Exactly one month before this Saturday, Counter Offer rallied to finish fourth in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3), nosing out Knicks Go to collect the race's last available point toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). Saturday he is expected to join the hunt for 20 more points in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at Turfway Park.
After breaking his maiden in his fourth start on turf, Counter Offer made his first start on dirt in November when a mile allowance was taken off the turf at Churchill Downs. He finished fifth, beaten 7 1/2 lengths, but he had made a huge closing run from the back of the pack, more than 17 lengths off the lead. Trainer Ian Wilkes put him back on the dirt at Tampa Bay in his next start. Racing closer to the pace, he again rallied in the stretch to be second in the one mile, 40-yard race. He finished just a length and a half off the winner and showed grit in the effort.
Wilkes confirmed Monday that he will enter the Six Columns Stables colt in the Jeff Ruby Steaks. “It's all good, going according to plans,” Wilkes said. “He's training well and I expect him to run well this weekend.”
Twelfthofneverland just missed winning his third straight dirt race Feb. 1 for owner John Mahr in a mile test at Aqueduct. In his previous start he prevailed by a neck at Aqueduct at the same distance but in the mud, a fact that might benefit him if Saturday's forecast holds. One race earlier he broke his maiden when another Aqueduct mile was taken off the turf. But while Twelfthofneverland's two wins in seven starts have come on dirt, trainer Ray Handal is not concerned about the move to Polytrack on Saturday.
“I expect him to love the surface,” said Handal. “His sire, Istan, won the Turfway Park Fall Championship Stakes (G3) [at Turfway] in 2007.”
Twelfthofneverland arrived at Turfway from New York on March 3 and Handal reports he has settled in well.
On paper, the best efforts of Five Star General's burgeoning career also have come on dirt. In the back of trainer Arnaud Delacour's mind, however, was the thought the colt would need a surface switch to reach his full potential.
Twice last year Delacour tried to enter the son of Distorted Humor on the turf, and twice the race was moved to the main track, first at Laurel in October, where he raced over a sealed sloppy track, and then at Aqueduct in November. Though Five Star General handily prevailed both times, by better than four lengths at Laurel and by 1 1/4 lengths in his gate-to-wire victory in Aqueduct's Central Park Stakes, Delacour worried his charge would find the waters too deep when facing better quality dirt runners.
The thought at the back of Delacour's mind was validated Feb. 9 when Five Star General finished sixth in his seasonal bow, the Sam F. Davis Stakes. With the defeat came a door of opportunity, however, as Delacour will send the bay colt over a synthetic surface for the first time in Saturday's Jeff Ruby Steaks.
“I always thought he would be limited in ability on the dirt when we started to run against really true dirt horses,” Delacour said, “and that's a little bit what happened [in the Sam F. Davis]. So I wasn't really disappointed. He kind of ran like we were expecting him to. He breezed very well over the synthetic track at Fair Hill [Training Center in Maryland] when we were getting him ready last year. I always thought he would be more of a turf type of horse or synthetic. There are not that many opportunities to test them at this level on the synthetic so we thought it would be a good idea to try it and get a bit of a read on how he handles the track.”
Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and SF Racing, Five Star General has won two of four career starts. He will be piloted Saturday for the first time by Declan Cannon, but even if the pair ends up in the winner's circle, Delacour said he would be hesitant to try to duplicate such an effort in the Kentucky Derby.
“Unless something changed, like we brought him to Keeneland and he breezed very well on the dirt or something like that, I don't really think Derby for him,” Delacour said.
Entries for the Jeff Ruby Steaks will be drawn Wednesday, March 6, at Jeff Ruby Steakhouse in Cincinnati.
The 1 1/8 mile Jeff Ruby Steaks for 3-year-olds offers 34 points toward the Kentucky Derby: 20 to the winner, eight to the runner-up, four for third place and two for fourth place. The race is the centerpiece of a 12-race card that includes five supporting stakes: the Maxim Crane Works Bourbonette Oaks (listed) for 3-year-old fillies, a Kentucky Oaks points race; the Kubota Kentucky Cup Classic (BT) for older horses; the Latonia Stakes (BT) for older fillies and mares; the DRF Bets Rushaway Stakes (BT) for 3-year-olds; and the Mayers Electric Company Animal Kingdom Stakes (BT) for 3-year-old sprinters. First post March 9 is 1:10 p.m.
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