By Ed Gray For Gulfstreampark.com
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Soaring Empire, as usual, was a little reluctant to enter his stall in the starting gate Saturday, but the 4-year-old colt couldn’t have raced with more professionalism while scoring an authoritative victory in the $100,000 Hal’s Hope Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park.
Sent away from the starting gate as the 2-1 second betting choice – once he relented to the gate crew’s wishes – the son of Empire Maker was all business while quickly posing a menace to pacesetter Morning Line, the even-money favorite in a field of six. Soaring Empire rated nicely on the backstretch before Jose Lezcano sent him after the pacesetter entering the far turn. The Kentucky-bred responded by reaching equal terms with Morning Line midway through the turn before putting his head in front leaving the turn into the homestretch.
Soaring Empire willingly asserted himself to quickly open up a two-length lead in mid-stretch, although he needed encouragement form his jockey to hold safe a late-running Rule, the 3-1 third betting choice ridden by Javier Castellano, by 1-1/4 lengths. Morning Line, ridden by John Velazquez, finished third, another half-length back.
“There were only five (other) horses in the race so I didn’t want to drop too far back,” Lezcano said. “I saw they weren’t going that fast so I decided to take a chance and stay up close to the lead. I really didn’t have to ask him until the last quarter and from there he ran on well.”
Soaring Empire, who finished sixth in the Cigar Mile last time out after showing his customary reluctance at the gate, ran the mile distance in 1:35 4/5 after stalking fractions of :24 1/5, :46 2/5 and 1:10 1/5.
“He’s always been a very talented horse, but a little quirky.” Trainer Cam Gambolati said. “We’ve had him to the gate maybe 10 times (schooling) since his last race (Cigar Mile). And like Jose said just now, when he gets to the front, he has a tendency to wait on other horses.”
Soaring Empire had raced twice previously at Gulfstream Park, winning a seven-furlong allowance race last winter before finishing a troubled eighth in the Florida Derby.
Gambolati said Soaring Empire would not be pointed toward the $500,000 Donn Handicap (G1) at Gulfstream on Feb. 5.
“He’s a (one-turn) chute horse and the main goal here will be the Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) (Mar. 12),” said Gambolati, who stated it is possible that Soaring Empire could prep for that race in the seven-furlong Gulfstream Sprint on Feb. 12.
Rule, who hadn’t raced since finishing third in last year’s Florida Derby as the favorite, could very well turn up in the 1-1/8-mile Donn.
“He ran very hard and should really get a lot out of the race,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “We’ll see how he comes out of the race, but the Donn is a race we’re looking at.”
Jockey John Velazquez said Morning Line didn’t give him the same kind of effort that he had while finishing a sharp second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Churchill Downs in his most recent start.
“It was a good pace, but no too fast for this kinds of horses. I had to get after him a little bit early, and when I did he ran on. He just didn’t give me the kick that he usually does,” Velazquez said. “He didn’t stop, he just didn’t do his normal running.”
Determinato a Determined Winner of Spectacular Bid Stakes
In the kickoff of the 3-year-old stakes campaign at Gulfstream, Determinato scored a 14-1 upset victory in the $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes Saturday.
The son of Closing Argument ($30.60) attained a stalking position along the backstretch, tracking Gangsterontherun, the 8-5 favorite who shot out of the starting gate under jockey Alex Solis to open up a clear early lead. Ridden by Eibar Coa, Determinato edged into close contention leaving the backstretch before pulling alongside the pacesetter midway on the turn into the homestretch. Gangsterontherun fought back along the rail into mid-stretch, but Determinato asserted himself in deep stretch to edge away to a 1-1/4-length victory.
“I thought our best chance was to be close to the pace. He seems to run better when he’s into the race more. Plan A was to sit just off the speed and that’s what we were able to do,” Coa said. “I’ve worked him the last three times and those works gave me a lot of confidence heading into today.”
Determinato stalked a sharp pace set by Gangsterontherun, who turned in fractions of :21 3/5 and :44 3/5 for a half-mile, and went on to complete the six-furlong distance in 1:11.
Leave of Absence closed steadily under Rajiv Maragh to finish second, another 1-1/4 lengths ahead of Cane Garden Bay, who nosed out a tiring Gangsterontherun for third-money with Julien Leparoux aboard.
“I thought he ran well,” Solis said of Gangsterontherun’s performance. “He just got tired the last sixteenth of a mile.”
Ron Marano’s Determinato was a well-beaten seventh in the $125,000 Jack Price Juvenile at Calder in his most recent start on Nov. 13, but the Florida-bred colt had previously finished close seconds in an allowance race and the Birdonthewire Stakes.
“We knew he was a nice horse from the beginning. He’s had a few issues along the way like a pulled muscle and a few other things,” trainer Larry Pilotti said. “The race before last when he ran a big number (second in allowance) confirmed what we thought of him. The last one (Jack Price Juvenile) was our fault. Ron’s father Frank died earlier this year and that race came up around his birthday, so we ran him back a little quicker than we would have as kind of a tribute, but it didn’t work out.”
Pilotti, who trained the swift sprinting mare U Can Do It for the Marano family a few years ago, said Determinato will likely return to action in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes (G2) on Feb. 26.
No one had a winning ticket for the 10-cent Rainbow 6, resulting in a carryover of $16,516 to Sunday’s program. Those who correctly selected five of six winners were rewarded with a consolation payoff of $667.12.