Blue Grass contender Mafaaz already in Derby

His place in the Kentucky Derby starting gate was cemented nearly three weeks ago — a fact that rankled some of horse racing's purists.

But while the process that gave Mafaaz his remarkable opportunity can be debated, don't tell his connections the chestnut colt isn't worthy of this once-in-a-lifetime chance.

Last September, Churchill Downs threw 135 years of history a curve ball when it announced the creation of the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes, a 11⁄8-mile race at England's Kempton Park where the winner would earn an automatic spot in the 2009 Derby field.

On March 18, Mafaaz earned that inaugural distinction when he held off Spring of Fame by a neck to take the Challenge Stakes in his first start of the year.

The fact a European-based horse with no dirt form is locked into the first Saturday in May while horses such as Florida Derby runner-up Dunkirk are forced to sweat out the graded stakes earnings bubble has prompted some to question whether the Derby Challenge Stakes is truly enhancing racing's most famous contest.

But as Mafaaz prepares for his first U.S. start in Keeneland's Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes Saturday, those close to the son of Medicean are not letting naysayers diminish their faith in the colt.

"No, not at all," Les Reynolds said when asked if he was bothered by the criticism. Reynolds is representing trainer John Gosden at Keeneland this week. "It's a little unknown territory here, but obviously his form was good as a 2- and 3-year-old.

"He's run against the Breeders' Cup (Juvenile Turf) winner Donativum (at Newmarket last October) and was just a couple lengths behind him, and the horse who was second that day (Crowded House) is now the favorite for the English Derby. So he really has Group I form. He deserves to be here."

Mafaaz has only three career starts heading into Saturday but, in some ways, he is as accomplished as any of the Blue Grass Stakes contenders.

In the Derby Challenge Stakes — his first start since Oct. 4 — Mafaaz proved he could stretch out beyond a mile and handle the traffic as he successfully navigated the 14-horse field while also dealing with Kempton's tight turns.

Whereas North American racing has a heavy emphasis on speed, the European program is traditionally much more focused on stamina — a factor that could play into Mafaaz's hands.

"You can't not respect the European horses," said Rick Nichols, vice president of owner Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum's Shadwell operation. "I don't think people realize how tough European racing is. (Mafaaz) would probably, most likely be bred better to get a mile and a quarter than any American horse because we don't breed for mile and a quarter as much here."

Still, just because Mafaaz has a place saved for him on the first Saturday in May doesn't mean his connections have decided to move forward.

Just as Gosden is respected as one the best in the business at bringing a horse up to a big race, the outspoken trainer respects the Derby too much to enter a horse he doesn't feel belongs.

"It is a big ask for a 3-year-old in April, but we'll see," Gosden told England's Press Association. "He would have to run a big race to prove himself, as I would not want him to take a barrier at Churchill and deny someone else a place."