Soaring Empire , who was winless in graded stakes company last season, got his 2011 campaign off to a nice start when he turned back even-money favorite Morning Line and held off multiple graded-stakes winner Rule in the $100,000 Hal’s Hope Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO) Jan. 8 at Gulfstream Park.
Soaring Empire stalked the pace of Morning Line, took over turning for home under Jose Lezcano, and was never seriously threatened in the stretch while notching his 1 1/4-length score. It was the first graded victory for the 4-year-old son of Empire Maker . Cam Gambolati trains the dark bay/brown colt for Rick Pitino's Ol Memorial Stable and C.E. Glasscock.
Morning Line, who entered the one-mile Hal’s Hope off a hard-luck runner-up finish in the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) and is expected to be one of the top older horses this year, found himself on the lead after breaking sharply under John Velazquez. The Tiznow colt raced through a moderate opening quarter in :24.21 but went quicker through a testing half-mile in :46.56 and six furlongs in 1:10.30.
Soaring Empire, closer to the pace than usual, pressed the favorite throughout until taking over just beyond the quarter-pole. He opened up a two-length lead with a furlong remaining.
Rule, who was making his first start in nearly 10 months after finishing third as the favorite in the Florida Derby (gr. I), closed determinedly in the stretch with Javier Castellano aboard but could not catch Soaring Empire. The final time on the fast dirt track was 1:35.99.
Rule was a half-length in front of Morning Line for second.
“There were only five horses in the race so I didn’t want to drop too far back," Lezcano said. "I saw they weren’t going that fast so I decided to take a chance and stay up close to the lead. I really didn’t have to ask him until the last quarter, and from there he ran on well.”
Soaring Empire won two of six starts in 2010 including the Nov. 6 Rutgers Stakes at Monmouth Park. He was winless in his four graded-stakes tries, with a third-place effort in the Pegasus Stakes (gr. III) his best finish. In his most recent start, Soaring Empire was sixth, beaten 3 1/4 lengths, in the Hill ‘n’ Dale Cigar Mile (gr. I) at Aqueduct.
"He has always been a very talented horse, but a little quirky," Gambolati said. "We’ve had him to the gate maybe 10 times (schooling) since his last race. And like Jose said, when he gets to the front he has a tendency to wait on other horses.
Rule, who was on the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) trail last year before being sidelined, ran well in his first start back and trainer Todd Pletcher will point him for the Donn on Feb. 5.
On Jan. 8, its first Saturday of live racing in 2011, Gulfstream estimated its attendance at 9,257 on a clear day with temperatures in the 70s. On its first Saturday in 2010, with rain and unseasonable cold, Gulfstream's estimated attendance was 4,667.
Gulfstream estimates attendance based on the number of cars in its parking lots, program sales, and the number of patrons in restaurants in its racing facility.
Gulfstream said all-sources handle Jan. 8 was $9.7 million, compared with $7.4 million for 2010's opening Saturday. Ontrack handle this year was $985,320, compared with $596,592 on last year's first Saturday.