The mid-winter assessment of WinStar Farm's potential 2015 Kentucky Derby contenders looked like a two-horse party, with Grade I winner Carpe Diem the main bearer of hopes and fellow top-level performer Daredevil working his way back into legitimate contention.
However, on the evening of Feb. 28 at Turfway Park, a WinStar homebred with a classic-type pedigree nudged his name into the discussion. That talk will grow decidedly more lively should Royal Son handle his upcoming race at the Florence track with similar aplomb.
Of the 11 horses slated to run in Saturday's Grade III, $550,000 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, WinStar Farm's Royal Son has some of the best potential to carry on to the Kentucky Derby should he run well enough in the 11⁄8-mile prep race over Polytrack.
The stakes-winning son of Tiznow was installed as the 7-2 morning-line favorite Wednesday and will have to use his front-running speed out of the No. 1 post position if he wants to keep building his case.
The Spiral offers 50 points to the winner toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby and, once again, has attracted a field of horses who have been most accomplished on turf or synthetic surfaces.
Royal Son falls into that category by virtue of his 51/4-length win in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway on Feb. 28. But the bay colt also has dirt form, having won via disqualification going a mile on the main track at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 8, along with a pedigree — by Tiznow out of an A.P. Indy mare — that says he should be capable on dirt.
"Absolutely. If he were to win on Saturday we'd definitely look at (the Kentucky Derby) for sure," WinStar Farm President Elliott Walden said Wednesday. "He's figuring it out, and a lot of times in the spring of the 3-year-old season is when horses start figuring it out."
A couple of things contributed to Royal Son crossing the wire in front with authority in the 11⁄16-mile John Battaglia that night.
Having made his prior four starts on dirt, the Todd Pletcher-trainee relished the synthetic surface and was equipped with blinkers for the first time on the suggestion of jockey John Velazquez, who piloted the colt in his first four outings.
With journeyman rider Rodney Prescott in the irons in the Battaglia, Royal Son coasted through easy fractions of :24.80 and :49.58 even as The Great War sat right at his throat down the backside.
It was a far cry from his previous outing in the Grade III Sam F. Davis on Jan. 31 when he got stuck down inside, shuffled back, and never recovered en route to a seventh-place finish.
"I will say that Johnny said he felt like the blinkers would really help him ... because he said he feels like he kind of waits on horses," Walden said. "He was very green (in the Sam F. Davis). You watch the race and he was throwing his head on the inside, he got dirt in his face and it is like a beach sand there. It kind of sprays up.
"I think the blinkers had a lot to do with (his improvement), but I think it'd be foolish to say it was all blinkers. Would that have moved him up 10 lengths on the dirt? Maybe. We'll have to see down the road."
Trainer Mike Maker has three horses entered in the Spiral with Watchyourownbobber, 20-1 on the morning line, among those with early speed who could challenge Royal Son up front.
Graded stakes winner Metaboss breaks from post No. 11 and figures to come running, speed duel or not. The diminutive Street Boss colt is 2-for-2 at the Spiral's 11⁄8-mile distance and closed like a shot off tepid fractions to win the Grade III El Camino Real Derby by 21/2 lengths over the all-weather track at Golden Gate Fields on Feb. 14.
"His last two races he's really learned to be more professional," said Jeff Bonde, trainer of Metaboss.
Imperia to be scratched
Imperia, who along with Metaboss was installed as the 4-1 co-second choice on the morning line for the Spiral, will be scratched out of the race, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said Wednesday afternoon.
"We're just not happy with him," McLaughlin said. "He worked well a few days ago but ... he's just not 100 percent. We're going to look him over good and make an announcement as soon as we find out, but we are not running."
Imperia finished second in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last November and was fifth in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 21.