03/21/2011 1:12PM

Turfway's Spiral Stakes offers side door to Kentucky Derby

Jim Lisa
King Congie is hoping to garner enough graded stakes earnings in Saturday's Vinery Spiral Stakes at Turfway to earn a berth in the Kentucky Derby.

Blame it on Paddy O’Prado.

Three-year-olds lacking any semblance of dirt form can still run in the Kentucky Derby, provided they amass the sufficient amount of graded stakes earnings to make the 20-horse cutoff. Last year, Donegal Racing and trainer Dale Romans used a combination of grass and Polytrack to get Paddy O’Prado into the Derby field, and the colt responded with a huge effort, finishing third while barely missing second.

This week, with the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes set for its 40th running Saturday at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., more than a few horsemen are looking at a similar side-door entrance into the May 7 Derby. With its Grade 3 ranking and $500,000 purse, the Spiral, a 1 1/8-mile Polytrack race, will afford virtually automatic entry into the Derby.

“We could very well be trying to do what Dale did last year,” said Barry Irwin, whose Team Valor International has Animal Kingdom and possibly Crimson China pointing to the Spiral. “Even though neither one has even raced on the dirt, both of them have quality. I can’t separate the two. It’s a situation where we know they can both run on the synthetic, and once you get the earnings, you can turn your attention to whether or not they can handle the dirt. I’m sure that’s what we’d try, if we can get lucky enough to get into that position.”

Likewise, King Congie and his owners, the West Point Thoroughbreds, will try to use the Spiral as a means to making the Derby. King Congie twice ran poorly on dirt to begin his career but has finished first in three straight turf races since then, including the Tropical Park Derby and Hallandale Beach Stakes, both ungraded. He was disqualified to third in the Hallandale Beach.

“He didn’t show a whole lot on dirt, so that would naturally give you pause,” West Point president Terry Finley said. “But if I was a betting man, and we run big in the Spiral, I’d say we end up in the Derby field.”

Of the 18 horses that Turfway racing officials are listing as wanting into the Spiral – only 12 can run – more than half have done little to nothing on dirt while otherwise showing degrees of promise on turf or synthetics. One of the probable favorites, Positive Response, has raced exclusively on synthetics, while other contenders such as Animal Kingdom, King Congie, Twinspired, and Beachcombing also are badly lacking in dirt form.

Spiral entries will be drawn Wednesday evening in the VIP tent on the track apron.

As of Monday, it appeared that Crimson China – an impressive winner of a Gulfstream Park turf allowance in his only North American start – will not make the cut, which logically means Irwin could turn to the April 16 Blue Grass as an alternative.

“There are so many things involved right now that I’d rather not give away our strategy,” Irwin said.

Animal Kingdom and Crimson China both worked Monday for trainer Graham Motion at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida and were scheduled to be vanned Tuesday to Keeneland, about an hour south of Turfway.

The Spiral is one of five stakes set for the Saturday program, which will be run during daytime hours. Nighttime Saturday cards have been the norm at Turfway since Feb. 5. Television Games Network, with hosts Greg Wolf, Donna Barton Brothers, and Michelle Yu, will provide onsite coverage throughout the day.

The ungraded Rushaway Stakes is one of the supporting stakes and should get at least a few Spiral hopefuls that don’t make the cut.

Although it’s free on other days, general admission Saturday is $10, with reserved seating additional. Turfway typically attracts upward of 20,000 ontrack fans for its biggest day of the year.