Returning from a five-month layoff in a grade 1 stakes is not a typical move for most horses, yet trainer Mark Casse has no qualms about the spot he chose for Awesome Slew's 5-year-old debut.
If anything, the reason he opted to begin the son of Awesome Again 's 2018 campaign in the $400,000 Carter Handicap (G1) at Aqueduct Racetrack is the seven-furlong stakes' status as a grade 1 event. With a trio of grade 3 victories, a second in the Forego Stakes (G1), and a third in the Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) already on his résumé, a win in the Carter would be a tremendous boost to Awesome Slew's next career as a stallion.
"The grade 1 win is important. That's the reason we're (in the Carter)," Casse said. "He's a well-bred horse, a beautiful horse, and this is important for him in terms of making him a stallion."
Owned and bred by Live Oak Plantation, Awesome Slew will take on 10 rivals in the April 7 Carter, his first start since his third-place finish in the Nov. 3 Dirt Mile at Del Mar. Since then, he has been working steadily at the Palm Meadows Training Center, and Casse believes the Florida-bred horse is poised for a strong effort in his first start at Aqueduct.
"We gave him some extra time at Live Oak after the Breeders' Cup, and he's come back bigger and stronger than ever. He's training extremely well, and we're excited about getting him going again," said Casse, a Hall of Fame finalist this year. "He's pretty geared up. I'm not going into there thinking he needs a race. My thought was that a couple of the best sprinters went to Dubai, and with Sharp Azteca (who was second in the Dirt Mile) not running, that gives us a very good chance. I think we're as good as anyone in the Carter."
Awesome Slew, who has won five of 17 starts with earnings of $1,042,940, drew the outside post in the field of 11.
Also following an unusual path to the Carter is Army Mule, a 4-year-old colt taking a prodigious jump from an allowance race to a grade 1 stakes in just his third career start.
Yet the Pennsylvania-bred son of Friesan Fire cannot be discounted. He won both career starts by a combined 16 lengths for owner Vinnie Viola's St. Elias Stable and seven-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher.
"He's very talented, and we're taking a big jump. But we're doing it because we have confidence in his abilities, and we're hoping he can deliver a big effort in a race where he'll be going up against horses more seasoned than him," Pletcher said. "It's an important test that will tell us a lot about what we'll do with him going forward, and we're excited about giving him the opportunity."
In his last start, Army Mule shook off the cobwebs from a nine-month layoff and demolished allowance rivals by 7 1/2 lengths Jan. 31 at Gulfstream Park while covering six furlongs in a lightning-quick 1:08.87.
"It was probably the most impressive sprint race of the Gulfstream meet. He ran super fast and we know he has a lot of talent," Pletcher said. "Both of his wins have been very impressive and were done while in hand. We thought there was no sense in running him in another allowance race. The seven-furlong distance suits him well, it's a grade 1 opportunity, and we believe from a talent standpoint he fits."
Army Mule, who will break from post 2 in the Carter, was originally purchased for $35,000 by Scanlon Training & Sales at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Eastern Fall yearling sale. He was then acquired for $825,000 at the 2016 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-olds in training sale by Viola, owner of the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers and a graduate of the United States Military Academy.
The field also includes SJB Stable and Marcello Micozzi's Skyler's Scramjet, who is hoping to continue an upward trajectory for trainer Michelle Nevin.
Appearing in a graded stakes for the first time last month in the Tom Fool Handicap (G3) at Aqueduct, the 4-year-old Creative Cause gelding posted a 1 1/2-length victory for his fifth win in 10 career starts.
Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence's Favorable Outcome will look to rebound from a sixth-place finish last month in the Gulfstream Park Sprint Stakes (G3). Prior to that seven-length loss, the $300,000 purchase at the 2016 OBS March 2-year-olds in training sale was third in the Malibu Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita Park and won the Swale Stakes (G2) back in February of 2017 for trainer Chad Brown.
Green Gratto won last year's Carter at 54-1 odds and figures to be a longshot again. The 8-year-old horse is winless in 10 tries since the upset. Most recently, the New Jersey-bred son of Here's Zealous was ninth, beaten 12 lengths, in the Tom Fool after setting the early pace.
Owned by Gaston Grant and Anthony Grant and trained by Gaston Grant, Green Gratto has earned $1,139,732 with nine wins in 63 starts.
Aqueduct Racetrack, Saturday, April 07, 2018, Race 8
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Spartiatis (KY) Robby Albarado 113 Rudy R. Rodriguez 30/1 2 2Army Mule (PA) Joe Bravo 116 Todd A. Pletcher 5/2 3 3Favorable Outcome (KY) Kendrick Carmouche 118 Chad C. Brown 8/1 4 4Do Share (KY) Junior Alvarado 118 Linda Rice 5/1 5 5Great Stuff (KY) Dylan Davis 116 David Jacobson 8/1 6 6Petrov (KY) Manuel Franco 116 Ron Moquett 20/1 7 7Red Dragon Tattoo (KY) Paco Lopez 113 Juan Carlos Guerrero 30/1 8 8Green Gratto (NJ) Christopher P. DeCarlo 114 Gaston Grant 30/1 9 9Skyler's Scramjet (KY) Trevor McCarthy 116 Michelle Nevin 3/1 10 10Fellowship (FL) Jeremy Rose 115 Kenneth Decker 20/1 11 11Awesome Slew (FL) John R. Velazquez 121 Mark E. Casse 4/1
Aqueduct Racetrack, Saturday, April 07, 2018, Race 8