2014 McKnight Handicap Day Stakes Preview

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On the 26th of December, Santa Anita opens for its meeting with its traditional opening day feature of the G1 Malibu Stakes. And Nicolle breaks down the three graded stakes on the Friday Santa Anita program. With the opening of Santa Anita, it’s the start (if not already in earnest) of the winter racing season that focuses on Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Fair Grounds, Tampa Bay, Aqueduct (inner), and Oaklawn (which opens later in January).

On the weekend calendar as well is the last set of races to pick and ponder for 2014.  (We’ll be back in 2015. Trust us.) Once again, Picks & Ponderings travels to Gulfstream Park in South Florida for the action.  As with Santa Anita, there are three graded stakes on the schedule, with two of them as turf marathons: the G3 La Prevoyante for older females and its open complement, the G3 McKnight.  The third is the G3 Mr. Prospector for older male sprinters.  All three Gulfstream handicaps carry purses of one hundred thousand dollars, and all three are picked and pondered below.

Gulfstream’s site provides a live stream of all live racing cards on its site all meet long.

All races are scheduled for Saturday December 27th.  In races carded for the turf, selections are given “turf only”. At publish time the turf rail for all turf races discussed below is set to thirty-six feet from zero. All post times given below are those given by Equibase as these post times are purely an approximation and the track is known for running races after the advertised post time.

Gulfstream Park — Race 8 — G3 La Prevoyante Handicap — 1 1/2 Miles on Turf — post time 3:58 pm ET

In 1972 Canadian-bred La Prevoyante (by Buckpasser out of Nearctic mare Arctic Dancer) completed a bang-up frosh filly campaign in the United States.  She won the Schuylerville, Spinaway, Matron (at Belmont), and Frizette Stakes in New York, the Selima at Laurel and the Gardenia at Garden State and went twelve-for-twelve in her juvenile campaign.  An easy choice for two-year-old filly that year, her juvenile campaign is sometimes forgotten.  That afterthought is because Secretariat was a two-year-old in 1972 and dominated the male juvenile ranks just as seamlesssly, and was voted Horse of the Year.  Also in 1972, La Prevoyante won the Sovereign (Canada’s counterpart to the Eclipses) for Horse of the Year.  As a three-year-old she won the La Troienne (now known as the Eight Belles Stakes) and was the runner-up in the Kentucky Oaks.  As a four-year-old she won thrice around one turn at Saratoga but collapsed post-race on December 28, 1974 at Calder (now Gulfstream Park West) and died.  La Prevoyante’s merits earned her plaques in both the American and Canadian Hall of Fames.  In 1976, the La Prevoyante Handicap was created at Calder, a marathon since the mid-80s and nearly always on turf.  Moved to Gulfstream this year, it imports the same distance (twelve furlongs on turf), conditions (three and up, fillies and mares) and a list of winners include Belmont Stakes Day undercard nameplate Just A Game II (1982), Calder/Gulfstream West namesake Judy’s Red Shoes (1989), and Grade One winner Film Maker (2005).

For the most part, the G3 La Prevoyante came up about the same quality as a three-other-than allowance.  That feeling means that change is a positive for this field, and CAY DANCER is making a quite a few of them.  It’s first start in the states for this British-bred runner exiting class races overseas.  However, CAY DANCER has landed in the barn of Chad Brown, who hits at 31% wins with these imports.  As this race is a handicap, she’s getting a favorable weight break of nine pounds from IRISH MISSION (you may remember from such exploits as being a dead-heat third two back in the G1 Rodeo Drive, the local prep to the G1 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf).  Part of that weight break is due to her age as a three-year-old taking on elders, and part of it is due to paltry earnings.  A winner two back at ten furlongs in the UK as well.  Out of similar breeding as CAY DANCER (both with Danehill as a grandsire) is PREMIUM, who is eligible for two-other-than allowances.  Yet PREMIUM gets the premium treatment here as a forwardly placed runner that nearly won going ten furlongs at Belmont two back.  Last out over a tighter-turned Aqueduct turf, she was only beaten a length despite comically slow fractions.  Perhaps she got strangled to death rating behind the speed last time and if she’s closer to the front, that could help her on a course that promotes forward types.  Rider switch to Leandro Goncalves shows perhaps the same dissatisfaction.  The pace in that Aqueduct race was set by BOHEMIAN DANCE, and she’s drawn one spot to PREMIUM’s left.  A start-to-finish winner last time of a two-other-than, she set the pace in the three-turn John’s Call against open company and wilted.  Perhaps thirteen furlongs was too far, but she appears the speed of the speed of this bunch and if the closers don’t fire (or she’s able to walk the dog like she did last time), she could duplicate that race.  A winner over this course back in the summer, though against first-level allowance types.

