Locals Look Strong In Muniz Memorial Handicap

Edited from Fair Grounds notes

A full field is expected for Sunday's grade II $500,000 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap at Fair Grounds, and the locally based contingent should be well represented with eight possible entrants. Fair Grounds-based horses have taken four of the last seven runnings of the Muniz, which was formerly run as the Explosive Bid Handicap. It was renamed this year in honor of the late Fair Grounds racing secretary. Most recently, the Andrew Leggio-trained Candid Glen pulled the biggest upset in the history of the Spring Festival of Racing, taking last year's running at odds of 84-1.

This year's protectors of the home turf look to be a solid group, headed by Mystery Giver, Skate Away, and Herculated. Since winning the $125,000 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap on Jan. 31, trainer Richard Scherer has pointed graded stakes winner Mystery Giver toward the Muniz, skipping the Mardi Gras Handicap. "He runs well fresh," said Scherer, who campaigned Mystery Giver to a fifth-place finish in the Explosive Bid a year ago. "He seems to be on top of his game."

The 6-year-old Illinois-bred gelding breezed four furlongs in 48.40 in his final tune up for the 1 1/8-mile event, a move that pleased Scherer. "It was a good work," he said. "He did it easy."

Skate Away, who finished a neck behind Mystery Giver in the Fair Grounds BC, has also enjoyed a fine meet, and is in top form heading into Sunday. The son of Belong to Me has placed in four stakes events at the meet, including a victory in the Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap in January, followed by a narrow defeat in the off-the-turf Mardi Gras Handicap in his last start, getting out-nosed by Majestic Thief. Majestic Thief, who is conditioned by Walter Bindner, is also heading into the Muniz in career form. "He couldn't be doing any better," said Bindner of the 5-year-old son of Mahogany Hall.

One horse riding a win streak into the race is Herculated, who has won three starts at the current meet. Herculated has dismantled allowance company and will take the step up in class on Sunday for trainer Michael Stidham.

"He loves this turf course," said Stidham of the Oak Crest Farm homebred, who is perfect in five starts at the track, four of which have been over the Stall-Wilson turf course.

Other Fair Grounds based representatives that are possible to start in the Muniz include Freefourinternet (who was third in this race last year), Great Bloom, Silverfoot, and Storybook Kid.

Bobby Frankel, Bill Mott, Christophe Clement and Todd Pletcher, are each scheduled to ship in entrants for the Muniz. Frankel is expected to send Nothing to Lose and Burning Sun for the 1 1/8 mile turf event . The latter won an allowance race at Santa Anita Park last month in his first North American start for Frankel, who recently acquired the son of Danzig from primary owner Juddmonte Farm. Burning Sun originally campaigned in Europe, where he was a group II winner in France.

Nothing to Lose, who is also a new addition to the Frankel barn, finished second in the San Marcos Stakes (gr. IIT) in January at Santa Anita in his 4-year-old debut. Frankel finished a close second in the 2002 Explosive Bid with Beat Hollow. Frankel and Muniz were good friends, and the trainer flew in to attend Muniz's funeral last August.

Mott will send Silver Tree in for the race. The son of Hennessy won his 4-year-old debut last month in a third-level allowance race at Gulfstream Park. Prior to that, the Peter Vegso homebred won three of six starts at three, including a win in the $500,000 Virginia Derby last July.

Clement, who finished second in last year's running with his first-ever starter in the event, Rouvres, is back again with a solid contender in Proud Man. The 6-year-old Florida-bred won the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream Park in impressive fashion in his last start, and has amassed earnings of more than $928,000 for his career.

Pletcher, who is currently atop the trainer standings at Gulfstream Park, will ship in Willard Straight. Winner of five of nine starts lifetime, the 4-year-old son of Lion Cavern exits a strong win in an allowance/optional-claiming event last month at Gulfstream Park, and he will be the first ever starter in the Muniz for Pletcher, who enjoyed success at Fair Grounds earlier this month when his Ashado shipped in to win the Fair Grounds Oaks (gr. II).

Saturday is Fan Day at Fair Grounds, with discounted concession prices on hot dogs, soft drinks and beer. Also, a drawing for $1,000 will take place following the seventh race. As part of Fan Day, nearly 10,000 customers in the area were mailed "mystery vouchers" last week, with values between $1 and $10,000. Those can be redeemed Saturday at Fair Grounds.