Awesome Gambler, impressive winner of his last two starts, faces his toughest challenge to date when he aims for his first graded stakes win in Sunday’s $100,000 Affirmed Handicap (gr. III) at Hollywood Park.
The impressive chestnut son of Coronado’s Quest broke his maiden on the Cushion Track April 28, then upset the more seasoned Cobalt Blue in the Alydar Stakes on May 26. Besides San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) winner Cobalt Blue, Awesome Gambler will face Lazaro S. Barrera (gr. III) winner Time to Get Even and Baldwin (gr. IIIT) winner Desert Code in the 1 1/16-mile event for 3-year-olds.
Awesome Gambler, owned by Peter and Barbara Walski of Chino Hills, ran twice as a 2-year-old. He finished second only to be disqualified and placed eighth in his career bow and was second in the Gateway to Glory Stakes at Fairplex Park.
“This horse is unreal, by far the best 3-year-old I’ve ever had,” trainer Caesar Dominguez said after the Alydar win. “Like his dad, he’s got a mind of his own, but he can run. We were considering the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) but ran out of time. We stopped on him last year because of shins. We pin-fired them and turned him out to the farm for 90 days.”
Awesome Gambler, who will be pointed to the Swaps Breeders’ Cup Stakes (gr. II) on July 14 if all goes well Sunday, will be cutting back in distance after running nine furlongs in the Alydar.
“I think he really wants to go a mile-and-a-quarter, but I don’t think shortening him a sixteenth of a mile will bother him,” Dominguez said. “He’s so smooth it is unreal.”
A $50,000 purchase as a weanling, Awesome Gambler will be ridden once again by apprentice Joe Talamo and break from the four-post in the talented field of six 3-year-olds.
Merv Griffin’s Cobalt Blue enters the Affirmed with a race-high $222,350 in earnings. Removed from Kentucky Derby (gr. I) contention just days before the race, the chestnut captured his career debut at Hollywood last June and won his first two starts of 2007, the latter a two-length win in the San Felipe. He then ran poorly as the favorite in the Illinois Derby (gr. II) and came up short against Awesome Gambler when returning in the Alydar.
“He probably needed that race (Alydar), he hadn’t run since the Illinois Derby and had shipped all around,” O’Neill said. “He’s full of energy.”
Time to Get Even connected at odds of 7-1 in the seven-furlong Barrera as Flores notched the 3,000th victory of his career. Trained by Walther Solis, who was mentored by Dominguez, the son of Stephen Got Even has won back-to-back races after finishing second in his career debut March 23. He will be negotiating two turns for the first time.
Desert Code, beaten a neck while finishing third in the Barrera, came up just a nose short two starts back while traveling one mile on turf at Santa Anita in the La Puente. Prior to that, he scored back-to-back wins, the latter in the Baldwin, also on turf. The David Hofmans-trained colt has finished in the money in six of eight starts while earning $167,474.
Unusual Suspect has been very competitive while winning twice and finishing in the money six times in 11 starts. The Barry Abrams-trained colt will test Cushion Track for the third time after making his last five starts on turf.
Albertus Maximus, testing stakes company for the first time while making his fifth start, has been impressive while winning his last two races for Brandon and Marianne Chase. He broke his maiden in March at Santa Anita and was an impressive allowance winner at Hollywood at 1 1/16 miles on May 3.
$100,000 Affirmed Handicap (gr. III, Race 8, 4:50 p.m.), 3-Year-Olds, 1 1/16 Miles (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Time to Get Even (KY), 118, David R. Flores
2. Unusual Suspect (CA), 115, Mike E. Smith
3. Desert Code (KY), 118, Richard Migliore
4. Awesome Gambler (KY), 119, Joseph Talamo
5. Cobalt Blue (FL), 121, Victor Espinoza
6. Albertus Maximus (KY), 117, Jorge F. Chavez