If ever a racehorse had conditions in his favor, Proud Appeal had them for the Blue Grass Stakes today.
Morning rain had made the Keeneland track sloppy, and Proud Appeal loves a wet surface. The conditions prompted the scratch of his chief rival, Tap Shoes. The racing strip proved to be highly speed-favoring, and Proud Appeal was the principal speed horse in the field.
Under the circumstances, he figured to overwhelm his weak opposition in the Blue Grass. Yet he didn't. He had to work to score a three-length victory over an 85-to-1 shot, Law Me, who recently had finished 11th in the Louisiana Derby. While the triumph did not tarnish Proud Appeal's credentials, neither did it solidify his status as the favorite for next Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
Proud Appeal had won seven of his eight career starts before today, many of them with brilliantly fast performances. But the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass was a significant test for him because it was his first chance to run farther than a mile.
The colt broke with his customary alertness, and only one of his rivals, Golden Derby, attempted to challenge him for the lead. The two colts were part of the same betting entry because Kentucky breeder John Gaines owns half of both of them. But neither horse was trying to make things easy for the other. They raced through a half mile in 47 2/5 seconds and three quarters in 1.11 3/5, an honest but not destructive pace.
When they turned into the stretch, Golden Derby was finished; he had never won a race beyond six furlongs. But Proud Appeal was not blowing away from him, even when jockey Jeffrey Fell applied the whip. In midstretch, Proud Appeal stumbled and swerved slightly, but managed to maintain his comfortable lead. Law Me beat out Golden Derby for the place by three quarters of a length.
Proud Appeal covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:51 2/5, time that was unimpressive but may have been a bit ambiguous since the track seemed to be getting slower as the afternoon progressed. The 1-to-2 favorite covered the last three-eighths of a mile in 39 4/5 seconds, which was unequivocally bad.
Did that slow final fraction bother the trainer? "Sure, it does," said Stanley Hough. "I wish he'd done it faster. But I think he was having trouble handling this racetrack and I feel confident he can go a distance."
Hough at least has the satisfaction of having completed his Kentucky Derby preparations according to plan. Horatio Luro, the trainer of Tap Shoes, is going to have to improvise. The 80-year-old member of the Racing Hall of Fame felt his colt could not handle an off track, and scratched him this afternoon rather than risk an injury.
"He'll work a mile and one eighth on Sunday to prepare for the derby," owner Arthur Hancock said. "He'll go in that if it snows."
The Blue Grass shattered the derby pretensions of a number of colts who came into the race with marginal credentials -- Sportin' Life (who finished sixth), Cinnamon's Choice (ninth) and Swinging Light (10th).
It gave encouragement only to Law Me, "I think this is the type of colt who improves with age," jockey Pat Day said. "I think he deserves a shot in the derby. Proud Appeal may be odds-on in the derby, but the rest of the race is wide open."
Proud Appeal won't be odds-on in the derby, and after today the entire race seems a bit more wide open.
In the third race on today's program, Mark Sellers, 22, son of former jockey John Sellers, suffered a possible broken back and broken shoulder in a spill.