Barn Notes 3/5/24

Compiled by Robert Yates

Just Steel and Lemon Muffin are scheduled to depart Oaklawn in the next several days for Churchill Downs to continue preparations for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, respectively, their Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, said Friday morning.

Just Steel, at odds of 32-1, punched his Kentucky Derby ticket with a runner-up finish in the $1.5 million Arkansas Derby (G1) at 1 1/8 miles Saturday at Oaklawn. Ridden for the first time by Keith Asmussen, Just Steel was beaten two lengths by Grade 1 winner Muth. Just Steel finished 4 ¼ lengths clear of third-place finisher Mystik Dan, with favored Timberlake, a Grade 1 winner, another half-length farther back in fourth.

“He’s developing in the right direction at the right time, just like I tried to do,” Lukas said. “Tried to use all my experience to bring him along. Have him good in May and he’s responding really well. He’s a nice horse.”

Just Steel was the only horse to compete in all four of Oaklawn’s Kentucky Derby points races, finishing second in the $300,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 1, second in the $800,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 3 and seventh in the $1.25 million Rebel Stakes (G2) Feb. 24. Those races were 1 1/16 miles.

A son of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify, Just Steel has 65 points to rank eighth on the latest Kentucky Derby leaderboard released by Churchill Downs. The May 4 Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters.

“(The media) doesn’t even know he’s on the ground,” Lukas joked. “They don’t give him any credit. They talked about the Arkansas Derby and went to the fifth, sixth, seventh horse and everything. My owner called and said: ‘Are we OK?’ I said: ‘Yeah, we don’t need that.’”

Lukas trains Just Steel, a $500,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sales graduate, for John Bellinger and Brian Coelho (BC Stables). Just Steel has a 2-4-1 record from 11 lifetime starts and earnings of $724,545. He won the $225,000 Ed Brown Stakes at 6 ½ furlongs Nov. 25 at Churchill Downs

Just Steel trained over a fast track Friday morning. Lemon Muffin also trained Friday morning in advance of the G1-Kentucky Oaks – the country’s biggest race for 3-year-old fillies – May 3 at Churchill Downs.

Lemon Muffin, about 45 minutes before the Arkansas Derby, finished a disappointing seventh in the 8 ½-furlong $750,000 G2-Fantasy Stakes.

Lemon Muffin, in her two-turn and stakes debut, had broken her maiden in the $400,000 G3-Honeybee Feb. 24 at Oaklawn. Lemon Muffin collected 50 Kentucky Oaks qualifying points for her victory in Oaklawn’s final major Fantasy prep.

“I don’t think she was right the other day,” Lukas said. “She was flat. She was flat saddling, flat warming up. She just wasn’t herself. So, we’ll draw a line through it. She sure didn’t act like herself.”

Lukas said Lemon Muffin, despite the Fantasy setback, will be pointed to the Kentucky Oaks, which the trainer has won a record-tying five times.

“She’s been sharp ever since,” Lukas said. “I think she could surprise them.

Lemon Muffin (50 points) ranks ninth on the latest Kentucky Oaks leaderboard released by Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Oaks is limited to 14 starters.

Lukas said Asmussen, the son of Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, will retain the mount on Just Steel and Lemon Muffin in the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, respectively. The Honeybee was the first career graded stakes victory for Keith Amussen, 25, Oaklawn’s second-leading rider this season. The Arkansas Derby was his first career Grade 1 mount.