Java’s War rallied from last to edge Palace Malice by a neck Saturday to win the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and solidify his credentials for the Kentucky Derby.
Ridden by Julien Leparoux, Java’s War trailed the 14-horse field as late as the three-quarter mark after starting from the fourth position. He then came on to challenge Palace Malice down the stretch and pull ahead.
With his first Grade 1 stakes victory, Java’s War earned 100 points and is fourth in the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings with 122, placing him in the mix for the 139th running on May 4 at Churchill Downs.
Java’s War covered 1-1/8 miles in 1:50.27 and paid $11.20 on a $2 win bet.
Asked about running him at Keeneland with the Derby three weeks away, trainer Kenneth McPeek said, ”It was a no-brainer.”
”He’d run well on this track already,” McPeek said. ”The distance and the surface were good, and the timing was good. Who doesn’t want to win at Keeneland, anyway? Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the next three weeks go well.”
The slow start mirrored his March 9 season debut, in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, where Java’s War finished second to Verrazano. But neither Leparoux nor McPeek was concerned, with both confident that the colt would find a groove before letting his speed take over. He ended up giving McPeek his second Blue Grass victory.
”He didn’t really break, but he traveled very nice for me,” Leparoux said. ”At the three-eighths pole, I tried to catch up a little bit, and he ran big the whole way through the stretch. I didn’t really ask him big time at the three-eighths pole. I just ask him to start going a little bit.”
Runner-up Palace Malice was running on two weeks’ rest. Charming Kitten finished third. Rydilluc went off as the race favorite and set the early pace before fading to finish fourth.
The 2-3 finish by Palace Malice and Charming Kitten was a satisfying consolation for Todd Pletcher, who trains both along with Verrazano. The runner-up earned 40 points and has 50 total toward the Derby. Charming Kitten earned 20.
Having already molded Verrazano into a Derby frontrunner, with Revolutionary also in the field, Pletcher’s day got even better as another pupil, Overanalyze, won the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. But he was especially happy with Palace Malice’s run after a seventh in the Louisiana Derby on March 30.
”Both horses ran extremely well,” Pletcher said. ”I am proud of both of them but disappointed at the same time. I will talk to (owner) Mr. (Cothran) Campbell first (about going to the Derby with Palace Malice), but that was our game plan coming in. We are happy to get that part accomplished.”
Uncaptured was the early 7-2 favorite after last month’s runner-up finish to Black Onyx at the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. But he was 10th in a wide-open race.
Rydilluc eventually become the betting choice, entering with a three-race winning streak, including the Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes on March 3. Java’s War was second, sixth and third in his past three stakes starts, making him the second choice.
Charming Kitten was more of a long shot despite a win and two seconds in his past three stakes starts. He ended up as part of an exciting ending that demonstrated how it was anyone’s race before Java’s War claimed it by a slim margin.
”He’s a big, long-striding colt,” McPeek said of his horse’s style. ”If you try to force him away from there, you’re just going to make it worse. Julien (Leparoux) did the right thing, and he got him there. It was thrilling.”
In Saturday’s other stakes races at Keeneland, Last Full Measure won the $300,000, Grade 1 Madison, with Byrama second and Jamaican Smoke third.
Leparoux guided Centre Court to a two-length victory in the $300,000, Grade 1 Jenny Wiley. Daisy Devine was second, followed by Samitar.
Handsome Mike held off Gantry to win the $175,000, Grade 3 Commonweath with Candyman E third.
Havelock edged Something Extra by a nose in the $100,000, Grade 3 Shakertown, a race that was four-wide down the stretch before Havelock held on by the rail. Perfect Officer was third.