You can argue that luck played a significant role in allowing Signalman to reach the wire first in Saturday’s $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs. But luck merely put Signalman in the position to win, and it was unquestionably his class and determination that sealed the deal.
Facing a full field of thirteen rivals in the 1 1/16-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race, Signalman’s first lucky break came during the opening quarter-mile. Breaking from the rail under jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr., Signalman managed to avoid trouble in the mad rush to the first turn and secured a perfect ground-saving position along the inside, several lengths behind quick fractions of :23.12 and :46.83 set by Topper T with favored Knicks Go pressing the pace.
Signalman’s second bit of luck came about halfway through the race when an opening appeared along the rail, allowing Hernandez to send his mount up the inside and settle just behind the leaders. It was then that Signalman encountered his only bit of trouble—he had to slow his momentum and wait behind horses while traversing the final turn—but when the field straightened into the homestretch, another fortuitous opening appeared in between horses and Signalman dived through like a seasoned pro.
Bursting to the lead just past the eighth pole, Signalman briefly looked to be home free, but then had to fend off a challenge from the late-running Plus Que Parfait, who emerged on the scene as the pacesetters tired from their early exertions. Plus Que Parfait did his best to reach even terms with the leader, but Signalman’s class shone through as he dug deep to prevail by a neck in 1:45.29 seconds, earning 10 qualification points for the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
Yes, from a lot of perspectives, Signalman enjoyed the luck of a nearly perfect ground-saving trip in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. But then again, this somewhat simplistic view of the race ignores the important facts that Signalman made multiple moves during the race and showed no hesitation whatsoever rallying inside and in between horses, a trip that would be the undoing of many older horses, let alone a relatively inexperienced two-year-old like Signalman.
It’s also important to note that Signalman raced significantly closer to the fast early pace than the runner-up and the third-place finisher Limonite. In a race that fell apart during its second half (Topper T finished eighth and Knicks Go faded to eleventh), Signalman showed impressive determination to withstand the rallies of the closers. It was another step in the right direction following Signalman’s runner-up effort in the Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) and third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), and suffice to say, this Kenny McPeek-trained colt has thoroughly stamped himself among the early favorites for the 2019 Kentucky Derby.