Nikki’s Sandcastle & Dominus in Fort Lauderdale Saturday
Richard Sherman’s 6-year-old gelding Nikki’s Sandcastle, already a two-time stakes winner on turf at Gulfstream Park this season; and Stonestreet Farm, George Bolton and Spendthrift Farm’s 5-year-old Dominus will be among the favorites in a talented field of 11 older horses drawn for Saturday’s $150,000 Fort Lauderdale Stakes (G2).
Jockey Corey Lanerie gets a return call on Nikki’s Sandcastle for trainer David Kassen in the 1 1/16-mile turf course test after they teamed up for victories in the Claiming Crown Emerald on opening day, Dec. 1, and El Prado Stakes on Dec. 22. The two victories broke an unlucky streak of three runner-up efforts in stakes at Remington Park, Hawthorne and Keeneland.
After the El Prado, Kassen suggested that the Kentucky homebred chestnut by Castledale might start next in the $200,000 John Connally Stakes (G3) at Sam Houston later this month.
“We decided to avoid the travel and everything that comes with that,” said the trainer. “We know that each of the races here will get a little tougher as we go along and we’ll be running back in three weeks, but he’s been training great and I think he’ll to be able to handle it. He’s very versatile as you saw when he came out of post 13 from way back in the Emerald to win, or he can lay up closer like he did last time in the El Prado. And, if the race were to be forced off turf that would be all right too.”
John Velazquez will be aboard Dominus for trainer Todd Pletcher as he makes his first appearance since a fifth-place finish behind Neck ‘n Neck going a mile on the main track in the Ack Ack Handicap (G3) at Churchill Downs on Nov.2. The 5-year-old son of Smart Strike won the Dwyer Stakes (G2) at Belmont Park and finished third in the Jim Dandy (G2) and fourth in the King’s Bishop (G1) at Saratoga as a 3-year-old.
After a full year on the sidelines, Dominus returned to competition last summer at Saratoga, won an allowance race on the main track and then made his turf debut winning the Bernard Baruch Handicap (G2) on Sept. 1. Next out he tired to sixth behind Horse of the Year candidate Wise Dan in the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) at Keeneland in early October after setting the pace into the upper stretch.
“We thought his first race on turf in the Bernard Baruch was very good. He didn’t seem to handle the Keeneland turf course too well in the Shadwell Mile there,” Pletcher said. “We tried him back on the dirt in the Ack Ack at Churchill and he kind of flattened out. So we feel his preferred surface is the turf for the moment. Hopefully, we don’t get any rain, because he seems to like a firm turf course.”
Jockey Javier Castellano will be aboard Big Blue Kitten for trainer Chad Brown as he makes his first start since a hard-fought victory by a head against a tough allowance field going a mile over the course on Dec. 8. That race marked his first start since a sporting trip to England in the spring when he finished 10th behind international champion So You Think in the Prince of Wales Stakes (G1) at the Royal Ascot meet on June 20.
“I was very proud of him,” said Brown of the allowance victory. “You never know how they will come back from a trip like that. I’m grateful to Mr. Ramsey for sending him back to me.”
Big Blue Kitten ran very well in two starts over the Gulfstream course early last year, including a game third-place finish behind Get Stormy in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (G1).
A Kentucky homebred by the Ramseys’ highly-successful stallion Kitten’s Joy, Big Blue Kitten began his career at Gulfstream in early 2011, finishing third and breaking his maiden over the course when racing for a $35,000 claiming tag with no takers. He went on to win his next four starts including the Hall of Fame Stakes (G2) at Saratoga that summer.
Another contender that should attract solid support is Robert Harvey’s Canadian homebred 6-year-old gelding Hollinger, second by a half-length last out in the Tropical Turf Handicap (G3) at Calder on Nov. 30. Jockey Edgar Prado will have the mount for trainer Roger Attfield.
Hollinger is a veteran turf-stakes performer with earnings of $688,000 and was getting a slight class break in the Calder race from the Woodbine Mile (G1), in which he finished eighth of nine. In one of his best career efforts here last year Hollinger finished a game second by a half-length behind Get Stormy in the Gulfstream Turf Handicap.
Completing the field are Joseph Allen’s Vertiformer, Alan Garcia; Kinghaven Farms and John Fielding’s Fifty Proof, Elvis Trujillo; Michael Bruder’s Quick Wit, Francisco Torres; Joyce Young and Gerald McManis’ Sky Blazer, Joel Rosario; Signal Hill Farms’ Mucho Mas Macho, Juan Leyva; Joseph Witek’s Tiz Sardonic Joe,
Jose Lezcano; and Luis Duco Stables’ Empire Builder, J.L. Castanon.
George and Lori Hall’s 5-year-old Pants On Fire was entered to run ‘main track only’ by trainer Kelly Breen with Paco Lopez named to ride.