Updated on 03/25/2012 8:39AM

Turfway: Spiral can be stairway to Kentucky Derby

Tom Keyser
Heavy Breathing, with Javier Castellano riding, wins his racing debut.

FLORENCE, Ky. – Funny how one horse can do so much for one race. When Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby last year, the Churchill Downs suite where the sponsors of the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes were watching virtually exploded.

“It was a pretty wild time,” said Bob Elliston, the Turfway Park president who watched the Derby alongside Vinery principals Tom Simon and Tom Ludt.

[TURFWAY PARK: Get PPs and watch the Saturday card live]

Duly armed with those bragging rights, the Grade 3, $500,000 Vinery Spiral will be renewed Saturday at Turfway amid a conspicuous hole on the national racing calendar, and, more importantly, with newfound respect. With Animal Kingdom having used it as his final steppingstone to Derby glory last year, the 1 1/8-mile Polytrack race once again is being regarded as a legitimate prep for the Derby, which comes six weeks later on May 5. Of paramount interest here Saturday is whether a horse or two will emerge from a field of 12 unproven entities to become a serious Derby hopeful.

“This looked like the right spot to try our horse and see if he’s good enough to go on,” said Jack Wolf, whose Starlight Racing partnership owns the lukewarm morning-line favorite, Heavy Breathing. “I guess some other people had the same idea.”

Heavy Breathing, trained by Todd Pletcher, is unbeaten in two career starts, both on the main track at Gulfstream Park, and will be making his stakes debut in the Spiral, which anchors the first of six “Road to the Derby” telecasts on the NBC family of networks. The NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) has coverage from 5-6 p.m. Eastern. Turfway's Saturday card will also be streamed live on DRF.com.

Heavy Breathing is by the world-class sire Giant’s Causeway and “has a pedigree that says he can run all day, so we’re just hopeful he can handle the synthetic,” said Wolf. “His action in the mornings really does suggest he can.”

Just a month ago, the Starlight partners and Pletcher had one of the favorites for the 138th Derby in Algorithms, but the colt was sidelined by a splint injury. “We’re all pretty excited to have another chance,” said Wolf. “I guess crazier things have happened.”

Heavy Breathing will have Javier Castellano aboard when he breaks from post 3.

Wolf said he sees two of the three California shippers, Handsome Mike and Russian Greek, as the main challengers in the Spiral. Indeed, both have experience in stakes and on synthetic surfaces, and they are among the top betting choices on the early line.

Russian Greek, also by Giant’s Causeway, was a two-back winner of the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields. The colt arrived here Wednesday for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and will be equipped with blinkers for the first time in a race. Hollendorfer, who will send assistant Dan Ward to handle the saddling duties Saturday, said he has not thought about whether a victory will automatically make the colt a Derby contender. Corey Nakatani will be aboard from post 1.

“This was just the one race we really wanted to try him in,” said Hollendorfer. “We really are just going one step at a time. Nakatani has worked him and really likes him. We’re putting the blinkers on because I think they will help him focus more.”

Handsome Mike is based in southern California with trainer Doug O’Neill, who already has I’ll Have Another as a top Derby hopeful. Handsome Mike, by the hot young sire Scat Daddy, exits four straight graded races. He will have Joel Rosario aboard when he tries to overcome post 12.

Other contenders in this 41st running of the Spiral include Went the Day Well, who has the same connections (owner Team Valor International, trainer Graham Motion, jockey John Velazquez) as Animal Kingdom; Holiday Promise, a WinStar Farm colt trained by Pletcher; Stealcase, a troubled sixth in the Gotham Stakes three weeks ago; and Mr. Prankster, a local standout trained by Mike Maker. There are no coupled entries for betting purposes.

One last-minute entry was All Squared Away, who was flown Thursday from southern California for trainer Peter Miller. The gelding will be one of the longer shots in the field.

The Spiral is being run on a day when stakes activity is abnormally light at the major racing centers in America. That helps to explain why the current leading jockeys at Gulfstream (Castellano), Santa Anita (Rosario), and Fair Grounds (Rosie Napravnik) will be here for the day, along with such notables as Velazquez and Nakatani.

Ontrack attendance is expected to reach about 18,000 on what is by far the biggest day of the year at Turfway. General admission is $10, and first post is 1:10 p.m.

The Spiral is carded as the 10th race (post, 5:45 p.m.) and will be the last of four straight stakes, all for 3-year-olds, on a 12-race Saturday card. The others are the $50,000 Hansel (race 7), the $75,000 Rushaway (race 8), and the Grade 3, $100,000 Bourbonette (race 9).

As with much of the United States, the weather in the greater Cincinnati area has been extraordinarily warm recently, with high temperatures soaring well into the 80s early this week. Thunderstorms and a cooling trend were the forecast for Friday, however, with the raceday forecast calling for clearing conditions and a high of 67.

Vinery Racing Spiral S. (G3), Post Time: 5:45 ET Saturday

Purse: $500,000; 1 1/8 miles





ML Odds


Russian Greek

J. Hollendorfer

C. Nakatani



Red Jack

D. Lukas

M. Pedroza



Heavy Breathing

T. Pletcher

J. Castellano



Went The Day Well

H. Motion

J. Velazquez



Holiday Promise

T. Pletcher

J. Alvarado



All Squared Away

P. Miller

L. Contreras



Ill Conceived

J. Servis

S. Elliott



Coach Royal

J. Sallusto

F. Jara




M. Maker

V. Lebron



Mr. Prankster

M. Maker

R. Napravnik




M. Casse

R. Maragh



Handsome Mike

D. O'Neill

J. Rosario


Recent Vinery Spiral winners

Year Horse Beyer
2011 Animal Kingdom 94
2010 Dean's Kitten 93
2009 Hold Me Back 99
2008 Adriano 92
2007 Hard Spun 101

Average winning Beyer: 99.52

Highest winning Beyer: Serena's Song (1995), Event of the Year (1998), 114

Lowest winning Beyer: With a City (2006), 87

Spiral/Kentucky Derby winners: Lil E. Tee (1992), Animal Kingdom (2011)

Spiral/Preakness winners: Summer Squall (1990), Hansel (1991), Prairie Bayou (1993)