The Wesley Ward-trained 3-year-old son of Palace Malice swooped past the field with circling rally under Drayden Van Dyke exiting the second turn in the $243,325 race, and won by a length over Sainthood after the latter was steadied in early stretch. Stewards pondered a rider's objection from Gerardo Corrales on the runner-up for about five minutes before dismissing the claim of foul.
"I got together with my agent (Gary Stevens) and Wesley and we decided to change up the tactics a bit today," Van Dyke said. "We went back and watched some replays of this horse and thought he doesn't really like to be up in the race. It ended up working out well for us. With moving my tack to Kentucky, this is a huge confidence booster going into the Keeneland meet."
The victory in the 1 1/8-mile Jeff Ruby earned Like the King 100 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, providing him with a guaranteed Derby berth. Saturday's race on a synthetic track also awarded points on a 40-20-10 basis to its second-through-fourth finishers—Sainthood, Hockey Dad, and Hard Rye Guy.
The latter seemed most responsible for Sainthood's stretch difficulties at the head of the lane after he drifted out.
The Jeff Ruby last year offered points on a 20-8-4-2 basis to its top four finishers but its point total was raised this year by Churchill Downs Inc., which bought the track in 2019.
Like the King has raced twice on dirt, the surface on which the Kentucky Derby is run. He was second at Belterra Park in his initial race on dirt last summer and a distant third in a seven-horse allowance field in a dirt race taken off the grass at Keeneland last fall.
His best races have come on turf and synthetic, first a maiden win on grass at Belterra Park in September and continued this winter at Turfway with a win in an allowance optional claiming race and a runner-up finish in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes before the Jeff Ruby. The Battaglia notched him four Derby points.
"We spaced out some of his races and I think it's helped because he's a big, rangy colt," Ward said. "He's always showed an affinity for grass and that's why we kept him on the Tapeta surface this winter with this race in mind."
Should he run in the Kentucky Derby, he would be the first Derby starter for trainer Wesley Ward. Ward nearly ran Pablo Del Monte in the 2014 Derby but the 3-year-old was scratched when one of the owners was discouraged by him drawing post 20, Ward said.
"Now that we're here again it's very exciting," the trainer said.
The Ruby was Like the King's finest effort. Racing in seventh and eighth position early, as Moonlite Strike established splits of :46.61 and 1:11.65, he picked up the leaders nearing the stretch and proved strong late. He raced 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.22.
This was the first year in the 50-year history of the race it had been run on Tapeta. Its prior runnings came on dirt and from 2006-2020 on another brand of synthetic surface, Polytrack.
The Jeff Ruby has produced two Derby winners: Animal Kingdom in 2011 and Lil E. Tee in 1992, both of whom also won the Ruby.
Favored Tarantino ran last of 11 Saturday after bobbling at the start and losing touch with the field under Florent Geroux, who said he "took care of him." Tarrantino walked off the track.
Bred in Kentucky by Horseshoe Racing, Like the King ($16) is the first foal to race out of the stakes-placed Corinthian mare Like a Queen. The dam also has a 2-year-old Maclean's Music gelding named Kiss Principal and an unnamed Fast Anna yearling colt.
Like the King was a $170,000 purchase by Golden Star Farm from the Ocala Breeders' Sale's Company October Yearlings Sale in 2019 when part of The Acorn consignment.