It's been almost a year since Midnight Storm took his show on the road, and how times have changed.
That was a futile visit to Churchill Downs, resulting in a tired-out seventh after setting the pace in the May 7 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes (G1T).
This is a raiding trip to Oaklawn Park for a run at the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2), a race that comes on the heels of a game runner-up finish in the March 11 Santa Anita Handicap presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino (G1).
From turf to dirt, the connections of the 6-year-old Pioneerof the Nile runner say not just his surface has changed. The horse himself has found the wisdom that comes with age, relaxing into his new role as one of the West Coast's top handicap contenders on the main track after already establishing himself as a leading turf miler under the care of trainer Phil D'Amato.
"He's a much different horse now than he was then," said Billy Koch of Little Red Feather Racing, which campaigns Midnight Storm in partnership with majority owner and breeder Alex Venneri. "He's so much more mature. He knows how to shut his engine off. He has gone above and beyond anything we could have imagined, and we're extremely thankful to both Alex and Phil for allowing us to be a part of Midnight Storm."
Midnight Storm is the 122-pound highweight in a field of seven older horses, but looms over his competition. A grade 1 winner on turf and winner of grade 2 events on both grass and dirt, he has seven graded stakes scores to his credit. Since transitioning to dirt off a third in the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1T), he won the Native Diver Stakes (G3) at Del Mar, took the San Pasqual Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita Park, and missed his grade 1 dirt score after showing the way by just three-quarters of a length in the Big 'Cap last time out.
"He came out of the Big 'Cap really well, and there were a lot of races and plans up for discussion," Koch said. "Ultimately Phil and Alex chose this path. We were in a tough spot, because we weren't sure how many times we wanted to travel. We could have stayed home and run in the Californian (G2, April 22). We came close to going to the Charles Town Classic (G2, April 22), but he was just doing so well, and we've heard so many good things about Oaklawn, we thought we'd give it a shot."
Of Midnight Storm's 22 starts, 21 have been in the Golden State.
"You really never know until you ship—how he's going to handle the shipping, how he's going to handle the track," said Koch, who will make his maiden voyage to Oaklawn as well. "There are so many unknowns, but he's doing super, and we're going in with a lot of confidence. For us, he has nothing to prove. We're just going to go enjoy the day and do the best we can. No matter what happens in the race, he's a special horse to us. We'll have a small contingent, but we'll be loud for the stretch run."
Dual grade 2 winner Madefromlucky is still chasing his first win for Cheyenne Stable, Mac Nichol, and trainer Todd Pletcher since the 2015 West Virginia Derby (G2). The Lookin At Lucky 5-year-old finished third March 18 in Oaklawn's Essex Handicap won by Mor Spirit. In three visits to Oaklawn, he has done no worse than his fourth in the Arkansas Derby (G1) won by American Pharoah . One race prior he was runner-up to the eventual Triple Crown winner in the Rebel Stakes (G2).
Texas Chrome will make his 4-year-old debut for Keene Thoroughbreds and trainer J. R. Caldwell. The Texas-bred Grasshopper colt closed 2016 with a ninth in the Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) after taking the Super Derby Prelude, Super Derby (G3), and Oklahoma Derby (G3) as part of a three-race win streak. He has been breezing sharply at Oaklawn in preparation for this start.
One with a chance is Danny Caldwell's Illinois-bred old-timer Domain's Rap, a 9-year-old son of Cherokee Rap who ran second in the Essex by 2 1/2 closing lengths. With 63 starts under his girth, the Federico Villafranco-trained gelding is enjoying his best season yet. He won the Fifth Season Stakes to open the year, took a Feburary allowance, finished third in the Razorback Handicap (G3), and placed in the Essex, all at Oaklawn.
Completing the field are a trio of 4-year-olds: Manitoba Derby winner Inside Straight, a son of Super Saver campaigned by Randy Howg and trainer Robertino Diodoro; Calumet Farm's homebred allowance winner Goats Town, trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas; and Kay Stillman's Jack Van Berg-trained allowance winner Cutacorner, who has not won since January of 2016.
Oaklawn Park, Saturday, April 15, 2017, Race 9
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Texas Chrome (TX) Ricardo Santana, Jr. 115 J. R. Caldwell 10/1 2 2Domain's Rap (IL) Ramon A. Vazquez 115 Federico Villafranco 8/1 3 3Midnight Storm (KY) Mike E. Smith 122 Philip D'Amato 1/2 4 4Madefromlucky (KY) Javier Castellano 116 Todd A. Pletcher 4/1 5 5Inside Straight (NY) Geovanni Franco 114 Robertino Diodoro 12/1 6 6Cutacorner (KY) Walter De La Cruz 110 Jack C. Van Berg 30/1 7 7Goats Town (KY) Jon Kenton Court 112 D. Wayne Lukas 20/1
Oaklawn Park, Saturday, April 15, 2017, Race 9