by Nick Hahn

The third time at Colonial Downs was the charm in the Virginia Derby for Ken McPeek, the trainer of winning three-year old colt War Dancer. As the sun set on Saturday night, McPeek stood in the winner’s circle, answering questions on the triumph and touting the Horse Races Now mobile application he developed. McPeek had brought his talented three-year old Prince Arch to Colonial Downs in 2004 only to find Artie Schiller and Kitten’s Joy in the field and run third. In 2008, he brought Old Man Buck and only beat one horse.

This time it was different.

War Dancer ran fourth up the backstretch near the rail, escorted by trainer Todd Pletcher’s duo of Charming Kitten ahead in the third and Jack Milton in fifth. Coming around the turn, jockey Alan Garcia moved out in a subtle manner and found a straight path and solid turf at the head of the stretch, both pluses over his foes.  At the wire, he was still in the company of Charming Kitten on the rail, tough to win from all meet, and Jack Milton on the outside moving really well late after altering course. War Dancer, however, was a head in front when the timer stopped.

Ken Ramsey, center, and his grandson Nolan go over race strategy with riders Joel Rosario and Shaun Bridgmohan before the Virginia Derby.  Photo by Nick Hahn.

Ken Ramsey, center, and his grandson Nolan go over race strategy with riders Joel Rosario and Shaun Bridgmohan before the Virginia Derby. Photo by Nick Hahn.

Favorite Rydilluc ran close to the pace Saturday evening for much of the race, but finished in a dead heat for eighth. Trainer Gary Contessa considered the Virginia Derby a “can’t lose” race for his three-year old Rydilluc, though not for the result. Contessa calculated the Virginia Derby to be a “Y” race for Rydilluc who came into the mile-and-a-quarter affair undefeated in four turf starts. He had won at a nine furlongs, but his more recent success has been at a mile. If he ran well at the Virginia Derby distance, he would go to the Secretariat. With a poor performance, he would seek the shorter 3-year old turf stakes at Saratoga.

The rain didn’t relent on Colonial’s windshield this summer, sometimes as a drizzle but usually as downpours — starting with the 4 & ½ inch deluge that hit New Kent a day before the racing started. There was a half hour cloud burst three hours before the running of the Virginia Derby itself. With the soft condition of the Secretariat Turf Course in the Virginia Derby, Contessa is now faced with the old Yogi Berra issue: “When you see a fork in the road up ahead, take it.”

“There’s been a lot rain down here. He’s never run on a soft turf course. Edgar (Prado) said he really struggled with the turf course today,” said Contessa adding that horses can go out too fast on soft turf.

Still Contessa demurred on what might be next for his charge.  “It’s when horses struggle with the turf course. In hand they run very well and when you ask them is when they fall apart. He struggled with the softer turf. I said, ‘Come on, Edgar, is it the distance or the softer turf?’  Edgar said it was the softer turf, he didn’t handle it well. We’re going back to Saratoga to think about [his next race],” added Contessa.

Charming Kitten was the Kentucky Derby representative for this year’s running, despite the turf snub in the Run for the Roses point system added this year. The Virginia Derby has been a great summer opportunity at least one Kentucky Derby starter annually since 2006.

Owner and breeder Ken Ramsey, present at Colonial Downs to hand out the $75,000 Kitten’s Joy trophy to McPeek earlier in the evening when Al Qasr prevailed, watched Charming Kitten battle from the slow lane on the rail with Joel Rosario aboard. Nine years ago in his only other previous trip to Colonial Downs, Ramsey watched Kitten’s Joy run arguably the best race of his career.

“The agony of defeat kind of leaves a bitter taste in the mouth,” said Ramsey. “I don’t know if putting Redwood Kitten in there was that effective or not. It might have been better to let him run off. But I don’t have any regrets about the way we tried to set it up. Our horse surged and got beat by, what a head? He was close but no cigar.”

Ramsey, like everyone in horse racing, wants to win. However, he really wanted to win this one and was thinking rematch before Charming Kitten made it back to the stakes barn.

“Hats off to him (War Dancer) he ran a great race,” said Ramsey. “We just didn’t get up. We’ll probably go to the Secretariat and hope that the other horse shows up. Hats off to Ken McPeek. He’s a good trainer.”

His attention then turned to grandson Nolan, who was watching video via McPeek’s mobile phone application to check on the progress of his many other Kitten’s Joy progeny running on Saturday night, just as he had done shortly after his trophy presentation to McPeek earlier in the day.

[pullquote]I think it’s good, all the good ones should collide,” said Ken McPeek of the possibility of facing Charming Kitten in the Secretariat.[/pullquote]

With no clear-cut favorite in the 10-horse field of the Virginia Derby, the three year old division on turf remains wide open and it appears the race alumni with reunite once again in the not so distant future.

“I think it’s good, all the good ones should collide. It was a fantastic race,” said McPeek about a possible rematch in the Secretariat Stakes. “He (Charming Kitten) ran well himself.”

Jack Milton’s presence was felt in the Virginia Derby finishing third but he may have been moving best at the wire and with a better run through the stretch might have thwarted McPeek’s quest but behind the clouds, the stars were aligned for McPeek.

“He only needed more ground. The last race, the only reason he lost was because he needed more ground. The mile-and-a-quarter was ideal,” reflected McPeek. “I bought him as a yearling for $220,000 without a client and I put a group together because I thought he was the best looking horse I laid eyes on at Saratoga.”

If the horse returns to Saratoga, McPeek added, one possible destination — if he decides to switch the horse to the dirt — would be the Travers.

The Saranac at Saratoga could be another site of rematch of the top three and Rydilluc, but few are likely to follow War Dancer to yet another option that McPeek mentioned.

“I nominated him for Royal Ascot. I think he could have won a stake other there. There were several spots that would have suited him. I would have had to run for half as much in tougher company. In the fall there are some good 3-year old stakes as Ascot. I might head over there for that.”

And miss out on all the fun over here?