Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider's Lea was brilliant in the 2014 Donn Handicap (gr. I), defeating eventual 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge in track record time to earn his first grade I victory.
But the 6-year-old son of First Samurai faces a tall task Feb. 7 for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. He comes back off just one start this season to defend his title against the powerful WinStar Farm duo of Constitution and Commissioner , along with European invader Sloane Avenue and a passel of graded stakes-placed veterans.
The $500,000 Donn is part of the Jockey Club Tour on FOX Sports 1, with a two-hour telecast featuring four major stakes races from Gulfstream and Santa Anita Park. The telecast includes the $500,000 San Antonio (gr. I) featuring a rematch between 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome and 2013 champion 2-year-old male Shared Belief, along with the presence of grade I winner Hoppertunity. The broadcast airs from 5:30-7:30 p.m. EST on FOX Sports 1, with post time for the Donn at 5:58 p.m. EST.
"I'd say, he's probably coming into the Donn the same as he was last year," Mott said Wednesday morning.
Lea will attempt to become the first horse to win back-to-back runnings of the Donn Handicap since the Mott-trained Cigar launched his back-to-back Horse of the Year campaigns with victories in the 1995 and 1996 editions.
"He's coming off a good race and I'm happy with him," Mott said. "He's good enough to be in the race, but I can't predict the outcome."
After Lea earned grade I credentials in last year's Donn, his owners could have opted to retire him from racing and send him off to stud, especially considering all the time lost due to complications stemming from the virus.
"He had been sick. He had a virus and it was a case where he had done enough. He was a grade I winner, and he could have gone to the breeding shed. They opted to give him this chance right here. I told them what the condition of the horse was and how he was doing," Mott said. "They made the decision. I told them step by step on a daily and weekly basis the condition of the horse and where we were at with him. I guess I made it sound good enough to keep him in training."
After racing primarily as a grass horse in his early career, Lea has won his past three dirt starts. Joel Rosario, who rode Lea to victory in last year's Donn and in his return in the Hal's Hope, has the mount from post 4 aboard the chestnut, who carries high weight of 121 pounds.
Constitution, owned by WinStar in partnership with Twin Creeks Racing Stable, is one of three runners who will be sent out in the Donn by trainer Todd Pletcher. The son of Tapit makes his 4-year-old debut in this spot after finishing third in the Nov. 28 Clark Handicap (gr. I) behind Hoppertunity and Sumaya U.S. Stable's Donn contender Protonico .
He was sidelined last spring with a hairline fracture in his right front cannon bone after taking three in a row, including the Besilu Florida Derby (gr. I). Constitution has not won in two starts since that March 29 event, including a fourth in a 1 1/16-mile allowance optional claimer at Belmont Park in October before his Clark run.
"We thought about a race between the Clark and the Donn, but we just felt that with two races under his belt and a little time between that the right move was to go directly into the Donn," Pletcher said. "The horse has been training really well. He certainly seemed to like Gulfstream last year."
Javier Castellano has the return mount on Constitution from the rail as part of a 119-pound impost.
Commissioner, an A.P. Indy homebred also trained by Pletcher, returned to action Jan. 10 after spending time on the sidelines for ankle chip removal. Runner-up in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), he was third in a 1 1/16-mile optional claimer at Gulfstream and is still in search of his first graded stakes score. He has not won since last January, when he took a 1 1/8-mile allowance at Gulfstream by a neck over the then highly regarded Top Billing.
"I think he ran well and I think it should springboard him forward into this race," Pletcher said. "I think the added distance will be to his liking. He seems to be coming into this race in good order."
Commissioner has been assigned 118 pounds and will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez from post 2.
Protonico blossomed last fall, capturing the Smarty Jones (gr. III) at Parx Racing and the Discovery Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct Racetrack before coming up just a half length short of catching Hoppertunity in the Clark.
"I think his Discovery was very impressive and he came back to run well in the Clark. I'm taking the same approach with him as I am with Constitution," Pletcher said. "He seems like a horse that is continually improving."
Joe Bravo has been named to ride the 4-year-old son of Giant's Causeway , who is to carry 118 pounds from the 8 hole.
Blue Tone, trained by Bob Hess Jr. at Santa Anita Park, finished third, two lengths behind Hoppertunity, in the Jan. 10 San Pasqual (gr. II).
"I'd classify it as good, but we're still looking for a breakthrough race," Hess said. "This race is brutally tough, but I think there's a little bit more there."
The son of Birdstone previously finished second in the Native Diver (gr. III) and won an overnight stakes over the synthetic surface at Del Mar for owners Beverly Engelberg, Shroeder Farms, and Jan Steeper.
"I still think there's another two or three lengths in him," Hess said. "I think he'll like this track. People may not think it's soft, but it's comparatively soft to what he's been running on. This track might bring out the best in him. I think he's run so well on synthetic. It's slightly kinder."
Jockey Corey Lanerie has the mount from post 9. The 6-year-old gelding will carry 116 pounds.
Sloane Avenue shipped from England to make his dirt debut in the Donn. A 4-year-old son of Candy Ride owned by Mrs. Susan Roy, he has won three races on synthetic tracks in Europe.
"We've wanted to give him a go on the dirt for a little while. We thought about going to Dubai for the Maktoum Challenge and, then discussing it with Paul Roy, decided we'd sort of take a different route and have a go in America," trainer Jeremy Noseda said. "I had to look at races that would suit him, and if you're going to come this far and the expense that goes along with it, you have to go for something that has a decent purse. Yes, the competition is going to be harder but it's something that's worthwhile."
Sloane Avenue, who has been assigned 114 pounds, is scheduled to be ridden by Jose Lezcano from the 7 hole.
H. Jack Hendricks and Roger Justice's East Hall, who captured the Indiana Derby (gr. II) and the Ohio Derby last year, has been assigned 117 pounds for the Donn, in which he'll be ridden by Luis Saez. The Bill Kaplan-trained son of Graeme Hall finished a game second in the Sunshine Millions Classic in his 2015 debut at Gulfstream Jan. 17. He finished a half length behind Sr. Quisqueyano at the 1 1/8-mile distance.
Rounding out the Donn field are Shadwell Stable's Elnaawi (116; Julien Leparoux), a convincing winner of the Native Dancer Stakes at Laurel Park last time out for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin; Zayat Stables' Prayer for Relief (116; Edgard Zayas), who finished just a half length behind Lea while third in the Hal's Hope for trainer Dale Romans; and Mossarosa's Catholic Cowboy (115; Paco Lopez), who was saddled by Nick Zito for a third-place finish in the Sunshine Millions Classic.
Gulfstream Park, Saturday, February 07, 2015, Race 13
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Constitution (KY) Javier Castellano 119 Todd A. Pletcher - 2 2Commissioner (KY) John R. Velazquez 118 Todd A. Pletcher - 3 3East Hall (FL) Luis Saez 117 William A. Kaplan - 4 4Lea (KY) Joel Rosario 121 William I. Mott - 5 5Elnaawi (KY) Julien R. Leparoux 115 Kiaran P. McLaughlin - 6 6Catholic Cowboy (FL) Paco Lopez 115 Nicholas P. Zito - 7 7Sloane Avenue (KY) Jose Lezcano 114 Jeremy Noseda - 8 8Protonico (KY) Joe Bravo 118 Todd A. Pletcher - 9 9Blue Tone (KY) Corey J. Lanerie 116 Robert B. Hess, Jr. - 10 10Prayer for Relief (KY) Edgard J. Zayas 116 Dale L. Romans -
Gulfstream Park, Saturday, February 07, 2015, Race 13