FLORENCE — He hadn't run in more than three months, his biggest win had come against allowance company and he was defeated by 14 lengths in his only other try in a graded stakes race.
On paper Hold Me Back hardly looked like a horse who was ready to jump in the Kentucky Derby picture. But following a 11⁄8-mile journey around Turfway Park Saturday, the son of Giant's Causeway has his connections thinking the dream may just materialize.
WinStar Farm, which had one of the top Derby contenders last year in Colonel John, may be a presence again come May 2 after its homebred Hold Me Back overcame a sluggish start to win the Grade II, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes by 13/4 lengths.
The mere fact Hold Me Back was entered in the Lane's End was ambitious in its own right considering he hadn't made a start since running fifth behind Old Fashioned in the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct last Nov. 29.
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The late-maturing colt justified that leap of faith when he came flying up five-wide on the turn and drew clear under jockey Kent Desormeaux to hit the wire in 1:49.63 with the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Flying Private getting up for second.
"You dream big, you might as well," said Doug Cauthen, president of WinStar Farm. "We gave him the time, and giving him the time he needed to mature made all the difference. He was a really big horse last fall but he probably grew a hand since then and strengthened so much. It's nice to see patience pay off."
One thing Hold Me Back clearly had working in his favor leading up to Saturday was an affinity for distance and synthetic surfaces.
The Bill Mott trainee broke his maiden first time out at Arlington Park going two turns and came back to win a 11⁄16-mile allowance race at Keeneland by two lengths.
All that back class came in handy Saturday as he broke poorly and was 11th in the 12-horse field as pacesetter Orthodox took the field through a half-mile in :47.84.
Hold Me Back began advancing between rivals approaching the turn and was less than two lengths off the leaders in fourth as they hit the top of the lane.
"After a fearful start he carried me around the racetrack in great fashion, strong in the bridle," Desormeaux said. "He just collected the front-runners continually until we made the lead."
Flying Private was a clear second after holding a short lead in the stretch with Proceed Bee rounding out a trio of long shots up front.
West Side Bernie, who went off as the 2-1 favorite, never threatened and finished sixth while fellow graded stakes winner Bittel Road never looked comfortable and finished 10th.
While both Cauthen and WinStar vice president Elliott Walden stated the goal for the farm each year is "to have horses in the Derby," Mott was a little more restrained.
"I would say they would want to have a good look at the Blue Grass Stakes (at Keeneland on April 11) and play the rest by ear," Mott said by phone from Florida. "This will give us a lot to talk about. You really have to pay attention (to his only start on dirt) because it's there in black and white. The day he ran in the Remsen he didn't have a straw in his path. I thought the result that day was because of the racetrack.
"He has worked well on the dirt ...but he is 3-for-3 on synthetics and got beat double digits on dirt. I don't think you can ignore that."