by Scott Shapiro
In the first of 35 Road to the Kentucky Derby points races leading up to the 2019 “Run for the Roses,” it was longshot Cairo Cat running down even-money favorite Tight Ten to win the Iroquois Stakes (G3) by a half-length at Churchill Downs on Saturday.
Not only did he earn points toward the Kentucky Derby, the dark bay colt also gained an all-fees paid berth to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) on November 2 back under the Twin Spires as the Iroquois is part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win & You’re In” Challenge series.
Cairo Cat was toward the back in the early going before jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. was able to angle in and save ground. Hernandez gradually moved the son of Cairo Prince up the rail toward the leaders, but lacked running room along the rail when they turned for home. He patiently remained inside through much of the stretch drive before finally finding room to angle out and run by the public’s choice to earn the lion’s share of the $150,000 purse.
Cairo Cat debuted in late July at two turns on the lawn at Saratoga, where he finished a well beaten eighth. After the poor effort traveling a route of ground over the grass, trainer Ken McPeek opted to cut his colt back to one turn in a race that was washed off the sod. Cairo Cat proved he could race over the dirt by coming from off the pace to win by a head at 18-1 odds, but he did not face anywhere near the quality of horses that he got the best of on Saturday afternoon.
The Walking L Thoroughbreds colt was basically ignored by the betting public in the Iroquois, going off at 17-1, but the addition of Lasix and the ground-saving trip proved to be enough to get the best of a full field of juvenile colts looking to get to an early lead in the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings.
Even-money favorite Tight Ten was much more professional in his initial try at two turns after struggling with the mental part of the game in his first two starts for trainer Steve Asmussen. The son of Tapit sped to the early lead and set the pace through fractions of :24.03, :48.74 and 1:14.06, and was able to put away the other speed. However, the Winchell Thoroughbreds colt did not have enough left in the final furlong to hold off the late run of Cairo Cat.
Third-place finisher Pole Setter found a comfortable spot outside a rival a few lengths off the early lead. The Steve Landers Racing runner made a four-wide move on the far turn and for a moment appeared the likeliest to give Tight Ten a run for the money, but he failed to finish with enough energy to go with the top two finishers. However, his inability to finish with run may have been due to significant ground loss throughout.
With the victory in the Iroquois, Cairo Cat accrued 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, making the $130,000 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July 2017 purchase the early points leader for the first leg of the 2019 Triple Crown.
Cairo Cat paid $36.20 for finishing 1 1/16 miles over Churchill Downs’ fast main track in 1:45.35.
The victory was McPeek’s second in the Iroquois; Harlan’s Holiday won the event in 2001.
Brian Hernandez Jr., jockey Cairo Cat, winner
“He did everything we asked him. We warmed up really good in the post parade. This was my first time I was on him and I thought to myself how smooth he was going. He traveled well the whole way around. He certainly didn’t travel like he was a two-year-old. It’s easy to put in those type of rides with a horse that has that much confidence to put himself in spots like that.”
Greg Geier, assistant trainer Cairo Cat, winner
”This is a really nice colt. (Trainer) Kenny (McPeek) told me after he broke his maiden to try the Iroquois and here we are. He worked really well last week. We’ll see how he comes out of things but it’s nice the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) is right here in our backyard.”
Ricardo Santana Jr., jockey Tight Ten, second
“My horse ran well going around two turns for the first time. I thought we were going to get there.”
Florent Geroux, jockey Pole Setter, third
“He’s a really nice horse. I think he will have a great future down the road.”
Brad Cox, trainer Pole Setter, third
“We were pretty wide around there but he ran well all things considered, I think he’s going to be alright.”