Selections:

#11 CAY DANCER (7/2)

#9 PREMIUM (20/1)

#8 BOHEMIAN DANCE (20/1)

Longshot: A listed stakes at most venues is usually at above the class of a three-other-than allowance. #7 JULIE’S LOVE (12/1) is a listed stakes type horse, as she won one of them last year and just missed to Daisy Devine in a graded stakes.  Her 2014 doesn’t have a victory yet, but she chased double G3-placed Byrama and IL-bred and G1 Matriarch winner La Tia in her last G3 races.  This G3 race appears weaker than those, and she’s run her better races on firm ground (just missing to Daisy Devine, winning a listed stakes last year).  Potent humans of Julien Leparoux and Graham Motion get together on this one who faces weaker than she was getting in New York, and there should be the pace targets she needs as well.

Gulfstream Park — Race 9 — G3 Mr. Prospector Handicap — Six Furlongs on Dirt — post time 4:27 pm ET

Mr. Prospector’s race record of fourteen starts, seven wins, and six more money finishes and a win in the Gravesend Handicap (when held in the summer at Belmont) may not endear him as a stakes namesake at first, but the role of Mr. Prospector in breeding is where the honors roll in.  Twice the leading sire in North America and nine times the leading broodmare sire, Mr. Prospector is the sire of a Kentucky Derby winner (Fusaichi Pegaus), of a Preakness Stakes winner (Tank’s Prospect), and of a Belmont Stakes winner (Conquistador Cielo), for openers.  And one of Mr. Prospector’s grandsons was Unbridled, the 1990 Derby winner who saw his progeny earn a Triple Crown race of their own.  The book of Mr. Prospector’s progeny highlights could easily rival War and Peace, with our own Nicolle Neulist contributing the chapter on Curlin, since Curlin’s sire is Smart Strike, another Mr. Prospector baby. A late December/early January fixture previously known as the Hallandale Handicap until 2000 (for the municipality that houses Gulfstream, Hallandale, Florida), its winners list includes 2003 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Cajun Beat (2004), Churchill stakes nameplate Kelly’s Landing (2007), and 2010 Breeders’ Cup Sprint hero Big Drama (2011).

The Kenny Noe, Jr. stakes over at Calder Gulfstream Park West looked like a quirky race with a slow but pressured early, fast late pace structure.  With one of those pace players there coming back, along with additional forward types in defending champion SINGANOTHERSONG and post-layoff type SIMMSTOWN, perhaps the quicker (or at least as pressured as last time) tempo upfront is what gives SPEECHIFY a second consecutive win.  The last-out winner of the Noe likely didn’t care for the grass two back and a mile earlier in the career also was not his cup of tea.  Team Valor owns SPEECHIFY and with him geared to conventional sprints, he ticked off the allowance conditions last winter before going into mothballs for most of 2014.  Brought off the layoff two back on the weeds was the clunker and last out winning a minor stakes.  Now into graded company, he catches a field that doesn’t seem too tough for a G3 and one where he can press and close to victory.  Paco Lopez climbs aboard for trainer Ralph Nicks in a return engagement.  Local MASTER BLENDER could be on the lead like he was three back in the slop over this oval at today’s distance, but he proved he didn’t need the lead last out across town at GPW in annexing a N3L AOC.  Brought off a minor freshening for trainer Kirk Ziadie, he’s four of eleven in the win column at the meet and hitting at a white-hot 38% wins when bringing them off layoffs of comparable length.  He’ll have to rally off the lead given the one-way presence of MONGOLIAN SATURDAY, and he’ll be tested for class given he’s jumping from a N2X/N3L allowance to the graded level, but defending chmpaion SINGANOTHERSONG jumped that bridge before with ease. Seeks his fifth straight win in the G3 Mr. Prospector.  Wintertime at Gulfstream means shippers and CALAMONDIN ships south to try the graded types after winning an N3X allowance at Parx last time.  He’s been seen at mid-Atlantic venues like Parx, Penn National, and Laurel and he’s five of six in dirt sprints, with an excusable tenth in the Laurel Dash on sod among his 2014 races.  Wins at three different oval for this #curlinbabies show he doesn’t need to take his track with him, and Rosario aboard is a plus.  Shows two works at Palm Meadows as he gets back used to warmer climes of Florida.  As a rally-wide type, Gulfstream may not be his oval but he’s gettng the time he appears to need between outs.

Selections:

#6 SPEECHIFY (2/1)

#5 MASTER BLENDER (7/2)

#3 CALAMONDIN (6/1)

Longshot: He may only know one way to go, but #4 MONGOLIAN SATURDAY (15/1) projects to be winging it out on the front end in this stakes.  He may not have much in the way of passing in him, but that’s fine at an oval at Gulfstream where being forward placed (think Mucho Macho Man) is an asset.  Last seen in the Claiming Crown Canterbury on the weeds, he had the lead in the middle stages but fell apart after setting wicked splits (:21 for the first quarter, :44 1/5 for the half ) on the front end and was only beaten 2 1/4 lengths for all the glory. A winner three back on the weeds, he’s familiar to the locals as he was beaten a neck by J J Garbar in an upper-level Hawthorne allowance where he was ahead of a next-out winner.  MONGOLIAN SATURDAY will need the track superintendent to install No Passing Zone signs at the top of the stretch and will need other speed to flinch.  Yet both scenarios could come to fruition on the Gulfstream dirt and he’d be right in line to reap the rewards.

