Nearly unbeatable at Aqueduct Racetrack, Calibrachoa will attempt to extend his dominance when he takes on a field that includes million-dollar earners Caleb's Posse , Shackleford , and Jackson Bend in the $400,000 Carter Handicap (gr. I) April 7.
The seven-furlong main track test follows the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial (gr. I) as the 11th event on a stakes-filled 12-race program at Aqueduct. The race, set for a 5:55 p.m. EDT post, has just five betting interests with Godolphin Racing's entry of Emcee and Tahitian Warrior completing the field. There are a number of ways bettors could go.
Calibrachoa, from the horse for course angle, is a good place to start. The 5-year-old son of Southern Image staged a strong rally in the Tom Fool Handicap (gr. III) in the Carter prep March 3 to edge Caleb's Posse by a neck. He improved his record on the inner track at Aqueduct to 5-for-5.
“I’ve been watching New York racing for 30 years, and the Carter has always been exciting. This is the kind of race that made me a fan of racing,” said Mike Repole, owner of Calibrachoa. “This should count as two Grade I’s, whoever wins it."
The consolation for his rivals is that the Carter will be contested on the main track, where Calibrachoa is mortal. He won last year's Bold Ruler Stakes (gr. III) at seven furlongs before finishing third in the Cigar Mile (gr. I). That is the Todd Pletcher trainee's only loss in eight starts at the Big A.
Pletcher has won the prestigious Carter twice previously, in 2005 with Aaron and Marie Jones' Forest Danger, and the following year with Melnyk Racing's Bishop Court Hill.
Calibrachoa, who began his 2012 campaign with a 2 1/4-length tally in Aqueduct's Toboggan Stakes (gr. III), earned a career-best 111 Beyer in winning the Tom Fool for the second straight year. A 10-time winner with 17 in-the-money performances from 20 starts, he'll carry 118 pounds while breaking from post 3 with Cornelio Velasquez once again aboard. He is 4-1 on the morning line.
“We have a lot of respect for Shackleford, and Jackson’s Bend’s reputation speaks for itself," said Michael McCarthy, Pletcher's assistant. "We’re going to go over there thinking our horse is going to fire his best race and let the chips fall where they may.”
Caleb's Posse will carry top weight of 122 pounds in the Carter, the same he toted while giving four pounds to Calibrachoa in the Tom Fool. That was the seasonal debut for the 4-year-old son of Posse . Caleb's Posse won the Amsterdam (gr. II) and Foxwood's King Bishop Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoa last summer before concluding the year with a four-length decision over Shackleford in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) Nov. 5.
Donnie K. Von Hemel trains Caleb's Posse for McNeil Stables and Cheyenne Stables. Rajiv Maragh has the return assignment on the bay colt. Caleb's Posse, who has been training at Oaklawn Park, drilled a bullet five furlongs in :59 4/5 March 27.
In the Tom Fool, Maragh guided Caleb's Posse from the rear of the six-horse field to a driving finish on the outside, but came up just short. Caleb's Posse, a lifetime winner of eight races from 17 starts with earnings of nearly $1.2 million, starts from post 2. Von Hemel felt Caleb's Posse needed a little more distance.
“The fact that he beat older horses in the Breeders’ Cup was a very good indication he would hold his form and class as a 4-year-old,” Von Hemel said of his 8-5 favorite. “I didn’t have any concerns going into this year in that regard.”
Shackleford, last season's Preakness Stakes (gr. I) victor, cuts back to one turn for trainer Dale Romans. In his first start since the Breeders' Cup, he tired to seventh after prompting the pace in the 1 1/8-mile Donn Handicap (gr. I) Feb. 11 at Gulfstream Park. Shackleford has lost six races in a row since his half-length triumph in the Preakness.
But Mike Lauffer & Bill Cubbedge's homebred son of Forestry has been working brilliantly at Gulfstream since the Donn, posting three bullet moves in the past month including a :47 1/5 half-mile April 1. Jesus Castanon has the call once more on the lifetime earner of nearly $2 million.
Robert LaPenta and Fred Brei's Jackson Bend drew the rail for Nick Zito, who won the Carter for the first time in his Hall of Fame career last year with Morning Line . Jackson Bend is coming off a third-place finish the one-mile Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II). The 5-year-old son of Hear No Evil is three-for-three at seven furlongs, including a big win in the 2011 Forego Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga.
Third in last year's Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I), Jackson Bend began the year with a one-length score in the Hal's Hope Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream. He has banked more than $1.3 million while winning eight of 24 lifetime starts. Corey Nakatani, who was aboard Jackson Bend for their 3 1/4-length win in the Forego, regains the mount from John Velazquez. Jackson Bend will carry 120 pounds.
Though outshone by their rivals' accomplishments, the Godolphin entry deserves consideration. Emcee, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, performed admirably in his stakes debut in the Tom Fool, just his third career start. The 4-year-old son of Unbridled's Song pressed a hot pace and battled gamely with Calibrachoa and Caleb's Posse before finishing third, defeated by one length.
Emcee began the year with a six-length allowance victory at Gulfstream going seven furlongs. Velazquez sticks with the Darley-bred colt, who could dictate the pace.
"Look at his form, he’s a top horse,” McLaughlin said. “He ran first and first and then third in a grade III. Yes, we have a lot of confidence, and he’s a really nice horse. Hopefully, he can win it and stamp himself as a stallion. Anybody who wins it will."
Tahitian Warrior seeks his first stakes win for trainer Tom Albertrani. The 5-year-old Maria's Mon gelding, second in a Gulfstream Park optional claimer on a sloppy track at Gulfstream Feb. 10, starts from the far outside. Javier Castellano rides.
$400,000 Carter Handicap (gr. I, Race 10, 5:55 p.m.), 3 & Up, 7 Furlongs
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. Jackson Bend (FL), C S Nakatani, 120, N P Zito, 3/1
2. Caleb's Posse (KY), R Maragh, 122, D K Von Hemel, 8/5
3. Calibrachoa (KY), C H Velasquez, 118, T A Pletcher, 4/1
4. Shackleford (KY), J L Castanon, 119, D L Romans, 8/1
5. a-Emcee (KY), J R Velazquez, 114, K P McLaughlin, 7/2
6. a-Tahitian Warrior (KY), J Castellano, 115, T Albertrani, 7/2
a- Godolphin Racing entry