The conditions were perfect for Starlight Stable's favored Harlan's Holiday in Saturday's $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I), and the world's most famous Ohio-bred responded with a resounding victory.
The 4-year-old bay colt by Harlan won for the third time in five tries at Gulfstream, his favorite track, and remained undefeated at the 1 1/8-mile distance with his fourth straight triumph at nine furlongs. In so doing, he became the first horse to win Gulfstream's most important 3-year-old race, the Florida Derby (gr. I) and its top handicap event, the Donn, in successive years.
Harlan's Holiday won by 2 1/2 lengths over Hero's Tribute in a final time of 1:49.17. Puzzlement came on strong to edge front-running Keats by a head for third, 1 1/2 length behind the runner-up.
Starting on the outside of the 11-horse field, jockey John Velazquez was able to position Harlan's Holiday in a good spot, running fourth or fifth outside of Free Of Love through the first turn behind Keats and rider Jorge Chavez. The pace-setter scooted out to establish an early three-length advantage over Hero's Tribute and Mr. John at the rail through fractions of :23 1/5 for the opening quarter-mile, :46 3/5 for the half and 1:10 2/5 for the six furlongs. The pace took its toll on Keats as they hit the turn for home, though, and Hero's Tribute, with Edgar Prado aboard, came to put the pressure on with Harlan's Holiday moving up on the outside with little urging from Velasquez.
Hero's Tribute went to the front briefly, but could not hold off the winner, who glided past near the eighth pole and continued powerfully to the wire.
``He overcame a lot,'' trainer Todd Pletcher told Associated Press
. ``Naturally, I was concerned about the post position, but Johnny got him out of there in good order and was right where I hoped he'd be.
``When they came under the wire the first time, I was confident he was going to win it. It's great to have a horse with tactical speed who can finish as strong as he can.''
Harlan's Holiday, the favorite in last year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I), notched his first grade I victory since winning the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland in April. He now has nine career wins in 18 starts with four seconds and a third. With the winner's share of $300,000 Saturday, he went over the $2 million mark in career earnings. He has now banked $2,275,164. The victory was his third in six starts for Pletcher, who took over conditioning duties from Ken McPeek after Harlan's Holiday finished fourth in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
Harlan's Holiday was the only previous grade I winner in the field.
Sent off at 2-1, the winner paid $6.40, $4 and $3.20. Hero's Tribute, the second choice in the field, returned $4.20 and $3.40. Puzzlement's show price was $6.40. The $2 exacta was worth $35.
``We had a perfect trip,'' Velazquez said. ``He broke really well, and I was able to get good position right away. The post could have been a problem, but it didn't turn out to be.
``When I asked him at the quarter pole, he responded in a big way."