'General' punches Derby ticket

Updated: April 11, 2009, 9:13 PM ET
By Will Graves | Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- General Quarters is heading home to the Kentucky Derby.

The 3-year-old colt overtook pacesetter Join in the Dance at the top of the stretch, then held off favorite Hold Me Back by 1 1/2 lengths to win the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland.

General Quarters, owned and trained by retired Louisville principal Thomas McCarthy and ridden by Eibar Coa, covered the 1 1/8 miles on Keeneland's Polytrack in 1:49.26 and paid $30.60, $11 and $7.

"I think he exhibited the tenacity to go on to the Derby," said McCarthy.

Did he ever.

General Quarters struggled in his last start, a disappointing fifth-place in the Tampa Bay Derby last month when he seemed rattled by running in traffic.

Coa, making his first start aboard General Quarters, made sure his mount didn't get too dirty this time. He pushed forward early, just off the shoulder of Join in the Dance. He stalked the leader on the backstretch and made his move at the turn, pulling ahead at the top of the stretch then digging in when Hold Me Back started to close.

"He was very professional today," Coa said. "He showed today he's going to be ready for (the Derby)."

Hold Me Back rallied six wide in the stretch but couldn't duplicate the magnificent move that propelled him to victory in the Lane's End three weeks ago and paid $4.20 and $3.

Massone was third and paid $7.20 in one of the final prep races for next month's Derby -- a race that will probably go on without Mafaaz.

The English horse earned an automatic spot in the Run for the Roses by winning the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton Park outside London last month.

Trainer John Gosden entered Mafaaz in the Blue Grass to see if he could match up with his North American brethren. Mafaaz never challenged, finishing eighth and jeopardizing his chances of running at Churchill Downs in three weeks.

"I was a little disappointed," Gosden said. "I thought there might be a bit more pace. We'll see how the horse is tomorrow and make our decisions."

General Quarters will certainly be there, a homecoming McCarthy never envisioned after the former high school principal purchased the colt for $20,000. After a largely unimpressive 2-year-old campaign, the son of Sky Mesa has blossomed this spring, winning the Sam F. Davis in Tampa on Valentine's Day.

Though he was never a factor in the Tampa Bay Derby, McCarthy simply shrugged it off and went back to work. A lively 5-furlong workout at Churchill Downs last weekend told McCarthy all he needed to know.

"He trained like a champion all week and after that breeze last week I knew I had him right where I wanted him," McCarthy said.

The journey wasn't lost on the crowd, who gave McCarthy a standing ovation as he walked out of the winner's circle. The 75-year-old tipped his cap in return as friends and family celebrated.

Charitable Man, making his first start in seven months after suffering a saucer fracture in his shin, finished seventh. Theregoesjojo, a distant third to Quality Road and Dunkirk in the Florida Derby last month, led early but faded to ninth.

Patena, owned by IEAH Stables and trained by Rick Dutrow -- the combination behind last year's Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown -- was 10th.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press