Monday’s $202,000 Knickerbocker (G2) pitted the back class of even-money comebacker Catholic Boy versus the upward trajectory of 3-2 second choice Lucullan, and current form prevailed as the Godolphin homebred scored his first graded victory. Catholic Boy, aiming to use Belmont Park’s holiday feature as a stepping stone to the Breeders’ Cup, wound up a lackluster fourth.
Lucullan was coming off a fine effort in the “Win and You’re In” Woodbine Mile (G1), where he crossed the wire a close third but got himself demoted to fourth for drifting out. The Kiaran McLaughlin pupil had also placed in his previous attempts over the Knickerbocker course and distance. Beaten a neck by Yoshida in the 2017 Hill Prince (G3) (with Bricks and Mortar third in his last loss), Lucullan was third to Robert Bruce and Spring Quality in the 2018 Fort Marcy (G3).
The lightly raced five-year-old wasn’t seen again until this summer, but returned victorious in a Belmont allowance and followed up with a stakes breakthrough in the Lure at Saratoga. Lucullan might have gone closer than a length at Woodbine had he run straight, and he continued his ascent here.
As Dr. Edgar showed the way through fractions of :24.77, :48.67, and 1:12.02 on the firm inner turf, Lucullan rated a few lengths back. Catholic Boy, widest of all on the clubhouse turn, raced just ahead of him in third. But instead of picking up from there, the multiple Grade 1-winning favorite toiled along one-paced in the stretch.
Lucullan, on the other hand, produced a smart turn of foot. Rallying beneath regular rider Luis Saez, he rolled past Dr. Edgar and held safe the deep-closing Olympico by a length. Olympico, last early, did well on ground that was plenty firm for him to finish two lengths clear of third-placer Dr. Edgar.
Saez commented that Lucullan did everything right this time:
“He was very good today. We broke and I got the spot I wanted. Last time he broke a little slow, so the key today was to try to break good and get in a good position early, which he did. I knew we had to have a target in front of us and everything went perfect. When we hit the stretch, he really took off. Perfect trip.”
The Kentucky-bred son of Hard Spun polished off 1 1/8 miles in 1:46.87, the fastest Knickerbocker since Za Approval’s stakes-record 1:46.51 in 2013. Za Approval wheeled back for the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), then as now at Santa Anita, and played second fiddle to the great Wise Dan.
McLaughlin mentioned that the Breeders’ Cup Mile had been on the radar for Lucullan at one point:
“He really is a top horse. He’s been a bit unlucky. We were second in the Hill Prince as a three-year-old and Bricks and Mortar was third in there. He’s three-for-four this year. We were unlucky in the Woodbine Mile. He drifted out late under left-handed urging and was disqualified to fourth. I’m happy for the team.
“We were going to point to the Breeders’ Cup Mile but I didn’t think that we’d have enough to get in. I’ll talk to the team at Godolphin about where we’ll go next.”
According to David Grening of Daily Racing Form, McLaughlin will not try the Breeders’ Cup but instead point Lucullan to Gulfstream Park with an eye on the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) in January.
Catholic Boy couldn’t get his head in front of Dr. Edgar, but trainer Jonathan Thomas is keeping his Breeders’ Cup hopes alive for the time being. Thomas was more inclined to think about a switch back to dirt for the 1 1/4-mile Classic (G1):
“Overall, he was a little bit even around there. I was hoping, turning for home, he would kick on a little. It looked like he stayed on and went ahead and galloped out well. He came back with a lot of energy, so we’ll get back to the barn and look at him. He may have needed a tightener going a mile and an eighth. We’ll see if he takes a step forward. I’m not disappointed but I’m not thrilled, either.
“This could be one of those instances where we get back in his training and he’s really taken a big step forward. He was very even and he looked like a horse that getting a mile and a quarter wouldn’t be an issue. He galloped out well. He was just a little one-paced. Watching that it would scream (he needs) a little more real estate. The (Breeders’ Cup) Mile would be a little bit quick for him. (The Classic) would be the most likely scenario, but we’ll have to talk to everybody.”
Glorious Empire, who initially tracked the pacesetter, dropped a further 5 1/4 lengths adrift in fifth, and Argonne brought up the rear. Cullum Road scratched along with Noble Indy, the trailer in Sunday’s Point of Entry.
Lucullan was furnishing a second major score of late for his female line, following exciting juvenile Maxfield’s romp in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland. Lucullan’s dam, multiple Grade 3 heroine and Grade 1-placed Golden Velvet by Seeking the Gold, is a half-sister to Maxfield’s dam, Velvety, as well as to Grade 1-winning sire Sky Mesa. Golden Velvet, Velvety, and Sky Mesa are all out of multiple Grade 3 winner Caress by Storm Cat, a full sister to Bernstein (sire of Breeders’ Cup Mile stars Tepin and Karakontie).
Now the second graded winner produced by Golden Velvet, after Grade 3 scorer Innovative Idea, Lucullan sports a mark of 13-6-2-2, $510,925.