07/18/2009 12:00AM

Battle of Hastings tops Va. Derby

Benoit & Associates
Battle of Hastings is left as the likely favorite in Saturday's Grade 2 Virginia Derby.

The defection of Nicanor has robbed the Virginia Derby of some of its star power, but the field for the Grade 2 turf race set for Saturday at Colonial Downs nonetheless remains deep and interesting. Virtually every one of the nine 3-year-olds in the $750,000 race stands a fighting chance, including the major players from four weeks ago in the main local prep, the Colonial Cup.

Nicanor, the full brother to Barbaro who was the 7-2 morning-line favorite, was scratched from the race Friday after incurring an unspecified injury to his hind end the previous afternoon. His absence leaves Battle of Hastings as the likely favorite for the Colonial showcase, which still appears to be the best race of the weekend amid a lengthy slate of North American stakes.

The Virginia Derby goes as the 11th of 12 Saturday races at Colonial in New Kent, Va., with post time set for 5:59 p.m. Eastern. It will anchor an all-stakes pick three, with the $50,000 Kitten's Joy (race 9) and the $150,000 Virginia Oaks (race 10) leading into it. The Virginia Oaks, a Grade 3 race at 1 1/8 miles, drew a field of 11 3-year-old fillies.

The 1 1/4-mile Virginia Derby drew the first four finishers from the Colonial Cup. Battle of Hastings, a California-based gelding trained by Jeff Mullins, won that hard-fought prep over Straight Story, with Lime Rickey third and Take the Points fourth.

The June 20 Colonial Cup unfolded in a curious way, with Battle of Hastings and jockey Tyler Baze perhaps a bit lucky to prevail. While they took a short and efficient way home, Straight Story was floated extremely wide at the quarter pole, yet still closed stoutly to miss by just a head.

Baze, part of a very strong jockey contingent in for the day, has the return mount on Battle of Hastings, while Chuck Lopez is named back aboard Straight Story.

Newcomers to Colonial include Florentino and El Crespo, the respective one-two finishers in the Jefferson Cup last month at Churchill Downs, and the ever-intriguing Hold Me Back.

Hold Me Back, unraced since finishing a distant 12th in the May 2 Kentucky Derby, will be making his turf debut Saturday for owner WinStar Farm and Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. The colt has done his best work on synthetic surfaces, having catapulted into the top echelon of the 3-year-old division by winning the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park and finishing second in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

"We're just trying to get him back on track," said Elliott Walden, racing manager for WinStar. "Bill's worked him a couple times on the grass in New York and really liked how the colt got over it. Our goal actually is to make him a Grade 1 winner on the dirt, and we're thinking about maybe going in the Travers after this. But we wanted to try the grass first, and the timing of this race was just right. Obviously, he's shown ability on the synthetic, so hopefully that will transfer over to the turf."

Mott has already won the Virginia Derby three times, with Orchard Park (2002), Silver Tree (2003), and Go Between (2006).

The balance of the field includes Affirmatif and Safety Valve. Affirmatif and Take the Points are trained by Todd Pletcher, who won the Virginia Derby in 2005 with English Channel and in 2007 with Red Giant.

The Virginia Derby is the second of four legs in the Grand Slam of Grass bonus series, which only Battle of Hastings, as winner of the Colonial Cup, remains eligible to sweep. The Aug. 8 Secretariat and the Nov. 7 Breeders' Cup Turf are the remaining legs. A sweep is estimated at more than $5 million, including purse winnings, by the series sponsor, Jacobs Investments.

TVG will provide live coverage of the entire Colonial card. First post is 12:55.