By Norm Wood
11:43 PM EDT, July 15, 2011
As soon as jockey Jose Lezcano guides race favorite Banned to within one-and-a-half furlongs of the finish line Saturday at Colonial Downs in the $600,000 Virginia Derby, it'll be the longest race Banned ever has run.
No big deal, right? One-and-a-half furlongs equals a little more than three football fields measured goal line to goal line, which wouldn't figure to be a huge leap for a thoroughbred horse bred for distance.
It doesn't always work out that way, even for elite horses that have proven themselves at just slightly lesser distances.
At least Banned, a Kentucky-bred colt, won't be alone in the 1 1/4-mile Virginia Derby turf race for 3-year-olds. None of the 12 horses in the field has run more than 1 3/16 miles on turf.
Take the late Bold Lad as an example of what can happen when a horse jumps up to longer distances. A son of accomplished distance runner Bold Ruler, which won seven times total as a 2-year-old and 3-year-old at distances of 1 1/8 miles or longer (including the 1957 Preakness Stakes), Bold Lad won six times in '64 as a 2-year-old at distances of up to a mile.
As a 3-year-old, Bold Lad flopped when stretching out to races of longer than a mile, most famously in '65 in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby. He came to the top of the stretch with a chance to win as the favorite, before fading and finishing 10th out of 11 horses. He struggled with injuries and never won a race longer than a mile.
Nobody should compare Banned directly to Bold Lad, especially considering Banned is preparing to run the Virginia Derby on turf compared to Bold Lad's efforts on dirt. Still, nothing about the distance upgrade scares assistant trainer Zack McDonald, whose horse never has run more than 1 1/16 miles.
"I think the farther this horse goes, the better off he's going to be," said McDonald, who conditions Banned with lead trainer Tom Proctor. "I think this race is going to set up perfect for him. He's going to come from off the pace like he normally does. That's the way he's always run. That's the way his daddy ran."
His daddy is Kitten's Joy, the winner of the 2004 Virginia Derby and four other races of at least 1 1/8 miles. In a sport where pedigree and experience are two of the primary deciding factors, Banned has plenty of both ingredients.
Since September, Banned has won three times on turf at distances of 1 1/16 miles, including back-to-back wins in May and June at Churchill Downs in the Grade II American Turf Stakes and Grade III Jefferson Cup Stakes, respectively. He also won on turf in October in a one mile allowance race at Keeneland.
"He can be a little bit conceited, but most of the time, he's pretty good to be around," said McDonald regarding Banned, who has $297,576 in turf earnings and will open Saturday morning as a 5-2 favorite. "Right now, I think he's starting to get the idea that he's pretty good."
The only horse in the Virginia Derby field that has run more than 1 3/16 miles is Watch Me Go, but none of his 11 starts have been on turf. His lone start at a distance longer than 1 3/16 miles came in May, when he finished 18th in the Kentucky Derby.
"He's bred a lot for turf," said trainer Kathleen O'Connell of Watch Me Go, which has three wins on dirt and enters the Virginia Derby having earned more money than any other horse in the field ($314,345). "I would've liked to have tried (turf) earlier. If you have a horse that's a multiple winner (on dirt) as a 3-year-old, there's really not a lot of choices other than to try it on turf."
All but two horses -- excluding Watch Me Go and Benergy -- in the Virginia Derby field have turf wins at distances of 1 1/16, 1 1/8 or 1 3/16 miles. With a little luck, McDonald is convinced Banned can become the first horse in the field to conquer the bump up to a longer distance.
"He's super easy to work with," McDonald said. "He'll train until Saturday. We'll walk Saturday, and then we'll go to the races. He'll be ready."
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