No ‘Secret’ about these Derby weekend plans

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Charles Cella remembers playing a little hookie from Washington and Lee University in Virginia to make his first trip to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby in the 1950s. He’s made the trip many times since and will make it again this weekend, to not only take in America’s great race but also to watch his Cyber Secret run in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes on Friday’s Kentucky Oaks undercard.

“I haven’t missed a Derby in a long, long time,” Cella said earlier this spring, still basking in the glow of Cyber Secret’s victory in the Oaklawn Handicap at his family’s Oaklawn Park. “The first Derby I saw I was AWOL from college. Each student back then was entitled to 5 days [off]. I ate up all mine, spending it in Kentucky.

“When I got back my economics professor said, ‘Cella’s back, he’s been spending time in the state that leads the nation in sin. First in bourbon, first in horse racing, and first in tobacco.’ “

Cella hopes Cyber Secret will follow the Bluegrass State’s lead and be like he’s been in each of his starts this season-first to the winner’s circle.

It won’t be easy in the $300,000 Alysheba, a 1 1/16-mile event that continues to get tougher and tougher each year. He takes on Grade 1 winners Hymn Book, Richard’s Kid, and Take Charge Indy and Grade 2 winners Bourbon Courage and Macho Macho in the race.

Cyber Secret beat a good field, maybe not quite as good as Friday, but solid nonetheless. And he made his opponents look ordinary doing it, winning by 5 3/4 lengths without much urging from Robby Albarado.

That win was really special for Cella, not only because it came at his track but also because of his relationship with trainer Lynn Whiting.

“This game is really about people and I was so thrilled for Whiting, who I’ve known for half a century,” Cella said. “He’d never had horses for me until we decided to put a partnership together [in 2010]. We’re both getting a little long in the shadow, so it was a partnership in paradise. He doesn’t want a barn full of horses and I can’t afford a lot of them. So we were focusing on quality, substance over style. I think that’s Cyber Secret. He looks like he’s a real racehorse.”

Whiting credits Cyber Secret’s ability to turn the corner-not that he was mediocre to begin with, just not on the level he is now-to the Broken Vow colt’s willingness to relax.

“He would be so unsettled early. He’d be trying to take it into the race too quick, shoot himself in the foot, and basically lose any chance he had,” Whiting said. “Now he’s a focused horse. All his works have been smart. Early on he wasn’t performing like the horse he’s developed into now. He didn’t seem to have his mind in the game. I think he’s kind of found himself now.”

The Alysheba is one of six stakes-five of them graded and all run in succession starting at 1:26 p.m. EDT-on Friday’s card.

The Oaks is of course the headliner, with a field of ten remaining following news that Flashy Gray will scratch due to a bruised right front foot.

Three of the other stakes are for fillies or fillies and mares, including the Grade 2 La Troienne Stakes that leads off and boils down to a faceoff between 2012 Oaks winner Believe You Can and recent Apple Blossom Handicap winner On Fire Baby.  

The ungraded Edgewood Stakes for sophomore fillies on the turf comes next and might be a coming-out-party for Tokyo Time. A half sister to Hungry Island, who looks to defend her title in Saturday’s Grade 2 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile Stakes, Tokyo Time took the worst of a bumping incident in the stretch in her last start when second in the Herecomesthebride Stakes at Gulfstream.

“I told Shug the other day that if she raced against Hungry Island I don’t know that Hungry Island would beat her,” said Robbie Medina, Shug McGaughey’s assistant in Kentucky who had the Medaglia d’Oro filly with him at Payson Park this winter. “She’s doing that good now.”

The Eight Belles Stakes for 3-year-olds fillies going 7 furlongs and the American Turf Stakes for 3-year-olds on the turf are the other stakes on Friday’s card.