Holding Gold is back in town, hoping for firmer going in Saturday's Grade 2 Nearctic at six furlongs on the turf course.
The $250,000 Nearctic, a six-furlong race for three-year-olds and upward, is the final leg of Woodbine's inaugural three-race Turf Sprint Stakes series, which offers a $15,000 bonus to the owner and $10,000 to the trainer of the horse who accumulates the most points based on a sliding scale of 10-7-5-3-2-1.
Holding Gold finished third in the opening leg, the Grade 1 Highlander Stakes on June 30, and fourth in the Grade 2 Play the King, the middle event on August 25 for a total of eight points.
With Highlander winner Long On Value retired and Play the King victor Mr Havercamp on vacation, Holding Gold and Highlander runner-up Lady Alexandra come into the Nearctic with the best chances of winning the title.
Holding Gold, a homebred five-year-old gelding who races for Live Oak Plantation, will be racing over what trainer Mark Casse believes is his best distance in the Nearctic. The condition of the turf is his main concern.
“He does not like any give to the turf,” said Casse, who had entered Holding Gold in last Saturday's Woodford Stakes at Keeneland. “It was soft and raining down there so I scratched him.
“I've tried to run him on three or four occasions with give in the ground and he just won't run.”
The Lonhro gelding caught a yielding course and finished 2 3/4 lengths behind the winner in the seven-furlong Play the King after finishing fifth when well-supported for the Grade 3 Troy on Saratoga's soft turf. In the Highlander, which was his last firm-turf appearance, Holding Gold had come flying late and was beaten just 1 3/4 lengths.
“He should have won the Highlander; he had a terrible trip,” said Casse.
Lady Alexandra was beaten just a neck as the runner-up in the Highlander. But in her next start, on September 17, two and a half months later, the four-year-old More Than Ready filly finished a faltering ninth in the Grade 2 Presque Isle Masters on a Tapeta surface.
“I hope we can put a line through it; it was just too bad to be true,” said Motion. “Whether it was the surface, having not run for three months or a combination of the two I don't know. But, she hasn't given me any reason to be worried about her since.”
Lady Alexandra had been entered in Belmont's $100,000 Floral Park Stakes, a six-furlong turf race for fillies and mares, but opted for the trip to Woodbine.
“This race was something that always was in the back of my mind, obviously, after she ran so well up there last time,” said Motion.
“She seems in great form; I couldn't be happier with how she's doing.”
Jockeys John Velazquez and Jose Ortiz will be in town for Pattison Canadian International day with Velazquez set to ride Holding Gold in the Nearctic and Ortiz retaining the mount on Lady Alexandra.
Other serious contenders in the Nearctic include Yorkton and Conquest Panthera. Yorkton is coming off a very impressive front-running win in the Grade 3 Bold Venture over 6 1/2 furlongs of Tapeta.
“That was the best race of his life,” said Stu Simon, who conditions the homebred four-year-old colt by Speightstown for Chiefswood Stable.
“He's been a different horse for about the last two months. He's maturing; he's just that much bigger and stronger.”
Yorkton was entered in the Play the King but was scratched due to the going.
“He'll run on turf, as long as it's firm,” said Simon.
Yorkton won last year's Charlie Barley stakes on 'firm' grass, tracking the pace and getting up to score by a neck in the one-mile race for three-year-olds.
Conquest Panthera, also owned by Barber and conditioned by Casse, won the Play the King last year after just missing in Keeneland's Grade 1 Maker's 46 Mile. While winless in his last 10 starts, Conquest Panthera placed in the Grade 2 Connaught Cup and Grade 2 King Edward and was beaten just 1 1/2 lengths when seventh last time out in the Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint at 6 1/2 furlongs.
Trainer Michael Maker has a trio for the Nearctic in Hemp Hemp Hurray, Hembree and Kitten's Cat. Hemp Hemp Hurray, an Ontario-bred who is owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, will be facing older rivals for the first time but is coming off two very sharp second-place finishes behind the brilliant Wyatt's Town. Those efforts came in six-furlong overnight stakes on the Tapeta but Hemp Hemp Hurray ran very well on the turf last year, winning his first two starts including Monmouth's 5 1/2-furlong Tyro and then running a strong second here in the Grade 2 Summer Stakes over one mile. Hemp Hemp Hurray has been well-traveled since then, racing in California and England before settling in at Woodbine with assistant trainer Nolan Ramsey.
Hembree, a four-year-old colt who was claimed for $50,000 at Aqueduct this April, has won out twice on the turf for Maker and Three Diamonds Farm, most recently over seven furlongs at Kentucky Downs.
Kitten's Cat has been in solid form here this year while competing in optional claiming/turf allowance sprints.
Bushrod also is coming off a win at Kentucky Downs with his success coming in a $25,000 starter allowance. That was the five-year-old gelding's third straight score for trainer and co-owner Judd Becker, including a first-lifetime stakes win two starts back in Canterbury Park's listed Mystic Lake Turf Express at five furlongs.
Rounding out the field will be Sweet Little Man, Ikerrin Road, and Singandcryindubai.
$250,000 Nearctic Stakes (Grade 2)
1/Hemp Hemp Hurray/Rafael Hernandez/Mike Maker
2/Kitten's Cat/Eurico Rosa da Silva/Mike Maker
3/Yorkton/Jesse Campbell/Stu Simon
4/Hembree/Irad Ortiz Jr./Mike Maker
5/Bushrod/Adam Beschizza/Judd Becker
6/Lady Alexandra/Jose Ortiz/Graham Motion
7/Holding Gold/John Velazquez/Mark Casse
8/Conquest Panthera/Joe Bravo/Mark Casse
9/Ikerrin Road/Ademar Santos/Vito Armata
10/Sweet Little Man/Luis Contreras/Jim Ensom
11/Singandcryindubai/Gary Boulanger/Denyse McClachrie
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