M M G Stables' El Areeb, who opened the year with back-to-back Grade 3 victories before being knocked from the Triple Crown trail with a knee injury, will attempt to end his sophomore season in similarly successful fashion in Saturday's $100,000 Dave's Friend at Laurel Park.
The six-furlong Dave's Friend for 3-year-olds and up is the last of six stakes worth $550,000 in purses during a 10-race Christmastide Stakes Day program on the final weekend of Laurel's 62-day fall meet that wraps up Sunday, Dec. 31.
First race post time is noon.
El Areeb earned his first stakes victory in the James F. Lewis III at Laurel to cap his juvenile season in the midst of a four-race win streak that continued with the Jerome (G3) and Withers (G3) at Aqueduct to open 2017. Third after being caught in an early speed duel in the Gotham (G3) in early March, he exited a subsequent workout needing surgery on his knee and was given plenty of time to recover and rehab his way back, rejoining trainer Cal Lynch in September.
The Tapit colt made his return to the races in the seven-furlong City of Laurel Nov. 11, breaking inwardly and contesting the early pace between rivals before fading to finish sixth, beaten 7 ¾ lengths.
As he did in the City of Laurel, El Areeb drew Post 2 in a well-balanced field of 14 and will be ridden for the first time by Jose Vargas Jr. at co-highweight of 123 pounds.
Lynch will send out two other horses in the Dave's Friend – multiple stakes winner Never Gone South and Irish Colonel, a veteran of 26 starts making his first in stakes company.
M M G also owns Never Gone South, a 4-year-old Munnings colt that has won just one of his last 14 starts after going three-for-five to start his career including stakes victories in the Strike Your Colors at 2 and the Frank Whiteley Jr. at 3. He has placed in two stakes since, running third in the General George (G3) in February, and returned from a short break to be fourth in a 5 ½-furlong allowance Nov. 12 at Laurel.
Dun Roamin Farm and Wire to Wire Stable's Irish Colonel has finished first or second in each of his last six races, alternating wins and losses. He joined Lynch following an optional claiming win Nov. 6 at Parx and rallied from a slow start to be second by 1 ¼ lengths in a third-level optional claimer Dec. 9 at Parx in the first race for his new connections.
Sharing topweight with El Areeb in the Dave's Friend is Sagamore Farm's Recruiting Ready, a two-time stakes winner that hasn't raced since finishing third in the Woody Stephens (G2) June 10at Belmont Park.
He won the Bachelor Stakes and Chick Lang, both at six furlongs, the latter on the Preakness (G1) undercard at Pimlico as part of a three-race win streak that began with an optional claiming triumph March 10 in his lone previous try at Laurel.
“We wanted to give him some time because he had campaigned hard. He got sick on me and then he came up with a quarter crack and we just gave him the time and let that heal,” trainer Horacio Depaz said. “He still stayed in training. We might have given him two weeks off but then he was just tack-walking and did a lot of jogging for 60 days probably. Then he started galloping and we brought him to Florida. He wasn't laid up or anything like that. He's been constantly moving around.”
Recruiting Ready has been preparing for his return at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park's satellite training facility in Boynton Beach, Fla., where he shows a string of steady works including a pair of bullets since Thanksgiving.
“His feet have always been kind of an issue with him, as with all horses, but we just gave him that time. He ran hard the beginning of the year and we just let him grow into himself and he's very solid right now,” Depaz said. “[Palm Meadows], there were some days when it was playing fast but he's been doing everything very nice and easy. If it transfers to going up north he should be pretty tough.
“He actually kind of got himself together really quick. When we were getting him started he started doing those works very steady and coming out of them very well. He seems like he's moving forward so we figured let's go ahead and give him this race and see how that goes,” he added. “We're very happy with how he's doing right now. We're excited to get him started and see where he's at.”
Trainer Ken Decker will saddle a pair of Jacks or Better Farm homebreds in Awesome Banner and Fellowship. Awesome Banner counts the 2016 Swale (G2) and Hutcheson (G3) among his five career stakes wins and has placed in five graded stakes this year including runner-up finishes in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt (G1), Phoenix (G2) and Smile Sprint (G3). A winner of more than $800,000 in purse earnings, he was reluctant to load and carried wide in the six-furlong Fabulous Strike last out Nov. 22 and wound up fifth.
Fellowship, another 4-year-old son of Awesome of Course, won the Florida Sire Stakes In Reality at 2 and ran third in each of Gulfstream's Triple Crown prep races – the Holy Bull (G2), Fountain of Youth (G2) and Florida Derby (G1) – in 2016. Eighth in the Preakness, he cuts back to a sprint for the first time since June looking to rebound from a pair of subpar efforts at Laurel going longer.
PJG Stable's Favorite Tale has finished second twice in three starts this year after going unraced in 18 months. The 6-year-old gelding, beaten a half-length in the Fabulous Strike Nov. 22, won the Smile Sprint (G2) and was third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) in 2015, closing that year winning the Fabulous Strike.
Also entered are Struth, a 4 ½-length winner of the Howard Bender Memorial Dec. 9 at Laurel; 2015 Swale (G2) winner Ready for Rye; It's the Journey, who capped a four-race win streak in theSept. 9 Challedon at Laurel; Afleet Willy, whose successive stakes wins include Laurel's 1 1/8-mile Richard W. Small Nov. 11; Do Share, Eighty Three and Schivarelli.
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