LEXINGTON, Ky. - With three weeks to go until the Kentucky Derby, one horse remains who could reach the race undefeated and join the likes of Smarty Jones, Seattle Slew and Native Dancer. Those horses added electricity to an already high-voltage event by bringing perfect records into America's most famous race.
The flawless horse this year is High Limit. He is the 9-5 morning-line favorite in the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes today at Keeneland, despite having raced only three times - and only once in the past six months.
High Limit has never trailed in a race. Once securing the lead out of the starting gate, he has only increased his advantage, winning by 4, 7 3/4 and 10 3/4 lengths.
His lone start this year was in the Louisiana Derby on March 12 at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He won by a leisurely four lengths, but answered few questions for Bobby Frankel, his Hall of Fame trainer.
"He's an exceptional horse," Frankel said. "But we didn't really learn anything ... because I don't think the field in the Louisiana Derby was real tough. I don't think it was a tough race on him because he made that easy lead and dictated the pace."
What might the Blue Grass, a Grade I stakes of 1 1/8 miles, teach him?
"It's not really going to tell us too much because Keeneland is pretty much of a gimmick racetrack," Frankel said, referring to the quirky surface that sometimes produces puzzling results. "Hopefully, I can win it because it's still $750,000, and hopefully, he's still healthy going into Churchill Downs."
Although the Blue Grass attracted only seven horses, it's the toughest Kentucky Derby prep of the year because of the presence of High Limit, Sun King, Consolidator and Bandini. They're four of the leading Derby contenders.
High Limit's beginnings trace to the mid-Atlantic. He received his racing baptism at Delaware Park under the tutelage of Tony Dutrow, the former Maryland trainer. Dutrow ran High Limit twice at Delaware, easily winning at six furlongs and one mile.
"It became more and more obvious that he was not an average horse," Dutrow said. "I handled him the right way because I wanted him to be all he could be as a 3-year-old."
One night last November, Dutrow got a phone call from High Limit's owners. A van would be arriving the next day to pick up the horse. High Limit was going to Frankel.
Mary and Gary West, who live in Omaha, Neb., own the colt, a son of Maria's Mon they bought for $145,000 as a yearling. Dutrow trained horses for the Wests for four years, he said, but not anymore. He quit after losing High Limit.
"It's their prerogative. It's their horse and their money," Dutrow said. "But just imagine how many bad horses, problem horses I had to go through to get a good one like that. I just didn't want to keep going through a bunch of work to see no light at the end of the tunnel."
Dutrow saw enough of High Limit to state unequivocally: "He's as talented and classy a horse as anything out there. He's as smart and relaxed as you could want him to be."
He's not hell-bent on having the lead, Dutrow said. The colt has led in each race because, Dutrow says, "he's that gifted."
Ramon Dominguez, High Limit's regular rider and one of Frankel's favorite young jockeys, flew into Lexington yesterday to ride the colt in the Blue Grass. Dominguez said he hasn't discussed strategy yet with Frankel, but that he's confident High Limit can settle behind horses if necessary and still win.
Spanish Chestnut, a Patrick Biancone trainee, could challenge High Limit for the lead. At 15-1 in the morning line, Spanish Chestnut is trying to rebound from a feeble effort in the Lane's End Stakes, after which he was found to have a blood disorder.
Sun King, the 2-1 second choice, will attempt to bolster trainer Nick Zito's juggernaut of five potential Derby starters. D. Wayne Lukas trains Consolidator, the 7-2 third choice. Consolidator, a son of Storm Cat, captured the San Felipe Stakes on March 19 at Santa Anita Park by 6 1/2 lengths. Despite having won a Grade I stakes last year at Keeneland, Consolidator is getting little respect.
"It doesn't matter," Lukas said. "I'm not trying to sell him. I'm trying to win the race."
Bandini, 4-1 in the morning line, regained the services of jockey John Velazquez, who abandoned Afleet Alex, the morning-line favorite in the Arkansas Derby today at Oaklawn Park. After finishing second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Bandini missed the Florida Derby with a bruised foot. Todd Pletcher, his trainer, said the foot's fine.