Owner Al Gold went down the trail to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve trail last year with Brad Cox-trained Cyberknife, who secured the points necessary to compete in the Run For the Roses with a victory in the April 2 Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. This year, Gold might not have to wait until a month before the Derby to know if his latest Derby hopeful in the Cox barn has the necessary qualifications to make the Derby.
Instant Coffee, Gold’s top Derby prospect for 2023, already has 32 qualifying points, with 20 of those earned for his last-to-first, 2 1/2-length win over Two Phil’s in the Grade 3 $194,000 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds on Jan. 21.
The Lecomte provided qualifying points toward the May 6 Kentucky Derby on a 20-8-4-2-1 scale to its top-five finishers. Churchill Downs uses qualifying points as a preference system when the Derby draws beyond its 20-horse maximum field size.
Instant Coffee's 32 points trail only Forte with 40. Forte was last year's FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thorougbred Aftercare Alliance winner and is the near certainty to be crowned champion 2-year-old male of last year at an upcoming Eclipse Award ceremony Jan. 26.
Saturday's victory was the second consecutive graded stakes win for Instant Coffee, who capped his 2-year-old campaign by taking the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Nov. 26 at Churchill Downs, a win that netted him 10 Derby points. He is now 3-for-4 overall, with his lone defeat being a fourth-place finish behind Forte in the Oct. 8 Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, where he earned his first two points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. A debut score at Saratoga Race Course in a maiden race Sept. 8 was his initial start.
Class told the story in the Lecomte, with the race's two graded stakes winners asserting their superiority over the four other participants in the scratch-reduced, 1 1/16 mile race. Only Two Phil's, winner of the Oct. 30 Grade 3 Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs, was able to stay close to Instant Coffee late, though even he was comfortably outkicked.
Instant Coffee lagged behind early in the Lecomte, settling in last under jockey Luis Saez as Echo Again, the Springboard Mile third-place finisher and second betting choice in the race, went to the lead under pressure with splits of :24.20, :47.19, and 1:12.02.
Rounding the second turn, Two Phil's, who had stalked the pace in fifth early down the backstretch, began to pick off rivals and threatened with a three-wide move to pull into third. But just as Two Phil's was picking up his pace, so too was favored Instant Coffee. The 6-5 public choice collared Two Phil's just before the eighth pole and drew clear over the final furlong and paid $4.60 to win.
"We knew they were going to have a little speed, and this (long) stretch is good for him," winning rider Luis Saez said. "When he came into the stretch, he just wanted to pass everybody and get there first. Pretty honest horse."
His 1 1/16-mile winning time in 1:45.12 was not flashy, with a final sixteenth in a :6.79, but his clocking was a bit quicker than the winning time from a slow-paced Louisiana Stakes a race earlier on the card on the card as well as some maiden races and first-level allowance optional claimer for 3-year-old males on the program at the distance. The track surface at Fair Grounds Saturday was slower than usual.
"I think (on the turn) he really started picking it up, stayed on real well down the lane," Cox said. "It looked like there was pace to run at, and oftentimes in these 3-year-old races (around) two turns, you do have pace to run at. Luis did a good job, got him to the outside and he stayed on down the middle of the track.
"He likes Churchill and he likes a long stretch. Nice colt."
Pace-pressing Confidence Game settled for third, 5 1/4 lengths behind Two Phil's, and was followed by Denington and Bromley across the wire. Echo Again was pulled up in the stretch and walked off the track.
The Lecomte is the first of three graded stakes races on dirt for 3-year-olds at Fair Grounds on the Kentucky Derby trail. The series continues next with the Grade 2 $400,000 Risen Star Stakes at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 18, followed by the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby at 1 3/16 miles on March 25.
Cox calls Instant Coffee "a really sound horse" with a "good mind." The trainer could keep Instant Coffee on the Louisiana path or, with a deep bench of about a dozen Derby prospects, eye other options.
"I wouldn't be afraid to put him on a van, ship him somewhere if need be, but right now, pretty content with keeping him right here," Cox said.