LOUISVILLE — Trainer Pat Byrne admits he's not above giving into a certain temptation this time of year.
When a well-regarded 2-year-old can handle its first two-turn test over the Churchill Downs track with freakish ease, thoughts naturally spin ahead to what that could mean when the Kentucky Derby trail reaches its zenith next May.
"And there's nothing wrong with that," Byrne laughed, though he is serious when pondering the potential of his trainee.
Byrne has already guided one well-bred colt owned by Chuck and Maribeth Sandford to the Kentucky Derby, and the path toward a repeat journey could be punched forward Saturday when he saddles 6-5 morning-line favorite Almost Famous for the couple in the Grade II, $150,000-added Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.
The 11⁄16-mile race is the co-headliner of Churchill's "Stars of Tomorrow II," a 12-race card exclusively for 2-year-olds. The Grade II Golden Rod for juvenile fillies features a field of 10.
Three starts into his résumé, Almost Famous is giving off vibes similar to those generated by the Sandfords' Grade I winner Take Charge Indy before that horse's entry in the 2012 Kentucky Derby.
While his first career outing couldn't have gone much better — a front-running 21/4-length win going 6 furlongs at Churchill in September — immaturity seemed to take over when Almost Famous finished a disinterested fourth in the Street Sense Stakes on Oct. 27.
Byrne then opted to drop the kid gloves and run Almost Famous again two weeks later in a 11⁄16-mile allowance race at Churchill — this time fitted with a pair of blinkers. The gate-to-wire, 6-length win that followed was more in line with what Byrne was expecting all along from the dark bay colt.
"He showed me what I hoped to see. We're pretty high on him," Byrne said. "He was very impressive the first time he ran and I kind of babied him into the Street Sense. We had six weeks between races and it was like running a first-time starter in that race.
"It was one of those races you toss out, and I came back in two weeks because I knew it was a non-effort. It's not that the horse is disingenuous or lazy or anything, he just didn't know. He's just a baby so we'll give him that excuse."
The early speed Almost Famous possesses is no surprise considering he is out of the multiple graded stakes-winning sprinter Wild Gams. What Byrne hopes will ultimately allow the colt to keep his long strides going over increased distance is the relaxed mind-set he showed last time under jockey Corey Lanerie.
"Even though he is out of a sprinting mare, he acts like he wants to go long, he acts like he wants to run a distance of ground," Byrne said of the son of Unbridled's Song. "He's got a big stride to him, he's got a very relaxed mind, and taking those two things into consideration, I think that gives us a lot of confidence during the fall. Let's not say he'll get 1¼ miles until they actually do it. But we feel confident he's that kind of horse."
Almost Famous drew the rail in the 10-horse Kentucky Jockey Club field, so figure for him to be on the lead again barring a rough break. Dobra Historia, the 5-1 second choice on the morning line, closed from last to get second behind Almost Famous last time out and will leave from post No. 9 Saturday.
Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes
When: 5:35 p.m.
Where: Churchill Downs
Distance: 11⁄16 miles
Purse: $150,000 (Grade II)
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.