Trainer Todd Pletcher is scheduled to saddle four starters in search of his fourth victory in the $500,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) March 5. At the very least, the Pletcher trainees will outnumber the competition in the seven-horse field for the mile test.
Pletcher's contingent includes Itsaknockout, the 2015 Fountain of Youth (gr. II) winner who has demonstrated a distinct liking for Gulfstream's main track, and Stanford , recent runner-up to another Pletcher-trained runner, Tommy Macho, in the Fred Hooper (gr. III).
Starlight Racing's Itsaknockout, who is two-for-two over Gulfstream's one-turn mile course, punched his ticket to last year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) after he won the Fountain of Youth via the disqualification of Upstart and finished fourth behind fellow Pletcher trainee Materiality in the Florida Derby (gr. I). The son of Lemon Drop Kid finished a troubled ninth in the Kentucky Derby before he went to the sidelines for nearly eight months.
"He broke his maiden here last year going seven-eighths and then he won the mile one-other-than (allowance). Then he was second-placed-first in the Fountain of Youth and kind of ran a flat race in the Kentucky Derby. I actually thought he ran OK that day," said Pletcher, who has won the Gulfstream Park Handicap with Palace Malice (2014), Discreet Dancer (2013), and Harlington (2006). "His first start back after the Derby was a one-turn mile and I think it was a powerful effort."
Itsaknockout was impressive winning a stakes-caliber optional claiming allowance at Gulfstream Dec. 31. The 4-year-old colt subsequently made a belated rally to finish fourth behind fellow Pletcher trainee Mshawish in the Feb. 6 Donn Handicap (gr. I) under Luis Saez.
"The Donn was a little disappointing, because I thought he trained brilliantly for that race. He ran well, but he didn't fire his best shot, so maybe backing up to the mile might suit him," Pletcher said. "Luis said he was a little bit flat. I think if Luis could have done it over, maybe he would have been a little bit more aggressive early and put him into the race a little more. It kind of unfolded as a relatively slow pace for that caliber of horse, so he struggled to close ground on them."
Saez has the return mount aboard Itsaknockout, who is co-highweight with Valid at 118 pounds.
Stanford—owned by Stonestreet Stables, Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, and Derrick Smith—returned from a six-month layoff with a solid second in the mile Hooper, 3 3/4 lengths behind Tommy Macho and six lengths clear of third-place finisher Grande Shores.
"I thought he had a big race off the layoff, which we thought he might. That's why we took a shot in the (stakes)," Pletcher said. "I thought he ran well enough that he deserved a chance to run back. He proved the one-turn mile suits him, so we're looking forward to trying him again."
The 4-year-old son of Malibu Moon won his 3-year-old debut in a six-furlong allowance at Gulfstream last year before finishing second behind Materiality in the Islamorada Stakes. He went on to lose by a neck to International Star in the 1 1/8-mile Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and won the 1 1/16-mile Long Branch at Monmouth Park.
"I think he's proven versatile enough," Pletcher said. "I think he's one of those horses that you can back him up or stretch him out farther, but I think the one-turn mile suits him well."
Pletcher is also slated to saddle Glencrest Farm and JSH Equine's Blofeld and Alto Racing's Anchor Down , who finished fourth and third, respectively, in a Jan. 27 optional claiming allowance. Blofeld, who had been on the shelf for nearly seven months, captured the 2014 Nashua (gr. II) going a mile.
Crossed Sabres Farm's Valid, a tenacious and consistent graded stakes veteran, will have the opportunity to push his career bankroll over $1 million with at least a third-place finish in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. The Marcus Vitali-trained 6-year-old gelding has been in the money in 26 of 35 career starts, including back-to-back second-place finishes behind Mshawish in the Hal's Hope (gr. III) and Donn this season.
"He likes to fight. You got to put him in it. If you don't put him in the fight, sometimes he gets a little lazy on you," Vitali said. "If he's got something to fight for, he'll fight for it."
The son of Medaglia d'Oro , who will concede between 5 and 9 pounds to his rivals, has been remarkably resilient. He has raced 23 times without a break over the past two years.
"He's a big, strong horse and he's staying healthy. He takes care of himself in the morning," said Vitali, who named Nik Jaurez to ride the Virginia-bred veteran. "He's a laid-back, classy horse."
Jacks or Better Farm's Grande Shores also brings an impressive record of consistency into the Gulfstream Park Handicap. He has finished in the money in 39 of his 52 starts. During the Championship Meet, the Stanley Gold-trained 8-year-old finished second in the Mr. Prospector (gr. III), third in the Hal's Hope, and third in the Hooper.
Gulfstream Park, Saturday, March 05, 2016, Race 11
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Stanford (KY) Javier Castellano 115 Todd A. Pletcher 7/2 2 2Itsaknockout (KY) Luis Saez 118 Todd A. Pletcher 2/1 3 3Hesinfront (KY) Tyler Gaffalione 114 Dale L. Romans 20/1 4 4Blofeld (KY) John R. Velazquez 114 Todd A. Pletcher 6/1 5 5Valid (VA) Nik Juarez 118 Marcus J. Vitali 5/2 6 6Grande Shores (FL) Edgard J. Zayas 116 Stanley I. Gold 12/1 7 7Anchor Down (KY) Jose Lezcano 114 Todd A. Pletcher 6/1
Gulfstream Park, Saturday, March 05, 2016, Race 11