In the often wild Xpressbet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I), trainer Steve Asmussen believes experience could prove a valuable commodity for his talented starter Justin Phillip Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park.
"He's extremely durable and mentally he's what you look for in a race horse. I'm proud of him," Asmussen said. "This is his 32nd start and to still be consistently running at this level says a lot about him.
"He's a barn favorite; a very fun race horse to run."
Zayat Stables' Justin Phillip will break from the rail in an expected field of 12 in Saturday's six-furlong Sprint. Starting from the inside post position could present problems for Justin Phillip, who typically likes to rally from just off the pace, but Asmussen is confident the 5-year-old First Samurai horse will find a way to run his best. He's seen him overcome obstacles before.
"We're not crazy about our draw but if anyone can handle it, he can," Asmussen said. "One thing about him is he's not going to see something he hasn't encountered before. It's all old-hat for him."
Justin Phillip has won three graded stakes and has placed in ten other stakes races during his four seasons of racing, earning $1,248,437 during that career. While Justin Phillip has been competitive since his juvenile season, Asmussen believes shipping to Oaklawn Park this spring helped him reach another level.
After closing last season with a fifth-place finish in the Sprint, Justin Phillip opened 2013 by finishing third and fifth in a pair of grade II stakes races at Santa Anita.
Sensing a change was needed, his connections shipped Justin Phillip to Oaklawn where he delivered, rallying to victories in a March 21 allowance-optional claiming race and in the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (gr. III) April 13. The Count Fleet was his first stakes win since June 2011.
Asmussen believes those victories helped Justin Phillip's confidence.
"I think the decision by the Zayats to give him an easier spot at Oaklawn this spring really made a difference," said four-time Breeders' Cup winner Asmussen, who is looking for his first Sprint score. "He's kept very good company his whole career, and run credible, but I think he stepped it up a notch since those victories."
With that added confidence, Justin Phillip has overcome obstacles to register some strong performances this summer and fall. On Aug. 4 at Saratoga Race Course, he earned the first grade I victory of his career when he rallied from fourth to win the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap. That win came against a short field, which can favor early speed, on a day that early speed fared well at the Spa.
In the Sept. 28 Vosburgh Invitational Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park, race winner Private Zone (the 3-1 morning-line favorite for the Sprint) enjoyed a clear lead through a quarter mile in 22 3/5. Despite the slow fractions for the level, Justin Phillip closed from fourth to finish second, just a neck behind the winner. The top two exchanged bumps in the lane.
Besides his race experience going into the Sprint, Justin Phillip also will have the considerable skills of 12-time Breeders' Cup winner John Velazquez in the irons. Velazquez, who has guided Justin Phillip in his three previous starts, will try for his second Sprint victory as he won the 2004 edition with Speightstown .