American Lion ran the race his connections have been waiting for all season April 3, taking the field in the $500,000 Illinois Derby (gr. III) all the way around the Hawthorne Race Course oval to score by 2 3/4 lengths and earn himself a trip to the May 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
The homebred son of Tiznow likely gave WinStar Farm its third definite starter for the Derby, as the powerful Kentucky-based operation also owns top 3-year-olds Rule and Endorsement, who have already punched their tickets to the classic. In addition, WinStar has a chance to send two more contenders to Churchill Downs, as the farm has Super Saver running in the April 10 Arkansas Derby (gr. I) and is considering racing Drosselmeyer in one of Keeneland’s preps in an attempt to garner enough graded earnings.
American Lion won the Hollywood Prevue (gr. III) in his 2-year-old finale in December, but disappointed in both of his starts as a 3-year-old entering the Illinois Derby. He was third in the Feb. 13 Robert B. Lewis (gr. II) and fourth in the March 13 San Felipe (gr. II)—both at Santa Anita Park—for trainer Eoin Harty. But Harty took the blinkers off for the Illinois Derby and was optimistic the California shipper would improve in his first start on dirt after four races on synthetic surfaces. He did.
Breaking from the rail under David Flores, American Lion was the quickest away from the gate and wasted no time grabbing the early lead. The bay colt beat 6-5 favorite Yawanna Twist to the first turn in the nine-furlong contest and was allowed to get away with an easy pace. He sailed through splits of :24.89, :49.32, and 1:13.22 while Yawanna Twist tracked him under Edgar Prado. Boulder Creek and Turf Melody were also close to the pace.
By the time they came off the turn it was a two-horse race between American Lion and Yawanna Twist, and the rivals were separated by only a head with a furlong remaining. Racing along the inside, American Lion held a narrow advantage through a fierce stretch duel, but was able to inch away inside the sixteenth-pole to secure the victory. The final time on the fast dirt was 1:51.31.
Yawanna Twist was 11 3/4 lengths ahead of Backtalk, who edged out Turf Melody by a neck for third.
“He bobbled a little bit at the start," said Flores, “but he got his feet right back under him and went right to the lead. He started looking around but I was pretty confident. I thought they would push him a little bit early but he was just looking around a little bit and he responded when they came to him. That was a good feeling knowing that when they came to him he still had something left in the tank."
American Lion, who was also bred by Dr. William Lockridge and is out of the Storm Cat mare Storm Tide, improved to 3-1-1 from six starts. He has now earned $413,600 after banking $291,000 of graded earnings in the Illinois Derby.
"There is only one Derby and we plan on being there," Harty said. "I think we needed to get a race over the dirt and fortunately he responded well to it. I have had three Kentucky Derby horses, all Tiznow runners, and this is another one that looks to be headed in the right direction."
Sent off as the 3-1 second choice, the winner paid $8.60, $3.80, and $2.80. The exacta (1-4) paid $24.60 and the trifecta (1-4-7) returned $73.40.
Dave in Dixie was fifth, followed by Boulder Creek, Stephen’s Got Hope, and Game Ball.