When he first came to Turfway Park in March, Hold Me Back was the big, gangly youngster with something to prove.
Just more than six months later, the son of Giant's Causeway returns to the Florence track with a heftier reputation and some newfound respect.
Hold Me Back, who scored his breakout victory with an upset in the Grade II Lane's End Stakes in March, will try to duplicate that form when he faces eight challengers as the 7-5 morning-line choice in Saturday's Grade II Kentucky Cup Classic.
The Kentucky Cup Classic headline's Turfway's "Day of Champions" card, which includes the Grade III Kentucky Cup Distaff and Grade III Kentucky Cup Sprint.
Since winning the Lane's End Stakes in his first start of the year, the late-maturing Hold Me Back has developed into one of the more promising 3-year-old males this season.
WinStar Farm's rangy homebred went on to finish second in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes before his 12th-place run in the Kentucky Derby and, most recently, a runner-up effort behind Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird in the Grade I Travers Stakes on Aug. 29.
"To me he's a horse that is going to continue to get better," said Elliott Walden, vice president of WinStar. "You have the type of horses that don't have as much scope as this horse, and ... they tend to not mature physically as much as a horse that starts out with a big frame. Those type of horses continue to get stronger and better as their career goes on, and ... we're so excited about the future with him."
While the timing of the race and Hold Me Back's 3-for-4 record over synthetic surfaces made the 11⁄8-mile Kentucky Cup Classic an ideal final prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita in November, his connections happily point out they had a variety of options when considering their colt's next start.
After two off-the-board efforts on dirt, Hold Me Back showed some versatility when he closed strongly over a sloppy Saratoga track on Travers day to finish ahead of Grade I winner Quality Road.
"I think everyone kind of questioned whether he would run on the dirt, and we were pretty firm in our opinion that he would," Walden said. "It was nice to see a very good performance out of him on the dirt. It really opens our options for next year because now he is not just a Polytrack horse like people thought."
Hold Me Back, who is trained by Bill Mott, has won three of eight career starts with earnings of $708,874.
Among Hold Me Back's top competition Saturday are 4-year-old, Grade I winner Wicked Style — third most recently in the Grade III Washington Park Handicap — and Dubious Miss, who is 5-for-5 when ridden by jockey Calvin Borel.