By Joe Bianca
The Godolphin and Darley names have been synonymous with top-class turf talent overseas for decades now, but in America, they adjusted to the market and have mostly made their bones by breeding and racing dirt horses. Every now and then, however, their rich history of buying and breeding turf mares manifests itself Stateside, with the latest promising example being Lucullan (Hard Spun), an ascendant grass talent who appears primed for big things in 2018 after starting his 4-year-old season with a sharp allowance victory Sunday at Gulfstream.
Back when Storm Cat was first laying the groundwork to be a superstar sire, he was represented by a hard-knocking lawn specialist in Caress, a six-time stakes and three-time graded stakes winner in the mid-1990s. Bred and owned by Louis Wolfson’s Harbor View Farm, the mare went through the ring at the 2000 Keeneland November sale and John Ferguson plunked down $3.1 million of Sheikh Mohammed’s money to secure her. She went on to produce Golden Velvet (Seeking the Gold) for Darley, a stakes-placed filly in France who nevertheless found her best success on dirt for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin with a pair of graded stakes scores in 2008.
Golden Velvet’s first two foals raced under McLaughlin’s watch as well, and had just one turf try in 22 combined starts. Lucullan also started on the main track, but after two ho-hum efforts last spring in New York, was put on grass and immediately had the proverbial lightswitch turn on. He broke his maiden June 23 at Belmont with a sharp finishing kick, something that would become a theme for the rest of the season. Third in an allowance July 30 at Saratoga, the bay nevertheless came home in :21.48 for his last quarter-mile. He rattled off a :21.89 final split to clear his one-other-than condition back at Belmont Sept. 10 and flew home in :33.60 for his final three furlongs when running a neck second at 14-1 in the GIII Hill Prince S. there Oct. 7. Given a few months off, he returned with an easy three-length tally Sunday, getting his last three panels in :33.95.
“He’s a really, really nice horse that we decided to give a little bit of a break to after his second in the Hill Prince,” McLaughlin said Monday. “It was a really good race, good effort and we felt like he could be an important horse this year for our stable. Yesterday was the start of the year and he was very impressive. It was just an allowance race, but we hope to move up to stake races soon.”
Lucullan, unlike most McLaughlin trainees, generally takes it easy on the timer in his workouts. He always brings that acceleration in the afternoon though, regardless of who his pilot is. The colt was ridden in his previous five outings by Kendrick Carmouche before getting acquainted with Irad Ortiz, Jr. at Gulfstream.
“He’s got a great turn of foot,” McLaughlin said. “We don’t do a whole lot in the morning time to see that, but he’s easy to ride. Kendrick did a great job on him on multiple occasions, but he’s in New York so Irad picked up the mount and rode him great yesterday.”
As for what’s next in Lucullan’s story, McLaughlin couldn’t pin down a particular spot one day removed from his return, but is mulling several different options as bridges to the meat of the turf racing season.
“It’s hard to say right now,” he said. “We’re not going to rush him back anywhere and we hope to have a long, good, successful summer with him. We’re not going to wait that long either, but we’ll look around first. We could run back [at Gulfstream] later. Fair Grounds has a nice race Mar. 24 [the GII Muniz Memorial H.], then there’s Keeneland or Churchill once we get him back to New York. We probably will keep him from a mile to a mile and an eighth.”
McLaughlin also touched on a few other Godolphin runners with high hopes for 2018, including Westwood (Bernardini), a 4-year-old gelding out of multiple champion Ashado. Graduating third out Nov. 5 at Aqueduct, the bay was second in an allowance there Dec. 1 before jumping forward to earn a 105 Beyer when going one better Jan. 20. Westwood is slated to try to build on that breakthrough in a second-level allowance/optional claimer Thursday at the Big A.
“He’s doing great, so we entered him back for Thursday,” McLaughlin said. “He’s a very nice gelding, so we’ll just try to win races and make money. If he runs well, we’ll probably step up to stakes.”
Godolphin also has a pair of GI Kentucky Derby hopefuls in McLaughlin’s care, led by recent GIII Withers S. hero Avery Island (Street Sense). The 57-year-old conditioner said that he’ll pass on the GIII Gotham S. Mar. 10 at Aqueduct since that race was cut back from a two-turn event to a one-turn mile for this season’s renewal.
“He came out of the race fabulous, but the Gotham is a mile so we won’t do that with him,” McLaughlin said. “He may run in the [GII] Wood [Memorial], but we’re undecided at this time. I talk to [Darley president] Jimmy Bell each week and [Avery Island] will probably work Friday morning. He’s on course to run on a Saturday, but we’re not sure which Saturday or where.”
McLaughlin is regrouping with GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. victor Enticed (Medaglia d’Oro), who finished a well-beaten fourth as the favorite behind runaway winner Audible (Into Mischief) in the GII Holy Bull S. last Saturday at Gulfstream.
“We were disappointed obviously, but we had the one-hole which is the shortest way around, but is also the crowded way around,” he said. “He was in tight all the way and might not have liked that. The winner was very impressive and we’re not sure what we’re going to do with him, but he came out of the race in good shape and he too will work Friday. I’ll be in touch with Jimmy Bell and make some plans, but they’re both doing well out of their races and we are going to run back. Where and when, I’m not sure, but we’re going to have to make that decision soon.”