Outwardly, trainer Ken McPeek didn't much waver when it came to maintaining his faith in his Kentucky Derby hopefuls, even if the setbacks of the last few months far outweighed the positive moments.
When the Kentucky-based conditioner first brought back Java's War after the first of the year, the son of War Pass nearly alarmed McPeek with how uncomfortable he looked.
Add to that the scorecard of his stablemate Frac Daddy up until Saturday, which read two off-the-board losses this year resulting in one bloody hoof and a throat ulcer, and McPeek's ongoing belief in his sophomores was threatening to resemble a pipe dream.
As much as the Kentucky Derby trail can crush a horseman's dreams, it can provide renewed life just as quickly. Before a crowd of 37,161 that packed Keeneland Race Course for its signature Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, Java's War came from the clouds to put his trainer's classic aspirations exactly where he anticipated they could be at this time.
In the span of about an hour, McPeek's barn thrust itself into legitimate Kentucky Derby contention following a winter of discontent. Java's War mounted a last-to-first rally to capture the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes by a neck over Palace Malice, then hard-luck Frac Daddy ran second in the Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park to earn the points he needed to crack the 20-horse lineup for May 4.
While Frac Daddy had been touted by McPeek ever since his runner-up finish in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last November, Java's War had been more beneath the radar having run sixth in the same race and taking longer to come around this winter.
His first week back under tack this year was one McPeek described as "almost a disaster" with the bay colt moving so awkwardly his trainer thought something could be physically amiss.
There was nothing not to love, however, about the way the son of War Pass swept around 13 other challengers in the 11⁄8-mile Blue Grass Stakes as he quickened under jockey Julien Leparoux to set off a hearty celebration among his connections.
"The day was excellent. It makes all of the hard work you put in worth it," said McPeek, who had previously won the Blue Grass in 2002 with Harlan's Holiday. "We were able to work him through (his early issues) and this is a lovely horse. And Frac Daddy works right with this horse, they are two peas in the pod when it comes to timing them in the morning.
"I wasn't concerned at all (with how far back Java's War was Saturday). He just doesn't get away quick and I don't think you can force that."
McPeek didn't force the issue with Charles Fipke's homebred colt early on, instead waiting until the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 9 to send Java's War out for his seasonal debut.
The late-running youngster was able to finish second by three lengths that day to unbeaten Verrazano, giving a huge sign to McPeek and Fipke that they could expect more of a step up next time out.
"The thing is if you analyze that race, how poorly our horse started and how fast we finished ... you'll see that he went faster in the final quarters than any other horse in that race," said Fipke, a highly acclaimed Canadian-based geologist. "Also he also came out wide, he had to go farther than everybody else, too."
Sent off at odds of 4-to-1 in the 14-horse Blue Grass field, Java's War got off to his typical lackadaisical start out of post No. 4, spotting the field several lengths as Undrafted and race favorite Rydilluc went eyeball to eyeball through an opening quarter in :23.81.
Rydilluc moved up on the outside to take over the lead by half a length through the half in :48.04 and stretched that advantage to about two lengths around the final turn as Undrafted threw in the towel. At the same time, Java's War was shifting out seven wide and picking off challengers with each stride as eventual third-place finisher Charming Kitten advanced with him just to his inside.
"At the three-eighths pole, I tried to catch up a little bit, and he ran big the whole way through the stretch," said Leparoux, who earned his first Blue Grass Stakes win. "I didn't really ask him big time at the three-eighths pole. I just asked him to start going a little bit."
The Todd Pletcher-trained Palace Malice looked golden for the win himself when he came from just off the pace to collar Rydilluc in late stretch, but his advantage disappeared just as quick with a surging Java's War hitting the wire in 1:50.27.
"Both horses ran extremely well," said Pletcher, who also saddled Charming Kitten and won the Arkansas Derby with Overanalyze. "I'm proud of them but disappointed at the same time."
Rydilluc faded to finish fourth.
With three wins in seven career starts, Java's War is still seeking his first win on dirt as his prior two victories came over the turf at Ellis Park and Louisiana Downs.
"I think his next race is his best race," McPeek predicted.
And barring a setback, there is no question when and where Java's War will get his chance to make good on McPeek's word.
Derby Leader board
Horse Points Earnings
1. Orb 150 $840,000
2. Verrazano 150 $810,000
3. Goldencents 129 $1,208,000
4. Java's War 122 $651,772
5. Overanalyze 110 $908,381
6. Revolutionary 110 $720,000
7. Lines of Battle 100 $1,261,089
8. Vyjack 70 $505,000
9. Will Take Charge 60 $512,971
10. Itsmyluckyday 50 $593,600
11. Govenor Charlie 50 $400,000
12. Black Onyx 50 $317,130
13. Palace Malice 50 $200,000
14. Normandy Invasion44 $258,000
15. Frac Daddy 44 $240,596
16. Mylute 42 $363,365
17. Oxbow 36 $346,000
18. Uncaptured 30 $396,341
19. Super Ninety Nine30 $308,000
20. Falling Sky 30 $207,500
21. Merit Man 20 $357,500
22. Den's Legacy 20 $329,000
23. Charming Kitten20 $206,000
24. Departing 20 $130,000
25. West Hills Giant20 $90,666
26. Code West 20 $90,000
27. Tiz a Minister 20 $81,000
28. Golden Soul 14 $84,000
29. Dynamic Sky 13 $290,835
30. Power Broker 10 $245,000
31. Rydilluc 10 $127,500
32. Mr Palmer 10 $110,000
33. Abraham 10 $96,000
34. Elnaawi 10 $70,000
35. Giant Finish 10 $65,250
36. Narvaez 10 $50,000
37. Texas Bling 9 $245,200
38. Siete de Oros 7 $80,000
39. He's Had Enough 6 $442,000
40. Fear the Kitten 6 $122,735
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.