Trainer Mike Maker smiled then laughed heartily at the suggestion that if he continued his recent domination of the W.L. McKnight (G3) the 1 ½ miles turf race it could be renamed in his honor.
“I hope so, but there is only one way for that to happen,” he said. “So I hope it's a little ways off.”
Leaving unsaid that races are typically named for the departed, Maker, looking quite healthy and coming off the best season of his career with over $12 million in earnings, has won the past three runnings of the McKnight. An addition, last year he ran 1-2 with Zulu Alpha and Soglio and in 2015 his betting favorite Da Big Hoss was third.
Maker will go after his fourth-straight victory with many arrows in his quiver – he trains four of the 12 horses entered in the McKnight: Justice Racing's Apreciado; a pair from Paradise Farms and Mad Dog Racing, Carom and Temple; and Three Diamonds Farm's Cross Border, who could scratch to race Sunday at Sam Houston Park in the John B. Connally Turf Cup (G3), a race Maker has won for six consecutive years.
The 52nd running of the 1½ miles on grass McKnight is among nine stakes, six graded, worth $5.2 million on a high-profile 12-race Pegasus World Cup Invitational Series presented by Runhappy program. The featured races are the $3 million Pegasus World Cup (G1) at 1 1/8 miles on dirt and $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) at 1 3/16 miles on the grass.
First race post time is 11:30 a.m. Post time is 4:51 p.m. for the Pegasus Turf and 5:36 p.m. for the Pegasus. Both races will be part of NBC's live national telecast from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
Trinity Farm's homebred Red Knight, most recently second in the Red Smith (G3) on November 23 at Aqueduct, is the 3-1 favorite on the morning line. The New York-bred son of Pure Prize trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, won his only previous start at Gulfstream Park, the 2-mile H. Allen Jerkens in December 2018. Prior to the Red Smith, he won the 1½ miles Point of Entry at Belmont Park. He will start from the rail with Joel Rosario.
One of Maker's strengths is turning horses he has claimed into graded stakes winners, usually in distance races on turf. All three of his McKnight winners were claimed earlier in their careers. Prior to being claimed by Maker in 2019, Apreciado, Carom and Temple had no stakes experience.
Temple, a 4-year-old gelded son of Temple City, was acquired for $35,000 in July at Gulfstream. In his first start for his new connections, he was third in the $600,000 Dueling Grounds Derby at Kentucky Downs. He was sixth, beaten 3¼ lengths in his graded stakes debut, the Twilight Derby (G2) at Santa Anita Park on Breeders' Cup weekend. Back at Gulfstream, where he has a 3-1-1 record in five starts, he won the Gio Ponti and was third as the favorite in the Tropical Park Derby.
“He had some trouble leaving the gate and down the backside. I felt he was the best in that race,” Maker said. “He's been on top of his game.”
Paradise Farms and Mad Dog Racing picked up Carom for $50,000 at Belmont Park in October and has already shown promise for his new connections, hitting the board in two races at Gulfstream Park. “He won a nice allowance race and then came back and then was third in the Allen Jerkens off the turf,” Maker said. “I feel like he has been experienced on the course.”
The 5-year-old gelded son of Data Link will be making his first start at 1½ miles and in a graded stakes.
Apreciado was claimed for $16,000 last February and has a record of 3-3-0 in eight starts for Maker. In his most recent outing he was second in the Claiming Crown Emerald. “He ran well the times we've stretched him out,” Maker said. “He's definitely a contender.”
Apreciado will be making his debut in a graded stakes.
Al and Bill Ulwelling's 9-year-old Pumpkin Rumble is the senior member of the field, the only graded stakes winner and the leading earner with $702,850 from 47 career starts in six seasons. He will be making his first start at Gulfstream Park and is winless in eight starts at the distance.
On December 15, Pumpkin Rumble won the 1¾ miles Valedictory (G3) at Woodbine in Toronto for the second straight year. That victory came after running fifth in the Canadian International (G1) that trainer Kevin Attard said was a tough assignment for the Pennsylvania-bred English Channel gelding.
“It was good to see in the Valedictory that at the end of his 8-year-old campaign that he hadn't lost a step,” Attard said. “He wasn't disgraced in the International. It was a small field, but he was only beaten 3¾ lengths. We had a little bit of a hard time finding races for him last year. He has a little bit of a delayed start to his season and we had to play catch-up early in the year. It was a matter of finding races.
We ended up going to Parx for a restricted race (the Alphabet Soup). He won that race in track-record time. We were targeting another race for him, but the plans fell through and we ended up in the International. That was a little more than he could kind of chew, but he wasn't disgraced. He's traveled well and is eating really well here. He's breezed a few times here and should be pretty tight.”
Pumpkin Rumble typically is at his best when he is using his speed, but Attard said that jockey Tyler Gaffalione does not need to put him on the lead. “He's tactical,” Attard said. “He doesn't necessarily need to be there, but he is pretty versatile.”
The speedy Argentine-bred American Tattoo co-owned by Calumet Farm and John Anthony Stables, will make his first start on turf in the McKnight. The 5-year-old son of Not For Sale trained by Todd Pletcher will be ridden by John Velazquez. He drew the outside post and is the 7-2 second choice on the morning line.
American Tattoo led from gate to wire in the 2019 H. Allen Jerkens, which was moved off the turf and run at 1 ¼ miles on dirt on December 28.
“Looking forward to getting him on the grass,” Pletcher said. “He's trained well on the grass when we've breezed him on it. He's doing good.
“The distance is no problem and the few times we've breezed him on the grass he's seemed to take to it. So, we're excited about giving him a try in the afternoon on it.”
Also entered in the McKnight are D P Racing's Prince of Arabia, who is making his second start off a long layoff; Patricia Generazio's Salute the Colonel, a half-brother to Generazio's multiple stakes winning sprinter Pure Sensation; Ron Paolucci's Dubby Dubbie, winner of two of his last three starts; Shazier, second to American Tattoo in the Jerkens in his first start without blinkers; and Terry Hamilton's Spooky Channel, beaten 3½ lengths in the Fort Lauderdale (G2), his first start since July.
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