NEW KENT - Though by his own admission he’ll rarely be found at a betting window, trainer Ken McPeek couldn’t help but notice how lightly his thoroughbred War Dancer had been wagered upon Saturday by the public just prior to the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs.
He obviously knew something a lot of other people didn’t know.
War Dancer, who was fifth on the board in the 10-horse field with 7-to-1 odds, hung on to win by a head in a photo finish in the $500,000 Virginia Derby, a Grade II turf race for 3-year-olds over one-mile-and-a-quarter. Charming Kitten closed quickly, but finished second, while Jack Milton was third and Draw Two was fourth.
“I’m not much of a wagering guy, but I thought 6-to-1 or 7-to-1 was a fantastic number,” McPeek said.
Rydilluc entered as the 5-to-2 favorite in good turf conditions despite rain falling earlier in the day, but he faded to a disappointing eighth-place finish after running second for most of the race until hitting the stretch. He’d won his previous four starts on turf.
It was the first stakes win of War Dancer’s career in his seventh start, and his third victory in six turf starts. Jockey Alan Garcia, who rode War Dancer in his previous turf wins in April at Keeneland and March at Gulfstream Park, was again atop the Kentucky-bred colt in the Virginia Derby.
War Dancer’s best previous finish in a graded stakes race came in May, when he was third in the Grade II American Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs. He was second in June in the ungraded Centaur Stakes on turf at Indiana Downs.
Prior to Saturday, War Dancer, who is now owned by the conglomerate of Magdalena Racing, had never run more than one-mile-and-1/16 in a race. McPeek said the extra distance in the Virginia Derby made a difference.
“He only needed more ground,” said McPeek, who purchased War Dancer with owner Alan Klein for $220,000 at a yearling sale. “The (one-mile Centaur Stakes), the only reason he lost is because he just didn’t have enough ground, so a mile-and-a-quarter was ideal.”
War Dancer’s win paid $16.80 on a $2 wager. A War Dancer-Charming Kitten exacta paid $73, while the War Dancer-Charming Kitten-Jack Milton trifecta paid $356. A War Dancer-Charming Kitten-Jack Milton-Draw Two superfecta paid $1,126.
After settling in the middle of the pack through the first mile, Garcia started to push War Dancer to the front as they came out of the far turn. Redwood Kitten, who was one of two entries for owner Ken Ramsey, held the lead until the stretch, but ended up finishing fifth.
As the horses approached the finish line, War Dancer managed to get across by a head with Charming Kitten on his inside. Jockey Joel Rosario was closing fast on Charming Kitten, who was Ramsey’s other entry, as the race came to an end. Jack Milton finished a head behind Charming Kitten on the outside.
“It was a very good trip,” said Garcia, who got War Dancer to the finish line in two minutes, 3.57 seconds. “The horse was doing the right thing. Whatever I wanted him to do, he was doing it. I have a good feeling for every horse I ride for everybody, so I had a good feeling we had a shot (with War Dancer). He did it the right way.”
The win was particularly satisfying for McPeek, who saw his horse Praia lose by a half-length to Nellie Cashman in the $150,000 Virginia Oaks, a Grade III turf race for 3-year-old fillies over one-mile-and-one-eighth that immediately preceded the Virginia Derby.
McPeek had another stakes winner Saturday at Colonial Downs with Al Qasr in the $50,000 Kitten's Joy Stakes, an ungraded stakes race for 3-year-olds over one-and-a-half miles of turf. After he crossed the finish line, Al Qasr galloped out in distress and was taken from the track in a van.
McPeek said Al Qasr suffered a mild heat stroke, but was doing much better after the race once he was given fluids and cooled down.
McPeek added he’ll likely send War Dancer to Arlington Park on Aug. 17 for the $500,000 Secretariat Stakes, a Grade I race for 3-year-olds over one-mile-and-one-quarter of turf.
Another option could be Sept. 1 in the $150,000 Saranac Stakes at Saratoga, but McPeek wasn’t as intrigued by that race for 3-year-olds over one-mile-and-one-eighth of turf because it’s just a Grade III event. Ramsey said he plans to aim Charming Kitten to the Secretariat Stakes.
“I think that’s good,” said McPeek of the possibility of a rematch with Charming Kitten at the Secretariat Stakes. “All the good ones should collide. (The Virginia Derby) was a fantastic race. (Charming Kitten) ran well himself.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun