The first Saturday in February has been circled on Mark Casse's calendar for quite some time. Not only will he send out top-ranked Triple Crown contender Classic Empire for his 3-year-old debut, the trainer has Pretty City Dancer set to make her highly anticipated return in the $200,000 Forward Gal (G2) at Gulfstream Park.
The 41st running of the seven-furlong Forward Gal for 3-year-old fillies is one of five stakes, four graded, worth $950,000 in purses topped by Classic Empire's appearance in the $350,000 Lambholm South Holy Bull (G2), Gulfstream's first major prep for the $1 million Florida Derby (G1).
Also on Saturday's card is the $200,000 Swale (G2) for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs, and the $100,000 Sweetest Chant (G3) for sophomore fillies and $100,000 Kitten's Joy for 3-year-olds, both at one mile on turf.
Pretty City Dancer, like Classic Empire owned by John C. Oxley, enters the Forward Gal off three consecutive wins but is unraced since her dead-heat victory in the seven-furlong Spinaway (G1) in September at Saratoga Race Course.
The gray or roan daughter of Tapit has been working steadily at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream's satellite training facility in Palm Beach County, under the watch of Casse's son and top assistant, Norm. Most recently, she went five furlongs in company with Classic Empire Jan. 28 in 1:03.90.
“We're excited about her. I think Norm and I both agree that she's training better than I've ever seen her train,” Casse said. “Maybe things worked out. We gave her a little bit of a break and right now it seems to have repaid us. She's just training extremely well.
“We're excited to get Classic Empire back running but we're as excited about getting her back going, as well,” he added. “I think if things go her way and she can stay healthy, she can be as good as any filly in North America. We're excited.”
The prolonged break wasn't entirely by design. Casse had hoped to end Pretty City Dancer's campaign in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) but a training setback last fall in Saratoga put that plan to a halt.
“A couple breezes after her [Spinaway] win she came back the next morning and was a touch off. We went through a series of X-rays and we couldn't ever really pinpoint anything but she missed enough time that we felt like she wasn't going to be her best for the Breeders' Cup,” Casse said. “On the side of caution we took her home which we often do and gave her a little break and now she's back we feel better than ever.”
Purchased as a yearling for $285,000, Pretty City Dancer will be reunited with regular rider Julien Leparoux, aboard for each of her first three starts but absent for the Spinaway while on the sidelines with a broken wrist. They will break from Post 4 at topweight of 122 pounds.
“She's a filly that when we bought her, Mr. Oxley told me, 'I want to buy the best Tapit filly in the sale.' We went around and looked at all the Tapit fillies and this is the one we came up with. He bought her and we've been high on her from the beginning,” Casse said. “I like the distance. We've always felt like the more ground the better and seven-eighths is a nice race to start. There's probably going to be some serious speed in there but she has enough speed where she's not going to let them get too far away.”
Casse also entered Gary Barber's Summer Luck in the Forward Gal, coming off her third-place finish in the six-furlong Old Hat Jan. 7 at Gulfstream. She had a tough trip that day, spotting the field several lengths after being forced to check at the start before coming with a steady bid where she split horses to find room inside and wound up beaten 3 ¼ lengths.
Javier Castellano, up in the Old Hat, gets the return call from Post 8 at 116 pounds.
“I was impressed she ran as well as she did [last time]. We had a troubled start and Javier said she just ran into the dirt and never gave up. Javier was very impressed with her. He's ridden a few good ones so that made me feel good,” Casse said. “She's a filly that we like a lot. We believe that ultimately she's going to be a much better two-turn horse. I wouldn't be surprised if she ends up being a better grass horse than she is anything. She's training really well.”
Wildcat Kate and Bode's Dream, separated by a neck when running 1-2 in the Old Hat, will tangle again in the Forward Gal. Wildcat Kate pressed the pace before pouncing late to avenge her runner-up finish in the House Party behind Bode's Dream, who suffered her first loss in four career starts.
Stakes winners Lirica, Ms Locust Point and Tequilita are each set to face stakes company for the first time. Lirica won the one-mile Hut Hut over an off track Dec. 10 at Gulfstream and was third in the seven-furlong Gasparilla Jan. 21 at Tampa Bay Downs to open her sophomore campaign.
Ms Locust Point and Tequilita are both coming off stakes wins at Laurel Park. Ms Locust Point posted a front-running 4 ½-length triumph in the seven-furlong Gin Talking Dec. 31, while Tequilita hasn't raced since her length victory in the six-furlong Smart Halo Nov. 19.
“We gave her a little break and she's worked nicely up to this point,” trainer Michael Matz said. “It's a big jump in class so we'll have to see how she handles it. She's doing good right now.”
Rounding out the field are Just For Fun Stable's My Lerler, third in the Hut Hut for trainer Anthony Cioffi, and Larry Bates-trained Brahms Cat, third in the House Party.
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