It was only an entry-level allowance/optional claiming race with a purse less than $50,000, but a couple of horses in Friday's ninth at Gulfstream Park in sunny Florida managed to warm the soul on a cold, wintry day in Lexington, Ky., better than a cup of steaming chicken soup ever could.
There was some build-up and hype to this early-season race for 3-year-olds going a mile and an eighth. Cousin Stephen, a Proud Citizen colt trained by Chad Brown, was coming off an eye-opening 7 1/2-length maiden win at Aqueduct in November and was installed the 8-5 favorite. Shug McGaughey entered Top Billing, a Curlin colt who crushed a maiden field sprinting on a sloppy track at Laurel in early December. He was co-second choice at 3-1, along with Ichiban Warrior, a stakes-placed son of First Samurai in Todd Pletcher's barn.
But it was another Pletcher colt, Commissioner, a WinStar Farm homebred from the last crop by the inimitable 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy, that turned in a “wow” performance in a way that can make horsemen and fans alike look ahead from the first Friday in January to the first Saturday in May. He defeated an equally impressive Top Billing by a neck in what certainly looked like a very strong contest.
A long-striding colt out of a Touch Gold mare, Commissioner was fifth choice at almost 7-1 in a seven-horse field. The oversight likely was based on his absence from racing since a hard-fought maiden win going the same nine furlongs at Saratoga on Aug. 28.
Under Jose Lezcano, Commissioner was well placed early along the rail, biding his time while only a couple of lengths off the lead through relatively slow fractions (:24.65 for the opening quarter mile, :49.03 for the half, and 1:13.81 for six furlongs). Ichiban Warrior and Julien Leparoux set the pace until inside the furlong pole, but Commissioner had another gear, accelerating powerfully in a final furlong clocked in 12.26. Final time was 1:50.72.
“It was a good educational trip,” Pletcher said. “It was a big effort. It was his first race since Saratoga. He's a big powerful horse. He's still improving, still learning to run. He's still learning to finish and focus, so I think there's room for improvement.
“It seems like he has all the right ingredients.”
Top Billing, who races for his breeders William S. Farish and E.J. Hudson Jr., had to get a world of experience out of his runner-up effort under Joel Rosario.
The colt broke well enough, then was caught between horses going into the first turn and sucked back to last. He trailed down the backstretch and around the far turn, before coming off the rail as he straightened into the stretch. Top Billing split horses and quickly reached contention, but once again was in between horses and in a tight squeeze – Commissioner to his inside and Hy Kodiak Warrior to the outside.
It would have been easy for a horse making just his second start and first beyond six furlongs to throw in the towel at that point, but Top Billing drove through the hole and continued gamely to the wire. He just got outfinished.
Like Commissioner, Top Billing has a pedigree that begs for distance. He is out of the A. P. Indy mare Parade Queen.
The winner could run next in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 22 going a mile and a sixteenth. Pletcher said he would prefer to keep Commissioner at nine furlongs but understands his options are limited.
“We didn't feel like he was mature enough to want to go to California and go that route, so it was kind of a tactical plan to give him some time off and bring him back for his 3-year-old campaign in mind,” Pletcher said. “Most of the A.P. Indys I've been around get better as they get older. To see what he did today was very encouraging.”
And good for the soul, too, as those of us in the frozen north think of the balmy wintry breezes of Florida and the anticipation of springtime and roses in Kentucky – just four months from now.
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