Brilliant Speed takes Blue Grass at wire
Trainer Tom Albertrani asked owner Charlotte Weber to write a $600 check this winter to nominate Brilliant Speed to the Triple Crown.
Four months ago, it hardly looked like money well spent. Brilliant Speed spent the winter running on the turf, and Albertrani admits it looked like his 3-year-old colt had ''found his calling'' after finishing second on the grass at Gulfstream Park in January.
Weber started teasing Albertrani, asking him ''why did we nominate him for the Triple Crown then? Why did we spend $600?''
Albertrani quieted his boss by telling her maybe they could find a way to the Kentucky Derby through the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on the Polytrack at Keeneland.
''I told her before the race I'm not going to let that $600 go to waste for you,'' Albertrani said.
Brilliant Speed backed up Albertrani's faith with a perfectly timed surge, roaring from last to first in the stretch to edge Twinspired by a nose and punch his ticket to next month's Run for the Roses.
The $450,000 payday gives Brilliant Speed more than enough graded-stakes earnings to run under the twin spires on May 7, and even with a resume that includes two unremarkable races on dirt last fall, he's all but certain to give the Derby a shot.
''You might as well take your chances,'' Albertrani said. ''It's wide open, why not?''
The Derby seemed like a distant dream as Brilliant Speed loped down the backstretch well behind the rest of the 12-horse field. Albertrani thought his blossoming colt looked sluggish and uncomfortable in his first start on a synthetic surface.
Turns out, Brilliant Speed and jockey Joel Rosario were just taking their time.
''He wanted to relax, so I let him relax,'' Rosario said.
And when Rosario asked him to go, Brilliant Speed took off. Rosario moved him to the outside at the turn to give him some running room and Brilliant Speed wasted little time chasing down the field with massive strides to slip by Twinspired in the final yards.
It was sweet vindication for both Albertrani and Weber. Albertrani's Arthur's Tale lost in a photo to Toby's Corner in last week's Wood Memorial — both of them finishing in front of big favorite Uncle Mo — before discovering an injury in his left leg.
Weber thought she was headed to the Derby with To Honor and Serve, but her rising star is out for a month with a leg injury.
She was crushed when the news came. Not anymore, though Brilliant Speed's win left her momentarily speechless.
''She said in a rather lighthearted moment, 'Oh my goodness, I guess I might be going to the Derby, after all,''' said George Strawbridge, Weber's cousin.
Brilliant Speed covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.92 and paid $40.20, $20.80 and $13, while giving the Blue Grass another in an increasingly long string of long-shot winners.
Last spring it was 40-1 dreamer Stately Victor. Two years ago is was General Quarters at 14-1. Neither was a factor in the Derby, though it hardly mattered Saturday.
''If you're winning a Blue Grass you definitely want to take a chance of being in the Derby,'' Albertrani said.
Even if reaching the winner's circle in one of the last major Derby preps hasn't translated to the first Saturday in May.
Strike the Gold is the last horse to sweep both races, and Street Sense in 2007 is the last Blue Grass entry to come through at Churchill Downs.
Twinspired and jockey Robby Albarado stalked early leader Joe's Amazing Aaron before making a late bid. He led deep into the stretch before getting nipped in the last 20 feet and paid $21.20 and $11.80 for second.
''I called on him and he gave me what he had to the wire,'' Albarado said. ''It was unfortunate he came on the losing end of it.''
King Congie, like Brilliant Speed a turf horse trained by Albertrani, got up for third and paid $8.80.
Santiva went off as the solid 2-1 favorite but never threatened despite slow fractions on a cold, wet day more reminiscent of late fall than early spring. He ended up ninth, jeopardizing his chances of making the Derby field.
The Derby is limited to 20 horses, with a spot determined by graded stakes earnings if more than 20 are entered. Santiva began the day 18th on the list and is certain to drop.
''He was surrounded by horses the whole time,'' trainer Eddie Kenneally said. ''It's up in the air where we'll go from here.''
Brilliant Speed had no such issues. Albertrani praised the expert ride from Rosario, making his first start abroad the horse.
''I couldn't fault any part of it,'' Albertrani said. ''He split horses (and) at the quarter pole he weaved his way right through traffic and angled him out perfectly at the drive.''