Mystik Dan and Brian Hernandez Jr., who had a stakes double Saturday. (Coady Photography)
Compiled by Robert Yates
HOT SPRINGS, Ark.—Pushing the right buttons has trainer Kenny McPeek closer to a career milestone after he swept 1 1/16-mile qualifying races for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks Saturday at Oaklawn with Mystik Dan and Band of Gold, respectively.
Band of Gold, under Brian Hernandez Jr., used a late burst to capture the $250,000 Martha Washington Stakes by 2 ¾ lengths. McPeek and Hernandez then teamed to win the $800,000 G3-Southwest Stakes with Mystik Dan, whose eight-length victory was the second-largest since the race was lengthened to 1 1/16 miles in 2013.
Mystik Dan ($24.80) represented the 1,994th career North American victory for McPeek, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.
“I’m getting there, yeah,” McPeek said, referring to the 2,000-win club.
Mystik Dan received a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 101, a career high, for his breakout performance in the Southwest, Oaklawn’s second of four Kentucky Derby qualifying races. Mystik Dan collected 20 qualifying points for the victory and ranks third on the official Kentucky Derby leaderboard compiled by Churchill Downs with 21. The Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters.
Oaklawn’s Kentucky Derby qualifying series continues with the $1.25 million G2-Rebel Stakes at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 24 and nine-furlong $1.5 million G1 Arkansas Derby March 30.
McPeek said Sunday morning that Mystik Dan exited his victory in good order and should resurface in the Arkansas Derby.
The Southwest and Martha Washington were originally scheduled to be run Jan. 27 but were postponed a week after winter weather disrupted racing and training last month at Oaklawn.
Mystik Dan, in his 3-year-old and two-turn debut, had finished fifth in Oaklawn’s first Kentucky Derby points race, the $300,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 1.
Deciding to give Mystik Dan another chance around two turns in the Southwest, McPeek shipped the colt to Fair Grounds because of impending arctic conditions at Oaklawn that, ultimately, closed the track 11 days for training (Jan. 13-23).
Mystik Dan breezed twice at Fair Grounds – Jan. 20 and Jan. 27 – and, upon his return to Oaklawn, overwhelmed 10 Southwest opponents under a ground-saving ride from Hernandez.
“We had a good feeling before the race,” said Lance Gasaway, among four Arkansans who bred and own Mystik Dan. “He wasn’t ready for the long race, the Smarty Jones. He needed the race, so we felt pretty confident coming into the race. He (McPeek) can do it.”
Mystik Dan is by two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents and the first foal to reach the races out of the McPeek-trained Ma’am, a daughter of Colonel John who Gasaway and Daniel Hamby III bred and raced in partnership. Hamby and 4 G Racing (Brent and Sharilyn Gasaway) are also partners in Mystik Dan. Lance and Brent Gasaway are cousins.
Ma’am broke her maiden at the 2016 Oaklawn meeting and won three more times before beginning a broodmare career.
“The cool thing about this horse (Mystik Dan) is that I bought his mother for Lance and the group, and she had a good career and then we foaled him at the farm in Lexington,” said McPeek, referring to his Magdalena Farm in Kentucky. “I recommended the mating. He needed some speed and, boy, he’s fast. It’s exciting.”
Mystik Dan, in his second career start, broke his maiden by 7 3/4 front-running lengths at 5 ½ furlongs Nov. 12 at Churchill Downs. Wheeled back 13 days later in an entry-level allowance at Churchill Downs, Mystik Dan faded to fifth in the one-mile race. He was beaten 3 ¼ lengths in the Smarty Jones.
Mystik Dan has won 2 of 5 starts overall and earned $510,110.
A little more than an hour before the Southwest, McPeek struck in the Martha Washington with William Shively’s Band of Gold ($50.60), who was exiting a fifth-place finish in the $100,000 Untapable Stakes at 1 mile and 70 yards Dec. 23 at Fair Grounds.
McPeek said he decided to run Band of Gold in the Martha Washington after an allowance race at Oaklawn didn’t fill and stablemate Ice Cold suffered a career-ending leg injury last month. Ice Cold won the $200,000 Year’s End Stakes at 1 mile Dec. 31 at Oaklawn.
