In his first race since his famous starting gate tantrum prior to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), odds-on favorite Quality Road was much the best in the $100,000 Hal's Hope Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO), winning by 2 3/4 lengths on opening day at Gulfstream Park Jan. 3.
Returning to the site of his biggest victory in last spring's Florida Derby (gr. I), Quality Road went over the $1 million mark in career earnings with his front-running victory in the Hal's Hope, a one-turn mile.
Quality Road threw a fit as assistants tried to load him into the gate before the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Nov. 7, necessitating his removal from the race after he nearly broke free from the starting barrier and sustained minor cuts.
But Quality Road, a Virginia homebred owned by Edward P. Evans, exhibited none of that behavior at Gulfstream. With John Velazquez aboard for trainer Todd Pletcher, the 4-year-old son of Elusive Quality had things entirely his own way after going to the front along the inside and carving an opening quarter-mile of :25.15.
Pushed along by outsider Spin Master, Quality Road dictated the pace on a speed-favoring main track through subsequent quarter-mile fractions of :48.31 and 1:12.03.
Quality Road was briefly challenged by You and I Forever when he drifted out a bit leaving the turn, but Velazquez shook the reins at him and Quality Road responded gamely to regain command. Velazquez never cocked the whip as Quality Road, sent off at odds of 2-5, drove for the wire to win going away in 1:36.33.
“He was acting perfect in the gate; there were never any concerns there," Velazquez said. "Once we got out, he just did everything nice and easy. With the way we’ve been breezing him, when (You and I Forever) came up beside him, I had to let him know it was time to do some running, and he just took off from there. I was never really worried.”
You and I Forever, ridden by Eddie Castro, nipped the late-running Congressional Page and Carlos Marquez Jr. for second by a neck. Second choice Harlem Rocker, also trained by Pletcher, was never able to raise much of a threat in spite of a good stalking trip in the nine-horse field and settled for fourth, 6 3/4 lengths behind the winner.
Expected to be among the national leaders among older horses in 2010, Quality Road is coming off an eventful 3-year-old campaign. He was one of the top 3-year-olds in the land after wins in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) and Florida Derby for trainer James Jerkens. But problems with quarter cracks forced him to miss the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) in May.
Transferred to Pletcher in the summer, Quality Road set a track record for 6 1/2 furlongs at Saratoga in winning the Amsterdam (gr. II) Aug. 3. He then placed third in the Travers (gr. I) and was runner-up in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) before the Breeders’ Cup. The bay colt has been working solidly at Palm Meadows for more than a month in preparation for his return.
“He’s been perfect in the morning (schooling) and we were pretty confident that he would be all right, but there’s always a difference between the morning and the afternoon," Pletcher noted. "We thought there might be more speed in there than it turned out, but they went pretty slow fractions as the race unfolded and he was comfortable on the lead in 25 and 48 and change while Johnny let him come out off the rail and relax. When (You and I Forever) came up inside him, he kind of eye-balled him and just went on from there.
"It was a good race. He likes the Gulfstream track and we’ll point him now for the Donn. Then he might get a little break and point for the big races in summer and fall."
Gulfstream's $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I) at 1 1/8 miles is on Feb. 6.
Quality Road's fifth lifetime win in eight starts was worth $60,000 and boosted his bankroll to $1,032,830. The winner is out of the Strawberry Road mare Kobla.
Carrying top weight of 122 pounds, Quality Road paid $2.80, $2.20 and $2.10 while part of a $20 exacta with You and I Forever ($6.80, $3.80). The latter rebounded nicely from an 11th-place effort in the Clark Handicap (gr. II) Nov. 27 at Churchill Dowsn for trainer Marty Wolfson. Congressional Page, a son of Orientate making his graded stakes debut for Michael Trombetta, finished willingly after closing five wide on the turn.
Harlem Rocker was followed by Helsinki, Le Grand Cru, Colonial Causeway, Spin Master, and Suyeta.
Gulfstream estimated its attendance was 9,100 on a cloudy day with temperatures in the mid-50s.
The track declared the day’s third race a “no contest” after a problem in starting a tractor kept workers from moving the starting gate from the area near the finish line. Gulfstream refunded or made consolation payouts on all wagers on the race.
The refunds cut into what was a strong wagering day on Gulfstream’s nine-race program.
Betting on Gulfstream races totaled $6,579.266. That includes bets at Gulfstream, other tracks, and online services.