The $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Handicap (gr. IIIT) came up as a real hat pin special Jan. 30, attracting a capacity field of 14 entrants with no clear standouts at Sam Houston Race Park.
The Connally, one of the major highlights of the Thoroughbred season at the Houston racetrack, is the ninth race on the program with an estimated post of 10:28 p.m. CST.
Canadian invader Pool Play, winner of Woodbine's Durham Cup (gr. III) in October on Polytrack, is the 119-pound high weight in the 1 1/8-mile Connally, whose purse includes a $50,000 infusion from the Breeders' Cup Fund. W.S. Farish's 5-year-old son of Silver Deputy has just two starts on turf, his best showing a second in a first-level allowance race at Woodbine in October 2008.
Trained by Mark Casse, Pool Play has three wins in 13 lifetime starts with 10 in-the-money finishes and earnings of $275,390. The Ontario bred drew post 11 and will have regular rider Patrick Husbands aboard. Pool Play last raced Dec. 6 at Woodbine, finishing third behind Cloudy's Knight in the Valedictory Stakes.
Orientate Express, one of three horses in the field weighted at 116, won three stakes last year for trainer Kelly Von Hemel and owner Prairie Lane Farms, including the Remington Green on turf in Oklahoma last October.
The 5-year-old Orientate gelding is coming off a second-place finish in the Zia Park Distance Championship Handicap in New Mexico Dec. 6, a dirt race in which he led until deep stretch. Orientate Express boasts three wins in six starts on grass along with a pair of seconds. Overall, his record stands at 6-5-1 in 17 races with earnings of $296,505. His regular pilot, Glen Murphy, has the call and they will break from post 10.
Gran Estreno, also at 116, rattled off six consecutive wins in 2009 after being claimed for $20,000 at Arlington Park May 1. The 7-year-old Lucky Roberto offspring's streak culminated in triumphs in the Claiming Crown Emerald Stakes on turf at Canterbury Park in July and the Washington Park Handicap (gr. III) over Arlington's Polytrack Sept. 5.
Since then, Gran Estreno has lost three in a row, his last start resulting in a close fourth-place finish in an optional claiming allowance race on the Fair Grounds turf Jan. 3. Shane Sellers takes the mount on the Argentina-bred horse who has earned $303,180 in his career while winning nine of 24 starts.
Acting Zippy, assigned 116 pounds after posting four stakes wins in 2009, drew the services of jockey Robby Albarado.
Trained by William Bennett, the 5-year-old City Zip gelding has limited experience on the turf with one victory in six tries, but has won $454,228 in his career while capturing nine of 30 starts. Acting Zippy came off a 5 1/2-month layoff Jan. 16 to handily defeat a Sam Houston allowance field by 2 1/2 lengths in front-running style. The race, originally carded for the lawn, was contested over a muddy main track.
The 6-year-old Going Ballistic leads the field in earnings with $1,098,612 and ran a close second in the Connally in 2008. Most of his 32-race career has been spent on dirt, but the Donnie Von Hemel-trained son of Lite the Fuse has won three on grass while finishing in the money nine times in 11 tries over the green. Going Ballistic turned in a wide fourth-place effort in the Zia Park Distance Championship last time out.
Trainer Danny Pish, who was tied with Steve Asmussen atop the Sam Houston standings with 15 victories through Jan. 27, is represented by Ernesto, a 7-year-old Royal Academy gelding. The hard-trying Ernesto has been a consistent turf runner in his career with seven wins and eight seconds in 21 starts. He warmed up for this spot with a second-place finish in an optional claiming allowance at Fair Grounds Jan. 3.
Asmussen entered a pair in the Connally -- Ablaze With Spirit and Red Rock Creek. They are coupled in the wagering.
Ablaze With Spirit, a 5-year-old bred in Texas, won an off-the-turf allowance heat at Sam Houston Dec. 31. The 9-year-old Red Rock Creek most recently ran fourth in an optional claiming race over the Fair Grounds lawn Jan. 2. Owned by Asmussen, Red Rock Creek has won 23 of 72 lifetime starts and earned $600,631.
A second coupled entry comes from the barn of Jerenesto Torrez, who saddles Fifteen Love and Real Appeal.
$200,000 John B. Connally Turf Handicap (gr. IIIT, Race 9, 10:28 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. King Dan (KY), J Graham, 113, D E Keen
2. Gretsky (KY), L Taylor, 114, G Northrop Jr.
3. Ernesto (KY), E M Martin, Jr., 114, D Pish
4. Going Ballistic (FL), L S Quinonez, 115, D K Von Hemel
5. Acting Zippy (FL), R Albarado, 116, W D Bennett
6. My Happiness (ARG), B J Walker, Jr., 113, B C Barnett
7. a-Ablaze With Spirit (TX), S Bridgmohan, 114, S M Asmussen
8. a-Red Rock Creek (KY), C Landeros, 113, S M Asmussen
9. Gran Estreno (ARG), S J Sellers, 116, M Stidham
10. Orientate Express (KY), G Murphy, 116, K R Von Hemel
11. Pool Play (ON), P Husbands, 119, M E Casse
12. Baltimore Bob (MD), B J Hernandez, Jr., 115, H Pitts
13. b-Fifteen Love (KY), E A Tejera, 112, J Torrez
14. b-Real Appeal (KY), J Guzman, 113, J Torrez
a-coupled entry; b-coupled entry