Our first Post Time handicap of the New Year will have us taking our talents to South Beach, oops, let's make that Hallandale Beach, the home of Gulfstream Park. The track opened its 2011 meet Wednesday afternoon and the feature race of the weekend is the Hal's Hope Stakes, to be run as Race 9 on Saturday's card.
The Gulfstream meet has been significant over the past few years, where the path to the Kentucky Derby was paved in the Florida Derby. In two of the last five years the winner (Barbaro and Big Brown) emerged from that Derby prep and last year's runner-up, Ice Box, also exited this key race on the Derby trail. We'll be reviewing some of the key prep races at Gulfstream, including the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth leading up to the Grade I Florida Derby, to be held on the first Sunday of April.
The $100,000 Grade III Hal's Hope is named after the Florida-bred horse that won the 2002 edition of this race and also won both the 2000 Holy Bull and Florida Derby as a 3-year old. He also won the 2002 Grade I Gulfstream Park Handicap for older horses. The race is run at the eight furlongs (one mile) distance for 4-year olds and older. The race was inaugurated in 1990 as the Creme Fraiche Handicap in honor of the 1985 Belmont Stakes winner. The race was renamed in 2003. Last year's winner was a monster during most of 2010, Quality Road and the race has featured such winners as New York Swell (a Canadian 2-year old champion) and Louis Quatorze, the winner of the 1996 Preakness Stakes.
This year's field has seven horses entered with some familiar names to those who followed last year's Derby trail and Breeders' Cup World Championships. Let's take a look at each of the entrants with our Post Time analysis:
1 -- Tackleberry (Santiago, Olivares). This Montbrook gelding was unraced as a 2-year old, but won five of his eight races during his 3-year-old season. His first foray outside of Calder Race Course, he has a Grade III under his belt, sports a superior workout on New Year's Eve and looks to be out on the lead early. He could be the one to catch. He edged out the No. 4 horse, Dream Maestro, in the Fred Hooper Handicap at Calder in December. Dangerous.
2 -- Rule (Castellano, Pletcher). Unraced since last March's Florida Derby where he was the 2-1 favorite and gave way to a late closing Ice Box. His workout tab looks to have him fit to run and Pletcher is 20 percent off the long layoff. This Roman Ruler colt has the class to compete and should be challenging the rail horse early in what could develop as a suicide duel.
3 -- Morning Line (Velazquez, Zito). This horse exits the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile where he lost a photo to Dakota Phone and should be the post time favorite. Nick Zito is also 20 percent off the layoff and, based on this horse's workouts, this is the horse to beat. He should stalk the hot pace set by the inside horses and take over in the stretch. The pick.
4 -- Dream Maestro (Leyva, Kaplan). He's 3 for 39 lifetime. Enough said. This crew looks to be way over his head. He looks to have given his all in the last race where he was nosed out by Tackleberry. We'll be looking elsewhere.
5 -- Soaring Empire (Lezcano, Gambolati). Comes out of the Grade I Cigar Mile where he had trouble loading into the gate and finished sixth behind some very solid horses. He sports a nice workout and has the pedigree to stay with this group. He could be worked into the exotics underneath and might catch a piece.
6 -- Hear Ye Hear Ye (Sanchez, Gold). His last race was an optional claiming mile where he won going away at Calder. This is a big step up, I just don't hear ye.
7 -- Caixa Eletronica (Saez, Chapparo). The old man in the field has not raced since the Grade II Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park in October. The 6-year old will need his career best to score against these foes.
Post Time Selections:
1 -- No. 3 Morning Line
2 -- No. 1 Tackleberry
3 -- No. 5 Soaring Empire
Exotic Wager: Trifecta -- 3 over 1, 2, 5
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer, handicapper and member of the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace.