Hillwood Stables' Phlash Phelps enjoyed a perfect season in 2015, winning all four of his starts, two of them stakes including the Maryland Million Turf, and was rewarded by being named Maryland's champion turf horse.
From a year where he could do no wrong, Phlash Phelps has seen 2016 evolve into a season where very little has gone right. Trainer Rodney Jenkins is hoping to reverse that trend when he sends the 5-year-old gelding out to defend his title in Saturday's $125,000 Turf, one of nine stakes on the 31st Jim McKay Maryland Million Day program at Laurel Park.
Phlash Phelps can become the fourth horse to win the one-mile Turf in back-to-back years, following Winsox (1997-98), Pocket Patch (2010-11) and Roadhog (2012-13), and the fifth multiple winner. La Reine's Terms won the Turf in 2002 and 2005.
“I'll tell you, his luck's been so bad it's been unbelievable,” Jenkins said. “He's been running well, things have just happened that have beat him. He's been beat on the up-and-up, too. I still think he has a big race in him, so we'll see. He's doing real well.”
Winless in one start at 2 and five starts at 3, Phlash Phelps broke his maiden last April to kick off a four-race win streak capped by victories in the Find and Million Turf. He returned from a six-month layoff to run third behind multiple stakes winner Rose Brier in the Henry S. Clark April 23 before winning an optional claiming allowance May 20 at Pimlico.
From there, Phlash Phelps was forced to steady after stumbling at the start of the Find and got shuffled back to last before coming with a late run for third, beaten a half-length. In his subsequent start, the $200,000 Commonwealth Cup (G2) Sept. 24, he was shut off by stablemate Top of Mind with a sixteenth of a mile to run but managed to gather himself and finish fifth at 19-1, only 1 ½ lengths behind the winner Blacktype.
In his three losses this year, Phlash Phelps has been beaten a combined 3 ¾ lengths. Regular rider Victor Carrasco, aboard in each of the last nine starts, gets the return call from Post 10 in a field of 11.
“This year I've run him a little harder, like the Grade 2 the other day. That was some kind of race on paper,” Jenkins said. “He was getting ready to run when the other horse of mine, Top of Mind, came along and he's a closer. By time he got to him Victor was trying to get out but Top of Mind had him. Then Top of Mind went on and he got back running again, but it was too late.
“The race before he got blocked in and ran up on heels and fell down coming out of the gate,” he added. “We think he'll run good. If we can get rid of these bad trips he'll be just fine. This is his distance. He likes the flat mile, so we'll see. And, he likes Laurel.”
Co-bred and co-owned by trainer Katherine Voss, Corvus will make a return to the Maryland Million after taking last year's Nursery on dirt in his career debut. The 3-year-old Dance With Ravens gelding enters the Turf off a front-running length victory in an open entry-level allowance going 1 1/16 miles Sept. 25 at Laurel.
“He's doing terrific. He ran great last time, so we're dying to run,” Voss said. “He's fit and he's sharp.”
Two of Corvus' three victories have come in gate-to-wire fashion, and he captured a restricted allowance Aug. 20, also on dirt, sitting just off a solid pace before circling the field and opening up in the stretch, holding on to win by a nose.
Jevian Toledo, up for all seven of Corvus' starts, returns to ride from Post 7 at 114 pounds, five fewer than each of his rivals. Toledo was also up for the last two works, one on the turf Oct. 12 and an easy five-furlong work in 1:03.40 over Laurel's main track Monday.
“Hopefully if there's a lot of speed, he'll relax. Toledo thinks he relaxes better on the grass than on the dirt,” Voss said. “He's wanting to be on the lead but he just relaxes really nicely on the grass. He went to the lead last time because nobody else wanted it. Hopefully if somebody else has to have the lead he'll be content to sit just off of them.”
Third, fourth and fifth, respectively, separated by less than a length last year, A P Elvis, Barrel of Love and Grandiflora will be back for another try in the Turf. They each come out of the Sept. 10 Laurel Dash, run at six furlongs, where Grandiflora finished third.
New Jersey-bred Here's to Mike, a 5-year-old son of 1994 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Go for Gin, takes a three-race win streak into the Classic for trainer Jane Cibelli. He will be making his Laurel debut but owns three wins, two seconds and a third from six lifetime starts at nine furlongs.
All Alone, Capital Fellow, Frisky Magician, Lord of Love and stakes-placed Spartianos are also entered.
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