Native Dancer: The Nearly Perfect Grey Ghost of Sagamore
Welcome to 2023 Kentucky Derby Prospect Snapshots, where we’ll take a look each week at a recent winner on the Triple Crown trail, usually from the Road to the Kentucky Derby schedule from which the racehorses earn points toward qualifying.
The 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve will be held May 6, 2023, at Churchill Downs.
This week, we’ll take a closer look at Lugan Knight, winner of the $150,000 Jerome Stakes on Jan. 7 at Aqueduct.
Lugan Knight earned 10 points toward qualifying for the 2023 Kentucky Derby with the Jerome win and moved into ninth place on the latest Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 10 total points.
Racing Résumé: Lugan Knight’s stakes debut was an impressive performance on several levels, including passing his first major class test and stretching out to a mile after running his three previous races at sprint distances. However, his tenacity stood out as the most important characteristic he showed in holding off favored Artic Arrogance by a half-length to prevail in the Jerome.
After breaking half-step slow, Lugan Knight used his speed to set the pace under Dylan Davis through a half-mile in :47.70 and three-quarters of a mile in 1:12.73 with Arctic Arrogance pressing him every step of the way from his outside flank. That type of pressure takes a toll on a racehorse, especially an inexperienced one, but rather than allowing his well-regarded challenger to pass, Lugan Knight called on his determination to fend off the bid and put Arctic Arrogance away in the final strides.
“I was not surprised to see how well he dug in down the lane. It looked like he was always just going a touch better than the other horse,” winning trainer Michael McCarthy said. “You hate to say you’re confident, but it always looked like he kept that horse at bay. Just a tough horse and a gutsy performance. I was glad to see he was able to get the mile.”
Lugan Knight entered the Jerome with a win, a second, and one third in three previous races, all at six or 6 ½ furlongs. He entered off at third-place finish in an allowance-optional claiming race Nov. 26, 2022, at Churchill Downs that was flattered when the winner, Victory Formation, came back to win the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes in his 3-year-old bow to improve to 3-for-3.
Speed Figures: Lugan Knight recorded a career-best 95 Equibase Speed Figure for the Jerome victory and also posted a new top Beyer Speed Figure of 85. That places him below the top early contenders for the 2023 Kentucky Derby but withing striking range with steady improvement.
Running Style: McCarthy said he expected Lugan Knight to be closer to the pace with the additional distance. He did not expect him to take the early lead – nor did rider Dylan Davis – but the pace was slower than expected and he was able to use his cruising speed to his advantage in the Jerome.
“He did end up getting into a little bit of a rhythm and was able to establish the lead,” Davis said. “Once I got there, he was very comfortable even with the challenge on my outside. He fought hard for me down the stretch. I really thought that horse [Arctic Arrogance] was going to come up to him and pass him, but he was not giving up. He really opened my eyes a little bit down there around that last eighth of a mile.”
With wins stalking and setting the pace, Lugan Knight has shown promising versatility that should be an asset on the Derby trail.
Connections: Lugan Knight is a homebred of George Yager’s BG Stables. A Los Angeles native and graduate of Cal State Northridge, Yager has worked as an actor and producer, including a role in the 1997 film “L.A. Confidential.” Yager’s nickname is “Big George” and he formed his namesake BG Thoroughbred Farm in 2014 in partnership with trainer Hector Palma. Located in Hemet, Calif., the 51-acre farm includes training and lay-up facilities and is home to 40-50 broodmares and several stallions.
Michael McCarthy is a longtime assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher who went out on his own full time in 2014 and is best known as the trainer of 2018 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and 2019 Pegasus World Cup winner City of Light; champion female sprinter Ce Ce; and 2021 Preakness Stakes victor Rombauer.
Florent Geroux rode Lugan Knight for his first three starts before Dylan Davis guided him to victory in the Jerome. Davis earned his first Grade 1 win in 2021 when he guided Mutamakina to victory in the E. P. Taylor Stakes and comes off his best season ever by wins (195) and purse earnings ($13,215,465) in 2022. Davis is the son of retired jockey Robbie Davis and his sisters Katie and Jacqueline both also are professional jockeys.
Pedigree Notes: Lugan Knight is from the fifth crop of two-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldencents, a son of top sire Into Mischief. Goldencents won the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby as a 3-year-old in 2013 and some of his top runners to date include 2019 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards, multiple Grade 1-winning female turf standout Going to Vegas, and multiple graded stakes winner Mr. Money.
Lugan Knight is the first starter produced by Yager’s Sly Roxy, by Speightstown. Sly Roxy’s lone win in seven races came at 5 ½ furlongs. Lugan Knight’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Roxy Gap, by Indian Charlie, was Canada’s champion older female and champion female sprinter in 2012 when she posted three wins, three seconds, and two thirds in nine starts with earnings of $518,466. Stakes-placed third dam, Harts Gap, showed a bit more stamina with wins at one mile and 1 1/16 miles, but you can understand why Yager has expressed some concern about how far Lugan Knight might want to run.
“I’m very realistic,” Yager said. “He may have his limitations as far as distance is concerned. I've been in this game awhile and I don't get too carried away.”
Derby Potential: Lugan Knight showed a nice combination of determination paired with effective cruising speed, plus some versatility. He profiles, currently, as a cut below the top tier of Triple Crown candidates for 2023 but he certainly has room to grow and a will to win. His final quarter-mile in :25.04 was fast enough that I could see him effectively stretching out to 1 1/16 miles or, perhaps, 1 1/8 miles. But if the owner-breeder is concerned about distance limitations, I will temper my enthusiasm as well in that regard.
Lugan Knight is the type of fighter you enjoy rooting for, whether it is on the Derby trail or elsewhere, and I think he’s got a bright future with a chance to step up and win some big races this winter-spring.