The 3-1 second choice on the morning line for the $150,000 Excelsior Stakes (gr. III) March 23 at Aqueduct Racetrack is 2011 Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice, who won an Aqueduct optional claimer against three opponents Jan. 30.
Irad Ortiz Jr. will ride George and Lori Hall's color-bearer from the outside post under 119 pounds for trainer Kelly Breen. The 5-year-old son of Roman Ruler is among seven old pros entered in the 1 1/8-mile test scheduled with an approximate post time of 4:52 p.m. EDT.
John D. Gunther's Last Gunfighter carries a four-race winning streak, including a pair of stakes victories, into the Excelsior and is the 5-2 favorite on the morning line. After defeating fellow 3-year-olds by 4 3/4 lengths in the Raymond Earl overnight stakes over a sloppy Aqueduct main track in December, Last Gunfighter picked up his first victory around two turns when he wore down Isn't He Perfect to take the Jan. 19 Evening Attire by a half-length in his 4-year-old debut.
"He feels great. He's bottled up with energy," said Cherie DeVaux, assistant to trainer Chad Brown. "I couldn't ask him to be training any better. Obviously, it's a step up from where he's been running, but he hasn't done anything wrong."
Last Gunfighter, by First Samurai , will depart post 2 with Rajiv Maragh aboard while carrying 119 pounds.
Heart Butte, ninth in the March 2 Tom Fool (gr. III) in his first start in 13 months, returns to his preferred distance when he stretches out once again for the Excelsior. Two seasons ago, the 6-year-old son of Empire Maker won the 1 1/16-mile Evening Attire on Aqueduct's inner track and came off the bench to add a second stakes score 11 months later when he took Parx Racing's Auld Lang Syne going a mile and 70 yards on New Year's Eve 2011. He made two starts in 2012, finishing fourth in that year's Evening Attire and third in the John B. Campbell Handicap at Laurel Park.
Heart Butte didn't compete again for owner Claude Paul until Aqueduct's six-furlong Tom Fool, an event Todd Pletcher admits wasn't ideal for the lightly-raced runner. He feels the longer distance of the Excelsior, set with a field of seven and an approximate post time of 4:52 p.m. EDT, will be right up this runner's alley.
"We were trying to run him at a suitable distance off an extended layoff," Pletcher said. "The Stymie and the John Campbell were a mile and an eighth, and various allowance races didn't fill and he was out of conditions. We entered him unsuccessfully several times at Laurel and Parx and ended up running in a race he wasn't ideally suited for, but hopefully it will set him up for this. He's come back with a good breeze (four furlongs in :48.31 on the Belmont Park training track March 17) and he came out of the breeze well, so we're happy with the way he's coming into the race."
David Cohen will ride Heart Butte, 8-1 on the morning line, from post position 5 as part of a 117-pound impost. Pletcher also entered Mordi's Miracle, who has improved vastly in recent months and will also carry 117 pounds.
Owned by Zayat Stables, Mordi's Miracle was unplaced in his first four starts before he broke his maiden by 9 1/2 lengths in December at Aqueduct. He cleared the first allowance condition in February in an optional claimer, then was second by a neck in a second-level optional claimer on March 2.
"He's a consistent horse, one who is improving that we've always liked a lot," said Pletcher.
Chris DeCarlo has the assignment aboard Mordi's Miracle, 4-1, from post 4.
One of the likely pacesetters in the Excelsior is Joan's Choice, a 6-year-old gelding who won his first stakes Feb. 16 when he wired Aqueduct's Moro overnight stakes by four lengths over Isn't He Perfect. It marked the end of a seven-race losing streak for Joan's Choice, who hadn't won since taking a starter handicap in January 2012 at Aqueduct.
"When he's at the top of his game, he's dangerous," said Rick Violette, who trains Joan's Choice for Samuel Saccardo. "When he isn't, he needs a break, so we gave him one, and he has come back in good shape. He needs to run his 'A' race. Having less speed in the race would probably be to his advantage, although post position can dictate how much of an advantage it is. We wouldn't want to mess with his running style too much."
Jose Ortiz has the call aboard Joan's Choice, 6-1, from post 6.
The Excelsior field also includes Isn't He Perfect and recent optional claiming winner Colizeo.
$150,000 Excelsior Stakes (gr. III, Race 9, approximate post 4:52 p.m. EDT), 3YOs & Up, 1 1/8 miles (dirt)