Remsen (G2) runner-up Arctic Arrogance was the one to beat in the next Road to the Kentucky Derby contest at Aqueduct, Saturday’s $150,000 Jerome S., and Lugan Knight did just that in ultra-game fashion. Grabbing the early lead from the 1.35-1 favorite, Lugan Knight fended him off through a stretch-long tussle to earn 10 Derby points.
Yet the Jerome result reverberates well beyond New York. Indeed, perhaps its main implication for the Kentucky Derby (G1) is a form boost for the colt who beat Lugan Knight in his last start – Victory Formation. The two met in a six-furlong allowance on the Nov. 26 “Stars of Tomorrow II” card at Churchill Downs, where Lugan Knight was a non-threatening third to Victory Formation. That formline gained traction at Oaklawn last weekend, as Victory Formation dominated the Smarty Jones S. in his stakes and route debut.
Lugan Knight was likewise trying stakes company, and a mile, for the first time in the Jerome, but the Aqueduct configuration is around one turn. The Michael McCarthy trainee will have to establish his two-turn credentials as the trail proceeds.
The 3.55-1 third choice in the Jerome wagering, Lugan Knight was not the quickest from the gate. The BG Stables homebred then found his stride and sped to the fore through an opening quarter in :23.41 on the good track. Arctic Arrogance was lapped right alongside as Lugan Knight posted splits of :47.70 and 1:12.73, and the favorite appeared to have him in his grasp at the top of the stretch.
But Lugan Knight had more in the tank. Under a drive by Dylan Davis, the Goldencents colt rebuffed Arctic Arrogance’s bid and inched away by a hard-fought half-length in 1:37.77.
“I was not surprised to see how well he dug in down the lane,” McCarthy said. “It looked like he was always just going a touch better than the other horse. You hate to say you’re confident, but it always looked like he kept that horse at bay. Just a tough horse and a gutsy performance. I was glad to see he was able to get the mile.”
Davis credited the trainer for a key piece of advice.
“Michael called me up during the races and he said to take him away from the pony, and warm him up well to let him get used to the track,” Davis recounted. “He said after that to break well because he does have some tactical speed – and there was speed in here. I wasn’t sure how it was going to play out but he said, ‘Just come out of there running and you’ll see what goes on from there.’
“He broke OK, not the best,” the winning rider continued. “But then he did end up getting into a little bit of a rhythm and was able to establish the lead. Once I got there, he was very comfortable even with the challenge on my outside. He fought hard for me down the stretch. I really thought that horse (Arctic Arrogance) was going to come up to him and pass him, but he was not giving up. He really opened my eyes a little bit down there around that last eighth of a mile. I was impressed with that run.”
The top two were in a virtual match race, for Arctic Arrogance was seven lengths clear of the rest. The son of Frosted picked up four more Derby points and doubled his tally to eight.
General Banker had some trouble but closed for third, opening his account with three points. The 2.45-1 Neural Network checked in fourth, good for two points. Andiamo a Firenze received one point in fifth, and his total is now three. Narciso Dali and Valenzan Day rounded out the order of finish, while Circling the Drain was scratched.
Arctic Arrogance’s trainer, Linda Rice, was pleased with his runner-up effort.
“We missed a work in between and the horse was a little heavy, but he ran well,” Rice said.
“(Jockey) Jose (Lezcano) and I were just discussing, and we think we’re just going to put him on the lead next time. He fights on the lead. Today, he didn’t go past. But I think it might have to do a little bit with his weight. I missed a work on him and he’s pretty heavy.”
Arctic Arrogance, who was cutting back in trip from the Remsen, will stretch back out to 1 1/8 miles for the Feb. 4 Withers (G3).
“Yes. We’ll keep going,” Rice confirmed. “It’s not ideal to take a horse a mile and an eighth, two-turns, and then shorten him up.”
Lugan Knight is not as certain to advance to a rematch in the Withers. McCarthy prefers to let the dust settle and discuss with Davis.
“We’ll see. I’ll have to give Dylan a call and ask him what he thinks and go from there,” McCarthy said. “A mile was a question mark for me, but it looked like he passed that test today. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Davis’s postrace quotes sound as though he’d give Lugan Knight the chance.
“It looks like he gets a little lost with the sprint, but he handled the mile really well,” Davis said. “There’s more to come, but it definitely looked like he handled this distance better than his sprints.”
Lugan Knight’s pedigree suggests that stamina limitations could come into play down the road. Aside from the influence of sire Goldencents, who won the 2013 Santa Anita Derby (G1) but ended up being a top sprinter-miler, the Kentucky-bred has a fair amount of speed on his dam’s side. He’s out of the Speightstown mare Sly Roxy, herself a daughter of dual Sovereign Award winner Roxy Gap. By Indian Charlie, Roxy Gap was honored as Canada’s champion older female and female sprinter in 2012.
The Jerome enhanced Lugan Knight’s record to 4-2-1-1, $175,775. Second in his Churchill Downs unveiling, the bay colt escaped traffic to break his maiden at Keeneland Oct. 21. Lugan Knight raced farther off the pace in his allowance before making late headway behind Victory Formation.
McCarthy also had a connection, albeit former, to the other stakes winner on the Saturday card at Aqueduct. His past pupil Law Professor flaunted his superiority as the 11-10 favorite in the $150,000 Queens County. Trained by Rob Atras and piloted by red-hot Manny Franco, Law Professor romped by 7 1/2 lengths, and might have run himself into the Jan. 28 Pegasus World Cup (G1).
“I wouldn’t say we were expecting it,” Atras said of the demolition job, “but the way he had been training, we were looking for this effort. I’m very glad we got it.
“We were hoping this would be a race he could win and be a confidence builder because he had run against some real tough horses his last two.”
Those past two races were the Oct. 1 Woodward (G1) at this track and trip, where he was a gallant second to Life Is Good, and a fifth in the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1). Judging by how the Pegasus is coming up, it wouldn’t be an easy spot either.
“We’ll have to see how he comes out of the race,” Atras said. “It is a little quick back, but I wouldn’t rule out anything. We’re on the AE list.”