It's not every day you see a 7-year-old horse and an 8-year-old horse competing in a grade I stakes. In fact, it's rare to see accomplished horses that age running anywhere in this era of horses being rushed off to stud.
But that's exactly what fans at Gulfstream Park will be treated to in the Feb. 9 Donn Handicap (gr. I) when two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Flat Out makes his 7-year-old debut against Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) and Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) winner Pool Play, who already has an impressive second in the Jan. 13 Hal's Hope Stakes (gr. III) under his belt this year at the ripe old age of 8.
In fact, the 1 1/8-mile Donn is pretty unusual in that not one of the 10 horses entered is a gelding. And adding to the intrigue is the cross-country visit of Ultimate Eagle, a 5-year-old tot who has never been east of the Sierra Madres. Trained by Michael Pender, the son of Mizzen Mast , who has victories in the 2011 Hollywood Derby (gr. IT) and Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT) on turf and a 7 1/4-length romp in last year's Strub Stakes (gr. II) in his dirt debut, is coming off a gutsy head defeat to Coil in the Jan. 5 San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II).
If that's not enough to whet your appetite, toss in last year's Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Take Charge Indy , whose last start was a solid second to Shackleford in the 2012 Clark Handicap (gr. I); Hal's Hope winner Csaba , who is riding a four-stakes winning streak; and last year's Super Derby (gr. II) winner Bourbon Courage , who was only a head behind Take Charge Indy in the Clark.
Mark Casse, trainer of Pool Play, admits the old boy's performance in the Hal's Hope exceeded his expectations.
"It was better than I thought it would be," Casse said. "He's come out of that race and has been training better than ever. If they give him some pace to run at in the Donn, I think he'll do really well."
Pool Play, a son of Silver Deputy, drew post 9 and will be ridden by Miguel Mena, who has been aboard for the horse's last four starts.
"Miguel knows him quite well," Casse said. "We were contemplating not bringing him in for the last race because we thought he didn't have much of a shot because he needed the race. We went ahead and brought him in and I'm glad we did. Miguel said afterwards, 'He loves this racetrack.'"
In his final start of 2012, Pool Play finished a well-beaten eighth in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I).
"He did not like Santa Anita at all,' Casse said. "Miguel said he just kind of went around there. He couldn't get him to pick up the bit."
Pool Play has battled back from a severe tendon injury following his 2011 Stephen Foster victory that sidelined him for over a year.
"I'm proud of him, being 8 years old and because he had that injury almost a year and a half ago," Casse said. "It was doubtful he'd ever come back and run. For him to come back and run and at the level he's at just shows you what kind of horse he is. He thinks he's 2 or 3 again. When he goes off to the track, he's bucking and kicking."
Flat Out also has returned from injuries that have kept him out for long periods of time, but he keeps coming back for more. In addition to his back-to-back J C Gold Cup victories, the son of Flatter has won the Suburban Handicap (gr. II) and finished second in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) and Woodward Stakes (gr. I) and third in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Whitney, and Clark, amassing earnings of over $2.5 million.
Trained for most of his career by Charles "Scooter" Dickey, he was turned over to Bill Mott early last year by owner Preston Stable.
Flat Out, who carries topweight of 121 pounds, will break from post 2 in the Donn and will be ridden for the third straight time by Joel Rosario.
In addition to the six aforementioned horses in the Donn, there are several others who add further intrigue to the race.
Nick Zito is hoping for a big 4-year-old campaign from Fast Falcon, who gets in with 114 pounds. The son of Awesome Again has had his big moments, finishing a fast-closing third, beaten a neck, in last year's Travers Stakes (gr. I) and second, beaten a neck in the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II). He actually didn't run badly in the Jockey Club Gold Cup against older horses, coming from 10th, a dozen lengths back, to finish fifth.
And who knows how good trainer Todd Pletcher's lightly raced Graydar is? The 4-year-old son of Unbridled's Song has won two of three career starts, and in his last race on Dec. 6, he won a one-mile allowance/optional claimer by 4 1/4 lengths in 1:33.72, earning a 103 Beyer Speed Figure.
Rounding out the field is the 7-year-old Ducduc,dead-heat winner of the Fred Hooper at Calder Race Course, and the 6-year-old Citrus Kid, who has won three of his last five starts on dirt and grass. He was second in the Jamaica Handicap (gr. IT) in 2010 third in the 2009 Remsen Stakes (gr. II). Trainer John Terranona decided to put him in the Donn after he won an allowance/optional claimer at Gulfstream Dec. 19 coming off a 15-month layoff.
"Since he came out of that race so well, we were looking for a spot," Terranova said. "He was training so well, why not give him a shot at a big one? He couldn't be coming into it any better."