It hasn't been the easiest of months for trainer Shug McGaughey's 3-year-old runners.
Within two weeks of each other, both his promising allowance winner Top Billing and his graded stakes-winning stablemate Honor Code were knocked off the Kentucky Derby trail with injuries.
Phipps Stable homebred Mr Speaker carried his own set of expectations for McGaughey. In Saturday's Grade III, $200,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes before the fourth-largest crowd in Keeneland history, Mr Speaker provided a little bit of salve for his Hall of Fame trainer.
Seven starts into his career, Mr Speaker is now a graded stakes winner on two surfaces as the dark bay colt angled off the rail and kicked like the 2-1 race favorite he was to take the Lexington by 4 lengths before a crowd of 34,933.
After Mr Speaker won the Grade III Dania Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf to close his juvenile campaign Dec. 13, McGaughey tried the colt on the dirt in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 25. He finished a disappointing seventh.
Out of the Unbridled mare Salute, a daughter of the Phipps' unbeaten Hall of Famer Personal Ensign, Mr Speaker got back on track with a runner-up finish in the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream turf March 1 and delivered his most impressive run yet as he strided out over the Keeneland Polytrack on Saturday.
"We brought him here to run in the (Grade I) Blue Grass Stakes but when it came up with a big field, I decided it maybe wouldn't be in his best interest not knowing where he might draw," McGaughey said. "But it looked like the way he ran today, he could handle just about anything.
"We might have been a little overly eager going into the Holy Bull but he's a horse we always liked."
Jose Lezcano has been in the irons for Mr Speaker's last four outings and patiently tucked the colt along the rail in third as Supermonic raced alongside Solitary Ranger through an opening half-mile in :48.07.
Still stuck down inside and needing room for the stretch drive, Lezcano shifted Mr Speaker to the outside past Supermonic, leaving that one to battle with stablemate Divine Oath, who got up for second by a neck.
"I saw (Lezcano) reach up and grab him at around the 41/2 (furlong) pole and I said to my son, 'He's got a lot of horse, let's see what happens when the running starts,'" McGaughey said. "We saw what happened. I thought Jose did a good job not trying to swing wide."
Mr Speaker covered the 11⁄16 miles in 1:44.18 to earn his third win in seven starts and hand Divine Oath his first loss in three outings.
Though his pedigree suggests dirt would be worth trying again down the road, McGaughey said the Grade I Belmont Derby on the turf on July 5 would probably be his next target.
"We're going to keep him on the grass for the time being," McGaughey said.
Frac Daddy takes Ben Ali
Frac Daddy finally overcame months of futility against top company as the Ken McPeek-trainee drew off with authority to win the Grade III Ben Ali Stakes by 43/4 lengths Saturday.
Owned by Magic City Thoroughbred Partners, Frac Daddy was winless in eight prior tries against graded stakes company coming into the 11⁄8-mile Ben Ali, including a runner-up finish in last year's Grade I Arkansas Derby.
Under Alan Garcia, Frac Daddy tracked pace-setting Red Rifle to the middle of the far turn, where he took command and then drew off unopposed to cover the distance in 1:49.61 for his fourth win in 14 career starts.
"He deserves to be a stakes winner," McPeek said. "He was a horse that wasn't all that mature mentally but he had the talent. He's got a string of races now and I'm not sure it matters to him what surface. He doesn't get flustered, and goes about his business."
Stealcase came up for second while Nikki's Sandcastle was three quarters of a length behind in third.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.