Bruce Hollander and Cary Shapoff's Csaba is the best he's ever been, carrying three consecutive stakes scores into the $100,000 Hal's Hope Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park. If he sails through the one-turn mile dirt test over nine other older horses Jan. 13, he'll punch his ticket to his first grade I stakes attempt in the $500,000 Donn Handicap on Feb. 9.
The 4-year-old son of Kitten's Joy turns back in distance after reeling off his three recent victories for trainer Phil Gleaves—a 3 3/4-length score over Delegation in the $100,000 Harlan's Holiday going 1 1/16 miles Dec. 16, a dead-heat with Ducduc in the Nov. 14 Fred Hooper Handicap (gr. III) at 1 1/18 miles at Calder Casino & Race Course, and an off-the-turf edition of the Oct. 13 Tropical Park Derby there in which he romped by 14 lengths.
"I like the turn back; Woody (Stephens) made a habit of doing that over the years," said Gleaves, referring to the Hall of Fame mentor for whom he was a top assistant until going out on his own in the mid-80s. "If all goes well in the Hal's Hope, the Donn would be next on the radar."
Gleaves purchased Csaba privately for Hollander and Shapoff as an unraced 2-year-old in the spring of 2011. The bay colt has won seven races since then, and finished second by a nose to Quick Wit in an off-the-turf edition of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga Race Course. He carries 121 pounds, including jockey Luis Saez, from post 6.
Also weighted at 121, Delegation will leave the 5 hole under John Velazquez. The 4-year-old Speightstown runner was making his first start in the Harlan's Holiday after a good third-place try behind Tapizar and Rail Trip in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park Nov. 3. He won the Durham Cup (Can-III) over the all weather track at Woodbine one start prior for trainer Mark Casse, and delivered a consistent 4-2-2 mark from eight starts in 2012.
"That horse trained on synthetic his entire career," Casse said. "When we brought him out to Santa Anita we thought it was as close as you can get to running on synthetic, because it's faster and horses seem to skip over it. I wasn't really concerned with it. I thought he ran really well. He came out of the race a little tired, as most horses would be. But when we ran him at Gulfstream, he was exhausted. That is a much more trying surface."
Delegation was one of Casse's five Breeders' Cup starters that got sick upon leaving Santa Anita, and had only two breezes before the Harlan's Holiday.
"I think he should be a better horse than he was three weeks ago, but I'm going to tell you, he going to have to be a lot better horse, because the winner was impressive," Casse remarked. "I'm not sure we can beat him, but we're going to give it one more try. If Delegation continues to improve he will be one of the best older horses in North America this year."
Casse also supplemented William S. Farish Jr.'s 8-year-old Pool Play to the Hal's Hope, which will be the veteran stakes performer's first start since running eighth behind Fort Larned in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Nov. 3 at Santa Anita. Like Gleaves, he hopes to use the start as a Donn prep.
"We don't have any other spots," Casse said. "He isn't eligible for any allowance races. The mile is definitely too short for him. Initially we weren't going to go there, but after much discussion, Bill Farish and I decided that it was the best of the worst scenarios. We thought the best chance for him to have any chance of making the Donn, he'd have to run there, and that's why we supplemented him."
Pool Play, by Silver Deputy, upset the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs in June 2011 but went to the sidelines with a tendon injury for more than a year after that career-best score. Returned to racing in 2012, he started five times in stakes company with a victory in the 1 1/4-mile Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) last October. He had been entered in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Nov. 24, but was scratched from that race when he did not train well in the days leading up to the race.
"As a trainer,he's one of my proudest accomplishments," Casse said. "Bill bought him for $180,000 and he's won $1.2 million."
Pool play completes a trio of runners carrying 121, and will be piloted by regular rider Miguel Mena. All others carry 117.
George and Lori Hall's 5-year-old Pants On Fire is another familiar contender. Trainer Kelly Bren has also entered the 5-year-old Jump Start runner for the main track only in the Jan. 12 Ft. Lauderdale Handicap (gr. IIT).
Pants On Fire emerged as a Kentucky Derby prospect early in 2011 when he won the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) at Fair Grounds, a race in which Donn contender Mucho Macho Man was third, before finishing ninth of 19 in the Run for the Roses behind Animal Kingdom.
Pants On Fire won a one-mile allowance at Gulfstream by 4 1/2 lengths last March, finished fifth in the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) and sixth in the $1 million Charles Town Classic (gr. II), and came back to get the Skip Away Stakes at Monmouth Park in May. He did not race again until Nov. 17, when he finished sixth as the odds-on favorite in the $150,000 Delta Mile when he acted up in the gate and missed the break.
The "wild card" entry in the Hal's Hope is Harvey Clarke and partners' 5-year-old Soldat, who has flashed brilliance on occasion while at other times disappointing throughout his 11-race career. The son of War Front makes only his third start for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin since finishing 11th of 19 in the 2011 Kentucky Derby.
Soldat appeared bound for a career on turf when winning the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga and finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. IIT) at Churchill as a 2-year-old in 2010, but his career took a sharp turn to the Derby Trail after a 10-length allowance score on the main track at Gulfstream and a two-length victory in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) there early in 2011.
His career once again appeared re-directed to turf after he posted an impressive three-length victory on turf over the Gulfstream course in early March last year, but he was sidelined with a soft tissue injury until returning with a disappointing sixth-place finish in an overnight stakes on the lawn at Aqueduct Racetrack last out Nov. 17.
"We're looking at the future, and it's probably a good time to try him back on the dirt and see what happens," McLaughlin said. "If he doesn't run well, we can put him back on the turf. But the races on the turf down here are going to be extremely difficult with Animal Kingdom and Point of Entry and others. We thought it would be a good time to switch to the dirt and see how it goes."