New Jersey isn’t exactly a hotbed for Kentucky Derby horses. The Garden State has produced exactly two Derby winners: Cavalcade in 1934 and filly Regret in 1915.
But it has a horse to cheer for now.
His name is Irish War Cry, and the 3-year-old put on a show Saturday, winning the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park and defeating champion Classic Empire in the process.
“There’s nothing quite like being involved in these 3-year-old races (leading up to the Triple Crown),” said winning trainer Graham Motion after Irish War Cry -- sent off at betting odds of 4-1 -- led throughout to record a 3 3/4-length victory over Gunnevera.
The win was the third in as many tries for the chestnut son of Curlin.
But in a race that contained Classic Empire, last year’s 2-year-old champion and top-ranked Derby contender, he was largely overshadowed.
“He’s a really nice horse and I obviously was really high on him,” Motion said. “But when you’ve got to run against (Classic Empire), and you obviously have reservations.”
Motion briefly considered skipping the Holy Bull altogether and shipping him to Tampa in order to avoid facing Classic Empire. But the colt was training so well he decided what the heck and gave it a stab.
The hunch paid off.
Jockey Joel Rosario sent Irish War Cry straight to the lead in the 1 1/16-mile stakes and never looked back. Classic Empire reached contention in the final turn to engage the leader. But it was for naught, as Irish War Cry pranced away an easy winner.
“He didn’t kick at the end, just flat at the end,” said Classic Empire’s jockey, Julien Leparoux.
It was the first time Classic Empire lost a race he finished. His only defeat in five races last year came when he threw his rider at the start of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga.
On Saturday, Classic Empire finished 8 3/4 lengths behind the winner.
“He had no excuse, none whatsoever,” said his trainer, Mark Casse.
Given that it was Classic Empire’s first race since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile three months ago, the colt might have needed a race to get back in gear.
The $350,000 Holy Bull marked the first stakes test for Irish War Cry, and his future engagements remain up in the air.
“I haven’t really gotten beyond today,” Motion said.
Possible targets include the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes and April 1 Florida Derby, both at Gulfstream.
“It would be hard not to run him back in one of them,” Motion said.
And Motion has no inkling whether Irish War Cry could sustain his front-running speed at the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby in May.
“I don’t know if he’s going to go a mile and a quarter,” Motion said. “I don’t know if any of us really know. But he was pretty relaxed today.”
-- Favorable Outcome triumphed in the other serious stakes for 3-year-olds on Saturday’s card, the 7-furlong Swale.
Favorite Outcome rallied from last in the field of six to record a 3/4-length victory over 4-5 favorite Three Rules.