Reigning male turf champion World Approval looks to return to his winning ways when he makes a title defense in Saturday's $250,000 Maker's Mark Dixie (G2), one of seven stakes worth $2.55 million in purses on the 14-race Preakness Stakes (G1) undercard at legendary Pimlico Race Course.
A winner of four of five graded stakes in 2017, capped by a 1 1/4-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1) that secured his title as America's top turf male, World Approval launched his 6-year-old campaign on Feb. 10 with a hard-fought half-length score in the Tampa Bay (G3).
A month later, however, the flashy gray never picked up his feet and finished a mystifying fifth as the 1-2 favorite in the Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1) at Santa Anita Park, only the second loss in his last eight starts.
“He came out of that last race fine,” said trainer Mark Casse of World Approval, who has won 12 of 26 starts and more than $3 million for Charlotte Weber's Live Oak Plantation. “We had no excuses for the dull effort. My only thought was he put in a lot of effort his first time back [in the Tampa Bay] and he bounced a little.”
Casse gave World Approval a few days off before returning him to training on March 25. Most recently he covered a half-mile in 49.60 seconds on the main track on Sunday at Churchill Downs.
“He's feeling good,” said Casse. “He's got a bit of an attitude. He thinks he's mean. Actually, he is mean. You just have to remember to bring him peppermints.”
Just Howard, Maryland's champion 3-year-old male, male turf horse and Horse of the Year in 2017, makes his 4-year-old debut in the 1 1/16-mile Dixie following two off-the-board outings in the Hollywood Derby (G1) and the Twilight Derby (G2).
Trained by Graham Motion for Skeedattle Associates, the English Channel colt broke his maiden at Pimlico last May, and followed that with three stakes victories at Laurel – the Caveat and Find along with the Commonwealth Derby (G3) in September.
“The improvement he made in such a short space of time was pretty remarkable,” said Motion. “He put those three [stakes] wins back to back and then we threw him in the deep end a little bit when we took him to California; it was coming at the end of a somewhat long season. I think he just needed a break. We gave him a break over the winter at Fair Hill and kind of freshened him up, and this race has been on our schedule since the beginning of the year. I think he can run over any kind of turf course.”
Making his first start of the year, and first start for trainer Kelly Rubley, is Gunpowder Farms' Divisidero, last seen finishing fourth in the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) in October at Keeneland. A two-time winner of the Turf Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs, the 6-year-old son of Kitten's Joy has been based at the Fair Hill training center since March.
The Phipps Stable's stakes winner Fire Away returns for another shot at World Approval, to whom he finished third in the Tampa Bay after going very wide to avoid a fallen horse on the turn.
“He was compromised in the Tampa Bay Stakes when one of my other horses [Doctor Mounty] fell,” said his Hall of Fame trainer, Shug McGaughey. “We're trying to step him up and see what he can do.”
The 6-year-old son of War Front, a winner of $448,397, has been no worse than third in seven of his eight most recent starts, including victories in the Artie Schiller and Danger's Hour stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack. McGaughey said he is pleased with the way the homebred has been training and expects a good performance.
“He's been training well on soft grass and that might come in handy at Pimlico,” said McGaughey. “We're looking forward to seeing him run.”
McGaughey also will saddle Larry Pratt and David Alden's Doctor Mounty, who bounced back after falling in the Tampa Bay to finish second in the Henry S. Clark on April 21 at Laurel Park.
Also entered is multiple stakes winner Frostmourne, a well-backed fifth in the Makers 46 Mile (G1) at Keeneland last month for trainer Christophe Clement and Green Lantern Stables LLC.
Rounding out the field are Marathon Farms' homebred O Dionysus, a two-time dirt stakes winner most recently eighth in the Not for Love Stakes at Laurel; and Grade 2-placed Unbridled Juan, making his first start of the year for Frank Stronach and trainer Jose Corrales.
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