To a man, the connections of Dance With Fate all agreed that the second Saturday in April — not the ballyhooed classic three weeks later — was the target both their hearts and the colt were aiming for.
While Kentucky Derby fever can be a nasty affliction among those with promising 3-year-olds in their barn, trainer Peter Eurton and his camp decided they wanted to have their big day in Keene-land's Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes with the dark bay colt and let whatever questions arise be dealt with down the line.
"We were pointing for this race all year," bloodstock agent Larry Zap said of the horse he picked out at the OBS sale last April. "The Derby will be up for discussion but right at this moment, this is our prize."
Whether he shows up in the first leg of the Triple Crown or not, Dance With Fate stamped himself worthy of running with the best of his generation after his ground-swallowing strides captured the 90th running of the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes by 13/4 lengths before a near-record crowd of 39,722 at Keeneland.
Though a top-two finish in the Blue Grass usually punches a horse's Derby ticket, the 11⁄8-mile test validated the restraint shown by Dance With Fate's crew. After Dance With Fate ended his juvenile campaign with an eighth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, his ownership group brought him back in a 1-mile allowance race on the turf in January, and he followed that victory with a runner-up effort in the Grade III El Camino Real Derby over the synthetic surface at Golden Gate Fields in February.
Such aptitude on synthetic was fittingly showcased in the final edition of the Blue Grass held over Polytrack before Keeneland converts back to dirt this fall. After breaking a step slow out of post No. 8, Dance With Fate sat chilly about four from last down the backside before moving just behind eventual runner-up Medal Count with a sweeping turn around the far turn.
"This has been for us the four-month plan," Eurton said. "From the time he ran second in (the Grade I Del Mar Futurity last September) on the synthetic he settled and he didn't get any kickback. Then we took him to Santa Anita (on dirt) and he was just not the same horse.
"We gave him some time and he's grown at least an inch or two. But this has been the target all along. I just don't like the idea of running back that quick in the Kentucky Derby, I really don't."
Eurton clarified that it was not a definite 'no' with regards to the Derby. If nothing else, it is a most desirable quandary to have.
While Dance With Fate was settling in hand under jockey Corey Nakatani, race favorite Bobby's Kitten was battling with jockey Javier Castellano and the Polytrack he was trying for the first time as he pushed Pablo Del Monte through fractions of :23.58 and :47.59.
"In the second half of the race, he lost (interest) and didn't seem to care for the track," said Chad Brown, trainer of Bobby's Kitten. "He was a little keen down the backside, and I thought Javier did a good job to keep him relaxed as much as he could. But (Bobby's Kitten) will be back on turf next time."
Medal Count, who was wheeling back off a week's rest after winning the Grade III Transylvania Stakes at Keeneland last Friday, continued to back up trainer Dale Romans's high praise for him as he sailed past a tiring Coastline and took aim at Pablo Del Monte still holding on to his advantage at the head of the lane.
By that point, Nakatani had Dance With Fate rolling on the far outside and took command in midstretch en route to hitting the line in 1:50.06.
"For us, we don't have the big pocketbooks so we look for horses that are athletes," said Joseph Ciaglia, who owns Dance With Fate in partnership with Bran Jam Stable and Sharon Alesia and purchased him for $120,000 at last year's April OBS 2-year-olds in training sale. "The Derby temptation is there, but right now I'm trying to absorb the race we just won. I was nervous here and if you go to 20 horses in the Derby ... we want to go thinking our horse has a chance."
Medal Count held for second, 13/4 lengths ahead of Pablo Del Monte in third while Bobby's Kitten faded to 12th.
Romans indicated he would be more than game to bring Medal Count back for a Kentucky Derby start should the colt continue to bounce out of his most recent effort with energy.
"I just think he can run with these horses. I think he belongs in the Kentucky Derby," Romans said. "If he comes out good, I see no reason not to go."
With three wins now in eight career starts and his form on the upswing, some of those in the Dance With Fate camp are already planning to give the hard sell on his Derby chances.
"It will be up for the group to decide that. But winning this race was everything," Zap said. "I'll tell everyone in the group I think he's strong enough to take on this challenge. My vote is go."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.