Cairo Cat (left) rallies to defeat Tight Ten in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs - Coady Photography

Cairo Cat (left) rallies to defeat Tight Ten in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs – Coady Photography

Pinch yourself—is it a dream? No, it’s real. It seems hard to believe, but the first miles on the road to Louisville for the 2019 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) were officially traveled on Saturday when a dozen promising two-year-old vied for supremacy in the $150,000 Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs, where 7 ½ months from now the historic “Run for the Roses” will be held for the 145th time.

And while the 8.5-furlong race didn’t produce any standout runners who seem unquestionably destined to compete at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, that doesn’t mean that the race was unexciting or dull. Quite to the contrary, the Iroquois was filled with intrigue and the outcome remainded very much in doubt until the final strides.

Fastest into stride was the even-money favorite Tight Ten, entering off a runner-up effort in the Saratoga Special Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga. Trained by Steve Asmussen, the son of Tapit had no difficulty securing the lead through slow fractions of :24.03, :48.64, and 1:14.06, but he was not alone on the front end, being closely pursued by the longshots My Sixth Sense, Royal Urn, and Manny Wah.

Rounding the far turn, everything seemed to happen at once. As Royal Urn began to retreat, Manny Wah moved up to challenge and so too did the well-regarded Pole Setter, who swung into contention with a bold move on the far outside. Everfast was also inching closer along with the Ellis Park Juvenile Stakes winner Tobacco Road, and with five-sixteenths of a mile left to run, the top eight horses were separated by just 1 ½ lengths.

At the top of the stretch, Tight Ten cut the corner better than his wide-rallying rivals and reclaimed a clear advantage, but he failed to cut the corner quite as well as the Saratoga maiden winner Cairo Cat, who had been saving ground in mid-pack under jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. and who suddenly loomed as a major threat to win.

Early in the run down the homestretch, Hernandez tried to continue up the rail with Cairo Cat, but his mount seemed reluctant to rally up the narrow opening, so Hernandez made a decision late in the race to guide Cairo Cat outside of Tight Ten. Ultimately, it proved to be the winning move, as Cairo Cat accelerated quickly once in the clear and wore down Tight Ten to win by a half-length.

Those two wound up pulling well clear of the rest while stopping the timer in 1:45.35, which translated to an 80 Beyer speed figure. Pole Setter flattened out late in the race to finish third, 3 ¼ lengths behind Tight Ten, while Tobacco Road also grew leg-weary late and checked in fourth.

Trained by Kenny McPeek, Cairo Cat is a son of Cairo Prince out of the Tale of the Cat mare La Belle Cat, so it’s not surprising that he has the stamina to succeed in a two-turn Kentucky Derby prep race. His victory in the Iroquois earned his connections $86,490, but more importantly, it earned Cairo Cat 10 qualification points for the Kentucky Derby and also a “Win and You’re In” berth to the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Churchill Downs.

There’s no way of knowing how successful Cairo Cat will prove to be on the road to the Kentucky Derby, but for the time being, he’s the #1-ranked qualifier, and that’s a good place to start!