NEW ORLEANS -- The Coach is back on the Derby trail.
Trainer Wayne Lukas, who has run 48 horses in the Kentucky Derby, more than any other trainer, has another, provided Bravazo comes through the next 10 weeks in good order.
Bravazo won a thrilling, if somewhat perplexing, Risen Star Stakes by about an inch over a dead-game Snapper Sinclair on Saturday at Fair Grounds.
Bravazo, winning his first stakes race, went off at 21-1, while Snapper Sinclair was 41-1. But the important number for Lukas's quest to win a fifth Kentucky Derby is 50. That's the number of qualifying points Bravazo earned in the Risen Star, which is part of Churchill Downs's Road to the Kentucky Derby that sorts out the 20 horses who will populate the Derby starting gate in the near-certain event more than that number want to run.
Fifty-four points, Bravazo's total, is sure to get him into the race, while Snapper Sinclair now has 22, historically enough to make the field. Noble Indy got his first 10 points for finishing third, while Instilled Regard, fourth as the favorite, earned 5 to up his total to 19.
Bravazo, bred and owned by Brad Kelly's Calumet Farm, shipped from Oaklawn for the Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star with a maiden win last summer at Churchill Downs and a narrow first-level allowance win Jan. 13 at Oaklawn Park as the only victories on his resume. But the recent allowance race produced a good 89 Beyer Speed Figure, and Lukas said he saw signs from Bravazo, who finished his 2-year-old season running 10th in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, last fall.
"I think it was just maturity," Lukas said, reached by phone in Arkansas. "He kind of tipped his hand when he ran second in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last year. He ran a very strong race, and I thought he kind of turned the corner. The real turning point, though, was opening week at Oaklawn. The track was not very fast, and he ran a mile in 1:37 and change. We felt he was headed in the right direction."
Gary Stevens was named to ride Bravazo when Risen Star entries were taken Feb. 10, but Stevens, Lukas said, had a commitment to ride Streamline on Saturday at Oaklawn, where she won the Bayakoa Stakes, and Lukas tabbed Fair Grounds leading rider Miguel Mena to pilot Bravazo.
"I thought Miguel was a good fit. He rides that track so well," Lukas said.
Snapper Sinclair and Bravazo raced one-two most of the Risen Star, laying down moderate splits of 24.15 for the quarter and 47.96 for the half on a fast-playing dirt track. Snapper Sinclair held his narrow edge through three-quarters in 1:12.85 and the two passed one mile, still in lockstep, in 1:36.75. There was nothing separating them at the wire as the timer stopped at a fine 1:42.95 for 1 1/16 miles, and after a long look at the photograph, the placing judges posted Bravazo's number on top.
"I thought it was too close to call," Mena said. "I didn't know if I'd won. The horse came out of the gate sharp. I didn't think I was going to be that close to the lead. He was on the bridle nice the whole way. I was confident I had a lot of horse, but that was a game horse on the inside. That horse doesn't give up."
Snapper Sinclair had set the pace and finished a good third here last month in the Lecomte, and he took a tough loss Saturday.
"He's going to win some nice races, but it's very disappointing," said jockey Adam Beschizza, who rode Snapper Sinclair for trainer Steve Asmussen. "I'm delighted the horse has improved, and he's obviously taken a step in the right direction, but it's a bitter pill to swallow."
Two lengths behind the top two, finishing third, was Noble Indy, who had raced on or near the lead winning his first two starts, but stalked the pace while taking dirt on the inside Saturday.
"That's what I wanted to do," jockey John Velazquez said. "I wanted to teach him something. If I broke to the lead, I might win the race, but I won't learn anything. He did everything good - just a little green is all."
Instilled Regard, the Lecomte winner and the 7-5 favorite, didn't run poorly, finishing fourth, a neck behind Noble Indy, but he appeared to regress from his Lecomte performance. Instilled Regard stalked the leaders from fourth while two to three paths wide and in the clear. He had every chance at the quarter pole but lacked the needed finish.
"I had a perfect trip, same way as the last time, but for some reason he didn't show up," jockey Javier Castellano said.
"I had a nice, comfortable rhythm behind those horses. I was looking for that kick and he never gave it to me."
High North, who raced surprisingly close to the leaders, finished a decent fifth in his first start at 3. Ebben won a photo for sixth over 2.9-1 third choice Principe Guilherme, with Givemeaminit and Supreme Aura completing the order of finish. Kentucky Club was scratched.
Principe Guilherme won his first two starts and was second in the Lecomte but never threatened Saturday.
"I couldn't really put him where I wanted, but I expected the horse to help me out a little bit," jockey Florent Geroux said.
Bravazo paid $44 to win and keyed an exacta that paid $301.70 for $1. Bravazo is by Awesome Again and out of Tiz o'Gold, a Cee's Tizzy mare who raced for claiming tags as low as $3,200 during her career. No matter - she has produced a graded-stakes winning colt.
Bravazo travels by van back to Oaklawn on Sunday, and Lukas said there's a strong chance he'll be back at Fair Grounds for the $1 million Louisiana Derby on March 24.
"He's a solid, hard-trying horse with good tactical speed," Lukas said. "That was a great effort today."
And it has put his Hall of Fame trainer back on the road to the Kentucky Derby.