Breakaway Racing Stable's Unite's Big Red, who won the Mac Diarmida (gr. III) two years ago, breezed five furlongs in 1:04 2/5 at Calder Race Course last Sunday in preparation for his upcoming engagement in Sunday's renewal of that same stakes event.In actuality, Unite's Big Red is the defending champion in the Mac Diarmida, which was "on hiatus" from the 2001 Gulfstream stakes schedule. Then-trained by Randy Mills, Unite's Big Red upset 1-5 favorite and Breeders' Cup Turf winner Buck's Boy in the 2000 edition of the Mac Diarmida. "That five-eighths work was pretty good for him," said trainer Gary Cortolillo. "He's not a tremendous work horse so the work was okay. He's had three races under his belt now since coming back so we expect a good race from him on Sunday."After winning the Mac Diarmida in 2000, Unite's Big Red ran in the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. I) but finished a distant fifth. With a history of suffering from bad feet, the gelding, now an 8-year-old, was given a year-and-a-half off to let everything grow back."We haven't had to stop on him one day because of his feet since then," said Cortolillo, who got the horse in September. "I don't think the track matters to him whether it's firm or soft, but I'd like to see it firm because there are some speed horses in there and I'd like to give him a chance to make one big run at them."Joseph F. Graffeo's Monkey Puzzle, who came from off the pace to win the Hialeah Turf Cup (gr. II) run at Gulfstream Park two years ago, is also being pointed toward the Mac Diarmida. He returned from a long layoff to compete again at Calder in mid-December and Sunday's race will be a continuation of an inspired comeback. Previous to his start last month, Monkey Puzzle had been idle since finishing a close fourth in the United Nations Handicap (gr. I) at Monmouth Park in July of 2000."Monkey Puzzle fractured a cannon bone at Monmouth and ended up being out of action for 17 months," said trainer Stephen L. DiMauro. "It was a very difficult time for him. What was most frustrating was that we got him halfway back and then he pulled a suspensory and we had to start all over again."Monkey Puzzle, an entire son of Country Pine, has completed almost exclusively in stakes competition over the turf course throughout his career.
As a 3-year-old in 1999, he was making a move to challenge in the Calder Derby and was forced to steady at the sixteenth pole and finished seventh although beaten only three lengths for all of it. Monkey Puzzle then flew to the west coast for the Hollywood Derby (gr. I), but finished ninth after being kept five-wide throughout the running.As a 4-year-old, Monkey Puzzle won his first start of the year at Gulfstream Park two years ago in allowance company on the grass going the mile and three-eighths distance of the Mac Diarmida. Two starts later, he ran in the Pan American Handicap (gr. II) here, but was forced to take up at the sixteenth pole, finished sixth under the wire but was placed fifth through a disqualification. It was in his next start that he took down winning honors in the Hialeah Turf Cup when it was run at Gulfstream that season."This horse has always loved the track at Gulfstream," DiMauro said. "He has been training well and ran a good race that first time back at Calder last month. I'm just happy to have him back."