Azar, by Scat Daddy

Last 3 Beyers: 81-82-57

◗ Considering his lack of dirt experience, he’s only a middle-tier Derby prospect for Pletcher, a three-time Spiral winner with Balto Star (2001), Flower Alley (2005), and We Miss Artie (2014).

Ralis, by Square Eddie

Last 3 Beyers: 78-64-66

◗ Winning a Grade 1 makes him an automatic threat, although he’ll clearly have to rebound off disappointing showings in the three races that have followed the Hopeful.

Kasseopia, by Showcasing

Last 3 Beyers: 81-82-NA

◗ Chestnut colt is trained by three-time Spiral winner Graham Motion, best known for his work with 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom.

Don’t Be So Salty, by Tiz Wonderful

Last 3 Beyers: 82-83-87

◗ Florida-bred gelding probably isn’t Derby material but nonetheless fits well here with his versatile running style and a 2-for-2 record over synthetics.

Jensen, by Haynesfield

Last 3 Beyers: 89-78-73

◗ Larry Jones homebred will make his synthetics debut after facing lesser company on the Fair Grounds dirt all winter.