“We really felt like going into the race, we were going to have the favorite with her,” McPeek said, referring to the Martha Washington. “I shipped Band of Gold up here to run in an allowance race and it didn’t go. We were sitting here with a filly ready to run and then Ice Cold opted out. I said, ‘It only makes sense if you’ve got another good one sitting there, so let’s go.’ We’ve got a deep bench.”
Band of Gold earned 20 points for her Martha Washington victory and has 21 overall to rank fourth on the official Kentucky Oaks leaderboard compiled by Churchill Downs. She generated a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 86, a career high, for winning the Martha Washington, her second victory in three starts.
Oaklawn’s Kentucky Oaks qualifying series continues with the $400,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3) Feb. 24 and $750,000 Fantasy Stakes (G2) March 30. Both races are 1 1/16 miles.
“We’ve got that same race coming back in three weeks,” McPeek said. “She may very well go in the Honeybee.”
A daughter of millionaire Grade 1 winner Preservationist, Band of Gold has earned $206,000.
Just Steel to Rebel
Just Steel remains on the Arkansas Derby trail and will be pointed to the Feb. 24 $1.25 million G2-Rebel Stakes, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said Sunday morning.
Just Steel finished second in the $800,000 G3-Southwest Stakes Saturday, beaten eight lengths by Mystik Dan, after holding a narrow advantage in the upper stretch. Like the Southwest, Oaklawn’s second Kentucky Derby points race, the Rebel is 8 ½-furlongs.
“He’s still carrying a little weight,” Lukas said. “He’s a big, powerful horse and I think with racing, he’ll drop some of that weight and he’ll be a little bit better at finishing. I look forward to the next one (Rebel). That one should be starting to get us where we want to be. I think he needs racing.”
Just Steel also finished second in Oaklawn’s first Kentucky Derby points race, the $300,000 Smarty Jones Stakes. Oaklawn’s four-race Kentucky Derby qualifying series culminates with the $1.5 million G1-Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles March 30.
Just Steel (15 points) ranks ninth on the official Kentucky Derby leaderboard compiled by Churchill Downs.
Liberal Arts Targets Arkansas Derby
Grade 3 winner Liberal Arts was to depart Sunday for his central Kentucky base, The Thoroughbred Center, but is likely to return to Oaklawn for the $1.5 million G1-Arkansas Derby March 30, trainer Robert Medina said Sunday morning.
In his 3-year-old debut, finished third in the Saturday’s $800,000 G3-Southwest Stakes. Liberal Arts finished a neck behind runner-up Just Steel, but nine lengths ahead of fourth-place finisher Awesome Road. Mystik Dan won the Southwest by eight lengths.
Medina ruled out a start in the $1.25 million G2-Rebel Stakes Feb. 24 – Oaklawn’s third Kentucky Derby points race – and said his initial thought is training Liberal Arts up to the Arkansas Derby. There is only a 21-day turnaround to the Rebel after the Southwest was postponed one week because of winter weather.
“He’s not going to run in the Rebel because I really want to run him a mile and an eighth in his next start, so I would say he’s just going to wait for the last one (Arkansas Derby),” Medina said. “Today, that would be my guess.”
From the final crop of deceased champion Arrogate, Liberal Arts completed a five-race 2023 campaign with a 2 ¾-length victory in the $200,000 G3-Street Sense Stakes Oct. 29 at Churchill Downs. Medina began targeting the Southwest roughly a week after the Street Sense, which was Liberal Arts’ first start around two turns.
“I thought he ran very well,” Medina said. “You always go into those races looking to win, but I wanted to see him do something that he didn’t do as a 2-year-old. And what I saw was his best running, probably, was the last three-sixteenths to eighth of a mile home. He was finishing very well. The winner was blazing a trail, but he (Liberal Arts) ran well. And once he hit the wire, I just kind of kept my eye on him and he kept going around there, around the turn, which is encouraging.
“I’ve always been of the thought that a lot of these horses, watching this all my life, is that mile and sixteenth to a mile and an eighth is a big jump for a lot of horses. It’s not going to be for him.”
Medina said Liberal Arts would return for the Arkansas Derby “right on top of the race,” just as he did for the Southwest. Medina’s stable is split this winter between Oaklawn and The Thoroughbred Center.
Liberal Arts (19 points) ranks seventh on the official Kentucky Derby leaderboard compiled by Churchill Downs.