05/06/2017 5:47PM

Arklow confirms affinity for grass with American Turf victory

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Emily Shields
Arklow and jockey Mike Smith score by one length in the American Turf Stakes.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – There was a reason his connections ran Arklow in two graded stakes this winter before the colt had won a maiden race, and the reason is that Arklow is pretty damn good. Arklow just needed a surface switch from dirt to turf for his talent to bloom, and on Saturday at Churchill Downs, the horse who was a five-race maiden on dirt ran his turf record to 2 for 2 with an impressive one-length victory in the Grade 2, $300,000 American Turf.

Mike Smith rode the winner for Donegal Racing and trainer Brad Cox, who grew up just outside the Churchill backstretch and won two graded stakes Friday to go with his American Turf win on Derby Day.

“We wanted to try and make him a Derby horse,” Cox said regarding the choice to run Arklow in the Lecomte and Risen Star stakes at Fair Grounds this winter despite Arklow having lost three maiden races.

Arklow was a close fourth in the Lecomte but finished eighth in the Risen Star, after which Cox began looking to change things up.

“We’d always thought about turf, a mile and an eighth,” Cox said, and that is the race, on April 9 at Keeneland, in which Arklow finally cleared the maiden ranks. He beat 11 rivals and won by more than three lengths going away, and a turf work April 30 at Churchill that Cox termed “super” gave Arklow’s camp confidence to return the colt to stakes company.

Arklow raced from seventh and sixth early in the 10-horse American Turf.  Up front, Oscar Performance had gotten away a beat slowly as Kitten’s Cat took the very early lead, but Oscar Performance came around Kitten’s Cat to set splits of 23.85 and 48.46 seconds over a turf course labeled “good” but clearly softer than the designation. Conquest Farenheit kept Oscar Performance honest on the lead as Smith kept Arklow several paths off the rail on the backstretch run, staying clear of what appeared to be the deepest part of the course.

Smith let Arklow run up toward the leaders while losing ground on the turn and reached the front at the quarter pole, but Big Score, who had stuck nearer the inside, also was moving, and at the eighth pole, he might have gotten his head in front. But Arklow pushed resolutely onward, inched into the lead, and got his last half-furlong in 6.23 seconds to hold clear Good Samaritan. Good Samaritan nipped Big Score by a head for second, with Conquest Farenheit holding third in a decent effort. Then came Parlor, Ritzy A.P., Made You Look, Holiday Stone, Kitten’s Cat, and Oscar Performance.

“[Cox] told me, ‘Don’t be afraid to get brave with him,’ ” Smith said. “If I got him clear, he said go ahead and let him start going a little early. He said he would keep going, and he was 100 percent right. I’m glad they told me that. Normally, on the grass, you want to wait and make one run. If I had done that, I probably would have lost the race.”

Arklow, an Arch colt out of the Empire Maker mare Unbridled Empire, was timed in 1:44.64 for 1 1/16 miles and paid $34. Cox said he wanted to focus on longer races and mentioned the Belmont Derby and Secretariat Stakes as summer goals.

Good Samaritan, making his first start since a troubled third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, raced far behind the leaders down the backstretch, was 10 wide into the stretch, and finished strongly in an encouraging effort.

“He maybe wasn’t handling the turf around the first turn, but after that, he was fine,” said jockey Joel Rosario. “He ran good for his first time back after a layoff.”

Big Score backed up his win in the Transylvania Stakes at Keeneland with another solid performance, while Oscar Performance, who won the BC Juvenile Turf, was even more disappointing than in the Transylvania, where he finished fifth.

“It was his second time in a row on softer turf,” said jockey Jose Ortiz. “I’d like to get him on a firmer course and see if he can run better.”

Arklow has run better – much better – since he found the proper footing, and the five-race maiden now has a two-race win streak.