Day at the Races: Derby 2015

Originally written for Thisishorseracing.comBy John Cox

The masses flooded into Churchill Downs on a beautiful day Saturday, smashing the attendance record for American racing’s biggest day. The reported attendance of 170,513 that turned out to see American Pharoah defeat Firing Line, Dortmund and 15 others easily broke the previous mark of 165,307 set in 2012 when I’ll Have Another was victorious.

The crowd packed into every corner and crevice of Churchill’s grandstand, clubhouse, infield and luxury areas. They came to see the Derby and a loaded undercard, which featured six other stakes, and they were not disappointed.

The Grade 3 Pat Day Mile Stakes – known as the Derby Trial for its first 90 runnings – led off the impressive schedule of graded stakes on the picture-perfect day.

Fans erupted as the eight-horse field turned for home, as undefeated favorite Competitive Edge found another gear in the homestretch and kicked clear to win by 4 1/2 lengths under the guidance of John Velazquez.

Competitive Edge takes the Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs (John Cox photo)
Competitive Edge takes the Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs (John Cox photo)

“That’s what we were looking for,” Velazquez said. “We were looking for something fast enough to where I didn’t have to be in his mouth and he rated perfectly, so it was perfect. All went according to plan.”

The victory marked the first win of the day for trainer Todd Pletcher, but it would not be his last.

“I thought that was very impressive, especially for his first time going a straight mile,” Pletcher said. “Johnny said it was pretty straight forward. The scary thing is that as impressive as that was, I think there is more in the tank.” …

The Grade 2 American Turf Stakes, the first of three races contested on the Matt Winn Turf Course, followed the Pat Day.

While there was no clear favorite in the race, the crowd still seemed surprised when 9-1 shot Divisidero and jockey Rafael Hernandez impressively sped past the majority of the field in the stretch, beating out 4-1 third choice A Lot by three-quarters of a length.

Trainer William “Buff” Bradley was all smiles as he hugged family members in the newly renovated G. H. Mumm Winner’s Circle, celebrating his first graded win since two-time champion and Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint winner Groupie Doll went into retirement early last year.

“We worried a little bit yesterday because it looked like the turf course favored speed,” Bradley said. “But I told Rafael, ‘Don’t take him out of his game and let him run his race.’ He’s an awesome horse. He professional already and it’s just his third race. It’s unbelievable. The owners have been great, the Gunpowder (Farms). We’ve come up with a plan to give this horse plenty of time, and that’s what’s helped us.”

Trainer Buff Bradley, jockey Rafael Hernandez and Divisidero in the Churchill Downs Winners Circle (John Cox photo)
Trainer Buff Bradley, jockey Rafael Hernandez and Divisidero in the Churchill Downs Winners Circle (John Cox photo)

Divisidero’s triumph was just the second graded stakes win for Hernandez, who moved his tack from Fairmount Park near St. Louis to Churchill last September.

“We broke well,” Hernandez said. “The race set up perfect for us and the first turn I lost a little ground because I was pushed out a little bit, so my horse stayed there he never took himself back or anything. At the three-eighths I started asking, he started picking up and just saving more ground. Turning for home we got him to the lead and he [Divisidero] did the rest.” …

The seventh race and third stakes of the Derby-Day card marked the first Grade 1 event of the afternoon – the Humana Distaff. The masses continued to pile through the track’s historic gates, as 2014 champion female sprinter Judy the Beauty took to the main track as the even-money favorite.

Coming off of a six-month layoff, Judy the Beauty sat right off leader Moonlit Stroll in the early stages, before making her move and taking the lead in the stretch. For a brief moment, it appeared Judy the Beauty would avenge her lone loss of 2014 when she finished fourth in last year’s edition of the Humana Distaff, but no one told Dame Dorothy.

Dame Dorothy, under heavy encouragement from jockey Javier Castellano, put forth a phenomenal effort in the race’s closing stages to edge Judy the Beauty by a neck.

“You’ve got to use this filly away from there; she’s not the quickest out of the gate,” Castellano said. “So I got after her and she responded. When we got position, I felt very good. Every time I asked her, she gave it to me. Coming down the stretch I knew it was going to be close. I knew (race favorite) Judy the Beauty was going to be tough. But my filly kept responding and she gave me so much confidence I felt I could celebrate a little before the wire.”

Javier Castellano aboard Dame Dorothy following her victory in the Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs (John Cox photo)
Javier Castellano aboard Dame Dorothy following her victory in the Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs (John Cox photo)

Trained by Pletcher, Dame Dorothy is owned by celebrity chef Bobby Flay. Although Flay was not on hand for the post-race photo, there was no shortage of celebration from the crowd, who at that point in the day was ready to cheer on anything.

