Twin Creek Racing's Graydar had a few questions to answer coming out of the Feb. 9 Donn Handicap (gr. I), where he earned his first stakes score.
Some believed he needed frontrunning freedom over the Gulfstream Park surface to get the Donn win. But the 4-year-old son of Unbridled's Song proved any doubters wrong March 30 at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, when he held off Mineshaft Handicap (gr. III) winner Mark Valeski to notch a determined 1 3/4-length victory in the $400,000 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO).
The Todd Pletcher-trained runner changed up his running style, coming from just off the pace to repel the gritty challenge of Mark Valeski while earning his fourth win and first away from Gulfstream. He finished the 1 1/8-mile New Orleans 'Cap in a final time of 1:49.16.
After a smooth break from the outside post as the 6-5 favorite in a field of eight, Graydar settled well under Hall of Fame rider Edgar Prado and assumed a stalking position about 2 1/2 lengths behind frontrunning 63-1 shot Majestic Harbor. Mark Valeski, usually ridden from farther behind, was forwardly placed in second after getting bumped at the start; he pushed the leader through opening fractions of :23.70 and :47.68.
"We broke very nice," Prado said. "I saw a couple of horses try to go to the lead so I let my horse do his own thing. He was very happy laying third. He showed a different dimension today."
Majestic Harbor faded after three-quarters in 1:11.84, giving Mark Valeski a chance to take the lead, but Graydar also was making his move. The duo entered the stretch on even terms and engaged in a fierce battle through a 1:36.32 mile, with Mark Valeski briefly holding an advantage before Graydar drew ahead under the right-handed whip passing the sixteenth pole.
"Today was the first time another horse really looked him in the eye and he fought real hard. He showed the will to win and I think only nice horses have that," Prado said.
The winner moved clear late under continued right-handed urging. Mark Valeski held for second and Bourbon Courage closed to within three-quarters of a length behind him in third. Macho Macho, Flat Out , Majestic Harbor, Cool Street, and Dreaming Blue completed the order of finish.
Trainer Larry Jones was pleased with Mark Valeski's run.
"That horse that beat him is a nice horse," Jones said. "He just won the best (handicap division race) that had been run in America this year and this one might've been better than that. And Bourbon Courage is tough, and Flat Out, I ran against him with Havre de Grace and she was all out to beat him, so I know what he is. This was a big effort. We wanted to win but it wasn't for lack of try on our horse's part."
Bred in Kentucky by W.S. Farish out of the Dehere mare Sweetest Smile, the gray colt improved his career record to four wins and a third from five starts, with earnings of $361,560. An $85,000 RNA from the 2010 Keeneland September yearling sale, he was purchased by Randy Gullatt for $260,000 at the 2011 Fasig-Tipton Florida select 2-year-old in training sale when consigned by William B. Harrigan.