By Ed Gray
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – As Hymn Book stormed through the stretch to a hard-fought nose triumph in Saturday’s $500,000 Donn Handicap (G1) at Gulfstream Park, trainer Shug McGaughey had to be thankful for a rainy day in New York back in May.
Hymn Book ($15) had followed in his mother Vespa’s hoof prints and proved to be a very useful, if not dominating, racehorse on turf, able to scratch out several victories and on-the-board finishes in the allowance ranks.
When the steady-going gelding captured a minor overnight stakes that was moved from the turf course to the main track at Belmont last May, his Hall of Fame trainer got to thinking that the son of Arch may be a better horse on dirt.
After one more pedestrian try on turf, Hymn Book convinced McGaughey that dirt was his preferred surface with a sharp runner-up finish in the Cigar Mile (G1) at Aqueduct in his 2011 finale.
“Right after he ran so well in the Cigar Mile, I started thinking about this race for him, although I didn’t know it would come up this strong,” McGaughey said following his 6-year-old gelding’s victory by a nose over the Todd Pletcher-trained Mission Impazible. “This was a good field.”
The 56th running of the Donn Handicap, the first major race for older horses on the 2012 racing calendar, attracted a strong field of 11, including Preakness (G1) victor Shackleford, the 3-1 favorite, and Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Ruler on Ice.
But it was McGaughey’s old new stable star that ruled the day, while placing a damper on the otherwise memorable day for Pletcher, who earlier recorded his 3000th career victory with Spring Hill Farm in the third race and saddled Thunder Moccasin for a dazzling triumph in the $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes (G2).
Shackleford, who was making his first start since finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), closely stalked the early pace set Trickmeister before fading to seventh.
“He settled nice and wasn’t aggressive, which is what we wanted,” said Jesus Castanon, the regular rider for the Dale Roman’s trained 4-year-old. “When I pulled the trigger, he just didn’t give me that run he usually does.”
Ruler On Ice was never a factor while finishing eighth under Rosie Napravnik in his 2012 debut, which was contested on a drying-out “good” track.
“He was spinning his wheels a little bit, like he didn’t really handle the track,” said trainer Kelly Breen, whose colt captured the Belmont on a sloppy track. “It wasn’t the slop we were hoping for, but he’s raced good on fast track before…He went through the motions a little bit and that’s it.”
The footing on Gulfstream’s surface was certainly to the liking of McGaughey’s main-track attraction. Hymn Book overcame a wide trip and a bumping incident in the stretch to establish himself as a force in the handicap division with his first Grade 1 score, worth $300,000 to owner Stuart Janney III.
Rated off the pace set by Trickmeister and stalked by Shackleford after breaking from the No 10 post, Hymn Book swung five-wide on the far turn. The Kentucky-bred gelding steadily advance on the leaders on the turn, as Mission Impazible slipped inside of tiring pacesetter Trickmeister to take the lead heading into the stretch. While in full stride, Hymn Book was bumped by Where’s Sterling in the stretch, but he dug in gamely to overtake Mission Impazible at the finish line. He completed 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.16.
“When I pulled him out, he came running,” said Hymn Book’s jockey, John Velazquez, who rode four winners, including Thunder Moccasin, on Saturday’s card. “He put up a good fight down the stretch.”
Mission Impazible, who just missed under Javier Castellano, also put up a good fight.
“That was a nasty beat. The horse ran super and ran a very professional race. He sat inside the pocket and it’s as good as he’s ever run,” said Pletcher, who saddled three winner’s Saturday. “He got emboldened when that horse (Hymn Book) headed him and came back and one jump past the wire he had his nose back in front.”
Redeemed finished third under Edgar Prado, 3 ¼ lengths behind Mission Impazible and a neck ahead of Where’s Sterling and jockey Jose Lezcano. Previously undefeated Trickmeister, the 7-2 second choice, faded to sixth.
After Hymn Book’s performance, McGaughey will get busy planning a schedule for his handicap star.
“We’re New York people and naturally will want a fresh horse for the big races up there later this year, but the Oaklawn Handicap (Apr. 14) is one option we might consider before that,” he said.
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