Menifee win scrambles dash for Derby

Colt captures Blue Grass by 1 1/4 lengths at Keeneland for first stakes triumph

April 11, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Menifee had never won a stakes race. Neither had Adonis. Valhol had never even won a race.

Yet those three colts, on probably the most critical day for gauging horses' chances in the Kentucky Derby, captured the last major Derby preps and scrambled the Derby picture as efficiently as Julia Childs whips eggs.

Yesterday, Menifee benefited from a skillful ride by Pat Day and drove to a convincing victory in the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Although Menifee pranced into the race with four victories in five tries, he had never won a stakes, never proved he could run with the best 3-year-olds farther than a mile.

A half-hour later, Adonis, a colt who had won a maiden and allowance race but had finished sixth in the Florida Derby, dominated an 11-horse field in the $600,000 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct.

Thirty minutes after that, the previously winless Valhol, racing for only the third time, devoured six competitors in the $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Valhol's odds? A whopping 30-1.

So what to make of this?

"The guy who picks the winner of the Derby is going to be handicapper of the year," said D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Cat Thief, who ran another credible race only to finish second to Menifee.

That could be true, but it overlooks the strong Derby hand of Bob Baffert, the California trainer of General Challenge, Prime Timber and a couple of outstanding fillies named Silverbulletday and Excellent Meeting. After yesterday's exhibition by the 3-year-olds in this half of the country, Baffert looks well on his way to an unprecedented third straight Derby triumph.

The Blue Grass field was billed as one of the strongest for a Derby prep in years. What it was, perhaps, was one of the most competitive. Most horsemen and handicappers gave seven of the eight entrants a chance to win.

As it turned out, seven of the eight passed under the wire within 6 1/2 lengths of each other. Menifee led the parade by 1 1/4 lengths after Day, the Hall of Fame jockey, steered the Harlan colt through traffic like a cop chasing thieves.

"That's a beautiful ride," said Elliott Walden, trainer of Menifee, "just a beautiful move at that point."

Walden was watching a replay of the race. Menifee broke quickly from the outside post, but all that got him was a four-wide sweep around the first turn.

Down the backstretch, Day found some breathing room and settled in sixth as Vicar and Kimberlite Pipe battled side-by-side for the lead. Cat Thief surged around the far turn and claimed a short lead, but that only ignited the competitive fires in Vicar and Kimberlite Pipe. The three of them charged toward the wire in a thrilling race within a race.

But behind them Menifee and Day, wide for most of the race, suddenly cut inside two tiring horses at the head of the stretch. And with that one "beautiful" move, as Walden described it, they saved the ground that enabled them to win the race.

Day immediately steered Menifee back outside, and the game colt running the race of his life motored past the trio on the inside as if they were first-time starters.

"He was drawing away at the finish," Day said. "What I liked was the way he galloped on. He gave me every indication another eighth of a mile won't be a problem."

The Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 miles, an eighth of a mile longer than the Blue Grass. Menifee's time for 1 1/8 miles was 1 minute, 48 3/5 seconds. Skip Away set the stakes record three years ago: 1: 47 1/5.

Lemon Drop Kid, the colt owned by Jinny Vance of Sparks, tired down the stretch and finished fifth. This was only his second race of 1999, and his trainer, Scotty Schulholfer, was not discouraged.

"We probably needed the race," he said. "Three weeks from today is the day. This should set him up pretty good."

As many as seven from the Blue Grass could turn up May 1 in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. One who won't is Prado's Landing, the colt formerly owned by Arnold Heft of Chevy Chase and trained last year at Laurel Park by Jerry Robb.

Prado's Landing is now owned by Godolphin Racing, the powerful stable in the Middle East trying to add the Kentucky Derby to its many conquests around the world. Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum sent Prado's Landing to Lexington to see how his Derby hopefuls stack up against their American counterparts.

After showing a little fight at the beginning, Prado's Landing finished far behind the other seven, about 23 lengths behind Menifee. Godolphin's two top Derby contenders, Worldly Manner and Aljabr, are to arrive in Kentucky in about a week.

"It wasn't good, that's for sure," said Michael Osborne, representing the sheikh. "This set us back. We were hoping [Prado's Landing] would run one, two or three. It just didn't happen."

Blue Grass Stakes

Horse Win Place Show

Menifee $17.40 $8.80 $5.40

Cat Thief $7.00 $4.60

Vicar $3.60

Payoffs: Exacta: $130.60. Trifecta: $369.60. Superfecta: $3,474.80.

Time (1 1/8 miles): 23.24, 47.02, 1: 10.98, 1: 36.04, 1: 48.66.

Also ran: Kimberlite Pipe (11-1), Lemon Drop Kid (4-1), Wondertross (9-5), Pineaff (25-1), Prado's Landing (42-1).

Pub Date: 4/11/99

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