The 2015 Kentucky Derby prep season has been freakishly devoid of major toe stubbing on the part of the 3-year-olds who bear the brunt of expectations.
Those seeking the equine equivalent of bracket busters have been repeatedly disappointed, with favorites crossing the wire first in nine prep races heading into this weekend and no winner of a Kentucky Derby qualifying race going off at double digit odds.
On Saturday, the already heralded Carpe Diem took his turn at living up to majority hopes, saddled with 2-to-5 favoritism going into the gate over seven rivals in Keene-land's Grade I, $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.
There would be no breaking the trend at the conclusion of the 11⁄8-mile test. The son of Giant's Causeway did his thing in matter-of-fact style, drawing off to a 3-length victory over Danzig Moon before a crowd of 26,357.
"When you're 2-5 as he was, there is always a little bit of nerves to make sure he does what he is supposed to do from that standpoint," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm which co-owns Carpe Diem. "But this horse has been nothing short of exciting every time he's run."
The racing public has been spoiled this year by good 3-year-olds upping the ante on how strong they can be on any given day. Already a Grade I winner at 2 and a striking physical specimen, the Todd Pletcher-trained Carpe Diem has been at the forefront of that crew, having now won four of his five lifetime starts while cementing himself along with unbeaten Dortmund and champion American Pharoah as one of the top three contenders for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Purchased by WinStar and Stonestreet Stables for $1.6 million at the 2014 OBS March 2-year-olds in training sale, the chestnut colt has been building up star power since he first had a saddle on him. In his second career start last October, he blew out his foes when he won the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland by 61/4 lengths.
And in his first outing since running second in the 2014 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Carpe Diem won as easy as he pleased in taking the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 7 by a widening 5 lengths.
The biggest question on paper in the Blue Grass was if Carpe Diem would get enough of a tussle during the race to tighten him up for the Kentucky Derby. After racing just off the flank of Ocho Ocho Ocho through a half in 48.05, Carpe Diem unleashed his stride around the final turn, seizing the lead around the eighth pole and causing jockey John Velazquez to take a quick peek wondering where his competition had gone.
"Like some of the other great horses I have had, he is a fighter and a contender," said Barbara Banke of Stonestreet Stables. "We knew we had a great horse. He broke well. And then, it was just a matter of Johnny (Velazquez) telling him to go at the right time and he went."
Velazquez kept Carpe Diem to task with a couple right-handed smacks in deep stretch but said that in hitting the wire in 1:49.77 over a fast track, he climbed off feeling there was more in reserve.
"Once he gets to the lead, he wants to wait, so I have to make sure I keep his mind on running," Velazquez said. "He does every thing right and keeps improving every race."
Danzig Moon held for second by 21/2 lengths over a tiring Ocho Ocho Ocho, picking up 40 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby. Norman Casse, assistant for his father Mark Casse, trainer of Danzig Moon, said they would likely train the colt over at Churchill Downs before deciding if they want to tackle more sophomore monsters in the first American classic.
"I'm happy that he at least showed he belonged in the discussion," Norman Casse said. "I've said all along that Carpe Diem is the horse I respect the most out of this crop, and that's saying something because this is a truly deep 3-year-old division."
It was a year of firsts for the Blue Grass Stakes, as its purse was hiked to $1 million and the race was moved from its usual spot on the second Saturday of the Spring Meet to opening weekend.
It was same old, same old as far as Carpe Diem's form was concerned.
"Every time he runs it just looks like there is more in the tank," Walden said. "You look at a mile and quarter and the demands of the race. This is a big horse, with a high cruising speed and can place himself very handily in the race.
"In four weeks, he's going to have to run a lot so it's good he got tested and then he went ahead and finished in hand. It looks like a great crop of 3-year-olds, but I wouldn't trade places with anyone going to Louisville."