Trainer Kellyn Gorder couldn’t have been happier with the performance of Bourbon Courage at Gulfstream Park last February in the $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I). Now at the end of the season, the 4-year-old son of Lion Heart is on track for another run at the Donn via the $100,000 Harlan’s Holiday Dec. 22.
In his first attempt, Bourbon Courage was second, three lengths behind front-running victor Graydar in the 1 1/8-mile Donn.
“I thought he ran super. He just got beat by a really nice horse,” Gorder said. “No excuses there.”
Nevertheless, Gorder will try things a little differently this time while preparing the Bourbon Lane Stables graded stakes winner for another try in Gulfstream’s marquee event for handicap horses, set for Feb. 8. While the bay colt ran in the 2013 Donn without a prep, he’ll be entered in the 1 1/16-mile Harlan’s Holiday this time. And he gets blinkers, an equipment change that will hopefully help him focus in the early stages of the race.
“He’s lightly raced this year,” Gorder said. “Last year, he ran in the Woody Stephens (gr. II), the West Virginia Derby (gr. II), the Super Derby (gr. II), the Indiana Derby (gr. II) and the Clark (gr. I). We’d had a heavier schedule last year.”
Bourbon Courage won the Super Derby in 2012 and hasn’t won since then, although he has put in several good efforts. He was second in the Indiana Derby behind Neck 'n Neck, also scheduled to contest the Harlan’s Holiday. After getting “banged up” during a fourth-place finish in the Alysheba (gr. II) at Churchill Downs in May, he was sidelined until returning to action with a second-place finish in a Churchill allowance/optional claimer Oct. 31. The Kentucky-bred colt came back to finish a strong-closing fourth, 3 3/4 lengths behind victorious Will Take Charge , in the Clark Nov. 29.
“We’re coming off a decent race in the Clark against Will Take Charge and Game on Dude,” Gorder said. “My horse was real relaxed early in the race and was just too far off the pace. He was 15 or 16 lengths off the frontrunners and closed to within three lengths or so to be fourth.”
Javier Castellano, who rode Bourbon Courage in the Donn last season, will be back aboard from the 3 hole. Bourbon Courage carries 117 pounds.
“Javier came up to Palm Meadows to work him the other day and he worked super,” Gorder said. “He hasn’t won for a while. I’d like to see the horse get his confidence back. It seems like he’s in great shape now. He’s matured a lot mentally. We’re hoping this is the year.”
Neck ‘n Neck seemed poised to join Fort Larned among the elite in 2013 after closing out his 3-year-old campaign with a convincing triumph in the Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III) at Churchill, one day before trainer Ian Wilkes saddled his more established stablemate for a victory in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I).
But a few weeks later, the son of Flower Alley sustained a career-threatening injury, a fractured sesamoid in his left front ankle. He underwent surgery and, against the odds, returned to action 11 months later.
“It’s always disappointing when you have a horse with so much promise. But I’m very fortunate to get him back. It was a serious injury. But they did a good job with the surgery and his recovery. The aftercare was great,” Wilkes said. “You have to look at it a different way. Yes, it was disappointing, but I’m lucky to have the horse back now.
With Fort Larned recently retired to stallion duty at Adena Springs in Kentucky, Wilkes is hopeful that Neck ‘n Neck can become a force in the handicap ranks this season.
“He’s got all the attributes to do that. He’s got the talent,” said Wilkes, whose colt has won five races, including the Indiana Derby, and $687,852 in purses. “He’s won a grade II. He’s just got to step up a little bit more to be a grade I horse.”
The Harlan’s Holiday will be the second start back for Neck ‘n Neck. In his return, the Kentucky-bred 4-year-old closed from well off the pace to finish a close third in an Indiana Downs stakes Oct. 5.
“I was very pleased that he came off such a long layoff and got beat by just a length,” Wilkes said.
Neck ‘n Neck had been targeted to run in the Clark, but Wilkes was unable to find a prep for the Churchill handicap.
“I wasn’t going to take on Will Take Charge and Game on Dude without a prep race,” said Wilkes of the horses that went on to finish 1-2 in the Clark.
The Harlan’s Holiday is a traditional prep for the Donn, but Wilkes hesitates to look ahead too far in the future.
“We’ll take it one race of a time,” Wilkes said. “We’re starting off a new season with him. Let’s take it one race at a time and see if he comes out OK. Definitely, we’d like to look at the Donn.”
Neck ‘n Neck, who’ll be ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr., drew the No. 1 post position in a field of eight that includes a pair of rivals coming off back-to-back victories.
Csaba, who captured last year’s Harlan’s Holiday by nearly four lengths, was impressive last time out in the Dec. 7 Fred W. Hooper Handicap (gr. III) at Calder Casino & Race Course. He carries high weight of 123 pounds under Luis Saez from post 2.
“He obviously likes this time of year,” trainer Phil Gleaves said. “I’m looking forward to running him on Sunday.”
River Seven will seek his third straight stakes score after winning the $100,000 Labeeb at Woodbine and the $100,000 Commonwealth Turf (gr. IIT) at Churchill. The Harlan’s Holiday will be only the second start on dirt for River Seven, who finished second over the Fort Erie main track in the $500,000 Prince of Wales, the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.
“I’ve always wanted to try him again on dirt, even though he’s won his last two on turf,” trainer Nick Gonzalez said. “It’s one of the reasons we brought him here: to run him on dirt. He’s always trained well over this racetrack. We’ve had this race in our plans.”
$100,000 Harlan's Holiday Stakes (Race 9, approximate post 4:33 p.m. EDT), 3YOs & Up, 1 1/16 miles (dirt)
PP, Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Neck ‘n Neck (KY), B.J. Hernandez, Jr., 117, I R Wilkes
2. Csaba (KY), L. Saez, 123, P A Gleaves
3. Bourbon Courage (KY), J. Castellano, 117, K Gorder
4. Purple Egg (KY), P. Lopez, 120, J. Cibelli
5. Sr. Quisqueyano (FL), C. Olivero, 120, L Olivares
6. River Seven (ON), J. Rocco, Jr., 120, N Gonzalez
7. Reveron (KY), J. Rosario, 117, A C Bezara
8. Joshua's Comprise (FL), L. Panici, 114, B R Rose
Blinkers On: Bourbon Courage