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Lots of class in Commonwealth
LEXINGTON, Ky. - In most years, the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup Stakes is run the day after the Blue Grass Stakes. But with Keeneland sitting dark Sunday because of the Easter holiday, the Commonwealth BC will be run Saturday, helping to form a blockbuster 10-race card.
Twelve older horses, led by Sun King, have been entered in the Grade 2, $400,000 Commonwealth, which will directly precede the Blue Grass on a Saturday card that also includes the Grade 2 Jenny Wiley Stakes and five allowance races.
Sun King, a $1.3 million earner trained by Nick Zito, will be making his third start of the year. He finished third in a Gulfstream optional claimer in February and then eighth in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap March 4.
Among his notable opponents in the seven-furlong Commonwealth are Vicarage, a 10-length winner of the Perryville Stakes here last fall, and Kelly's Landing, who set the Churchill Downs track record for 6 1/2 furlongs last June.
The $200,000 Jenny Wiley, for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the turf, will have Wend, the Claiborne Farm standout, as a solid favorite among a field of nine. Wend, trained by Bill Mott, most recently won the Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park, defeating Honey Ryder, who wheeled back to win the Orchid nearly two weeks ago.
Entries for Saturday were drawn a day earlier than usual because of a revised schedule due to the dark day.
Nar boosts Zito's lead
Nar gave Zito his meet-leading sixth victory by turning back heavily favored Dr. Pleasure in the fourth race Wednesday, an entry-level allowance for 3-year-olds.
Nar, a striking-looking gray by Northern Afleet, returned $7 to win. The colt is owned by Buckram Oak Farm, whose owner, Mahmoud Fustok, died Feb. 8 when struck by a car in south Florida.
Nar means "fire" in Arabic, according to Buckram Oak spokesman Hanzly Albina. "Not, 'Northern Afleet Runner,' like some people think," said Albina.
Dr. Pleasure, making his first start since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in late October, finished third, 9 3/4 lengths behind Nar.
"First start back, the air went out of his lungs," said trainer John T. Ward Jr.
Charging Indian scores upset
A little later Wednesday, Charging Indian, a lightly raced 4-year-old, stayed unbeaten in four career starts when putting away favored Battle Won en route to a 4 1/4-length victory in the seventh race, a $67,000 classified allowance for older horses.
Always on the lead while clinging to the rail, Charging Indian ($7.20), trained by Walt Bindner Jr., pulled away to finish 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.94. Charging Indian, by Indian Charlie, was bred and is owned by Hargus Sexton.
The victory was the second of the card for jockey James Graham, who went winless during opening weekend. Last spring at Keeneland, Graham, a 26-year-old native of Ireland, was the co-leader through the first eight days of the meet with 10 winners.
McPeek thrilled to be back
As Ken McPeek waited in the grandstand box area to watch Hoosier Ambassador make his debut in the second race Wednesday, the veteran trainer said he was glad to be back in action after being on a self-imposed 9 1/2-month absence.
"I haven't been this excited since a few years into it," said McPeek, who gave up a large stable last July. "The layoff was good for me."
Hoosier Ambassador, an Indiana-bred 2-year-old, was the first McPeek starter since last June. After showing early speed, the colt faded to finish fifth, beaten 18 lengths. He is one of about 20 horses that McPeek has in training at Keeneland.
Walden's been down this road before
The road to the Kentucky Derby doesn't often go through Keeneland by way of Tampa Bay Downs, but that was the route trainer Todd Pletcher chose this year for Bluegrass Cat. And Elliott Walden, racing manager for the colt's owner, WinStar Farm, fully approved.
Walden, speaking Wednesday at the Blue Grass Stakes post-position draw, recalled the 1999 Triple Crown campaign during which he ran Menifee in the Tampa Bay Derby and Blue Grass leading up to the Derby. "Menifee got beat at Tampa, too," he said.
Menifee ultimately became one of the standouts in that 3-year-old class for Walden, who quit training last year to run WinStar's far-flung stable. After finishing second to Pineaff in the Tampa Bay Derby, Menifee won the Blue Grass, then ran second to Charismatic in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
As for Bluegrass Cat, who trained this winter at Palm Meadows in south Florida, Walden said, "I felt good about him going to Tampa."
Bluegrass Cat lost a shoe in the Tampa Derby when second to Deputy Glitters. "It looks like he's coming up to the Blue Grass the right way," Walden said.
Lunsford's 40th anniversary
It was 40 years ago, when Abe's Hope beat an injured Graustark on the wire in the 1966 Blue Grass, and Bruce Lunsford caught the racing bug. As an 18-year-old student at the University of Kentucky, Lunsford never had paid much attention to racing until that day.
Lunsford, with Lansdon Robbins, is the co-owner of First Samurai, the morning-line favorite for the 2006 Blue Grass.
"To win the Blue Grass would be very special for me because this is where I got my start in the game," Lunsford said.
Seaside Retreat is Canada's hope
Seaside Retreat was one of the better 2-year-olds in Canada last year, but after finishing fifth in the Sam Davis at Tampa in February, he wasn't on anyone's list of Derby hopefuls this year.
But with a runner-up finish at 11-1 in the Lane's End Stakes last month, the colt earned a crack at the big time, said trainer Mark Casse. Seaside Retreat will be one of the longer shots Saturday in the Blue Grass.
"Coming down from Toronto, you really have to prove yourselves down here," said Casse. "He didn't care for the track at Tampa at all, and it probably was a mistake on my part to run him there. But he ran very well at Turfway and earned a shot in a race like this."
Top horses quietly at work
Ever so quietly, some of the best older horses in training have assembled at Churchill Downs, where all have posted recent workouts. Those horses include Flower Alley and Harlington, both trained by Pletcher, and Alumni Hall, trained by Neil Howard.
Alumni Hall will make his next start at Keeneland in the April 27 Ben Ali Stakes, a race that Howard has won the last three years.
* Wednesday was the rarest of days at Keeneland if for only this reason: Bucky Sallee, who has called horses to the post as the track bugler for more than 40 years, missed just his second day of work. Sallee called in sick, marking just the second time since his wife's funeral in the early 1970's that he has missed a Keeneland card, according to track officials.
* A recent Keeneland tradition will be perpetuated Friday when people line up in the pre-dawn hours to be among the first in line for the annual Maker's Mark bottle signing. A commemorative edition of one-liter bottles will be signed by several members of "Rupp's Runts," the 1966 UK basketball team that lost the NCAA final to Texas Western. The signing begins at 6:30 a.m. near the Equestrian Room.