The suddenness with which Kentucky Derby contenders can appear this time of year is matched only by how painfully quick they can disappear. Last month, Starlight Stables experienced both such circumstances when their unbeaten colt Algorithms was diagnosed with a fractured splint in his right front — an injury that ended his classic hopes just weeks after he became a division leader with his victory over champion Hansen in the Holy Bull Stakes.
Days after that news hit, the Starlight crew got a morale boost when another of their runners, Heavy Breathing, earned his second open-length victory in as many career starts.
As premature as it would be to suggest Heavy Breathing can fill the void left by his stablemate, the son of Giant's Causeway has the opportunity to give his connections another sudden burst of Derby hopes with his exploits this Saturday.
The race that produced last year's Kentucky Derby winner will have no shortage of contenders trying to ride that trend as a field of 12 was entered Thursday for the Grade III, $500,000 Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park.
Heavy Breathing was made the 3-1 morning-line favorite on Thursday afternoon.
Last year's Spiral saw Team Valor's Animal Kingdom make his graded stakes debut in the 11⁄8-mile race, earning a win that ultimately set him up for his upset triumph on the first Saturday in May six weeks later.
Like Animal Kingdom, Heavy Breathing will be testing his skills against stakes talent for the first time this weekend, but this chestnut colt has a fair share of buzz surrounding his potential.
The Todd Pletcher trainee has won his two career starts — both at Gulfstream Park — by a combined 12 lengths this season. Though both of those outings came over dirt, Pletcher said the decision to try him on a synthetic surface for his stakes debut was more about Starlight Racing getting back to its Plan A.
"We've been pleasantly surprised by how well he's run on the dirt his first two starts," said Pletcher, who will also saddle WinStar Farm's Holiday Promise in the Spiral. "We felt like he was training as a horse that actually showed a bit more to us on the turf in the mornings. We entered him in a maiden turf race to begin with. That race was rained off onto the main track, and he performed well, so ... we entered him back in an allowance race on the dirt, and once again he handled it very well.
"That's part of the reason why we're trying the synthetic, because we've seen a lot of horses cross over from the turf to the synthetic well. We've also seen a lot of horses by Giant's Causeway do well on the synthetic."
This is the time of year distances start stretching out for the sophomore class and. to that end, Heavy Breathing is ahead of the game.
The colt owns a victory at the Spiral's 11⁄8-mile distance, winning an allowance test on March 3 by a widening 41/4 lengths.
To have a chance at earning Derby consideration, however, Heavy Breathing is going to have to overcome some rivals who have already proven they can handle the Turfway surface.
The John Servis-trained Ill Conceived enters off a runner-up finish in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes on March 3 where he was beaten just a head by State of Play, stablemate to Animal Kingdom.
Servis famously conquered the Derby trail back in 2004 when he saddled Smarty Jones to victory in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. As much as the affable trainer would love to get back on that stage, he needs something exceptional from Ill Conceived this weekend to start raising his hackles.
"I don't know if May 5 is actually in our game plan," Servis said. "I'm going to have to see a real big effort from him in the Spiral, and if I do, then maybe we'll start cooling our jets and maybe sit on him until May 5. And if we see a good effort but not an outstanding effort, then we'll probably just back off a little bit and maybe shoot for the Preakness or something like that."