LOUISVILLE — His connections won't know the final answer until May 2 but Grade I winner Square Eddie appeared to come through the latest test of his ability in good order on Sunday.
Square Eddie, who has recovered from a shin injury that cost him more than a month of training earlier this year, had his first major work over the Churchill Downs oval when he drilled 4 furlongs in :50.20.
Although the move ranked as just the 24th fastest of 40 at the distance, trainer Doug O'Neill was impressed with the action he saw from the son of Smart Strike in his first test over a dirt surface.
"I thought it was an awesome work. He got stronger as the work went," O'Neill said. "We know we're asking a lot of this horse but we think he's up to it.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
"We've seen a lot of horses go from synthetic to dirt and maintain their form, and some of them actually improve their form. And being by Smart Strike, nothing about that says he shouldn't like the dirt."
Square Eddie enters the Derby off a third-place finish in the Grade II Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 18 — his first outing since running second in the Grade II San Rafael Stakes on Jan. 17.
"You have to have a real fit horse to turn around (to the Derby) that quick and fortunately it looks like he was really legged up well going to the Lexington," O'Neill said. "I think a race like this you need a super horse and in our minds he is a super horse."
O'Neill is taking in this experience much more than he did when he first came to the Derby in 2007 with Great Hunter and Liquidity.
"I definitely feel a lot more comfortable. You guys scared the hell out of me a couple years ago," O'Neill joked to the media. "Now this is great. This is why we're all in the game is to be part of this and have a horse that you guys are all curious about."
Hold Me Back works
WinStar Farm's Grade II winner Hold Me Back put in his final pre-Derby work Sunday, covering 5 furlongs in 1:01.60 under jockey Kent Desormeaux.
The son of Giant's Causeway broke off about a length behind workmate Flying Warrior at the five-eighths pole and had reeled in his partner by the head of the stretch.
"He was under a hold the whole way and finished well on his own," trainer Bill Mott said. "He appeared to handle the track very well and that is a good sign."
Quality Road's Derby fate hinges on Monday work
Although Florida Derby winner Quality Road galloped sound at Belmont Park Sunday, the bay colt had a "tinge" of blood coming from the newly patched quarter crack in his right front hoof.
Trainer Jimmy Jerkens said he still plans to work the son of Elusive Quality 6 furlongs Monday morning but stated the colt had to "come out of it perfect" in order for them to send the horse many expected to be the Kentucky Derby favorite on to Churchill Downs.
"If he takes one bad step anywhere, forget it," Jerkens said. "I would have liked to have seen no blood but it didn't surprise me because he was still tender."