2016 Donn Handicap and Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap Preview

Picks & Ponderings kicks off February with a coast-to-coast examination of sophomore races and Grade One races.   Out west, Nicolle Neulist will look at the three-year-olds in the G2 Las Virgenes for fillies and the G3 Robert B. Lewis for the boys, with the races providing Oaks and Derby points, respectively.  Another chance at Oaks points lies in the south at Oaklawn, with the Martha Washington Stakes for the three-year-old-fillies.  Our Nicolle Neulist is also at the helm for that piece.  This piece goes East to Gulfstream, for the year’s first Grade One races: the G1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and G1 Donn Handicap.  They are the last two races, both Grade Ones for the older set, on a banner card the day before Super Bowl 50 at Gulfstream.  (This piece does not examine any other stakes.)

All races are scheduled for February 6th.  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 12 — Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap — One and One-Eighth Miles on Turf — post time 5:23 PM ET

Generically named, the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap is sometimes referred to by its initials of GPTH to differentiate it from the Gulfstream Park Handicap at a one-turn dirt mile later in the meet. The Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap has had other vanilla names in the past, but it’s always been a grass race since its birth in 1986. Originally at a mile and a sixteenth, it was stretched out to eleven panels in 1990 and was gifted with Grade 3 status that year too. By the end of the 1990s, it climbed to Grade One status. Briefly stretched out to a mile and seven-sixteenths in 2006, it was turned back to nine furlongs in 2009 and ever since has been at a grassy mile and an eighth. Three hundred fifty thousand dollars is the purse. Past winners of note include double winner Einstein (2006,2008), whose wins sandwiched that of Arlington Million winner Jambalaya (2007). Another winner of note is 2000 victor Royal Anthem, the broodmare sire of Palace Malice – the same Palace Malice whose equipment change in the 2013 Kentucky Derby is the impetus of Nicolle Neulist’s non-ChicagoNow space at Blinkers Off.

Selections and analysis are “turf only”.

SHINING COPPER blasted out to a ginormous early lead in the Breeders’ Cup Turf when last seen, and wilted in the later stages of the race to finish eleventh.  Coupled with his fifth in the G1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, it appears the finish may be coming off of SHINING COPPER.  But in both races, he acted as the de facto rabbit for fellow Ramsey owned-and-bred production Big Blue Kitten, who needed a target and found himself winning the Hirsch and hitting the podium in the BC Turf.  This time around, there’s no stablemate for him to set up.  But the race drew a dearth of pace and maybe Joel Rosario on SHINING COPPER plays a game of Catch Me If You Can on the Chad Brown trainee.  His first start off the layoff induces more of a chance to be keen.  Perhaps Ramsey is playing to win more in this spot than Papiese, and that’s the trump card against the race’s favorite, THE PIZZA MAN.  A cinch to be Illinois Horse of the Year, he’s versatile enough to win at twelve furlongs (G2 Hollywood Turf Cup last out), at ten (G1 Arlington Million) and nearly beat the American milers (American milers should be ashamed of yourselves!) last fall at Keeneland (G1 Shadwell Turf Mile).  Distance is not the issue; the connections have pie-in-the-sky plans to travel to Dubai with THE PIZZA MAN and perhaps this race is the prep, not the goal.  Still, this corner would not be surprised should he annex this event.  ALL INCLUDED gets the nod for third in this spot.  His worse finishes in the fall in the G3 Knickerbocker and G3 Tropical Turf came when the half mile splits were slower than :50 – implying this is a runner that needs someone to do the dirty work up front.  The presence of SHINING COPPER helps a pace-dependent type like ALL INCLUDED.  And his wide trip last time out in the G2 Fort Lauderdale indicates he deserves another chance to show what his best form can be over this course.



