Brown-Trained Trio Tops $200,000 W. L. McKnight (G3)
Overflow Field of 16 Entered in 1 ½-Mile Turf Marathon
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL — Chad Brown is the reigning top conditioner of turf horses in North America. His illustrious resume, however, lacks a victory in the in the $200,000 William L. McKnight Stakes (G3) presented by Florida Thoroughbred Breeders & Owners Association.
He will seek to change that in Saturday’s 1 ½-mile test on the grass at Gulfstream Park as Brown will send three older horses to post. Leading the charge will be Francesco Clemente, a 5-year-old who was last seen losing by a neck in the Hollywood Turf Club (G2) at Del Mar Nov. 24.
Joining the son of Dubawi in the McKnight field from Brown’s deep barn will be Rockemperor and Stone Age. The trio of Irish-breds will be Brown’s first runners in the race since he saddled Mr Maybe in 2017, who would finish 10th.
Owned by Peter M. Brant, Francisco Clemente has hit the board twice in three outings since relocating from England. His lone North American win came in an allowance race at Aqueduct Oct. 19. In his next outing in the Hollywood Turf Club (G2), Francisco Clemente came from last place with a late run to nearly claim the victory.
“He had a little bit of trouble last time out west and was an unlucky loser,” Brown said, “but he came in here and we freshened him up just a touch after that race to get over that long trip and he’s doing great. He’s got a great turn of foot.”
Meet-leading jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. will ride Francisco Clemente Saturday. It will be Ortiz’s second trip aboard the horse since guiding him to his most recent win at Aqueduct.
Stone Age will be seeking his first North American win on Saturday. The 5-year-old son of Galileo is coming off a fifth-place showing Dec. 30 in the Fort Lauderdale (G2) in his Gulfstream debut.
In that race, Brown sent him out with blinkers for the first time but said that he is likely to take them off for the McKnight. Ryan Moore, who has ridden Stone Age extensively abroad, gets the call.
Rockemperor rounds out the trio of Brown pupils. The 8-year-old gelding has a Grade 1 win to his credit in the 2021 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. He will be making his Gulfstream debut on the heels of a seventh-place showing in the River City (G3) at Churchill Downs Nov. 11. Prior to that outing, the son of Holy Roman Emperor was beaten by a half-length in the Singspiel (G3) at Woodbine Sept. 9. Flavien Prat, who guided Rockemperor to one of his two career wins, will ride.
Trainer Mike Maker will seek to back up his McKnight victory from 2023 with a pair of runners. Maker has won five of the last seven versions of the McKnight with the most recent last-year’s one-length victory by Red Knight. He will seek to extend his streak by sending out Value Engineering, who ran second to Red Knight last winter, and Red Run.
Value Engineering, who finished a length out of first in 2023, was last seen finishing seventh in the H. Allen Jerkens Handicap, a race he won in 2022 when it was taken off the turf. He will be cutting back from that two-mile test over the Gulfstream grass with Jose Ortiz aboard.
Red Run will also be circling back from the Fort Lauderdale. The 5-year-old son of Gun Runner finished ninth in that outing. Maker has tapped Paco Lopez to ride.
Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who saddled the 2022 McKnight winner in Abaan, will send out Whisper Hill Farm’s Grand Sonata on Saturday. The homebred son of Medaglia d’Oro, first alternate in the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (G1), finished fourth in his last outing in the Fort Lauderdale.
“[He] had a pretty tough trip last time and got rolling late,” Pletcher said. “I think the stretch back out to a mile and a half will do him well. He’s another one that will consistently show up and runs hard every time.”
Tyler Gaffalione, who piloted Grand Sonata in the Fort Lauderdale, will be aboard.
Calumet Farm’s Grade 3-winning homebred Cellist has hit the board in five of his last six outings. The 6-year-old gelding returns to the grass in Saturday’s McKnight after losing by a head in the Prairie Bayou Dec. 16 over the synthetic surface at Turfway Park. Trained by Rusty Arnold, the son of Big Blue Kitten will have regular rider Martin Garcia aboard.
California Frolic returns to stakes company for the first time in four starts Saturday. The Armando De La Cerda trainee rallied to finish fourth in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Gulfstream on Jan. 1, his first turf test since April 29. Edwin Gonzalez gets the call on the son of California Chrome.
Similarly, Anglophile was last seen rallying for a fourth-place finish at Gulfstream in the Tropical Park Derby on Dec. 23. The 4-year-old colt’s last victory came at Kentucky Downs on Sept. 3 as he took the $1 million Dueling Grounds Derby (G3) by a half-length. The Brian Lynch pupil, second alternate in the Pegasus Turf, will have Hall of Famer John Velazquez aboard.
Marwad is coming into the McKnight off a seventh-place finish in the Fort Lauderdale. The Nader Moubarak-trained son of Intello will be seeking just his second turf win with David Egan aboard.
Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse will seek his first McKnight victory with Palazzi, a 6-year-old who will be testing the Gulfstream turf for the first time. The son of Pioneerof the Nile comes off of a pair of fourth place finishes that followed three-straight wins, all coming at Woodbine, beating Rockemperor in the Singspiel. Edgard Zayas gets the call.
Verstappen will be making his Gulfstream debut Saturday in the McKnight. He faded to a third-place finish in his last outing in the Red Smith (G2) at Aqueduct Nov. 11. Frankie Dettori will be in the irons on the Brenden Walsh trainee.
Four horses are listed as also eligibles for the race: Starting Over, Catch That Party, Shawdyshawdyshawdy and F Five.