Earlier this month, trainer Bill Morey came to Turfway Park to see whether Positive Response could handle the deeper waters he had in mind.
After receiving a partial answer from his charge in the form of an emphatic triumph in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes on March 5, Morey will probably get a more definitive response Saturday.
Lovely as the trophy is that will be presented to the winner of the Grade III, $500,000 Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes at Turfway, it is the likely berth in the Kentucky Derby that is the real prize on the line for the victor of the 11⁄8-mile test.
In Positive Response, Morey has as strong a hand as any in the 12-horse field. The bay gelding was installed as the 3-1 morning-line choice in the race off the strength of his gate-to-wire, 7-length win in the John Battaglia Memorial.
After Positive Response won three straight races at Golden Gate Fields and then finished third in the Grade III El Camino Real Derby, Morey realized he had to ship the son of Pomeroy out of California if he wanted to find a suitable string of Kentucky Derby prep races that were still contested over a synthetic surface.
Once Positive Response showed his affinity for the Turfway Polytrack during his romp in the John Battaglia, it gave Morey the go-ahead to put Derby hopes back on his radar.
"We had run out of races at Golden Gate and ... I looked around the country and spotted these races at Turfway and saw we could make it a two-race plan," Morey said. "The Battaglia kind of gave us a test run at Turfway to see if he was good enough for the Spiral.
"Obviously, we're almost in a must-win situation as far as the Kentucky Derby goes, as far as graded earnings goes. If we do get lucky and win the race, then we'll have that possibility."
As has been the norm in recent years, the Vinery Spiral has lured horses with either strong turf or synthetic form or those looking to pick up graded earnings without having to run against some of the heavy hitters of the 3-year-old division.
None of the 12 horses entered Saturday has won a graded stakes. However, Positive Response was beaten just 2 lengths by Silver Medallion in the El Camino Real after getting shuffled back early on, taking him out of his normal close-up running style.
"It was a frustrating race but he didn't really run a bad race in my eyes," Morey said of the El Camino Real. "He kind of got pinched back and it put us in an awkward spot. He made up most of that gap on most of the horses and he still ran hard. He was finishing at the end."
Positive Response will break from post-position No. 2 Saturday and could be challenged on the front end by Decisive Moment, most recently fifth in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes.
Decisive Moment rated close up during his runner-up effort in the Delta Jackpot last November but has yet to win beyond 1 mile.
"We have to see what kind of speed is going to be next to me," trainer Juan Arias said. "Right now, I'm not sure what our running style is going to be."
West Point Thoroughbreds' King Congie will be making his first start on a synthetic track, but he has the advantage of already owning a win at the Spiral's 11⁄8-mile distance. The son of Badge of Silver won the Tropical Park Derby on the turf on Jan. 1, but has developed a habit of drifting out in his races.
Such was the case when King Congie crossed the wire first in the Hallandale Beach Stakes on Feb. 6 but was disqualified to third for interference. Thus, if the dark bay colt has to come wide around horses on Saturday, that won't be such a bad thing for his connections.
"It is a pattern. (Trainer) Tom Albertrani has gone over him six ways from Sunday and doesn't believe it's anything physical," said Jeff Lifson, vice president of West Point's Midwest operations. "Put it this way, if we were coming for home in the Spiral and we were the widest of any of the horses, typically you don't want to see that, but I'd be OK with that."