LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The Kentucky Wildcats gave Rick Pitino a national college basketball championship and now a chestnut colt named Halory Hunter has given him a shot at the Kentucky Derby.
Halory Hunter took the lead from Lil's Lad in the upper stretch and won the Blue Grass Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths on Saturday at Keeneland. The victory put Halory Hunter solidly into the Derby picture and he could even be the favorite for the famed race May 2, especially in light of horse of the year Favorite Trick's first defeat in 10 races in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
"The coach is absolutely ecstatic," said Rick Avare, one of three members of Celtic Pride Stable, managed by Pitino, now coach of the Boston Celtics. Celtic Pride Stable owns 66 percent of the colt.
Pitino watched the race from the turf club at Suffolk Downs outside Boston. "He wouldn't have missed it," Avare said. "He had all the confidence in the world in (trainer) Nick (Zito) and the horse."
Pitino, reached in Boston, said, "Nick told me this horse loves Kentucky and I think he'll upset Lil's Lad."
Halory Hunter was purchased for $130,000 in a 2-year-old training sale in 1997 at Keeneland.
"I keep saying it was like deja vu," said Zito, who won the 1991 Blue Grass with Strike the Gold, who went on to give the trainer the first of his two Derby victories.
The race, on paper, looked like a sure thing for front-running Lil's Lad, who was the only speed in the race.
But jockey Gary Stevens rode a brilliant race, keeping Halory Hunter on the rail for most of the 1 1/8 miles.
"What can I say about Gary Stevens?`" Zito said. "It's self-explanatory. He's the best rider in the world."
Two weeks ago, Stevens won the $4 million Dubai World Cup with Silver Charm. Last Saturday, he won the Santa Anita Derby with Indian Charlie. For good measure, he also won the Commonwealth Breeders Cup, the race preceding the Blue Grass, on Saturday.
Stevens said he hasn't committed to ride a horse in the Derby and would talk to Zito and Bob Baffert, trainer of Indian Charlie, over the weekend and would make a decision as soon as possible.
Stevens is a California-based jockey and Baffert is a California-based trainer whose stable also includes Silver Charm.
Lil's Lad and Cape Town, who finished third, another 2 1/2 lengths back, are expected to also start in the Kentucky Derby.
Halory Hunter, winning for the first time in four starts this year after finishing behind Lil's Lad the previous three races, carried 123 pounds over 1 1/8 miles in 1:47 2-5 and paid $10 and $2.60. He earned $434,000 from the $700,000 purse. Lil's Lad, ridden by Jerry Bailey, returned $2.10. There was no show betting.
"He hopped a little bit right at the start," Stevens said. "It wasn't the cleanest break."
Halory Hunter, however, recovered quickly, and when Stevens tapped him on the shoulder in the clubhouse turn, he dropped down to the rail.
"I give him a little tap on the shoulder and he put me right into the race," Stevens said.
Halory Hunter was third after a half-mile, just a little less than four lengths behind Lil's Lad. It was much closer than he had been in the three previous races.
Stevens said that on the turn Lil's Lad started to drift out and he thought "This is the time."
Halory Hunter moved quickly past Cape Town and then took the lead from Lil's Lad. He then shot through the stretch to the roar to a crowd of 25,426.
"He was very, very enthusiastic throughout the race," Stevens said. "He was a push-button horse today. I don't think you really saw his best effort today. I think you'll see improvement the next three weeks."
Completing the order of finish were Ian's Thunder and Solid Wood.