The Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes open the gate for the 2022 Kentucky Derby trail. But perhaps winning the first points race on the Derby trail is a poisoned chalice.

Stellar Tap-Iroquois
A beaming Steve Asmussen escorts Stellar Tap and Ricardo Santana Jr. to the Saratoga winner’s circle after the juvenile made the conditioner the winningest trainer in North American history. Stellar Tap is the 3/1 morning-line favorite to win the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs. (Image: Chelsea Durand/Coglianese Photos)

Win the 1 1/16-mile Iroquois, named after the first American horse to win the Epsom Derby – along with the Native American tribe – and you capture the first 10 qualifying points toward next spring’s Derby. You also capture a berth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile this fall at Del Mar.

Nice perks, to be sure. But there’s something winners of the Iroquois don’t get. And that’s draped in roses come next May.

No Iroquois winner has ever won the Derby, dating to the race’s 1982 inception. Last year’s winner, SIttin’ On Go, didn’t make the field. Neither did the 2019 winner, Dennis’ Moment. So what does this mean for the 3/1 morning-line favorite: Stellar Tap?

The most recognizable 2-year-old in the Iroquois

It probably means lower odds. Stellar Tap not only comes in off a resounding 5 ¼-length maiden-breaking victory at Saratoga last month, he comes in with the biggest name recognition of all 11 horses in the field.

Stellar Tap was the colt who put trainer Steve Asmussen over the top as North America’s winningest trainer. The Tapit progeny provided Asmussen with his 9,446th career victory, sending him past the late Dale Baird.

“We’ve been planning on that win for a long time,” Asmussen told Churchill Downs’ Kevin Kerstein. “It was better than anticipated. It was a wonderful moment with the entire family and we’ve relived it several times since.”

Keep an eye on Gun Runner’s first-crop offspring

Drafting off his stablemate’s name recognition is Asmussen’s other colt – Guntown (9/2). He comes to the proceedings off a maiden-breaking victory in his second start at Ellis Park. He also comes to the fray as one of the first 2-year-olds from Asmussen’s former Horse of the Year, Gun Runner.

“I couldn’t be a bigger fan of Gun Runner,” Asmussen said. “I am surprised how good they are so soon. They trained really well in the spring and continue to develop. Our colt Gunite, who won the Hopeful, took a couple of times to break his maiden. I do think it’s a good sign the further they go, the faster they get.”

Two others to watch are Todd Pletcher’s Major General (4/1) and Ian Wilkes’ Bourbon Heist (9/2). These two went at each other in a Saratoga maiden special weight last month. Major General pulled rank and prevailed by a neck. He prevailed, despite running an awkward, green race where he raced down the stretch on the wrong lead. Bourbon Heist’s smoother attempts to reel in his rival went for naught.

Pocahontas is the first Kentucky Oaks points race

Yet despite that, Bourbon Heist is a closer who could draft off a speed duel and pick up the pieces. Given the Iroquois’ history as a Derby breaker and poisoned chalice, however, does he really want to?

The Iroquois is one of 11 races on Churchill Downs’ first September weekend card. It tag-teams with the Grade 3 Pocahontas – which features the fillies going the same distance for points toward the Kentucky Oaks – as Churchill Downs’ featured races.

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