Homebred Nikki's Sandcastle made a strong run on the final turn of the $150,000 Hanshin Cup Stakes (gr. III) May 24 at Arlington Park, and that move carried him to a determined finish for his first victory of 2014 (VIDEO).
Exiting a third in the April 19 Ben Ali Stakes (gr. III) over Polytrack at Keeneland, Nikki's Sandcastle was seeking his first win for owner Richard Sherman since an upset victory at the Lexington oval in the Hagyard Fayette Stakes (gr. II) last October. The 7-year-old son of Castledale withstood bumping from Pass the Dice to edge off in time by half a length under vigorous handling at odds of 7-1.
Jockey Leandro Goncalves said he has become familiar with the hard-knocking gelding by working him for trainer David Kassen in the mornings, as well as partnering with him in the afternoons.
"This was the third time I rode him and I've worked him four or five times before, so I know what he likes and how he acts," Goncalves explained. "We changed a bit to break to get him closer and not take him far back where he's been (in past races) and always gets in trouble. I just wanted to make sure he got a good trip because I knew he would show up."
Goncalves kept Nikki's Sandcastle seventh in the field of 13 older runners behind a pace set by Mongolian Saturday, who went through early fractions of :23.07 and :45.81 while being pressed by Tulira Castle. Mongolian Saturday held the advantage by a head while posting three quarters in 1:10.30, but yielded briefly to Valentino Beauty as that one ranged up to take the lead heading for home.
Nikki's Sandcastle was rolling at a good clip, however, after shifting out five wide midway through the bend. He ranged up to challenge for command past the furlong mark, and took over despite bumping from Pass the Dice in upper stretch. Final time was 1:35.57 on the Polytrack.
Mister Marti Gras rallied from far back to finish second under Eduardo Perez, a half-length clear of Pass the Dice.
"My horse tried hard and gave it all he had," said Perez. "I thought I would have passed (the winner) in the last sixteenth but he just hung on me."
"It was pretty uneventful," said jockey Channing Hill of his trip aboard Pass the Dice. "We kind of bullied our way out at the top of the lane. I thought we had a really good shot. I have to give the first- and second-place horses a lot of credit."
According to jockey Chris Emigh, aboard 8-5 favorite Hogy in the one-mile test, multiple circumstances combined to put his mount at a disadvantage.
"He lost his tongue tie going to the gate; that didn't help," Emigh said. "Then he got into a pinch where he was trapped between horses on the outside; he doesn't like that. He likes to have a clear run on the outside, but he got squeezed out there, I had to check a little, and it was all over."
Nikki's Sandcastle paid $16.40, $7.80, and $5.20 while Mister Marti Gras brought $14.40 and $6.80, with Pass the Dice returning $4.60. Joha, Valentino Beauty, 2011 Hanshin winner Havelock, Sir Applesolutely, Mongolian Saturday, Fordubai, Tulira Castle, Pataky Kid, Hogy, and Francois completed the order of finish.
A Kentucky-bred out of the Sandpit mare Sandtina, Nikki's Sandcastle has a 10-9-6 record from 40 starts, with earnings of $650,707. The Hanshin was his second graded stakes victory.
In his other starts of 2014, he was fourth in the Skip Away Stakes (gr. III) on dirt in March at Gulfstream Park, fifth in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (gr. IT) in February, and third in the Fort Lauderdale (gr. IIT) on Jan. 11—his first start following his 2013 Fayette score.