Eagle had been a horse stuck on the cusp of taking the next step.
As a juvenile, he was on the outer edge of the most precocious of his generation. Since returning from the injury which sidelined him for a chunk of his 3-year-old season, the son of Candy Ride has acquitted himself admirably against graded stakes company but was without the goods to show for it.
It’s challenging to have patience in the Thoroughbred industry, but it is a trait that is often ultimately rewarded, a fact Eagle drove home Saturday as he edged past Grade I winner Noble Bird in deep stretch to win the Grade III, $200,000 Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland.
The determination Eagle showed en route to his first graded stakes win in 13 career starts is why owner William S. Farish and trainer Neil Howard have continued to hold the 4-year-old chestnut colt in high regard. After coming back from injury in September 2015, he was able to win three straight races against older horses and was most recently fourth, beaten just 2½ lengths, in the Grade II New Orleans Handicap on March 26.
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“He’s a colt that kind of needed to mature a little bit and in my situation with Mr. and Mrs. Farish, they have indulged me to no end to give these horses the time and the chance that they need,” Howard said. “Maturity has been the only stumbling block with him and his last race was good; he just got in a little trouble. But he hasn’t really missed a beat since the fall.”
Noble Bird has been a horse on the comeback trail from injury himself. For all but a handful of strides at the finish, the son of Birdstone looked like his Grade I-winning self as he jumped out to the lead, cutting an opening half-mile of 47.76.
After tracking last in the eight-horse field around the first turn, Eagle pulled jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. up the rail past rivals and was just a length behind the leader entering the head of the stretch. Hernandez went to the right-handed whip a few times and then let his mount grind his way to the front in deep stretch, hitting the wire in 1:48.57 for the 1 1/8-mile test.
One of trainer Bob Baffert’s refrains is that he isn’t going to put a horse of his on the plane unless he is confident they will represent the Hall of Famer accordingly.
Speedway Stables’ Collected did his famed conditioner proud Saturday when he drew off handily under jockey Javier Castellano to win the Grade III, $150,000 Lexington Stakes going 1 1/16 miles.
The Kentucky Derby may have been ruled out as an option for Collected — who does have 21 points on the leaderboard — but a run in the Preakness Stakes on May 21 could be on the table given the way the son of City Zip has accelerated away from rivals to win three of his four starts this season. The chestnut colt won the Grade III Sham Stakes in his seasonal debut Jan. 9 and rebounded from a fourth-place outing in the Grade III Southwest Stakes to take the Sunland Park Festival of Racing Stakes on March 20.
Where Collected went gate-to-wire in that outing, he was able to settle into second in the Lexington Stakes just behind pacesetter and eventual runner-up One More Round before pouncing at the eighth pole and drawing clear for a 4-length win.
Final time for the race was 1:43.33 over a fast track.
“He broke alertly, which was important being (in post No. 10) because he has to be close to the lead and he did all of that,” said owner Peter Fluor of Speedway Stables. “You’re always waiting at the top of the stretch: ‘does he have another gear?’ and he did.”
Swipe, the runner-up to champion Nyquist in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, finished sixth as the race favorite in his first start of 2016.
“He started to get tired and breathing heavy and was not as much on the bridle at the half-mile pole,” said Keith Desormeaux, trainer of Swipe. “That tells me it was a heavy track or the work that I’ve got into him at this point was not enough. He needed the race.”