Graded stakes winners Sweetnorthernsaint and Master Command will do battle on Saturday, when Hawthorne hosts the 52nd running of the National Jockey Club Handicap (gr. III), a 1 1/8-mile event for 3-year-olds and up. The winner will get the lion’s share of a $250,000 purse.
Master Command, fresh off wins at Fair Grounds in the New Orleans (gr. II) and Mineshaft (gr. III) Handicaps, will give trainer Todd Pletcher a golden opportunity to complete a sweep of Illinois’ two biggest stakes of the spring meeting. A week earlier, Cowtown Cat ran his way into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) picture in a big way with an impressive score in the Illinois Derby (gr. II).
Seeking his third consecutive graded win, Master Command took a while to get his act together, but Pletcher always thought he would. “We’ve always been high on him," he said. "And like most (sons of) A.P. Indy, he’s gotten better with both age and distance.”
When Master Command breaks from the gate under jockey John Velazquez on Saturday, it will mark the 10th different track he has raced at in his last 11 starts. Is that by design or coincidence? “No question he is a good traveler, always has been, but mostly we’ve been looking at races run at a mile and an eighth,” Pletcher said.
As for running at Hawthorne, Pletcher feels his horse's style of “laying close” fits the Stickney oval well, and looks for a similar journey come Saturday.
Sweetnorthernsaint, by Sweetsouthernsaint, has won six of 13 races and boasts a score in the Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Handicap at Laurel in one of his three starts this year. Among his 2006 triumphs was a 9 1/4-length win in the Illinois Derby.
“He ran great there last year, and everyone treated us well. I hope we have the same success this time,” said trainer Michael Trombetta.
In the Harrison E. Johnson, Sweetnorthsaint galloped on the lead against an overmatched field of five on a muddy track that the 4-year-old so clearly loves. Jockey Mario Pino will get the call.
So how will the race shape up? Both horses have similar running styles, and Velazquez and Pino have little experience over the racetrack. So, what will the trainer’s instructions be? Trombetta responded, “I’ll let the jockeys work it out. He’s (Pino) done this a few times.”
Pletcher’s biggest concern come race day isn’t the race set up, but rather the competition. “Sweetnorthernsaint is one very nice racehorse," Pletcher said. "The fact that he’s won there before is a plus for them. Also I wish I didn’t have to give three pounds.”
Completing the field are local runners Le Jester, who has won both starts this year at Hawthorne, and Courthorse, who ran third in last year's running, but was disqualified to sixth.
$250,000 National Jockey Club Handicap (gr. III, Race 4, 2:34 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Sweetnorthernsaint, 120, Mario Pino
2. Courthouse, 110, T.D. Houghton
3. Le Jester, 112, Timothy Thornton
4. Master Command, 123, John Velazquez