For the first major test of a promising sophomore runner, trainer Chad Brown couldn't have dreamt of a better script than the one which presented itself to his charge Mask in the $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes Jan. 6.
The fractions were tepid when the would-be pressure never materialized. And as the bay colt cruised on the front end under jockey Javier Castellano, every step looked like it was setting up a conclusion that wouldn't exactly end well for the six rivals behind him.
Taking full advantage of favorable circumstances is often the mark of a good horse. In the stretch of the one-mile test for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park, Mask confirmed Brown has yet another good one on his hands.
The first take-notice effort from a classic prospect came six days into the calendar year as Mask made his challengers pay for letting him have things his own way with a 6 1/4-length win under a hand ride from Castellano.
Owned by Lane's End Racing, Mask was making his stakes debut and second career start—but already had a fair amount of hype around him. The son of Tapit won by three lengths first out at Belmont Park going 6 1/2 furlongs Oct. 20, and was sent off as the 7-5 choice in the Mucho Macho Man over a group that included well-regarded stakes winner Dak Attack.
Brown said going to the lead wasn't necessarily the plan for Mask's first stakes try, but Castellano wisely snatched what was handed to him when his mount got away sharply from post 5. After going through an opening quarter-mile in an easy :24.43, Mask was allowed to click off a half-mile in :48.13 as longshot Forever Taken tried to prompt matters along the rail and Whereshetoldmetogo chased the issue three-wide while Dak Attack sat between horses.
"I didn't expect my horse to run on the lead, I thought he'd run from behind, but the way he ran today was phenomenal," Castellano said. "It was a tremendous effort the way he did it. He broke so sharp out of the gate. He's the kind of horse that is so good mentally and a very mature horse.
"I remember the first time riding him he broke a little slow out of the gate, but now he knows what's going on in the gate and will have a lot of potential. The most important thing is he's got such a good mind and is mature with everything he does."
When Castellano set Mask down for the stretch run coming off the turn, he had opened up a three-length advantage on his nearest challenger. There was no closing that gap as Mask cantered to the wire in a final time of 1:37.65 over a fast track with Bal Harbour coming across second and Dak Attack another three lengths behind in third.
"Both starts weren't a surprise, but we were impressed again," said Brown, who also conditions Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner (G1) Good Magic. "The horse has always trained like he was something special. He broke much better in his second start and was able to just go to the lead. He had no problem with a mile.
"The way he ran, it looks like he'll have no problem with two turns either. Second start, he handled himself perfect in the paddock and has a wonderful mind on him. Exciting horse."
Brown did not mention a specific target for Mask's next race but added getting him a two-turn start was paramount.
"I really wanted to just see what happened today, what he got out of this race, how he handled the mile and everything," Brown said. "I do want to try the horse two turns in his next start and find out where we stand as far as putting him on the Derby trail, but right now he looks like he's firmly on that path."
Bred by Gainesway Thoroughbreds, Mask returned $4.80, $3, and $2.20 across the board while improving his earnings to $105,760. Whereshetoldmetogo was fourth with Santiamen, Handsome Franco, and Forever Taken completing the order of finish.
Out of the stakes-winning Yonaguska mare Hidden Expression, Mask was purchased by Lane's End for $685,000 from Gainesway's consignment to the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale.