After the Grade II Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 20, the most pressing thing on trainer Mark Casse’s mind was making sure there was nothing physically amiss with Airoforce, who had just finished next to last in the field of 11.
The poor effort couldn’t be ignored from a horse who was an Eclipse Award finalist and a graded stakes winner on turf and dirt as a juvenile. Which is why as test after test on Airoforce came back clean and the colt remained unstressed, Casse was equal parts relieved and puzzled about the performance by a horse who had been a neck away from being unbeaten.
“We’re still not really sure what happened,” Casse said. Jockey Julien Leparoux “said he was running along nice. Thought he was in a good spot and at the half-mile pole he just kind of threw his head up, and I think initially Julien was concerned that maybe something had went wrong, and he kind of just let him gallop along from that point on.
“We brought him to Ocala … and went over him from head to tail and really haven’t found a whole lot to give him an excuse. The only thing I would say after the race, he did cough a lot. He wasn’t really tired, but he did do a lot of choking and coughing. We don’t really know why. But he’s trained very well since.”
While that February outing by Airoforce was bad enough for Casse to initially declare him off the Kentucky Derby trail, a second chance is possible should John Oxley’s colt deliver a redemption-type run in Saturday’s Grade III, $500,000 Horseshoe Casino Spiral Stakes going 1 1/8 miles at Turfway Park.
We’re still not really sure what happened. ... We brought him to Ocala … and went over him from head to tail and really haven’t found a whole lot to giving him an excuse.
Mark Casse, trainer of Airoforce, about his poor performance in the Risen Star Stakes
Before his disappointing 2016 debut, Airoforce was at the forefront of what Casse thought was his strongest arsenal of Derby hopefuls to date. After making his first three starts on turf — winning the Grade III Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland and getting beaten by a neck while running second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf — the gray colt aced his first try on dirt when he captured the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs on Nov. 28.
The fact that Mor Spirit, Mo Tom and Gun Runner — the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers in the Kentucky Jockey Club — have all come back to win graded stakes this year says that Airoforce didn’t just take advantage of a mediocre bunch that night.
“Honestly, if he wasn’t training this well, I wouldn’t run him. I’d probably put him back on the grass, I wouldn’t have even entertained it,” Casse said. “But he’s trained well enough that he deserves another chance.
“Really my initial instinct was disappointment and confusion (after the Risen Star). I didn’t even want to think about (the Kentucky Derby) because … I didn’t want to have that Derby fever that made me rush things about rushing back or do things, so that’s why I said it. He surprised me actually how well he’s come back and how good he’s training.”
Among those Airoforce has to contend with in the Spiral field is Surgical Strike, a visually impressive winner of the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway on March 12.
“Two turns is what he wants to do,” said Ben Colebrook, trainer of Surgical Strike. “He came out of the (Battaglia) great. He ran a big race that day, considering how wide he was and how he got shuffled back on the first turn.”
While turf ultimately might be Airoforce’s wheelhouse, Turfway’s synthetic surface typically has played favorably for grass horses. That, combined with Airoforce’s history, were enough for him to be installed as the 3-1 morning-line favorite out of post No. 10 in the 12-horse field.
The Spiral is worth 85 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, including 50 to the winner. Should Airoforce have enough points to gain a spot in the Derby starting gate, Casse conceded it would be difficult not to give a horse with proven form over the Churchill track a shot to shock the world on the first Saturday in May.
“A lot of people ask if he runs good this weekend would you consider the Derby again, and of course we would consider it,” Casse said. “But right now we’re just trying to — we’re just looking for a good race this weekend.”
What: Kentucky Derby prep race
Where: Turfway Park in Florence
When: 5:43 p.m.
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
Purse: $500,000 (Grade 3)
Spiral Stakes field
1. That Makes Sense 30-1
2. Surgical Strike 12-1
3. Jensen 6-1
4. Don’t Be So Salty 8-1
5. Oscar Nominated 10-1
6. Two Step Time 15-1
7. Strike Up the Band 20-1
8. Kasseopia 6-1
9. Swagger Jagger 20-1
10. Airoforce 3-1
11. Ralis 6-1
12. Azar 5-1
13. Crescent Drive (also eligible)
14. Diplodocus (also eligible)