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It may not have been the fleetest or most powerful performance by a 3-year-old this season, but High Yield's run at Keeneland last Saturday made the Blue Grass Stakes an unforgettable race. It also elevated the chestnut colt to the handful of top contenders in the May 6 Kentucky Derby. "It was a heroic effort," jockey Pat Day said afterward. "He's incredibly game."
The race was a thing to behold from the instant High Yield, snorting fire, pulled Day to the lead around the first turn and then dared Hal's Hope, the Florida Derby winner, to get by him. The Keeneland track has a decided rail bias, with an advantage going to horses racing on the inside, so that's where Day put High Yield. The two hummed through the crisp Kentucky air—a half mile in 46 seconds and three quarters in a crackling 1:09[4/5]—with Hal's Hope never more than a neck behind. "I knew we were goin' quick," said Day.
The drama quickened as the two horses smoked around the turn for home. Fast as he had been traveling, Day sensed he was in for one of those neck-straining battles to the wire, with at least one other stretch runner sure to pounce on him. Hal's Hope suddenly quit near the top of the lane, as though he had bled from the lungs, but no sooner had he surrendered than a dark brown bullet named More Than Ready, lately dismissed as a sprinter, roared up to High Yield's side. When Day glanced right and saw who was there, he was, he says, "a bit surprised."
What ensued over the next 30 seconds had the 29,687 fans in attendance, the largest crowd ever to see a race at Keeneland, climbing onto their clubhouse chairs. More Than Ready kept drifting left, repeatedly brushing his more muscular foe. Perhaps 200 yards out, he may have briefly stuck his chocolate snout in front, only to fall back as High Yield dug deeper. "He kept hanging in there" said Day of his colt. "He fought back from the ? pole to the wire. He's a grinder."
High Yield prevailed by a bobbing head, with Wheelaway coming on to finish third, 3� lengths back. The Blue Grass was only High Yield's fourth victory in 12 lifetime starts—and just his third stakes win—but it was also the 11th time the colt had finished no worse than third, and this was, by far, the best, and most important, race of his life. The nine-furlong Blue Grass was his final start before the Kentucky Derby, and his handlers hope it sets him up perfectly for the 10-furlong race at Churchill Downs. "I wouldn't change places with anybody," says his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, who has won four of the last dozen Derbys. "Gosh, we've got a well-bred horse that knows how to run, and he fights back!"
High Yield was born with a silver water bucket in his stall, and his extraordinary good looks and pedigree made him one of the Adonises of the July yearling sale at Keeneland in 1998. For bloodstock consultants Demi O'Byrne, an Irishman, and John Moynihan, an American, who spent $1.05 million of their clients' money to buy the horse, the Blue Grass was the clearest vindication of their judgement. "Take a look at him!" said O'Byrne, beaming like a proud father as the coppery son of the stallion sensation Storm Cat was having a sponge bath following the race. "He's magnificent—a perfect example of how a thoroughbred racehorse should look. One million and 50 thousand dollars we paid for him! Looks the part, don't he?"
As impressive as High Yield was at Keeneland, Fusaichi Pegasus remains the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, especially after last Saturday's 1?-mile Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Racing outside California for the first time, in a talented 12-horse field, the sleek bay cruised over a wet track and won going away, missing the stakes record by only three fifths of a second.
Fusaichi Pegasus has earned his lofty status by winning his last four races, living up to the potential that led Japanese businessman Fusao Sekiguchi to pay $4 million for him as a yearling. Though the colt is short on experience, with only five career starts, the talented son of Mr. Prospector is starting to make a habit of toying with topflight competition. In the San Felipe Stakes on March 19 at Santa Anita, he defeated The Deputy, who won the Santa Anita Derby three weeks later. In the Wood, Fusaichi Pegasus, a 4-5 favorite, finished more than four lengths in front of the previously undefeated Red Bullet, under nothing more strenuous than a hand ride from Kent Desormeaux.