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Maryland-based prospects highlight Kentucky Derby contenders


(Above) El Areeb at his win in the Withers Stakes on February 4th. Photo courtesy of Dan Tordjman.

Whenever horse racing fans think of where Kentucky Derby prospects come from, it’s usually from marquee places like New York, Florida, and California. Rarely, if ever, do you hear about important horses coming from Maryland.

But this year, not one but two major Derby contenders have emerged from Laurel Park, Maryland’s flagship racetrack. Both El Areeb and Irish War Cry are causing excitement in the state’s racing industry, which has seen major growth in business over the past few years.

The first one to burst onto the scene was El Areeb. After two losing tries, he won his first race at Laurel on Oct. 15, blowing away his competition to win by nine lengths.

Following that big score, he was put in his first major race, the James Lewis Stakes at Laurel on Nov. 19. Facing a much better field, he was even more impressive there, winning by five lengths while running three-quarters of a mile in a very fast 1:09.96.

After that win, it was time for El Areeb to tackle some bigger competitors. Trainer Cathal Lynch, who finished 12th in the trainer standings at the Laurel Park fall meet, shipped him to Aqueduct racetrack in Queens, NY, to run in the Jerome Stakes on Jan. 2. The Jerome Stakes is the first race in a series of Kentucky Derby prep races, offering big money rewards and a shot at a Derby dream.

In the Jerome Stakes, El Areeb was sent off as the second favorite in the seven-horse field, at 2.8/1. He promptly smashed the New York field with an 11-length victory.

Most recently, he won the Withers Stakes, also at the Aqueduct racetrack. He won that race by four lengths, defeating nine other Derby hopefuls as the 0.55/1 favorite. So far, El Areeb’s been riding a four-race winning streak for his Maryland-based connections, all of his wins coming very easily. Hopefully, he will carry that momentum into the Kentucky Derby.

As exciting as El Areeb has been, Irish War Cry may be the best Kentucky Derby horse to come out of Maryland in a long time. He was born in New Jersey, which only produced 200 or so foals in Irish War Cry’s birth year of 2014. The last Jersey-bred to win the Kentucky Derby was Calvacade back in 1934.

His pedigree and connections inspire further Derby confidence. His sire, Curlin, won the 2007 Preakness Stakes, always run at Pimlico right here in Baltimore. Curlin was third in that year’s Kentucky Derby. His trainer, Graham Motion, is one of the top trainers in the country. He won the Kentucky Derby in 2011 with Animal Kingdom.

Irish War Cry debuted at Laurel on Nov. 11. He won that race impressively, rallying from far behind to win going away. His next victory was a much closer one, winning the Marylander Stakes on Dec. 31 by a nose.

He then shipped down to Florida, to run in the Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4. That race was his toughest task so far, for he was facing an excellent field of horses. The toughest opponent was Classic Empire, who had recently been voted the top two-year-old of 2016. Also in the field was Gunnevara, who won a million-dollar race in Louisiana back in November.

However, the competition was no problem for Irish War Cry. He went right to the lead early and never looked back, taking the field gate-to-wire to immediately establish himself as one of the country’s top Kentucky Derby contenders.

Regardless of whether or not either of these two win the Kentucky Derby, just seeing two Maryland-based horses on the Derby trail is exciting news for the industry in the state. The Kentucky Derby is annually held on the first Saturday in May, followed by Baltimore’s Preakness Stakes a few weeks later.

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Maryland-based prospects highlight Kentucky Derby contenders