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Crimson China looks like a Derby horse, but he'll have to win Blue Grass

Team Valor International CEO Barry Irwin can handle the stress that comes with owning a potential Kentucky Derby contender, the constant anxiety that the next phone call may be the one telling him plans for the first Saturday in May have been derailed.

What has proven more challenging for Irwin in the last few weeks is accommodating everyone who wants to be part of Team Valor's current ride.

"I don't know what is a more daunting thing, getting a horse to the Derby or taking care of everyone once you get the horse there," Irwin said. "I've got to find accommodations, seats, and all that kind of stuff for my partners."

Taxing as it may be, Irwin is hoping his hospitality duties double after Saturday's Grade I, $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.

With one Derby hopeful already lined up in Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes winner Animal Kingdom, Irwin has designs on getting another Team Valor color bearer in the Churchill Downs starting gate as he sends out Crimson China in Keeneland's 11⁄8-mile prep race.

As happy as Irwin was to see Animal Kingdom win the Grade III Spiral Stakes at Turfway on March 26, he was equally emboldened by Crimson China's runner-up effort in the Rushaway Stakes on the undercard.

When Team Valor purchased Crimson China privately after the colt's maiden win in England last November, they did so with the notion that the son of Giant's Causeway would develop into a classic-type horse.

Given the relatively wide-open nature of the 12-horse field for the Blue Grass, Irwin has reason to feel good.

"We always hoped that he could be a Derby horse," Irwin said of Crimson China. "We originally wanted to run him in the Spiral Stakes, and I think he would have won that race. Maybe the other horse was a little bit better but I don't think there is a whole lot between them.

"(Animal Kingdom) is bigger, he's handier. This horse is smaller but he's more of a long-fuse kind of a horse. He looks like the kind of horse who would love a mile and a quarter."

Trained by Graham Motion — who also conditions Animal Kingdom and Wood Memorial winner Toby's Corner — Crimson China made his first start for Team Valor at Gulfstream Park on the turf in February and promptly validated some of Irwin's hopes.

After rating toward the back of the 10-horse field throughout the 11⁄8-mile allowance race, Crimson China looked destined for an off-the-board finish as he was still in eighth entering the stretch.

"Even with 100 yards to go he still looked like he'd have to do a lot of running just to hit the board," Irwin recalled.

Instead, Crimson China unleashed a monster turn of foot and ended up winning by half a length, his second win in what is now four career starts.

That burst of speed Crimson China showed could be tested again Saturday as there does not appear to be a ton of speed in the race.

Although Irwin does not expect the colt to be as far behind as he was at Gulfstream or during the Rushaway when he had to rally after breaking slowly, he and Motion aren't going to alter Crimson China's style in one of the most important races of his life.

When you fool with a horse's style, "you get in trouble," Irwin said. "This horse in the last race, he fell back farther than usual because he had some trouble earlier in the race but I don't think he's going to be that far back (on Saturday). Also, everyone knows speed is killing them (at Keeneland) so people are going to be aggressive, they're not going to be taking back."

With no graded earnings to his credit, Crimson China is in a bit of a must-win situation Saturday if he hopes to make good on Irwin's Derby aspirations.

The fact Crimson China has never run on dirt won't be a concern for Irwin should he earn his way into the Kentucky Derby starting gate. He just wants the colt to take advantage of what he feels is a prime opportunity.

"We've breezed him on dirt, we're not worried about that," Irwin said. "The reason we pointed for this race is, of the Derby preps, I don't think it's a particularly difficult one to win. I think he has a dirt pedigree and I hope we get a chance to try him on it."

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