LOUISVILLE — It's not like trainer Larry Jones and owner Brereton Jones don't think Mark Valeski has Kentucky Derby potential. They're just not sure this year's first leg of the Triple Crown is the best fit for the son of Proud Citizen's ability.
After days of contemplation, Larry Jones announced Tuesday that Louisiana Derby runner-up Mark Valeski would not start in the Kentucky Derby this Saturday. Mark Valeski's defection opened the door for the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Optimizer to get into the 11/4-mile classic.
Jones and Brereton Jones, no relation, had been debating whether to give the green light on Mark Valeski in recent days. Though the bay colt worked 5 furlongs Monday in a bullet 1:00.20, both Joneses said they weren't getting the strong feeling they wanted from the colt leading into what would be the biggest race of his life.
"He came out of the work very well and acts like he is ready to run. However, we have decided that we're going to let Mr. Lukas have this spot," Larry Jones said. "We really were looking for a 'wow' work and we don't think Mark gave us that 'wow' feeling that (Kentucky Oaks hopeful) Believe You Can did. The Derby is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the horse.
"Do I think we fit with them? Yeah, this horse is improving every race. We feel like he's a Derby horse, but we don't feel like he's a Derby horse this Saturday."
Larry Jones added that Mark Valeski would instead be pointed to the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park on May 12.
Entries for the Kentucky Derby are taken on Wednesday.
With Optimizer now in the race, Lukas will saddle his record 45th starter in the Kentucky Derby. The Hall of Famer has won the classic four times.
"Brereton called me personally this morning and he said, 'I want you to know that we agonized over our decision and everything, but I'm delighted that it's you,'" Lukas said.
Optimizer finished second to Secret Circle in the Grade II Rebel Stakes and was most recently ninth in the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 14.
"He's going to get the 11/4 miles," Lukas said. "We need to get a place to run, we need to get the trip and have a little bit of luck in a 20-horse field. I think there is always speed, and if I had one of those horses this year I would be more concerned than if I had a closer like my horse."
Rousing Sermon works
With trainer Jerry Hollendorfer in attendance, Rousing Sermon put in his last bit of serious work before Saturday, covering 5 furlongs in 1:00.40 over a fast Churchill Downs track Tuesday.
Rousing Sermon, third in the Grade II Louisiana Derby on April 1, put up splits of :12.60, :25, :36.60, and :48.40 while working solo. The son of Lucky Pulpit has lost his last five starts but has only been off the board once in nine career outings.
"I'm pleased with the work and it seems like our horse took to the racetrack a bit so that's a good sign," Hollendorfer said. "He really gets over most tracks really good. He goes straight and true every day and, knock on wood, he's been sound for as long as I've had him."
McLaughlin still waiting on jockey for Alpha
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said that a jockey for Wood Memorial runner-up Alpha would be named Wednesday when entries are taken. The Alpha team has held off with the announcement of a jockey to replace Ramon Dominguez, who opted to ride Hansen.
"Rajiv Maragh worked him and he's the most likely rider, but we just wanted to make sure there weren't any jockeys that came open today or tomorrow," McLaughlin said.
One jockey who is now available is Rosie Napravnik, who was previously named to ride Mark Valeski.