Signalman had just put himself in position to win the Grade 2, $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes when jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. noticed the son of General Quarters was in danger of getting sidetracked by his own handiwork.
"The funny thing was, from the 16th pole on home, he was looking at the TV screen," Hernandez said of his mount and the "Big Board" at Churchill Downs. "I was worried he wasn't paying attention to his job really, and that something would nail him late."
Signalman’s view ended up being worthy of admiration. After suffering a couple tough losses for trainer Ken McPeek in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity and Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the bay colt muscled his way into the winner's circle Nov. 24 when he held off Plus Que Parfait by a neck beneath the Twin Spires.
Earning 10 qualifying points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, Signalman also validated his thoroughly solid prior efforts against top-level company. After chasing Knicks Go in the Breeders' Futurity and settling for second, Signalman outran his 67.50-1 odds to get third in Breeders' Cup Juvenile, beaten 3 ¼ lengths by undefeated Game Winner.
A decision by Signalman’s connections to wheel back in the Kentucky Jockey Club paid handsome dividends over the sealed, sloppy surface Saturday evening. As favored Knicks Go sat second behind Topper T through early fractions of :23.12 and :46.83, Hernandez had Signalman saving ground and sneaking up the inside as the field reached the far turn.
"The horse puts a lot of confidence in us," Hernandez said. "He's versatile. In the Breeders' Cup, we were able to come from the 14 hole and take back and circle them. Today, we were able to get him in the race and he showed what he can do. I'm fortunate to have the horse under me that just kind of puts us in every spot we needed."
Topper T reached the top of the stretch with King for a Day coming for his advantage, and 14.80-1 shot Plus Que Parfait looked upset-minded when he got rolling down the middle of the track. Hernandez got Signalman to kick on between horses, however, and the horse took over in the final furlong and had enough stamina and focus to hold on for his first graded stakes triumph.
"Physically, he's imposing – and he's been really solid for us to this point," McPeek said. "He ran five furlongs here in the spring (second in his career debut at Churchill May 17) and that's pretty unheard of for a horse his size."
Signalman covered the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:45.29 en route to rewarding those who sent him off at 3.60-1 odds. Limonite was third behind Plus Que Parfait while Breeders’ Futurity winner Knicks Go – runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile – faded to eleventh in the 14-horse field.
Owned by Tommy Lewis, David Bersen, and Magdalena Racing, Signalman has two wins from five starts with $448,990 in earnings.
"Even with the little quirks he still shows a lot of promise," Hernandez said. "He'll be exciting down the road."
Liora Upsets Restless Rider in Golden Rod
The Grade 2, $200,000 Golden Rod Stakes set up just as many expected earlier on the Nov. 24 card at Churchill Downs, with odds-on favorite Restless Rider poised to strike as the field turned for home – but Liora was about to prove the pundits wrong.
The 27.40-1 shot dug deep inside the final furlong of the 1 1/16-mile Golden Rod, and had enough left after setting the pace to turn back her more experienced rival by a nose.
While Darley Alcibiades Stakes winner Restless Rider had to settle for second again off a runner-up finish in the Nov. 2 Tito's Handmade Vodka Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, Coffepot Stables' Liora jumped from maiden winner to graded stakes winner in her first try in such company for trainer Wayne Catalano. The Candy Ride filly, who entered the Golden Rod off of a nine-length win at Churchill on Oct. 28, also picked up 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks. She finished the race in 1:46.25.
"That's why we're here," Catalano said. "We thought this filly had a lot of talent."–Claire Crosby