Merit Man is just a nose short of perfection in four starts for trainer Bob Hess Jr., but the 3-year-old son of With Distinction will have to travel a furlong farther than he has before in the $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 2 at Gulfstream Park.
Merit Man, who races in the silks of Bruce Chandler, Robert McKee, and James Glavin, won the $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes going six furlongs at the South Florida oval on New Year's Day. He earned that three quarter-length victory off his only loss by a tough nose to longhshot Hightail as the 1-2 favorite in the $500,000 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint at Santa Anita Park.
"I was happy about his race in the Spectacular Bid, although he ended up on the lead from the one post, which wasn't ideal," Hess remarked. "He was hooked and was very game to go on from there. He doesn't need to be on the lead. I'd rather see him sit and stalk. He's got a better post for this race."
Merit Man leaves the 5 hole with jockey Paco Lopez in the irons.
"I think he will have to improve from the Spectacular Bid to handle the competition he'll face in the Hutcheson," Hess said. "I'm not really worried about the seven furlongs. I think anything up to a one-turn mile is well within his range."
Merit Man came into the Breeders' Cup off successive wins—by 5 1/2 lengths in the $100,000 Tim Conway Stakes Oct. 6 and a three-quarter-length score first time out at Del Mar in September.
Swifty Farm's Pataky Kid is an accomplished contender for trainer Tom Proctor. The Oklahoma-bred son of Rockport Harbor will make his first start since finishing fifth in the one-mile Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs Oct. 28. He worked a bullet half-mile in :46 3/5 the morning of Jan. 30.
Pataky Kid finished third in his debut at Churchill on July 1 before breaking his maiden and capturing the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. III) at Arlington Park over the summer. In one more start before the Iroquois he finished an even fourth in the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland, those last three races all run on Polytrack.
"He's got ability, but he's a little quirky kind of horse," Proctor remarked of Pataky Kid, who leaves post 9 under Corey Lanerie. "We're looking for this race to get him started and see where we go from there. We still don't know whether he'll be best on dirt, 'Poly' or maybe even grass. We tried blinkers on him for the Iroquois and he didn't break. They do that sometimes the first time with blinkers."
Trainer Todd Pletcher sent Thunder Moccasin to win the Hutcheson last year and also won five consecutive editions of the race from 2003-07. Gulfstream's leading trainer appears to have another promising prospect for this renewal in Perretti Racing Stable's Forty Tales with jockey John Velazquez to ride from the rail. The son of Tale of the Cat has won his only two starts—his debut at Aqueduct Nov. 24 by 2 3/4 lengths and an allowance race at Parx Racing Jan. 5 by 3 3/4 lengths.
James Covello and Newtown Anner Stud's Falling Sky makes his first start for new connections Feb. 2 with jockey Luis Saez to ride for trainer John Terranova. The son of Lion Heart was a sharp allowance optional claiming winner going 6 1/2 furlongs Dec. 15 for trainer Antonio Sano and was consigned to this year's Ocala Breeders' Sale Co.'s January mixed sale, where he was purchased for $425,000.
"We've had him up here at Palm Meadows for a couple of weeks and he's doing well. He's talented and ran in some key races," Terranova said.
Two other contenders deserving of respect are Herman Van Den Broeck's Singanothersong, trained by Ron Pellegrini, and James Bucci's Honorable Dillon, trained by Eddie Kenneally, who finished one-two separated by three-quarters of a length in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance optional claiming race at Gulfstream Jan. 4.
Honorable Dillon was the 13-to-10 favorite when second to Singanothersong as he was making his third start and first since breaking his maiden at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 25 following a third-place debut at the Spa. The roan/gray son of Tapit rallied from fifth of six in the Gulfstream allowance and should benefit for the effort.
"I think he needed his first race and will move forward from it," Kenneally said. "That's about the way it worked for him at Saratoga last year. He finished third in his first start and then improved to win his second start impressively."
Not to be overlooked in the Hutcheson is Silverton Hill's Little Distorted with jockey Jesus Castanon in the saddle for trainer Darrin Miller. The son of Distorted Humor created buzz when he won his debut at Belmont Park in late October by 2 1/4 lengths for previous connections and was sold privately shortly thereafter. In his lone start since then he finished third, beaten 5 1/4 lengths, as a slight favorite behind Merit Man in the Spectacular Bid.