05/05/2011 12:24PM

Churchill's Woodford Reserve topped by Prince Will I Am


LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The last time Prince Will I Am raced at Churchill Downs, the riding actions of his jockey at the time, Javier Castellano, incited fury from opposing rider Calvin Borel and led to punches being thrown in the winner’s circle following a roughly contested Breeders’ Cup Marathon on Nov. 5.

Prince Will I Am might be a part of the headlines for another reason Saturday if he can put forth a winning performance in the Grade 1, $500,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, the deepest and classiest turf race in America this year.

The Woodford Reserve comes one race before the Kentucky Derby and has a full field of 14. Another three are hoping to draw in from an also-eligible list.

Every horse in the field is either a group of graded winner. Prince Will I Am is one of five who are Grade 1 winners in North America, with the others being Teaks North, Get Stormy, Stately Victor, and Court Vision. Moryba is a Group 1 winner in Brazil.

Despite the race’s depth and quality, Prince Will I Am undoubtedly has the qualifications to win. In last year’s Marathon, he was disqualified from second and placed 10th for interference when he came out on the final turn under Castellano, forcing another runner to clip heels. Prince Will I Am then rattled off two consecutive graded stakes victories: the Grade 2 William McKnight at Calder, a 1 1/2-mile race taken off the turf and moved to dirt, and the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida Handicap at Gulfstream going 1 3/8 miles on grass.

Most recently, he was a close third behind Rahy’s Attorney and Musketier in the Grade 3 Pan American at Gulfstream on March 26, a race trainer Michelle Nihei said she felt was not his best.

“I’ve been spoiled by him to be disappointed to be third to two very, very nice horses,” she said.

Nihei said Prince Will I Am did not care for what she called a hard course at Gulfstream that afternoon, and she hopes to catch more give in the ground Saturday at Churchill.

More of a question will be a cutback in distance from 1 1/2 miles in the Pan American to 1 1/8 miles in the Woodford. Prince Will I Am closed to win the Grade 1 Jamaica against straight 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles last fall, but Nihei said, “I wouldn’t want to go any shorter than this.”

John Velazquez rides Prince Will I Am, a 4-year-old son of Victory Gallop owned by Casa Farms.

The horse to catch is the speedy Little Mike, a gelding who won 3 of 4 races at Gulfstream Park this winter and spring, all in graded stakes.

“Very few horses can run so many fast eighths as him,” trainer Dale Romans said. “That separates from everybody.”

Whether Little Mike can sustain such a pace at 1 1/8 miles is debatable. In his lone race at the distance, he faded to sixth, beaten 2 1/2 lengths by Teaks North, in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap on Feb. 5.

Court Vision, a $2.6 million earner and the 4-1 morning-line favorite, is a candidate to improve upon his season debut when fourth in the Grade 1 Maker’s Mark Mile on April 15 at Keeneland. He was third in this race in 2009 and second last year.

With his regular trainer, Rick Dutrow, denied a racing license in Kentucky last month, Michael Nevin is the trainer of record for Court Vision.