Turf or dirt, it made little difference to odds-on favorite Twilight Eclipse, who rolled to a front-running repeat victory by seven lengths in the $125,000 W. L. McKnight Handicap (VIDEO) Dec. 28 at Calder Casino & Race Course.
Saturday's 1 1/2-mile event, originally scheduled as a grade III on turf, was moved to the fast main track, though there was nothing fast about this renewal of the McKnight. There were four scratches, reducing to the field to eight. (After reviewing the race, the American Graded Stakes Committee decided to reinstate the McKnight's grade III status.)
The start of the race was delayed by 25 minutes. When it did go, West Point Thoroughbreds' Twilight Eclipse, the 1-2 choice with Jose Lezcano up, found himself uncharacteristically in front of a paceless field after a good break. He opened up by two lengths early over 15-1 shot Dannhauser, then settled down to control the tempo by about a length while clipping off a half mile in :53.66, a mile in 1:45.83, and 10 furlongs in 2:10.83.
"I think he was the best horse in the race," said jockey Jose Lezcano. "He broke good; I let him do his thing the comfortable way."
Reaching the top of the stretch after coming under a little more pressure on the final turn from Dannhauser and jockey Luca Panici, Twilight Eclipse increased his advantage when shaken up by Lezcano. The 4-year-old Purim gelding led by three lengths mid-stretch and steadily drew away despite drifting a bit, reaching the wire in 2:35.66.
"Things worked out today," said owner Tom Bellhouse. "We thought all along that he would adapt to the dirt. He trains like a monster on the dirt, but you don't know until you actually run in the race."
Dannhauser held for second by 4 3/4 lengths over Flatter This, who stayed on for Eduardo Nunez through the lane to edge Ducduc by a neck for the show dough.
Trained by Tom Albertrani, Twilight Eclipse picked up his first victory since he set a world record for 12 furlongs of 2:22.63 in winning the Pan American Stakes (gr. IIT) over the Gulfstream Park lawn March 23. He had lost five in a row since, and was making his first appearance since finishing sixth in the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park, beaten by 2 1/4 lengths by Magician.
The winner was bred in Kentucky by Epona Thoroughbreds out of the Twilight Agenda mare My Twilight Dancer. Twilight Eclipse was a $1,000 yearling buy at Keeneland's winter mixed sale in January 2010, purchased by John Langemeier from Select Sales, agent. The bay gelding started twice for Langemeier before he was purchased privately by West Point Thoroughbreds.
Twilight Eclipse won last year's McKnight by 1 3/4 lengths on the Calder turf. He was making just his second lifetime start on dirt after finishing third in a minor stakes at Belmont Park in October 2012. The latest victory brought his career mark to 5-2-1 in 14 starts with earnings of $592,786.
"He ran up at Belmont once on the dirt and it was a little green, but today to see this type of performance, it gets us excited for the future," said Bellhouse. "We came from the Breeders' Cup and gave him a little extra time off. Then to run like this and win back-to-back McKnights is just a thrill for the partners."
The 122-pound highweight, Twilight Eclipse paid $3, $2.60, and $2.10, topping a $25.20 exacta with Dannhauser, who returned $7.80 and $4.20. Flatter This paid $3.40.
Ducduc was followed by Ocean Seven, Twin, Suntracer, and Hariolus. Scratched were Mucho Mas Macho and Vertiformer, who ran second and third, respectively, in last year's McKnight, as well as Franklinpark and Slumber.
The McKnight was to share top billing Saturday with its the filly counterpart, the La Prevoyante (gr. IIIT). But that race was canceled by Calder management before entries were drawn.