Airoforce storms home in Kentucky Jockey Club

Profile Picture: James Scully

November 28th, 2015

John C. Oxley’s Airoforce made a seamless transition from turf to sloppy conditions in Saturday’s $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs, rallying to the lead in midstretch and drawing away to a 1 3/4-length decision. Julien Leparoux was up on the Mark Casse trainee, who picked up 10 points while making his first start in a Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying race.

A gray son of Colonel John, Airoforce must still prove himself under fast conditions but significantly enhanced his Kentucky Derby credentials in his final 2-year-old appearance. He easily captured his first two starts on turf, capturing a maiden special weight at Kentucky Downs in early September before posting a 2 ½-length decision in the October 4 Bourbon Stakes (G3) at Keeneland.

Off as the 7-2 second choice among 13 juveniles on Saturday, Airoforce was exiting a fast-closing neck second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) on October 30. He’s now earned $516,080.

Derby Express sprinted to the fore at the start of the Kentucky Jockey Club and established opening splits in :23.50 and :47.61 while being tracked by 2-1 favorite Mor Spirit. Airoforce settled into midpack during the early stages and began to advance into contention while wide on the far turn.

Mor Spirit moved to take command rounding the final bend, reaching the six-furlong mark in 1:13 with a half-length advantage. Gun Runner, who enjoyed a prime stalking trip behind the front-runners, offered a serious bid nearing the completion of the far turn and drew even with Mor Spirit entering the stretch.

Airoforce was full momentum leaving the far turn, swinging to the outside of Mor Spirit and Gun Runner to make it a three-horse battle shortly after straightening for home, and was clearly going better in the final furlong as he began to edge away. He finished the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:45.48.

“He was always one of our better horses and we knew that he liked the dirt and it was just a matter of getting him on it when the time was right and tonight was the best time to do it,” said Norman Casse, the chief assistant who manages his father Mark’s Kentucky division. "I thought this was a tough race this year. I’m excited about the way he ran.”

“It’s been a good day,” said Leparoux, who also won the 2007 Kentucky Jockey Club with Anak Nakal. “He’s good on anything; we’ll just have to see on the fast track how good he’s going to be. Today, even though we won on the dirt, it was kind of a sloppy track. We still have some questions to answer, to be honest, but every time you ask him he always does his best.

“He’s been running well – we’re just a head and a neck away from being undefeated. We lost to a real nice horse in the Breeders’ Cup (the Irish-based Hit a Bomb). Hopefully he keeps on getting better.”

Mor Spirit, who was exiting a maiden special weight victory at Santa Anita for four-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert, gamely saved second, withstanding the late charge of Mo Tom by a head. Mo Tom, who was overlooked at 16-1 following a victory in the November 1 Street Sense at Churchill, made up plenty of ground in the stretch after racing near the back of the field most of the way.

It was another 1 ½ lengths to Gun Runner in fourth. Next came Annual Report, My Majestic Flight, Perfect Saint, Tom’s Ready, Rated R Superstar, Nana Looch, Derby Express, Force It and Uncle Jerry. Discreetness was scratched.

Bred in Kentucky by Stewart M. Madison, Airoforce initially sold for $20,000 as a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October sale. He turned out to be a successful pinhook, bringing $350,000 at the OBS April 2-year-old sale six months later.

Airoforce is out of the stakes-placed Cuvee mare Chocolate Pop. This is the extended female family of multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Sea Cadet.

One race earlier, the Casses saddled another promising 2-year-old when Conquest Stables LLC’s Conquest Big E won a first-level one mile allowance/optional claiming event in 1:37.62.

“We’ve never been in this position before where we’ve had two horses that are already awesome and came in and delivered the way that they were supposed to and that we can take down to Palm Meadows (near Gulfstream Park) very optimistic about and now the real fun begins,” Norman Casse said. “This was the boost that we needed today.”

Kentucky Jockey Club Quotes:

NORMAN CASSE, trainer of AIROFORCE (winner): “The Kentucky Downs purse structure makes it very hard to not run there. He was, all summer, one of our better 2-year-olds that we kept down here and it just seemed natural to run him at Kentucky Downs because he could run for the bigger pot. That being said, he was always one of our better horses and we knew that he liked the dirt it was just a matter of getting him on it when the time was right and tonight was the best time to do it.

“We’re certainly excited. We got to hold our optimism a little bit because this was a sloppy racetrack and it wasn’t necessarily a fast main track. That being said, he won at Churchill Downs and he did what he was supposed to do. I thought this was a tough race this year. I’m excited about the way he ran.

JIM BARNES, assistant to BOB BAFFERT, trainer of MOR SPIRIT (runner-up): “He ran very well. We had to kind of use him from our outside post to get to the position we wanted him to be early, but he ran very well.”

MARTIN GARCIA, jockey on MOR SPIRIT (runner-up): “The post position (9) made me use my horse a little bit more than I’m supposed to. I didn’t want to be inside. I wanted to be able to go around. It was just his second time at a mile distance and the winner (Airoforce) just got beat a nose in the Breeders’ Cup. I think he’s a very good horse and with more races he’s going to improve a lot and be a really good horse.”

TOM AMOSS, trainer of MO TOM (third): “It appeared he was ducking a little from the reflection of the lights in the rain on the track. Down the lane he made a couple of moves when he ducked. I was watching it on the replay and it looked like the track was just so shiny from the darkness and the lights shining down in the rain that I think he really didn’t know what he was on. But the bottom line is he doesn’t have a lot of experience and we knew that going in. He’ll be a better horse off this race and we’re really excited for him.”

COREY LANERIE, jockey on MO TOM (third): “My horse ran really good. He settled really nice and I had a really nice trip on the rail, for the most part. The last hole was a little ‘iffy,’ but I was lucky to get through it and he came runnin’ for me and showed a lot of heart. I like him. That was his first time going two turns and I hope he’ll improve. You never know.”

RICARDO SANTANA JR., jockey on GUN RUNNER (fourth): “He had a perfect trip, but the track today is a little weird, you know?  My horse made a nice move, but he got a little tired.”

Airoforce photo courtesy of Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography