Though he has made 32 starts over the past three racing seasons, with 13 visits to the winner's circle, Nancy Lavrich and Ronald Zielinski's Altissimo will be entering new territory Saturday in the $100,000 Dave's Friend at Laurel Park.
The six-furlong Dave's Friend for 3-year-olds and up, one of six stakes worth $550,000 in purses on a 10-race Christmastide Day program, will be just the second time Altissimo has raced outside his native Ohio. He was seventh in an optional claiming allowance Dec. 28, 2016 at Turfway Park – located just across the border in Florence, Ky. – to cap his juvenile campaign.
Altissimo, which means “highest” in Italian, has six wins in his last seven starts, five of them in stakes, all of them with regular rider Christian Pilares aboard. Pilares returns on the gelded 5-year-old son of Noble Causeway from Post 2 in a field of 7, listed as the 5-2 second choice on the morning line.
“He's just gotten real good lately,” trainer Richard Zielinski said. “He's got a lot of speed, but he doesn't have to be in front. The races that he's made the lead, he's just done it so easy that he's ended up there. I really think he's a better horse if he can come from off the pace, but he hasn't had to show that lately.
“I think things have just clicked for him,” he added. “He's a little bit of a temperamental kind of horse, and the groom that takes care of him I think really got in his head and figured him out, how to make him happy, and it's worked.”
A career winner of 326 races since 1989, Zielinski never had more than 138 starters between 1991 and 2014. In the midst of a career year with highs of 58 wins and $1.35 million in purse earnings from 438 starters, he has never run a horse in Maryland.
Zielinski took over the training of Altissimo last fall, and together they have won seven of 11 starts with one second and one third. Overall, Altissimo has finished in the top three in 20 of 32 races with $454,388 in purse earnings.
Altissimo won the Best of Ohio Sprint Stakes Oct. 13 at Thistledown by nine lengths, and followed up with a 4 ¾-length triumph in the Cardinal Handicap Nov. 3, his most recent effort, which produced a career-best 100 Beyer Speed Figure. Both races came at the Dave's Friend distance.
Based at Mahoning Valley, Altissimo has also run at Belterra Park where he won the Edward Babst-Albert Palacios Memorial and Sydney Gendelman Memorial handicaps this spring. He also captured the Honey Jay Stakes Aug. 11 at Thistledown and owns a record of 9-2-2 from 17 tries at six furlongs.
“He's doing good. He's training real good here,” Zielinski said. “Really, our plan after the last Ohio-bred stake here was to just lay him up for the winter but we didn't really want to give him four or five months off.
“We decided to keep him in training as long as the track was decent here and he's trained very well so we thought we'd just look for a spot to run him one more time,' he added. “Nothing was going here, so we kind of shopped around and thought let's give him a shot, give him a little bit of a test, and see what he's got.”
Multiple stakes winner and graded-stakes placed Laki, based at Laurel and with seven wins in 10 tries over his home track, is the 2-1 program favorite for the Dave's Friend.
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