Graded stakes action kicks off at Aqueduct Racetrack in 2020 when Red Oak Stable and Madaket Stables' Mind Control makes his long awaited return to the races, headlining a field of nine in the Grade 3, $150,000 Toboggan going seven furlongs over the main track.
The dual Grade 1-winning son of Stay Thirsty has not run since winning the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens on August 24 at Saratoga Race Course. Following said win, he received a freshening in Ocala, Fla., before joining trainer Gregg Sacco's winter division at Belmont Park, where he has recorded a strong series of works, including a half-mile breeze from the gate in 48.01 seconds on January 11.
Mind Control, who also struck gold at the Spa during his 2-year-old campaign when taking the 2018 Grade 1 Hopeful, is no stranger to stakes success at Aqueduct having won the Grade 3 Bay Shore at the Big A last April as well as the Jerome in January 2019.
“He's had a long schedule and we kept him going without ever having a break so after the Allen Jerkens seemed like a good time to do that,” said Red Oak Stable's Racing Manager Rick Sacco, brother to trainer Gregg. “The goal was the Jerkens in 2019 but he had been in continuous training from May 2018 without having ever left the backside of a racetrack. This is a real good start-off race. It's the right distance and he likes the track. He enjoyed the last winter in New York and really thrived over the Belmont training track.”
Sacco said the time off was highly beneficial for Mind Control.
“We gave him time off on the farm and he really transformed into a nice, beautiful-looking 4-year-old,” Sacco said. “He put on weight, he grew, and this just seemed like the best spot back.”
Sacco said Mind Control will seek more Grade 1 glory as a 4-year-old, with the main goals being the Grade 1, $400,000 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct and the Grade 1 $1.2 million Runhappy Metropolitan at Belmont Park.
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez has guided Mind Control to victory in all four of his stakes victories and will be aboard from post 8.
Providing steep opposition for Mind Control is Still Having Fun, who makes his second start off a seven-month layoff.
Trained by Tim Keefe and owned by Terp Racing in partnership with Gary Barber and Adam Wachtel, the Maryland-bred son of Old Fashioned was a close second last out against state-breds in the Howard and Sondra Bender Memorial at Laurel Park.
Still Having Fun will be seeking his first victory since upsetting the Grade 2 Woody Stephens in June 2018 at 13-1 over subsequent sprint superstars Promises Fulfilled and World of Trouble.
“He's a nice horse. He runs his heart out every time and he's got that desire that you really want your horse to have,” Keefe said of the 5-year-old gelding. “We had a hard campaign during his 3-year-old year and logged a lot of miles. We gave him some time off and castrated him. The idea was to get him back going with the early goal being the [Grade 3, $250,000] General George [on February 15 at Laurel Park].”
Keefe cross-entered Still Having Fun in the $100,000 Fire Plug on Saturday at Laurel but said he would prefer to run in the Toboggan.
“I also entered him in the Fire Plug at Laurel, it's 6 ½ [furlongs] against open company, but I think he suits seven furlongs better. We think he fits the New York race better, so we're pointing there, but weather may be a factor in where we end up going,” Keefe said.
Still Having Fun, a two-time stakes winner prior to the Woody Stephens, has out run his odds more than once. At the end of his sophomore campaign he was sent to Santa Anita for the Grade 1 Malibu. Leaving the gate at 45-1 odds, he finished third 4 ¾ lengths to four-time Grade 1 winner McKinzie.
“Adam and Gary have been great partners and I've learned a lot about training from them,” Keefe said. “Adam is a big numbers guy. If you look at all his races on the sheets, he fits right in there with them.”
Still Having Fun drew post 7 and will be guided by jockey Junior Alvarado.
Three other graded stakes-winners will be looking to get 2020 started off on a winning note. American Anthem, a three-time graded stakes winner for former trainer Bob Baffert, will look for his first win since the Grade 2 San Carlos at Santa Anita in June 2018. Now trained by Danny Gargan and owned by Don Tiger, the bay 4-year-old son of Bodemeister was acquired for $145,000 at the Keeneland November Sale in 2019, where he was consigned by former owner WinStar Farm.
Since joining Gargan's tutelage, American Anthem has recorded a series of works over the Belmont training track, the most recent of which was a half-mile work in 49.24 seconds on January 11. American Anthem will leave from post 2 under jockey Manny Franco.
Dennis Drazin's two-time graded stakes winner Sunny Ridge is the lone millionaire in the field with $1,414,577 in lifetime earnings and will look to add more money in the bank. Trained by Jason Servis, the 7-year-old New Jersey-bred son of Holy Bull won the 2016 Withers at Aqueduct and last year's Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park (both Grade 3) and arrives at the Toboggan off a three-quarter length triumph in the Richard W. Small last November at Laurel Park.
Jockey Jose Lezcano will target a fifth stakes victory this meet, and a third with Servis, when he guides Sunny Ridge from the rail.
Fresh off her 2,000th career win, trainer Linda Rice will try to keep the momentum going when she saddles graded stakes winner Nicodemus. Owned by Everything's Cricket Stable and Lawrence Goichman, the son of Candy Ride won the Grade 3 Westchester at Belmont Park last May and will attempt to make amends off of a distant ninth in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile presented by NYRA Bets on December 7. Nicodemus will be piloted by Kendrick Carmouche from post 4.
Rounding out the field are Arch Cat [post 3, Eric Cancel], Bon Raison [post 6, Reylu Gutierrez], T Loves a Fight [post 5, Luis Rodriguez Castro] and The Sicarii [post 9, Sammy Camacho, Jr.].
The Toboggan is slated as Race 8 on Saturday's nine-race card, which also features the $100,000 Franklin Square in Race 7. First post is 12:30 p.m. Eastern.
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