Racing Roundtable: Lexington Stakes and Grade 1 older stars

April 18th, 2023

James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson touch on the final Road to the Kentucky Derby prep and some Grade 1 performances from the older set in this week's Racing Roundtable.

Will the Lexington (G3) have an impact on the three-year-old division?

James Scully: I think so, First Mission appears to be a top talent. Following a convincing maiden win the second time out in mid-March, First Mission came back four weeks later to courageously win the Lexington, running down loose-on-the-lead Arabian Lion and overcoming tight quarters to prevail by a half-length as the favorite. The Brad Cox-trained colt registered a 103 Brisnet Speed rating, easily defeating Louisiana Derby (G2) runner-up Disarm, who is Kentucky Derby (G1)-bound off the third-place effort, and Arabian Lion will be one to watch at one-turn distances for Bob Baffert after the strong showing. First Mission commendably passed his first stakes test, and he'll be a dangerous new shooter for the Preakness (G1) on May 20.

Kellie Reilly: First Mission confirmed his profile as a late-developing prospect, and most noteworthy was how he held his ground for a rail rally. He refused to be intimidated by Arabian Lion, who was steered toward him by Irad Ortiz Jr.'s aggressive maneuver. This was a key race for Arabian Lion going forward too. At a crossroads after a spectacular flop in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), and fading to last of four in the Robert B. Lewis (G3), the Bob Baffert runner turned up here as a last-chance saloon for a possible Preakness bid. He couldn't close the deal despite having the race basically handed to him on a silver platter, as the controlling speed through tepid fractions. Still, it was a much better effort for the blueblood son of Justify, and the top two pulled well clear. Arabian Lion could mature into a fine router, but I'd prefer him to revert to one turn for now. Finally, I wouldn't be too downcast by Disarm's non-threatening third. He accomplished his mission of scraping up enough points to make the Kentucky Derby. This was a last-minute audible by connections, he was up against it with the pace scenario, and he basically got a 1 1/16-mile workout ahead of the Derby.

Vance Hanson: It sure looked like Lexington winner First Mission did well enough to make himself a viable contender for next month's Preakness, if his connections choose to pursue it, but whether he will be up to being a major division contender remains to be seen and mostly up to him. A lot, of course, will depend on the outcome of the Kentucky Derby, but in general it appears First Mission has the tools and upside to thrive as the distances increase down the road. As for some of the horses behind him, Arabian Lion will probably be at his best around one turn, while Disarm has some improving to do in order to grab a piece of the purse in the Derby.

What did we learn from the Maker's Mark Mile (G1)?

JS: Chez Pierre established himself as a major player in U.S. turf ranks by humbling Modern Games in the Maker's Mark Mile. Health will be the key for the lightly-raced gelding. Undefeated from three starts versus allowance and maiden rivals overseas, Chez Pierre opened his U.S. racing career last spring with a pair of nice wins, defeating a next-out stakes winner in a Tampa Bay Downs allowance and romping by more than five lengths in his stakes debut, the Henry Clark at Laurel. But the Arnaud Delacour trainee couldn't stay on the track, heading to the sidelines for 9 1/2 months. Chez Pierre was rank when opening his five-year-old season as the favorite in the Feb. 4 Tampa Bay (G3), chasing the pace under restraint before flattening out, but he put it all together in the Maker's Mark Mile. And the up-and-coming French import will have more to offer if he can remain healthy.

KR: Chez Pierre has stepped into the vacant role of domestically-based male turf star. Reigning Breeders' Cup Mile (G1) champion Modern Games was arguably ring-rusty in his reappearance for Charlie Appleby, but even at his best, he would have found it a challenge to catch Chez Pierre. The Delacour trainee dropped a clue in last year's Henry S. Clark at Laurel, which my eagle-eyed colleague Vance had noticed immediately. He has taken a year to follow up on that clue, having been sidelined until a fizzy sixth in the Tampa Bay (G3), but Chez Pierre moved forward in dramatic fashion at Keeneland. With his ability to quicken from a high cruising speed, he'd be an ideal candidate for the Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita — and a poignant legacy for his Hall of Fame ancestor, two-time Mile winner Lure.

VH: Chez Pierre confirmed the promise he showed in the early part of 2022 by handing reigning turf champion male Modern Games a decisive loss, and he looks a serious player in the mile turf division the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Modern Games will be plying his trade in Europe in the coming months, but expect him to arrive back on these shores in much sharper form than what he showed at Keeneland last week.

Thoughts on the Apple Blossom H. (G1)?

JS: A terrific race. After proving no match for Secret Oath in March's Azeri (G2), Clairiere dramatically turned the tables on her rival, overcoming a sizable deficit to prevail by a neck. We can anticipate more exciting battles between the classy rivals in the older female dirt division, as champion three-year-old filly Nest is preparing to join the mix in the coming months. The Apple Blossom was fun to watch.

KR: Clairiere didn't appear to be traveling with any gusto down the backstretch and into the far turn, so it was remarkable how she kicked into gear late to deny Secret Oath. This was compensation for Clairiere's runner-up effort in last year's running, when I thought that she was a bit unlucky. Might it be a harbinger of better luck in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) as well, after a close fourth in 2021 and an agonizing near-miss third in 2022? Yet the Apple Blossom wasn't necessarily run to suit Secret Oath. She isn't quite as effective when having to deploy sooner than ideal, as she did here to corral the loose-on-the-lead Hot and Sultry. The next round in this rivalry will be fascinating, with champion Nest still waiting in the wings in a terrific older female division.

VH: In a race where Secret Oath had a clear tactical advantage getting first crack at the less-classy speed, Clairiere was truly impressive when turning in a tremendous stretch kick and making up a significant deficit to win. Clairiere has now finished ahead of Secret Oath in two of three meetings, and now must be judged the leading older mare in the country. It's a position she's earned following the retirement of former rival Malathaat, who bested Clairiere in the division race for two straight years.