an early showdown!

Last year, nestled between the Golden Rod Stakes (GII) and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII), Churchill Downs carded an allowance-optional.  It was an N1X for two-year-olds, going a one-turn mile on the dirt.

Dortmund came.  Dortmund saw.  Dortmund conquered.  Dortmund proved a force on the Derby trail.

This year, Churchill carded the same sort of race again: a top-shelf N1X allowance-optional, a mile over the dirt, between the Golden Rod and the Kentucky Jockey Club.

Though only seven horses saw the starter in that race on November 28, a pair from that group were on my radar before the race.

Both remain there going forward.

Conquest Big E (Tapit – Seeinsbelieven, by Carson City) has been on my radar since before he started.  Particularly for an owner who wins as many big races as Conquest Stables does, it merits a bit of attention when a horse is named after the stable’s principal.  Leading into the allowance, Conquest Big E had already shown some flickers that he might live up to that potential.  He was second on debut at Churchill behind a 30/1 shot who turned out to be a pretty good horse: Brody’s Cause.  In that race, Conquest Big E showed some serious signs that he could improve: he broke poorly that day, was a bit rank, and still finished behind only that next-out Grade I winner.  Conquest Big E returned in the Keeneland slop next out, took to it beautifully, and galloped home an emphatic winner.  He tried the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) next out.  He finished eighth, suggesting it may have been a bit too much, too soon.  Trainer Mark Casse then notched him back into allowance company for this start.

Unexplained (Ghostzapper – Alex’s Ali, by Afleet Alex) got on my radar a bit later.  Opening weekend of Churchill this year, he debuted in a seven-furlong maiden special weight.  He loped along far up the track early, and remained out of the video frame until the field was turning for home.  Florent Geroux angled him out, and he continued to make up ground.  He found yet another gear in the final furlong, and drew off to win by a widening four lengths over Missle Bomb.  I had no idea who Unexplained was before that race, but had to take notice after that race — both because of that sharp debut, and because his breeding screams that he wants more maturity and distance.  I saw him cross the wire — and had my Kentucky Jockey Club horse.

My Kentucky Jockey Club horse showed up on Stars of Tomorrow II day, but did not enter the stakes race.  Instead, Unexplained’s connections (trainer Chris Richard and owner Midwest Thoroughbreds) took the conservative route, and entered the allowance instead.  Conquest Big E did so as well.  I got a matchup of two juveniles who I was closely watching — just, on the undercard instead of in the big one.

The day was a sloppy one.  Conquest Big E had already proven himself in the mud.  Unexplained, not yet.

The gates opened.

Conquest Big E broke beautifully, the best he ever had.  He settled into a stalking spot, only about two lengths off of The Right Thing.

Unexplained, just like last out, settled well off the rest of the runners.  He sat a little closer than before, but not close by any means.  Think ten lengths off the pace instead of twenty.

Unexplained was inching up on the field by the time the field approached the far turn.  Conquest Big E still stalked, biding his time.

Shaun Bridgmohan shook Conquest Big E’s reins around the three-eighths pole.  The big grey responded, and began to close up ground.  Just past the quarter pole, he struck the front.

Meanwhile, Unexplained was rolling.  He had regained touch with the pack, and began to pick off horses just before the field turned for home.  He rode the rail past the quarter pole, and angled out near the three-sixteenths pole.

Unexplained was full of run — but, so was Conquest Big E.

Though Unexplained edged into Conquest Big E’s lead, the latter splashed home two lengths clear at the wire.  Still, Unexplained had well separated himself from the rest, finishing six and a quarter lengths clear of third.

Given the race, given the track condition, both efforts pleased me.

Conquest Big E has won at two turns once, and deserves a try against stakes company once he has matured a bit.  This allowance win was a step in the right direction, and suggests he should contend in stakes company in plenty of time to make an impact on the Derby trail.

Unexplained seems a dyed-in-the-wool closer, a bit pace-dependent, but showed the ability to get home through the slop.  He has not tried two turns yet, and should only improve when he does.

It would be slightly surprising to see them clash again for a while.  Mark Casse tends to base operations in Florida through the winter; Chris Richard typically points toward Oaklawn.

Hopefully Conquest Big E and Unexplained both develop through the winter and spring, and both stay sound.  It would be great to see them clash again at Churchill Downs in about five months, going a quarter mile longer than they did in their first meeting.

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