Catching My Eye: Kentucky Derby Weekend at Churchill Downs

May 9th, 2023

Analyst Kevin Kilroy looks back on the weekend of racing at Churchill Downs, including the 149th Kentucky Derby (G1), the Pat Day Mile (G2), and the Kentucky Oaks (G1) undercard.

Saturday, May 6

Best in the Kentucky Derby

It’s hard to deny that Two Phil’s ran the bigger race even though he finished behind Mage in Kentucky Derby 149. Taking nothing away from Mage, but he had a perfect trip.

After dropping down to the rail early, he then began making his way through the spread-out field to position for the late run down the center of the track into a pace meltdown. Two Phil’s tended to that hot pace throughout, moved early breaking open the field in the second turn and dug in to hold off Mage’s late charge but was unsuccessful. A more moderate pace, and Two Phil’s gets it done.

Word is that trainer Larry Rivelli will not enter Two Phil's in the Preakness (G1), so keep this in your back pocket for wherever he shows up next. The Phil and Anthony Sagan homebred is the first son of Hard Spun to ever finish in the money in the Kentucky Derby.

Pat Day Mile

Facing a field of Triple Crown nominated three-year-olds, Shug McGaughey’s Into Mischief colt General Jim ran his heart out to outfinish Fort Bragg to the wire. Breaking near the back of the pack, General Jim had to maneuver between foes to stay in touch with the frontrunning effort of Damon’s Mound.

As the early leaders began to peel away, it was Fort Bragg who emerged on top, and a duel between him and General Jim ensued that left no doubt in my mind both were all-out to the wire. Maybe the best finisher in American racing, Luis Saez ensured the neck victory, and with the win in the Pat Day Mile General Jim earned a new top speed figure with a 100 from Brisnet.

Talking with Michelle Lovell, trainer of Damon’s Mound, her immediate reaction after the race was that shorter distances might be better for the winner of the Saratoga Special (G2) at two years old.

Damon’s Mound broke from post 13 and bolted toward the rail to take the lead from inside foe Lugan Knight, who was piloted by Manny Franco. He ran well in his second start as a three-year-old, and I’ll look to back him at 6 or 6 1/2 furlongs going forward.

Friday, May 5

Alysheba (G2)

Smile Happy, Art Collector, and West Will Power finished in that order in Friday’s Alysheba (G2), going 1 1/16 miles. Talking with their jockeys after the race, each was very impressed with how their horse ran, and Flavien Prat (West Will Power) and Junior Alvarado (Art Collector) were floored by how Smile Happy was able to take it to them in the dominant manner he did.

Pressing West Will Power throughout, Smile Happy put himself in that spot, more forward than he has been in any of his races. Brian Hernandez Jr. said he was happy there, trusting the four-year-old had the race in him to aggressively take on the last-out New Orleans Classic (G2) winner, West Will Power, who broke sharp for the lead. Prat mentioned longer is likely better for the two-time Grade 2 winner.

After wearing down West Will Power and taking the lead, Smile Happy still had work to do. Here came Art Collector, menacing Smile Happy in the opening stages of the homestretch. Alvarado said he had the horse but just got turned back by Smile Happy’s monster run.

Pulling away by two lengths in the end, Ken McPeek’s four-year-old earned a 106 Brisnet Speed figure, pairing up what he earned earlier in March in his first race since the 2022 Kentucky Derby.

Nothing should be taken away from each of these top three in the Alysheba — all game efforts, and this division has the looks of offering more brilliant battles going forward.

Modesty (G3)

Didia (ARG) had a clean, ground-saving trip in Friday's Modesty, so I don't want to go over the top with her. Still, she had to fight by Sweet Dani Girl, a loose leader with plenty left in the tank late in the race, and Didia gamely took her down.

The turf course was playing fast last week, so at first glance it might look like they were setting hot fractions, but seeing the times across the day and talking with jockeys, it was playing fast all week. A new 5 1/2-furlong turf course record was set on Tuesday when Coppola went 1:01.95 — in an n2x allowance.

In the Copa de Plata (G1) winner’s first go at 1 1/8 miles since racing in North America, Didia earned a 93 Brisnet Speed figure, which is down from her 101 in the Tom Benson Memorial at Fair Grounds in March. Can she take on tougher company? I say yes.

Kentucky Oaks undercard allowance

On Friday in Race 4 against n2x allowance company, Heartyconstitution battled from mid-pack with a late run that was at first thwarted by a wall of foes. Joe Sharp’s filly had to maneuver to find a split just as the rail horse began to fade, which put her in a tight spot.

Still, she rallied past the game finish of second-place finisher Jump Into the Fire, receiving an 89 Brisnet Speed figure for the win. This four-year-old filly, who was on the Oaks trail for a blip last year, has options going forward after winning on the turf at Fair Grounds in March, and now on Churchill Downs’ main track.