The original plan for Golden Ticket this time last month was to drop the son of Speightstown into the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and see if he couldn't give his connections reason to think he has classic ability.
A minor physical setback ended up derailing the first part of that equation. When Golden Ticket starts in Saturday's Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, he has an opportunity to keep hope alive on the second half of that front.
Because of its spot on the calendar and lower purse money in recent years, the Grade III, $200,000 Coolmore Lexington has indeed become a haven for those seeking a Plan B for their 3-year-olds who haven't quite established themselves on the Triple Crown trail.
The Ken McPeek-trained Golden Ticket is a classic example of such. The dark bay colt ran second in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby in his first try against stakes company but then blew out an abscess in a heel that kept him from a start in the Blue Grass.
Given the depth of the horses in the Blue Grass, which included race winner Dullahan and champion Hansen, bypassing that spot for the 11⁄16-mile Lexington, where Castaway looms as the only graded stakes winner in the 11-horse lineup, may not be the worst thing in the world for Golden Ticket's long-term development.
"He missed a work and any chance of running in the Blue Grass went out the window, but that might be a blessing in disguise," McPeek said. "This is a good next spot for him. Is he a Kentucky Derby horse? I don't know that he's shown that up to now, but if he were to win the Lexington, coming back in the Preakness Stakes (on May 19) would be probably a more obvious spot."
Owned by Magic City Thoroughbred Partners, it has taken Golden Ticket extra time to find the right spot for his ability. His first five starts resulted in five losses, including two over the Keeneland track, before finally breaking his maiden going 11⁄16 miles at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 11.
McPeek takes some of the heat for Golden Ticket's early losses, saying that some of those sprint distances were not ideal for showcasing the colt's running style.
"I think I was running him the wrong distance," McPeek said. "Because he's a small horse I kind of relegated him to sprint distances early on, but then once we stretched him out I think he's shown he can carry his speed. He's a little more tactical and he can place himself well and he goes on. I've been really impressed by him.
"In hindsight, I wish I had stretched him out in October instead of waiting until this past winter."
Southwest Stakes winner Castaway has the most back class in the Lexington field, and the unbeaten Summer Front is another who could use the race to stamp himself as one to watch. The son of War Front is 3-for-3 in as many tries over the turf and is making his first start since taking the Dania Beach Stakes at Gulfstream on Dec. 18.
"He's run three times on the grass, so we're trying something new here," said Ben Colebrook, assistant to trainer Christophe Clemente. "I think with any luck he should take to the Polytrack pretty well. At some point, we might even try him on the dirt."