Bet a gray on a rainy day.
World Approval, backtracking through the slop the morning of May 17 at Pimlico Race Course, brought the old adage to mind on a waterlogged week in Baltimore. The champion turf male of 2017 will look to defend his title May 19 in the $250,000 Dixie Stakes (G2T), and with a flood watch in effect in the area through Saturday morning and a 90% chance of precipitation Friday and Saturday, at least the inclement weather is as close as you'll get to a sure thing.
Trainer Mark Casse said Live Oak Plantation's 6-year-old Northern Afleet gelding, who won the 1 1/16-mile Dixie on good going last year, isn't bothered by a rain-softened course. Along with the Dixie, he also handled turf rated yielding last season when he won the Fourstardave Handicap (G1T) at Saratoga Race Course.
"It actually probably plays a little bit to his strength. I don't know if it makes him better, but sometimes it makes others worse," Casse said. "The soft going won't be a factor. The only way he wouldn't run is if we felt like it was a bog. I only wouldn't run if I was concerned for his safety."
Casse looks to get World Approval back on track in the Dixie after a mystifying fifth as the 1-2 choice in the March 10 Frank E. Kilroe Mile Stakes (G1T) at Santa Anita Park, just the second loss in the runner's last eight starts. A winner of four of five graded stakes in 2017, capped by a 1 1/4-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1T) to secure his title as America's top turf male, World Approval launched his 2018 campaign with a hard-fought, half-length score in the Feb. 10 Tampa Bay Stakes (G3T) at Tampa Bay Downs, then failed to fire in California.
"He came out of that last race fine," Casse said. "We had no excuses for the dull effort. My only thought was he put in a lot of effort his first time back (in the Tampa Bay Stakes) and he bounced a little.
"This race just seems like a nice spot for him. We've been kind of looking for a place to get him back on track after the little derailment in his last race. Ultimately, our goal is the Breeders' Cup again, and obviously there are a couple races we also want to try to make, like the Fourstardave and—probably, if all went well—the (Ricoh) Woodbine Mile (G1T). It's just a matter of how we get there. So we kind of started at the Breeders' Cup and worked backwards, and that's it right now. This is the place to get him back going and get him back to his winning ways."
One race World Approval will not seek to target this season is the 1 1/4-mile Woodford Reserve Manhattan Stakes (G1T) June 9 at Belmont Park. He was fifth there last year in his next start off the Dixie score and ran third in the same race in 2016.
"He's not going to go to the Manhattan; we've tried that, and it's too far for him," Casse said. "We're going to make every effort to keep him from a mile to a mile and a sixteenth."
Casse gave World Approval a few days off before training March 25. He worked a half-mile in :49 3/5 on the main track May 13 at Churchill Downs.
"He's feeling good," Casse said. "He's got a bit of an attitude. He thinks he's mean. Actually, he is mean. He's about as mean a gelding as I've ever known. I can only imagine how he would be as a colt. You just have to remember to bring him peppermints. If you bring him peppermints, he will more than likely be very kind to you. But you have to remember that, ultimately, he would love to grab you and pull you into the stall. He's kind of a Hannibal Lecter."
A regional champ will take on the national champ in the Dixie—Just Howard, Maryland's outstanding 3-year-old male, champion male turf horse, and Horse of the Year in 2017. The Graham Motion trainee makes his 4-year-old debut for Skeedattle Associates following two off-the-board outings in the Nov. 25 Hollywood Derby (G1T) and the Oct. 28 Twilight Derby (G2T).
Trained by Graham Motion, the English Channel colt broke his maiden at Pimlico in May of 2017 and followed that with three victories at Laurel: the Caveat Stakes, Find Stakes, and Commonwealth Derby presented by Virginia Equine Alliance and the Virginia HBPA (G3T).
"The improvement he made in such a short space of time was pretty remarkable," Motion said. "He put those three wins back to back, and then we threw him in the deep end a little bit when we took him to California. It was coming at the end of a somewhat long season. I think he just needed a break. We gave him a break over the winter at Fair Hill and kind of freshened him up, and this race has been on our schedule since the beginning of the year. I think he can run over any kind of turf course."
Making his first start of the year—and first for trainer Kelly Rubley—is Gunpowder Farms' Divisidero, fourth last out in the Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes (G1T) in October at Keeneland. A two-time winner of the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes (G1T) at Churchill, the 6-year-old son of Kitten's Joy has been based at the Fair Hill training center since March.
Phipps Stable's homebred Fire Away returns for another shot at World Approval, behind whom he finished third in the Tampa Bay after going wide to avoid a fallen horse on the turn.
"He was compromised in the Tampa Bay Stakes when one of my other horses (Doctor Mounty) fell," Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said. "We're trying to step him up and see what he can do."
The 6-year-old son of War Front has been no worse than third in seven of his last eight starts, including victories in the Artie Schiller Stakes and the April 8 Danger's Hour Stakes in his most recent start at Aqueduct Racetrack. He has $448,397 in earnings.
"He's been training well on soft grass, and that might come in handy at Pimlico," McGaughey said.
McGaughey also will saddle Doctor Mounty, who bounced back after falling in the Tampa Bay to finish second for Larry Pratt and David Alden in the April 21 Henry S. Clark Stakes at Laurel Park.
Rounding out the field are Green Lantern Stables' multiple stakes winner Frostmourne, Marathon Farms' O Dionysus, and grade 2-placed Unbridled Juan, making his first start of the year for Stronach Stables.
Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, May 19, 2018, Race 7
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Fire Away (KY) Manuel Franco 118 Claude R. McGaughey III 6/1 2 2Unbridled Juan (ON) Edgar S. Prado 118 Jose Corrales 10/1 3 3O Dionysus (MD) UNKNOWN 118 Gary Capuano 20/1 4 4Frostmourne (KY) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 118 Christophe Clement 9/2 5 5Doctor Mounty (KY) UNKNOWN 118 Claude R. McGaughey III 20/1 6 6Just Howard (MD) Jose L. Ortiz 118 H. Graham Motion 12/1 7 7World Approval (FL) John R. Velazquez 122 Mark E. Casse 1/1 8 8Divisidero (KY) Jevian Toledo 118 Kelly Rubley 5/1
Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, May 19, 2018, Race 7