Jeff Drawn’s Zandon hampered by misfortune in his first two stakes attempts, looked in danger of being cursed again when shuffled back to last during the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G1) April 9 at Keeneland.
But this time, his talent was enough to offset poor racing luck. Knifing his way through traffic under Flavien Prat, he surged through the pack to catch favored Smile Happy and pull away by 2 1/2 lengths. The victory earned him 100 qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) May 7 at Churchill Downswhere he figures to be one of the popular selections with the betting public.
Horseplayers also liked him a bunch Saturday, sending him off at 2-1 odds, just behind Smile Happy at 9-5. He gave his backers plenty of anxious moments over the first minute of the 1 1/8-mile contest.
Breaking slowly, as he did in the Feb. 19 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford (G2) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots When third in his season debut, he recovered in the Blue Grass to lead a few horses into the first of two turns. But it wasn’t for long.
Blocked with horses all around him, he dropped back ninth after a quarter-mile, tenth after a half-mile, and last of 11 after six furlongs—as Emmanuel raced along in the lead with splits of :24.04, :48.39, and 1:12.72 over a drying-out track rated as “good.”
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But once a hole materialized, the Upstart colt responded, blowing past horses late on the second turn, finding a seam in early stretch, and wearing down Smile Happy in the final furlong under Flavien Prat.
A hearty crowd braved the weather to watch Zandon win the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland
“He broke just OK. Then I got myself covered up, so I was there with nothing I could do about it,” said Prat, who rode Zandon for the first time Saturday. “The pace was a bit slow, so I was wandering down the backside. But I was traveling super—it was just a matter of finding a gap and getting a clean run down the lane.”
The winner raced 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.35 over a drying-out track listed as “good.” He paid $6.20 to win.
Emmanuel settled for third, 3 3/4 lengths behind the runner-up and a half-length ahead of longshot Golden Glider .
The second through fourth runners earned qualifying points on a 40-20-10 basis toward the Derby, though of the losing horses, only Smile Happy (70 overall Derby points) is committed to the Run for the Roses.
He won the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) last fall at Churchill Downs after a maiden win at Keeneland. Then this year, he was second by 2 3/4 lengths to Epicenter in the Risen Star and a half-length ahead of slow-starting Zandon.
On Saturday, Smile Happy Raced closer to the pace than he did in the Risen Star, losing a bit of ground from a stalking position with a trip that kept him three- or four-wide under Corey Lanerie.
“I am not disappointed whatsoever,” said his trainer, Kenny McPeek. “I thought the timing of this race was good. I think the next race will be his best race.
“He got a little tired at the end. We will see how much water he drinks and how (tired) he is. This is a really good horse. This is only his fourth career start. I feel like I could win the Derby or the Preakness with this horse.”
Emmanuel and Golden Glider have 25 and 15 overall points, respectively, which could leave them in danger of not making the 20-horse field. Churchill Downs uses qualifying points as a preference system when the race oversubscribes.
Todd Pletcher, Emmanuel’s Hall of Fame trainer, said immediately after the race that it was premature to make a determination regarding his colt’s Derby status.
Zandon’s trainer, Chad Brown, showed confidence in his 3-year-old in choosing to race him in a talent-laden Blue Grass, knowing Zandon possessed just 14 qualifying points before the race. Ten of those points were earned in the Risen Star, the other four in the Remsen Stakes (G2) when Zandon was edged by a nose and not elevated to first by New York stewards after receiving a late bump from victorious Mo Donegal .
“On the backside when he was losing position I felt terrible because there’s no room for error when you are trying to get points to go to the Derby,” said Brown, who watched the race from Aqueduct Racetrack. “Things looked grim halfway through the race, but the horse persevered.”
Brown praised Prat for never losing his cool and making the right moves when needed.
Zandon could benefit from Prat’s expertise in the Triple Crown series. A finalist for the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey of 2021, Prat won the 2019 Kentucky Derby on Country House upon the disqualification of Maximum Security for interference with other horses leaving the final turn. Last year, Prat added a Preakness Stakes (G1) aboard Rombauer .
The Preakness is a race Brown has also won, taking it in 2017 with Cloud Computing. He is winless in six attempts at the Derby, though he came close in 2018 with champion Good Magic who ran second to eventual Triple Crown winner Justify.
Good Magic also won the Blue Grass preceding the Derby.
Zandon “proved he can handle the distance, and at the least, he’s a top candidate for the Kentucky Derby,” Brown said.
The Blue Grass has produced 23 winners of the Derby, second-most among 3-year-old preps, though none since 2007. That year, Street Sense finished second in the Blue Grass before his triumph at Churchill Downs.
Downgraded to a grade 2 in 2017, the Blue Grass regained grade 1 status this year. This followed the post-Blue Grass success of victors such as Good Magic , Vekoma , Art Collector and Essential Quality .
Owner Jeff Drown hoists the Blue Grass Stakes Trophy after a victory from Zandon
Bred in Kentucky by Brereton Jones, Zandon was a $170,000 yearling purchase by bloodstock agent Mike Ryan at the 2020 September Yearling Sale at Keeneland. He is the lone starter and winner from four foals from his dam, the unraced Creative Cause mari Memories Prevail . Her youngest produce is a yearling filly by American Freedom .
Zandon earned $563,500 for winning the Bluegrass, improving his record to 2-1-1 in four starts and career bankroll to $713,000.
Interviewed following an infield winner’s circle celebration, Drown said he was still “working on” catching his breath, lost in the excitement of the Blue Grass.
“What a great race. What a fantastic performance,” he said.
All-sources handle for the 11-race card at Keeneland set a single-day wagering record, totaling $28,137,728 to exceed the previous record of $25,809,200 set on Toyota Blue Grass Day in 2019.
Video: Toyota Blue Grass S. (G1)