#6 THE PIZZA MAN (4/5)

#4 ALL INCLUDED (12/1)

Longshot: A longshot to watch for firm turf only, #3 TRIPLE THREAT (10/1)‘s clunker of an Arlington Million (as well as last win coming over firm turf at Monmouth) show that maybe TRIPLE THREAT needs firm turf – and Gulfstream turf tends to run firmer than most (like Monmouth’s).  It is possible that TRIPLE THREAT isn’t a legit G1 horse, given his third in the G1-CDN Northern Dancer Turf took place in what’s traditionally the softest G1 north of the border; this while he was in a lower finish position in more hickory G1s like the Arlington Million and Pattison.  But beyond THE PIZZA MAN and SHINING COPPER, the race’s quality drops off considerably.  That delta from top-to-others and a potential pasteboard make TRIPLE THREAT – if the course is firm – a possibility.

Gulfstream Park — Race 13 — Donn Handicap — One and one-eighth miles on Dirt — post time 5:53 pm ET

Headlining Gulfstream’s six stakes day is the last race of its card, the Grade One Donn Handicap.  They’ll go nine furlongs here, a full circuit around the Gulfstream dirt.  Half a million dollars will be on the line in this event.  This race pays homage to James Donn Sr., who purchased the track in 1944 and later served as President.  First run in 1959, it was taken to the dirt in 1965 after time on the turf and fixed at the nine panel distance, aside from two runnings in the 1970s.  The Donn was given Grade One status in 1988 and typically has been run in late January or early February. And it’s a staple of the older handicap division as well.  Notable dirt winners include four-time Horse of the Year Forego (1974), double winners Pistols and Roses (1993-94) and Cigar (1995-96), the latter of which has a G1 mile named for him at Aqueduct, Gulfstream stakes namesakes Skip Away (1998) and Harlan’s Holiday (2003) and Illinois-bred Giant Oak (2011),.

Illinois-bred Giant Oak mows down the field to take the 2011 Donn Handicap. Video courtesy Youtube.

A year ago at Gulfstream in a G1 race at nine furlongs, MSHAWISH was victorious.  That was the 2015 G1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, and MSHAWISH was classy enough to hit the podium in the G1 Dubai Turf (nee Duty Free).  The connections experimented with him on dirt and finally got a chance to put him on dirt in the G1 Cigar Mile where he was an even fourth.  Still, the Todd Pletcher trainee will get the endorsement in the G1 Donn given past success at nine furlongs (won G1 GPTH, third in G1-UAE Dubai Turf). John Velazquez has the assignment as he makes his two-turn dirt debut in the Donn.  Winner last time at a one-turn mile in this race’s local prep, the G3 Hal’s Hope, he can be close to the pace but has enough rating/passing ability to not need to be leading all the way around.  Perhaps he presses off of Gulfstream-loving VALID and takes the cake in the Donn.  On paper, the race projects for VALID to be controlling speed – and he could be lone speed.  But FINANCIAL MODERLING could pose enough of an annoyance to soften VALID up – and the thinking is MSHAWISH gets the spoils over VALID.  But make no mistake, VALID is the controlling speed in this event and won the $100K Harlan’s Holiday over the Hallandale dirt two back.  VALID loves Gulfstream, as his twelve starts over the local dirt have seen win six times and hit the board four more.  Controlling speed and horse-for-course are tough angles to deny (and this space would full endorse him should FINANCIAL MODELING scratch).  KEEN ICE’s tour de force victory in last year’s Travers came when there was a contested pace up front that set up his rally.  Perhaps if FINANCIAL MODELING goes with VALID early that scenario against comes to frutition, but KEEN ICE won’t be helped if VALID is allowed to go solo on the front end. KEEN ICE is a defensive use at best, but he did show he can fire a representative race at nine furlongs when there was a legitimate pace in the Clark last year on Black Friday.  Though eligible for an N2X allowance, KEEN ICE was victimized by the lack of contested pace two back in the Breeders’ Cup – further illustrating his limitations.  If you think FINANCIAL MODELING scrambles the pace he can get a share, but seeing him as a win candidate regardless of projected pace isn’t in play in the G1 Donn.


#3 MSHAWISH (7/2)

#4 VALID (6/1)

#6 KEEN ICE (5/2)

Longshot: Can’t pull the trigger on CLOSING BELL (is there enough pace?) and FINANCIAL MODELING (could he get rated to death?), so the Longshot Writer will wander over to the after-hours nightclub at Gulfstream.


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