11/30/2015 2:33PM

Road to the Derby: Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes

Airoforce handled a sloppy dirt track just fine in winning the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

Grade 2, $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes; 1 1/16 miles; Churchill Downs; Nov. 28, 2015
(10 Derby qualifying points for a win, 4 for second, 2 for third, 1 for fourth)

Winner: Airoforce (sire: Colonel John)
Trainer: Mark Casse
Jockey: Julien Leparoux
Owner: John Oxley
Beyer Speed Figure: 87

After making his three prior starts on turf, AIROFORCE switched to the dirt for this race. The race was run on a sloppy, sealed track, so his aptitude on fast dirt is still in question, but it’s not as though he has a turf pedigree. Airoforce – a son of Colonel John - appears, quite simply, to be a good horse, capable on turf as well as, at the least, sloppy dirt. He has trained regularly at Churchill Downs, and all his works had been over fast main tracks. It can safely be assumed that working well on those dry tracks is what encouraged trainer Mark Casse and his son and assistant Norman to run him in the Kentucky Jockey Club. He finishes the year with three wins in four starts, with a neck loss in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf to European import Hit It a Bomb the lone setback. Not too shabby.

Airoforce added blinkers for the Kentucky Jockey Club. He hesitated just a touch leaving the gate but used his inside draw to secure a ground-saving position around the first turn. He raced between horses for much of the backstretch and through the far turn while following GUN RUNNER, got clear at the top of the stretch when RATED R SUPERSTAR – to his outside – could not keep pace, then finished resolutely down the center of the track to prevail.

MOR SPIRIT, who finished second, was used aggressively leaving the gate to secure a forward position three paths wide around the first turn. He advanced to second, outside DERBY EXPRESS, going down the backstretch, edged in front of Derby Express midway on the final turn, battled with Gun Runner from upper stretch to the furlong pole, and though he got the best of that rival he could not stave off Airoforce. This was only Mor Spirit's third race, his first outside California, and his first on an off track, a surface over which his low Tomlinson Figure of 252 indicates he is not at his best.

MO TOM, who was third, had no early speed and was in front of just one horse into the first turn, though he was able to get over and save ground. He started motoring on the far turn, but had to check at the five-sixteenth’s pole when running up on the heels of NANA LOOCH. He got through inside Nana Looch, continued up the rail through the stretch, swapped over to his left lead a furlong out, kept to his task and just missed catching Mor Spirit for second.

Gun Runner, who was fourth, was forwardly placed between horses around the first turn. He left the horses to his outside nearing the far turn and went after the leaders while in the clear and three paths wide. He drew even with Mor Spirit at the quarter pole and raced with Mor Spirit to the furlong pole when Airoforce went past him, then weakened. This was his first loss, and though it was his first time racing on an off track, his wet-track Tomlinson of 434 is very strong. Of the highly regarded runners in here, his race was the biggest disappointment for me. I’ll be interested in seeing how he bounces back over the winter at Fair Grounds, as I liked his first two starts quite a bit.

ANNUAL REPORT, who was fifth, wound up three to four paths wide on the first turn from his outside draw, remained in the middle of the track down the backstretch, was forced to rally wide on the far turn and was fanned out at least five paths into the stretch, leaned in a bit in upper stretch, and though he could not gain on the leaders late he never retreated. This was only his third start, first beyond six furlongs, first around two turns, first on an off track, and first at Churchill Downs. With all that thrown at him, this wasn’t a bad effort.

MY MAJESTIC FLIGHT, who was sixth, trailed early but was guided to the inside after starting near the outside, stayed on the fence much of the rest of the way, followed Mo Tom through the lane, and made no impact late.

PERFECT SAINT, who finished seventh, was shuffled back while racing between horses around the first turn, made a mild bid while wide on the far turn, and pretty much passed tired rivals in the stretch.

TOM’S READY, who was eighth, bobbled slightly leaving the gate, was three to four paths wide on the first turn while forwardly placed, raced outside Gun Runner down the backstretch, started to lose ground on the far turn and was no factor thereafter.

Rated R Superstar, who was ninth, was four to five paths wide around the first turn, was stuck out there down the backstretch and wound up in the four path on the far turn, bravely advanced to get within a few lengths of the leaders near five-sixteenths pole, but then understandably tired. He could be live on the turn-back off this trip.

Nana Looch, who was 10th, was inside horses along the rail while just behind FORCE IT around the first turn, began to tire on the far turn, drifted out entering the lane, and continued to drift through the stretch.

Derby Express, who wound up 11th, broke sharply and led the field into the first turn, then maintained the lead down the backstretch while being lapped on by Mor Spirit. He could not keep up with Mor Spirit while moving around the far turn, was late to swap leads in upper stretch and tired. He’ll do just fine back home in Indiana.

Force It, who was 12th, used his inside draw and early speed to secure a good position just inside and behind Derby Express around the first turn and into the backstretch, came under a ride on the far turn, retreated, and was on his wrong lead in the lane. His best races have been as a late-running sprinter.

UNCLE JERRY, who finished last of 13, could not get over from his outside draw and wound up about six paths wide into the first turn, began to fade after a half-mile, and tailed off badly. He had run poorly in his lone prior race on an off track, in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.