SARATOGA SPRINGS — Trainer Kenny McPeek’s barn suffered a gut punch at Saratoga Race Course this season when a horse trained by somebody else, but stabled with McPeek’s horses, tested positive for a contagious virus.
McPeek’s barn finally got out of quarantine on Sunday, and he’s counterpunching that lousy fate in part with a horse named for heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury.
King Fury is a serious contender for the Aug. 28 Travers, but he’ll take an unconventional route to that race by making his career debut on the turf in the Grade I $1 million Saratoga Derby Invitational on Saturday.
He was supposed to have run in the Jim Dandy last weekend, but instead will jump into a race that serves as the second leg of the New York Racing Association’s Turf Triple for 3-year-olds. McPeek gave King Fury a breeze over the turf infield at the Oklahoma Training Track with jockey Jose Ortiz in the irons last Sunday, and the trainer didn’t see anything to discourage him from entering Saturday’s mile-and-three-sixteenths Saratoga Derby.
“The Jim Dandy would’ve been a really good spot for him,” McPeek said after the workout. “He wants every inch of a mile and an eighth, a mile and a quarter, and the race on the grass is a kind of an out-of-the-box, let’s see how he handles it.
“I think he’ll handle it fine. He’s a beautiful-moving horse. The mile and three-sixteenths isn’t anything he won’t have trouble getting, he’ll get a race under his belt, learn a little something and then go on to the Travers.”
The highlight of a busy stakes weekend at Saratoga, of course, is the $1 million Whitney on Saturday, but there is plenty of action in the satellite stakes, too, starting with three races on Friday, the Grade II National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, Alydar and Grade III Troy.
Stakes on Whitney Day Saturday include the Lure, Grade I Test and the Saratoga Derby, and Sunday’s card includes the Grade III Saratoga Oaks, Grade II Adirondack for 2-year-old fillies and De La Rose.
King Fury was supposed to have run in the May 1 Kentucky Derby — with the heavyweight champ in attendance at Churchill Downs — but the colt spiked a fever the day before the Derby and was scratched.
So the Saratoga Derby on Saturday isn’t the first time McPeek has had to look for an alternate path.
Having missed all the Triple Crown races, King Fury ran in the Ohio Derby at Thistledown on June 26, finishing second by a half-length to Masqueparade, who went on to finish third to Essential Quality in the Jim Dandy last Saturday.
In the Saratoga Derby, King Fury will get a race at a distance he should like and a prep for the ultimate goal, the Travers, even if it’s over a surface he’s never raced on and has worked over just once.
McPeek pointed out that, as recently as 2018, Catholic Boy ran in the Belmont Derby, the first leg of the Turf Triple, to set himself up for a victory in the Travers next time out.
“Good horses run over anything,” McPeek said. “He’s a very good horse. Is it ideal? No, it isn’t really what I planned, but there weren’t any options.
“It’s a million dollars. So what’s the worst that happens, he runs third? A hundred thousand [dollars] beats a blank.”
Bolshoi Ballet won this year’s Belmont Derby and is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for the Saratoga Derby.
Trainer Chad Brown has two good shots in the seven-furlong Test, with 5-2 favorite Search Results and 3-1 Always Carina. Search Results cuts back in distance, but Brown said he eventually wants to get Search Results, who just missed by a neck to Malathaat in the Kentucky Oaks, back to a mile and an eighth, but the Test gives her some more comfortable spacing between races.
“I thought she had some tough races back-to-back-to-back,” Brown said, “from the race right before the Kentucky Oaks at Aqueduct [Gazelle], to the Oaks, which was a gut-wrenching race to lay it on the line, and then another one back in five weeks in the Acorn, where she was really running to the wire to hold on.
“Those were taxing efforts. More than the distance of seven-eighths — because she ran really great in the Oaks at a mile and an eighth, I’m not afraid to run her a mile and an eighth — it’s really the time [between].”
The Test field includes the filly Illumination from the barn of Bob Baffert, whom NYRA suspended from its tracks in May after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for an overage of a regulated drug. A judge overturned that suspension just before the meet started on July 15.
Brown is well-represented in the two turf stakes on Saturday’s card, the Lure (Value Proposition, Flavius, Delaware) and Glens Falls (My Sister Nat, Orglandes).
Tacitus will make his career debut on turf in the Lure, after having finished seventh in the Saudi Cup in his only start of 2021.
He’s finished second in all three career starts at Saratoga, in the 2019 Jim Dandy and Travers, and in the 2020 Woodward.
Brown also has the favorite in Friday’s National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, 2-1 Public Sector, off a second in the Manila.
An interesting field for the Alydar includes Art Collector, who was eighth behind Whitney favorite Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. He raced twice against the filly Swiss Skydiver, who is also in the Whitney field, last year, finishing 3 1/2 lengths ahead of her in the Blue Grass before a fourth to Swiss Skydiver in the Preakness.
Also running in the Alydar is Jesus’ Team, third in the Preakness last year. He was second to Knicks Go in the BC Dirt Mile and has taken some big swings this season, finishing second to Knicks Go in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup and sixth to Mystic Guide in the $12 million Dubai World Cup.
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