“She got bounced around there pretty good at the start, but Javier was able to bounce her into the perfect spot, It was just harried the first 100 yards,” Pletcher said. “We’ve been trying to find out her optimum distance. I wasn’t a 100 percent sure that as a daughter of Bernardini, she couldn’t go long. But I thought her seven-eighths race at Gulfstream was probably her best to date. After that we decided to back her up into here. This is probably her niche. This was a big win. It was important for our filly to get the Grade 1.” …

In the Grade 2 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile Stakes, jockey Julien Leparoux was able to get Tepin on the lead early and the Mark Casse-trainee never looked back, besting favorite Coffee Clique at the wire by 1 1/2 lengths.

“Before the race we were looking and noticed that there wasn’t much speed,” Leparoux said. “She is a natural speed filly, so we let her run the first part of it and on the backside she relaxed beautifully and she kicked on nice at the end. When she won at Gulfstream, she was very impressive. I really like the filly and was real confident today.”

Coming off an allowance win in her first and only start of 2015, the Turf Mile victory was the first stakes win for Tepin since taking the Grade 3 Delta Downs Princess as a 2-year-old.

“These two races, she’s come back really well,” Casse said. “You know, this was Danzig Moon’s workmate the other day, so when he worked so good, everybody was saying, ‘Who was that?’ When they got the half in 48 and change, and I said, ‘It should be over.’ ” …

When reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern made his way to the paddock for the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes, a paparazzi swarm surrounded the Bob Baffert trainee every step of the way. They were disappointed a bit when 5-2 second choice Private Storm got off to an early lead and wired the field. Bayern finished sixth and last as the odds-on favorite.

“He felt really good, he broke really sharp,” Bayern’s jockey Martin Garcia said. “He didn’t have the kick that he usually does. He was done at the half mile. He didn’t handle the track at all, he didn’t like it.”

Ridden by Martin Pedroza for trainer Jorge Navarro, Private Zone collected his fifth stakes victory on U.S. soil.

Private Zone wins the Churchill Downs Stakes (John Cox photo)
Private Zone wins the Churchill Downs Stakes (John Cox photo)

“This is my first stakes win on Derby Day; my first stakes win at Churchill,” Southern California-based Pedroza said. “I am so happy to win this race for my good friend (former jockey) Renee Douglas (stable manager for the owners, Good Friends Stable). I am blessed that I am healthy and doing well and I can win a race like this for him. I’m 48, but I feel like I’m 21. This is some horse. He is so good. When that horse went by me (Nates Mineshaft on the turn for home), I didn’t get nervous. I just let my horse do what he does, and I knew he’d be game. Then I hit him left-handed and it was all over. He’s just so tough.” …

The race prior to the Kentucky Derby was the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes, where favorite Finnegan’s Wake went from dead last entering the final turn to surge past the field and beat out the subsequently disqualified Sky Captain by a head.

The crowd at Churchill Downs following Finnegan's Wake's win (John Cox photo)
The crowd at Churchill Downs following Finnegan’s Wake’s win (John Cox photo)

The 6-year-old son of Powerscourt is trained by Peter Miller and was ridden by Victor Espinoza, who enjoyed a pretty good afternoon. The winner’s circle was flooded with the Donegal Racing colors of green and yellow, as the several partners packed in for the photo.

“I got there just in time, Espinoza said. “Turning for home I thought I would catch him, but then I said, ‘Uh-oh, this is going to be tough.’ I started working on him. He’s old. He wants to do whatever he wants. He wanted to take his time, so I let him do whatever he wants and enjoy himself in the beginning. Then after a half-mile I said, ‘You know what, we better start moving.’ I started working on him. I wanted to save ground at the end, but any little stop would have cost him the race. To swing to the outside was the best thing for him.”

Derby Day Notes: Churchill Downs reported record all-sources wagering of $194.3 million on Derby Day, up 4 percent over last year’s total of $186.6 million and a 4 percent increase from the previous mark of $187 million in 2012. … A total of $137.9 million was bet on the Derby itself, up 7 percent from $129.2 million. … The day’s on-track handle showed a 2 percent decrease, from $23.4 million in 2014 to $23 million this year. … The day’s other winners were Paganol (first, allowance-optional), Island Town (second, allowance-optional), West Village (third, maiden), Agent Di Nozzo (fourth, allowance-optional), Paid Admission (12th, allowance-optional) and Bent On Bourbon (13th, maiden).

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