FLORENCE - Hard-luck Hard Spun put himself right back into the Kentucky Derby picture yesterday, drawing off to win the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes by 31/4 lengths in 1:49.41, paying $7.20.
It mattered not that Sedgefield ran up from fifth to gain second in the Grade II stakes at Turfway Park. Or that Joe Got Even made a huge run from ninth to finish third in the field of 12.
Little else in this race mattered because no other horse was going to catch Hard Spun. He was bent on redeeming himself with an exclamation point, proving that his losing race at Oaklawn Park was a fluke.
At Turfway Park, Hard Spun reaffirmed that he might have headed to the Kentucky Derby with a perfect career record, save for his fourth-place finish in the Southwest Stakes.
It was a lesson hard-learned for the Hard Spun connections.
"More than anything, he did not care for Oaklawn," said Larry Jones, who trains Hard Spun for Rick Porter of Wilmington, Del.
Jones said the experience in Arkansas was disappointing but not discouraging.
"I felt like the horse had a good race the last time ... so I felt like he was still moving forward," Jones said.
At Turfway, everything changed. Hard Spun appeared to adapt right away in his workouts to the synthetic track surface.
But with his loss at Oaklawn and his No. 10 post position for the Lane's End, Hard Spun surrendered his morning-line favorite's role to Twilight Meteor by post time.
Twilight Meteor finished sixth, never making a run. Hard Spun, however, was eager to run and just waiting for a signal from his jockey, Mario Pino.
Hard Spun sprinted across the track toward the rail from his No. 10 post position, settling into third, just off Starbase and Bullara. Hard Spun wanted to go past them, according to Pino. But the son of Danzig wisely listened to his rider and remained in his stalking place.
The top three raced that way down the backstretch and around the final turn. Approaching the quarter-pole, before rounding into the stretch, Pino felt the horse lean into the metal bit between his teeth. It was time to go.
"He was just so full of run," Pino said. The last time they raced, at Oaklawn, Hard Spun was struggling, flailing as he tried without luck to dig into the track. "It was like pulling a trailer," Pino said about that previous experience.
In the Lane's End, with their luck going with them from the start, Pino said he felt "a ton of horse" under him as soon as they left the gate. From there it was sweet cruising, almost a downhill glide all the way through the 11/8 miles.
Jones, wearing his customary Stetson hat, said he could see that Hard Spun was wanting to run throughout the race but was properly listening to Pino for marching orders.
"He makes more money than Mario and I," Jones said, "but he'll still listen to us. He's very coachable."
Now the problem for the coach is where to run Hard Spun next. Jones said the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland is "more than likely" to be Hard Spun's final prep prior to the Derby. But there is an outside shot they'll go to the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, instead.
With the Blue Grass Stakes appearing to draw Great Hunter, Any Given Saturday, and Street Sense -- all leading Derby hopefuls -- "this could be suicide going into the Derby," Jones said. "It could take the Derby out of them. That would be my concern now."
Porter, a longtime horse owner, went down the Derby trail in 2005, with Rockport Harbor. The lesson learned with that colt was that the road to Churchill Downs is strewn with stories of what might have been.
He is encouraged that Hard Spun will make it all the way. "We were getting a lot of hype early on and stumbled," Porter said, "but we picked ourselves back up today."
Others thought so, as well.
"We lost to a really good horse today," said Darrin Miller, trainer of second-placed Sedgefield.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher might have unwittingly touted everyone on Hard Spun, when handing the trophy over to Porter and Jones.
"I look forward to seeing you the first Saturday in May," Fletcher remarked. Jones, Porter and Pino could only hope the governor meant that he'd see them from no other place than the Derby winner's stand.
The Lane's End highlighted a stakes-laden program that saw Dominican take the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes by five lengths over Trust Your Luck, followed by Reata's Rocket. Rafael Bejarano rode Dominican, a gelded son of El Corredor, for owners Bonnie and Tommy Hamilton and trainer Darrin Miller.
Sealy Hill took the $150,000 Bourbonette Breeders' Cup Stakes, and Awesome Hero won the $50,000 Hansel Stakes. Mary Delaney, ridden by Edgar Prado, won the $50,000 Queen Stakes following the Lane's End.