The more trainer Mark Casse studied the results of last month's Grade III Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, the more convinced he became John Oxley's graded stakes winner Uncaptured was going in the direction he desired.
Uncaptured finished 11/2 lengths behind Black Onyx that day, but that was the only negative Casse could find considering his horse was making his first start since November over the farthest distance he had ever traveled while racing on a Polytrack surface that tested the limits of his fitness.
"I couldn't be more pleased," Casse said of Uncaptured's season debut. "I had concerns about his fitness, and the track was very tiring that day. All that just makes me that much more impressed with him."
Most of Uncaptured's eight-race career has featured the progress his trainer was seeking. Barring something unusual in Saturday's Grade I, $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Casse is banking on all those stepping stones carrying the dark bay colt to the Kentucky Derby starting gate on May 4.
Uncaptured, the 7-2 morning-line favorite in Keeneland's signature Kentucky Derby prep race, is the most accomplished runner in the full field of 14 entrants and the one with the most wiggle room.
With 30 points already to his credit, Uncaptured ranks 14th in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" standings that determine the field for the first leg of the Triple Crown — putting him in solid stead to make the starting gate three weeks from now.
While Blue Grass contenders like graded stakes winner Rydilluc and Balance the Books are in the position of needing a top-two finish to claim either the 100 points awarded to the winner or the 40 points given to second to make the Kentucky Derby cut, Uncaptured just needs to not do anything to make Casse rethink his Louisville agenda.
"We ran into a lot of difficulties with him this winter, and he missed a lot of training time," said Casse, referring to the foot issues that flared up. "So to ask a horse to go 11⁄8 miles (in the Spiral), off a 4-5 months layoff was something.
"My only concern is how much did that race take out of him, but he came out of it well and he's trained well. And now he's picked up enough points that all he needs to do is really place (in the Blue Grass) ... and we know he loves Churchill Downs."
Uncaptured's victories in the Grade III Iroquois Stakes and Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last fall have Casse enthused about his Derby chances. Uncaptured's four wins over Polytrack surfaces — all at Woodbine — and his tactical ability make him among the main targets Saturday.
Having drawn post No. 7 for the Blue Grass, Uncaptured is in a prime spot to get good position early under jockey Miguel Mena. Being able to be forwardly placed could be the key to any positive end result as Rydilluc and Undrafted — the latter owned by Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker — are among the few in the field who have consistently shown early speed.
"I don't see it being a huge speed race," said Gary Contessa, trainer of Rydilluc, who will break from post No. 13 in his Polytrack debut. "I see us being in that second tier but ... if they want to give me the lead, he could definitely run on the lead if they want to hand me soft fractions."
The John Terranova-trained West Hills Giant is another who could press the issue early, as he did while running second to Vyjack in the Grade III Gotham Stakes on March 2.
West Hills Giant was versatile enough to break his maiden going 11⁄16 miles on the turf at Saratoga last September before turning around to win going 6 furlongs on the dirt at Finger Lakes the next time out.
"He's given us signs that he's a good horse all along and he's consistently gotten better and better," Terranova said. "Good horses can adapt, and he's always shown us a lot of different dimensions to him between handling different surfaces and distances.
"He's just got to run a real solid race and if he hits the board, he's got a real shot at getting in (to the Derby)."
When: 5:40 p.m. Saturday | TV: NBC | Purse: $750,000 | Distance: 1 1/8 miles | Weight: 123 lbs.
|2||My Name is Michael||Mott||Bridgmohan||15-1|
|6||Channel Isle||Lukas||Rocco Jr.||30-1|
|11||Balance the Books||Brown||Castellano||15-1|
|12||West Hills Giant||Terranova II||Espinoza||20-1|
|14||Fear the Kitten||Maker||Napravnik||30-1|
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.