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Encino Goes Gate to Wire in Lexington; On Cusp of Derby

With the win, Encino, now with 40 points, climbs the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.

Encino wins the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland

Encino wins the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland

Coady Photo/Mary Ellet

On the outside looking in at the Kentucky Derby (G1) leaderboard, Godolphin homebred Encino put his best feet forward in his final start before the Run for the Roses.

Thanks to a gate-to-wire victory in the $365,500 Lexington Stakes (G3) at Keeneland April 13, Encino climbed 10 spots on the Kentucky Derby (G1) points leaderboard and at least has hope that he may join the field on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. As of early Saturday evening, Encino's 40 points have him 21st in the rankings, needing just one defection to gain entry into the the 20-horse Kentucky Derby starting gate.

Breaking from the outside, jockey Florent Geroux got the 3-year-old son of Nyquist  out to a fast start, keeping the field at bay by a length through the opening half-mile. 

"I always like being close to or on the lead if we can get there. And to be honest with you, we kind of handicapped the race on paper that we may sit off of a horse or two and get a tracking trip. When he broke the way he did Florent did a great job of taking control of the race," trainer Brad Cox said. 

Just as easily as Encino and Geroux set the early pace, they were equally as deft at handling pressure to maintain their hold of the race. 

Favored The Wine Steward, who won his first three starts as a 2-year-old before ending 2023 with a second in the Breeders' Futurity (G1) in the fall at Keeneland, made his 2024 debut in the Lexington. 

He and jockey Luis Saez began to pressure the leader, cutting Encino's lead in half to a half-length. The Wine Steward began to move off the rail around the far turn and to the outside of Encino. 

The challenger nearly pulled even in early stretch, which seemed to provide additional fuel to Encino. He inched away to win by three-quarters of a length, stopping the clock in 1:43.93. He posted fractions of :23.55, :47.28, 1:11.94, and 1:37.22.

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"Obviously the horse has got a big pedigree; he's a Godolphin homebred. Most of those horses can carry their speed around two turns. And he was able to show that he was capable of doing that today," said Cox. 

Added Geroux, "It was pretty much all him to the first turn; he pretty much controlled the race from there. He was cruising around there, and when he felt The Wine Steward outside of him, it gave him a little extra push. I think that's what he needed because he was getting a little lost out there on his own. But he had plenty left in the tank, the dirt felt great, and it looks like added distance shouldn't be a problem for him."

Cox said that Geroux had positive things to say about the colt, and the jockey told the trainer there is still a "tremendous amount of improvement (Encino) could do mentally moving forward."

Where those next steps forward happen remains to be seen. It would not be a surprise if a Derby slot opens Encino's way should there be a defection. But if a run under the Twin Spires is not in the cards, another Triple Crown race might be on deck: the May 18 Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course.

"We'll have to see what happens over the next few weeks," Cox said. "The Preakness would obviously be a spot we can look at as well. But we're shipping to Churchill in a few days, start preparing for either the Derby or the Preakness."

Dilger finished a distant third and Secret Chat fourth. A $2 win bet on Encino paid $8.62. 

This is the third year in a row and the fourth time in five editions—there was no race in 2020 due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—that a Cox trainee has won the Lexington. Encino joins First Mission (2023), Tawny Port (2022), and Owendale (2019). It is also the second consecutive year that a Godolphin homebred has won. 

Distinguished Guest

Visiting with the Godolphin team that included Cox and Godolphin USA director of bloodstock Michael Banahan after the race was Kelly Dorman, father of the late Cody Dorman, the inspiration for champion Cody's Wish's name.

Cox called Dorman "part of the Godolphin family."

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