Jackson Bend, who reignited his career in the second half of 2011, will try to begin his 5-year-old campaign on the right note when he leads a field of nine in the $100,000 Hal’s Hope Stakes (gr. III) Jan. 14 at Gulfstream Park.
One of his main rivals in the one-mile dirt contest will be Soaring Empire, also a 5-year-old horse who notched his lone graded stakes victory in this race a year ago and will be making his first start in more than five months. Post time for the Hal’s Hope, which will share top billing with the $100,000 Fort Lauderdale Stakes (gr. IIIT) on Gulfstream’s 11-race card, is set for 4:17 p.m. EST.
After running mainly in two-turn races for a year and a half, Robert LaPenta and Fred Brei’s Jackson Bend turned his career around last summer when trainer Nick Zito cut him back to sprinting. The son of Hear No Evil responded by winning the James Marvin Stakes—breaking a 12-race losing streak—and the Forego Stakes (gr. I) in consecutive efforts at Saratoga, both at seven furlongs. After finishing second to champion Uncle Mo in the Kelso Handicap (gr. II) in October at Belmont, he concluded his 4-year-old campaign with a good third-place showing in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs.
The one-turn Hal’s Hope isn’t the ideal distance for Jackson Bend, but Zito said he has been training very well at Palm Meadows since arriving there this winter. In his final breeze, the chestnut horse went five furlongs in :59 2/5, the second fastest work of that morning.
“Obviously, he’s best at seven furlongs. I mean, he’s 2-for-2. The reason I’m starting at a mile is I’m obviously not going to run six furlongs – and seven furlongs, it’s impossible to get a race,” Zito said. “He’s a good miler. He ran second to Uncle Mo, and if Uncle Mo wasn’t in it, he would have won it.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more. He looks tremendous. I just hope it’s not too tough a race first time back. It’s a good race to come back in, and that’s what we need.”
Jackson Bend drew the rail and will be ridden by John Velazquez for the first time. He will carry top weight of 123 pounds.
Zito also entered LaPenta’s Our Dark Knight, who is winless in his last seven starts and seeks his first stakes victory.
Ol Memorial Stable and C.E. Glasscock’s Soaring Empire won his last start, the Majestic Light Stakes at Monmouth Park, but that came July 31 last year. Despite the time off, his training seems to indicate he is ready for a big effort. The dark bay horse has recorded four consecutive bullet works at Gulfstream for trainer Cam Gambolati. The last was a four-furlong, :47-flat move on Jan. 6.
Soaring Empire, who has produced a 5-3-2 record from 14 lifetime starts, won the Hal’s Hope by 1 1/4 lengths last year. He also has another win at Gulfstream on his resume and was runner-up to Tackleberry in a pair of grade II events there. Julien Leparoux will have the mount.
“He’s matured since (last winter),” said Gambolati. “He should have won the Salvatore Mile (when bumped at the three-sixteenths pole and finished second). I think he can handle two turns now, and if he runs good in this race and finishes, we’ll likely point him for the Donn Handicap (gr. I, Feb. 11). He’s run well off a layoff before.”
Other contenders include Decisive Moment, who was 14th in the Kentucky Derby last year and is a two-time stakes winner at Delta Downs; Sangaree, who has been graded stakes placed four times in his career; and Successful Mission, a winner of two straight including the Miami Mile Handicap (gr. IIIT) on turf.
$100,000 Hal's Hope Stakes (gr. III, Race 9, 4:17 p.m.), 4 & Up, One Mile (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer 1. Jackson Bend (FL), J R Velazquez, 123, N P Zito
2. Sky Venture (KY), J C Leyva, 117, C Paul
3. Sangaree (KY), R Maragh 117, K P McLaughlin
4. Successful Mission (KY), E Trujillo, 121, E Plesa Jr.
5. Decisive Moment (FL), S O Madrid, 121, J D Arias
6. Our Dark Knight (KY), J Bravo, 117, N P Zito
7. Soaring Empire (KY), J R Leparoux, 121, C M Gambolati
8. Cool Blue Red Hot (KY), M R Cruz, 117, A J Penna Jr.
9. Will's Wildcat (KY), C H Borel, 117, J E Baker