Viva Rafaela, a group I winner in her native Brazil, will try stakes company for the first time on United States soil while facing a full field in the Jan. 4 Marshua's River Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Gulfstream Park.
Slated for 4:33 p.m. EST, the $100,000 turf contest at 1 1/16 miles attracted 12 fillies and mares, 4 years old and up.
Trainer Todd Pletcher intended to run Viva Rafaela in the Dec. 28 La Prevoyante Handicap (gr. III) at Calder Race Course, but was forced to come up with a different plan when the racetrack canceled that 12-furlong event.
"My original plan with her was to run her in the La Prevoyante, but that went up all in smoke," Pletcher said of the Stud TNT homebred. "I think she's a filly that would like to go a little bit longer, but we had her ready to run and felt we'd take a look at this race. We were out of options. Hopefully she's the kind of filly that can go in the Orchid (gr. IIIT, March 29) or a race like that down the road."
Fourth in her U.S. debut July 31 at Saratoga Race Course, the 5-year-old mare had a troubled trip three weeks later over the same course and wound up eighth. Viva Rafaela put it all together when prevailing in a 1 1/16-mile optional claimer over the Gulfstream course Nov. 11. Pletcher acknowledged she has been a work in progress.
"She had trained very well, but we've been trying to figure out how she needs to be ridden," he explained. "The first time, we tried to take her back and she didn't like that. The second time we tried to let her run freely and that didn't work—she was a little too free. I think it all came together for her last time, and hopefully she'll continue to improve and learn. That's the thing with the South American horses—the longer they're here, the more they acclimate."
Edgar Prado, who rode the filly last time, will have the call on Saturday when Viva Rafaela breaks from post 4. By Know Heights, the mare is out of the Bin Ajwaad mare Linda Rafaela.
At 15-1 on the morning line, Viva Rafaela will have her work cut out for her. Herman Van Den Broeck's consistent mare Angelica Zapata won three straight stakes races on the Florida circuit before being beaten only a half-length in the Dec. 7 My Charmer Handicap (gr. IIIT), while Abaco looks to add another graded-stakes victory to her resume.
A daughter of Giant's Causeway and a Phipps Stable homebred, Abaco closed out 2013 with a win in the Cardinal Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Churchill Downs Nov. 9. Trainer Shug McGaughey feels the newly-turned 6-year-old hasn't lost a beat.
"She had a great work yesterday on the turf in 37 seconds (for three furlongs), which was just to get her back in the game," McGaughey said. "From watching her around the barn and the track, I was pretty impressed with what I saw. We'd like to have her through the year, but it depends on her. If her races down here are good, then we'll probably keep her in training. We can always breed her. She's a graded stakes winner and there's pretty good upside with the type of pedigree that she's got."
Abaco, the 3-1 morning line favorite, drew the outside post and will carry jockey Javier Castellano.
Dreaming of Sophia will only run in the race if it is taken off the turf.
$100,000 Marshua's River Stakes (gr. IIIT, Race 9, 4:33 p.m.), fillies and mares, 4Yos & up, 1 1/16 Miles (Turf)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML odds
1. Floral Romance (KY), J Rosario, 119, W I Mott, 8-1
2. Miss Montreal (KY), P Lopez, 117, J D Braddy, 15-1
3. Angelica Zapata (KY), J C Leyva, 119, R Pellegrini, 5-1
4. Viva Rafaela (BRZ), E S Prado, 117, T A Pletcher, 15-1
5. Silverette (KY), J Lezcano, 117, E Kenneally, 12-1
6. Naples Bay (KY), J Bravo, 117, C Clement, 6-1
7. Deanaallen'skitten (KY), A Garcia, 119, C C Brown, 4-1
8. Poetic Kid (KY), J Rocco, Jr., 117, W M Catalano, 10-1
9. Rose to Gold (KY), O Bocachica, 121, S Santoro, 20-1
10. Somali Lemonade (KY), L Saez, 121, M R Matz, 8-1
12. Abaco (KY), J Castellano, 121, C R McGaughey III, 3-1
Main Track Only
11. Dreaming of Sophia (KY), P Lopez, 117, K Ziadie, 4-1