LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Even before the 13-horse lineup for Saturday’s Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes made their way onto the track, there was no question which two contenders were going to bring the drama to the record crowd of 40,617 at Keeneland.
On one side was the camp of juvenile champion Hansen, headed by his eccentric namesake owner - who made good on his promise to deliver a paddock surprise even if state stewards halted his plan to have the colt’s ivory tail dyed to match his silks.
The only thing that could match Dr. Kendall Hansen’s entourage of showgirl doppelgangers sporting blue plumes atop their heads and from the backs of their skintight dresses was the 100-plus contingent supporting Donegal Racing’s Dullahan decked out in green and gold beads and matching enamel pins.
While the pre-race scene looked like something straight off of Bourbon Street, the horses who inspired the scenario ended up overshadowing the antics.
The duo widely considered the two best horses in a deep field surpassed even their own hype Saturday as the late-running Dullahan collared pacesetter and favorite Hansen in the late stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths, stamping himself among the favorites for the Kentucky Derby on May 5.
The thunder that erupted from the stands as Dullahan’s chestnut legs swallowed up the 2 1/2-length advantage Hansen established in the lane was surpassed by the scene that broke out as Donegal Racing managing partner Jerry Crawford and his partners soaked in the fact their colt had the last word in what had become a battle of self promotion.
After weeks of expressing his desire to dye Hansen’s tail blue for one of his races, Dr. Hansen briefly had his colt’s tale a cobalt hue while still in his stall Saturday. The question of whether Hansen would race with his new 'do ended up being a moot point as his connections ended up washing it out upon learning they could face a potential hearing in front of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission for a rules violation. All that drama succeeded in putting all eyes on the stunning gray juvenile champion as he paraded in the paddock. That was fine by Dullahan’s group as they had all eyes on their colt when it came time to hand out post-race accolades.
“It feels like Mardi Gras, only better,” said Crawford, who threw his green and gold beads into the crowd after his colt’s triumph. “Our horse was ready to win this race today. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more confident.
“And you know the greatest thing of all about this week? We let our horse do the talking. When you know you’ve got the best horse, you don’t have to say much.”
Despite being a Grade I winner at age 2, having taken the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last October, Dullahan was in the backdrop this winter as Hansen and fellow Grade I winners Union Rags and Creative Cause have been the glamour boys of the Kentucky Derby trail.
Just as a loss to fellow Blue Grass contender Howe Great in the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes over the turf at Gulfstream Park on March 11 did not dampen his connections' confidence, Dullahan’s camp was equally strong in its belief he had put a recent splint injury behind him and was ready to deliver a showstopping run.
“He’s a lot more athletic than anything I’ve taken into the Kentucky Derby,” said trainer Dale Romans, who saddled Donegal’s Paddy O’Prado to a runner-up finish in the 2010 Blue Grass. “He’s a totally different horse than he was last year. He was a kid with a lot of talent last year and now he’s a man with a lot of talent. I would have been very disappointed if he had run second today. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.” Pretty much all of Dullahan’s handiness was put to the test in the Blue Grass.
With jockey Kent Desormeaux up, Dullahan settled along the inside path in 11th and 10th alongside Ever So Lucky as Hansen sprinted clear out of post four and assumed his usual spot at the head of the field.
Though jockey Ramon Dominguez said Hansen felt relaxed underneath him, the son of Tapit was clicking off fractions of :23.10 and :46.64, setting the stage for him to have a battle on his hands once he reached the lane.
“We knew the object was to get him to relax,” Dominguez said. “Although he was running fast fractions, too fast for 1 1/8-miles, he wasn’t rank. I hope to continue riding him because I think the distance is not an issue.”
As Hansen faced a challenge from eventual third-place finisher Gung Ho around the final turn, Desormeaux had Dullahan picking off horses on the inside but still needed to find an opening if he wanted to get his full run.
Entering the lane, Desormeaux swung Dullahan to the outside of Howe Great and exploded past Midnight Crooner fading down the middle of the track and was under only mild urging as Dominguez applied right-handed pressure to a fading Hansen.
“At the quarter pole he switched leads and he just exploded from there,” Desormeaux said. “As soon as straightened up (in the stretch) there was a hole and he ran through that and I asked him to keep going and he did.”
Dullahan, sent off as the 3-1 second choice, hit the wire in 1:47.94. Hansen, the 6-5 favorite was 2 1/2 lengths clear of Gung Ho in third. Mike Maker, trainer of Hansen, did not appear thrilled with his owner’s pre-race spectacle but ultimately cited the fractions as the reason behind the colt suffering his second loss in six career starts.
“My job is to bring the horse over for the race and I did that,” Maker deadpanned.
The pace was too fast. It was quicker than we wanted. The next one is the big one.”
Both of Dullahan’s victories in his eight career outings have come over the Keeneland synthetic Polytrack. The son of Even the Score and half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird is 0-for-3 over the Churchill Downs main track, including a fourth-place finish behind Hansen in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but Crawford maintains dirt will be the colt’s best surface.
“Absolutely, if you watch him train day in and day out and watch him breeze on the dirt at Churchill Downs ...you’re going to see in the next couple of weeks what we’re talking about.
“We kept quiet all week, it’s time to make some noise.”