Gulfstream Park — Race 10 — G3 W. L. McKnight Handicap — 1 1/2 Miles on Turf — post time 4:57 pm ET

Like the La Prevoyante, the W. L. McKnight Handicap makes the eight mile move from Calder to Gulfstream.  Serving as the open complement to the La Prevoyante, it carries the same distance and surface conditions, twelve grassy furlongs.  This race honors William L. McKnight (1887-1978), who rose from bottom to top at 3M company, eventually serving as Chairman of the Board.  McKnight also was a fan of racing, specifically, owning and breeding horses. Operating under Tartan Stable in ownership and Tartan Farms as breeder, he campaigned Dr. Fager (him of the 1:32 1/5 one turn mile at Arlington), his half-sister Ta Wee, and Intentionally, who created the Intentionally-In Reality-Relaunch sire that is carried on through current stallion Tiznow. At times the race has been rained off the turf (like in 2010) and at times run in divisions (like 1985), the McKnight was downgraded last year after many years as a G2.  Shifted to twelve furlongs in 1981,  the roll call of winners of the McKnight includes Drum Taps (1990), who won the Group 1 Ascot Gold Cup at two and a half miles twice, Presious Passion, a back-to-back winner of this race (2007, 2008) who also won the G1 United Nations twice; and Cloudy’s Knight (2009), who began his career in Chicago in the Frank Kirby barn before going to more fame in Jonathan Sheppard’s shedrow.

Even though the Maker/Ramsey trainer/owner team are best known for their success with the Claiming Crown series and pointing horses for it off the claim, the fact ROYAL BLESSING was taken from those claimers (and he would have qualified for the Claiming Crown Emerald) to a G3 at Woodbine going three turns means something.  And said horse missed in a photo but was disqualified to third in that three-turn G3 at Woodbine.  Turning back in distance to today’s twelve furlongs, ROYAL BLESSING could have been yours for twenty-five grand two back, and went via claim to Maker/Ramsey.  This is the same bunch of humans that won with Saffron Hall on Claiming Crown Day.  In start two post-claim, trainer Mike Maker hits at 38% wins as well.  It’s possible the 10/1 morning line odds won’t hold, but his three turn races are quite credible and today’s McKnight is at three turns.  He’s got a win, a post-DQ third, and a fourth to Saffron Hall going three turns. Paco Lopez gets the mount.  Another horse with good three-turn form this year is MANCHURIAN HIGH, who ships down from Laurel.  Winner last time of a listed stakes, the Laurel Turf Cup, at this race’s twelve grassy frulongs, his three-turn form looks fine with a win, a nose loss in the John’s Call at the Spa going thirteen furlongs, and running headlong into Horse of the Year candidate Main Sequence in the G1 United Nations.  Unseen since September, he cleared an allowance condition off the shelf in the Spring and has two grass works over at Palm Meadows, suggest he’s not a pure shipper going from cold-to-warm.  A circle-wide closer who will need pace targets, he should get them from the full field and from a field full of stretchout types.  SLUMBER has been in slumber for most of the year.  Aside from a second in a minor stakes at Belmont, he’s been unseen for a while.  When SLUMBER was last around on a more regular basis, he hit the superfecta in three graded stakes over the Gulfstream grass, two of them going three turns.   A nose loss last time, that race likely was a tightener for this course, as he went on the Florida worktabs in mid-November.  Perhaps the most intended of the runners (skipping the northern races), he’ll also have quality humans in the Joel Rosario/Chad Brown jockey/trainer team to help him home, as he was a former resident of Bill Mott’s shedrow.

Selections:

#11 ROYAL BLESSING (10/1)

#7 MANCHURIAN HIGH (12/1)

#6 SLUMBER (3/1)

Longshot: #5 FIXADOR (30/1) is a Group One winner at twelve furlongs on the turf…in Brazil.  Whether or not not the South American form translates to the states is always a wild card, and FIXADOR faltered first time in North America when in an allowance over at Gulfstream Park West.  Stretching back out to a longer distance, FIXADOR gets lasix in this start, and perhaps second time North American start and first time lasix help him run a race more true to form.  In a field with many types stretching out and testing the distance to see if it’s worthwhile (thinking of you, American Derby winner DIVINE OATH), FIXADOR is one of the few that’s actually got some bankable distance form.

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