July 18, 2024

West Saratoga upsets Iroquois to open Road to Kentucky Derby 150

West Saratoga in the Iroquois at Churchill Downs
West Saratoga wins the Iroquois at Churchill Downs (Photo by Coady Photography)

A gate to wire maiden winner in his previous start, West Saratoga switched to rating tactics and finished fastest of all in Saturday’s $300,000 Iroquois (G3) at Churchill Downs, springing a 12.48-1 upset in the first of 37 races in the 2023-24 Road to the Kentucky Derby series.

“It’s very special to get started on the Road to the Kentucky Derby,” owner Harry Veruchi. “We ran a couple times here in the spring (two second-place finishes) and so we knew he’d like the track. After he broke his maiden last time at a mile, we were confident he’d like stretching out in distance as he got more experienced. He’s a very nice horse.”

Larry Demeritte trains the son of Exaggerator, and Rafael Bejarano guided the gray colt to a 1 3/4-length decision. West Saratoga picked up 10 points toward a berth in the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby (G1) on May 4, and the Early Prep Season qualifier awarded points on a 5-3-2-1 scale to the next four finishers.

Moved back to a one-turn mile distance in 2023, the Iroquois featured a hot pace as Patriot Spirit sprinted clear through opening splits in :22.37 and :44.63. West Saratoga settled about five lengths back through the opening splits and launched a bid on the far turn to reach a threatening position turning for home.

The pacesetter was still clinging to a short lead in upper stretch, completing six panels in 1:10.14, but he readily gave way to West Saratoga, who powered his way to a clear lead and comfortably held the competition safe to the wire, stopping the teletimer in 1:37.28.

“I just let him get comfortable after seeing a lot of speed in the race on paper and then the outside horse (Patriot Spirit) went really fast early,” Bejarano said. “I thought I’d just let my horse settle and start to get going around the turn. I could tell at the three-eighths pole I had a lot of horse beneath me and I was seeing the horses in front of me still going fast. I figured they would come back to me a little bit. I got a great trip into the stretch, and had a lot of horse still beneath me.”

Risk It, the 1.35-1 favorite following a convincing debut maiden win at Saratoga, was in position to challenge turning for home but could not go on with the winner. He gamely held second by a neck over 9-1 fifth choice and last-out Ellis maiden scorer Liberal Arts, who closed belatedly to edge Seize the Grey by a neck for third.

Edified came next in fifth and was followed by Patriot Spirit, Union Roll, and Market Street.

West Saratoga, who sold for $11,000 as a yearling at last year’s Keeneland September sale, recorded three consecutive seconds before breaking his maiden the fifth time out at Ellis Park six weeks ago, stretching out to a mile to graduate by more than a length. He’s the first stakes winner from the unraced Uncle Mo mare Mo Wicked, who is closely related to Grade 1 winner Wickedly Perfect.

Demeritte looks forward to stretching West Saratoga out to a two-turn distance, and a three-week turnaround for the 1 1/16-mile Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland Oct. 7 is possible.

“We’ve been just trying to let him progress naturally,” the trainer said. “He went a mile last time and we were confident today going the same distance. We’ll decide in the next day or so what’s next. I’m based in Lexington and run at Keeneland a lot so that could be a good option (the Breeders’ Futurity).”