Both the Ft. Lauderdale and Marshua’s River take place at 1 1/16 miles on the turf, while the Hal’s Hope will send main track runners one mile.
The Hal’s Hope actually drew the shortest field, with just six entered, but features some quality runners in the form of Valid, Mshawish and Matrooh.
The former readied for his six-year-old bow with a win in the Harlan’s Holiday S. last out on December 12 and a trio of three-furlong breezes in the interim. Valid is 6-2-1 from 11 starts at Gulfstream.
“Not that he does bad anywhere else but he probably does a little better over this surface. I know he started in New York and came down here young, but who knows the formula. He’s doing good and we’re looking forward to this weekend,” trainer Marcus Vitali said.
“I was thinking this race all along. I love how he’s coming into it. If he stays healthy and trains like he’s training, we’re going to take our shot.”
Mshawish and Matrooh will be facing off for the second straight time after competing in the Cigar Mile H. (G1) most recently on November 28 at Aqueduct.
Matrooh actually did better on that occasion, taking third by three parts of a length over Mshawish. That followed an easy win in the Bold Ruler H. (G3) at Belmont Park on October 31 for the Chad Brown-conditioned six-year-old.
“He ran terrific in the Cigar Mile. I was very proud of his effort,” Brown said. “He’s trained well since being transferred to South Florida and I’m looking forward to running him in the Hal’s Hope.”
Mshawish is more familiar with Gulfstream’s turf course than the main track, and will be making only his second start on dirt in the Hal’s Hope from 22 career races. However, trainer Todd Pletcher isn’t concerned with the Grade 1-winning turf runner’s transition.
“We wanted to give him another try on the dirt. I think this race will define kind of which direction we’re going,” Pletcher explained. “I thought his Cigar Mile was good, but he also has a good record on the turf.”
That “good record on turf” translates into victories in last year’s Gulfstream Park Turf H. (G1) and Fort Lauderdale, a win in the 2014 Zabeel Mile (UAE-G2) at Meydan in Dubai, and a third-placing in the Dubai Turf (UAE-G1) at Meydan in 2015.
“I figured if we run in the Hal’s Hope we’ll make a decision whether we should go in the Donn (H. [G1] on the main track February 6) or the Gulfstream Park turf race (also on February 6), and we’re also hoping to go back to Dubai with him,” Pletcher continued. “He was third in the turf race there last year. This race will kind of clarify which direction to go and which surface to go on.”
Mshawish readied for Saturday’s dirt trial with a bullet half-mile move in :48.20 on Sunday at Palm Beach Downs.
“He loves the turf here, but at the same time he’s trained so well on the dirt that we finally had to give it a try,” Pletcher said. “In the Cigar Mile, I thought at the eighth-pole that he was going to win and he just kind of flattened out a little bit. We have to get a line on it and see how he likes the dirt here.”
Also of note in the Hal’s Hope are Pegasus S. (G3) scorer Mr. Jordan, third last out in the Harlan’s Holiday off a break, and multiple stakes winner Grande Shores, who rallied for second in the Mr. Prospector S. (G3) on December 19.
The Ft. Lauderdale is the final stakes on the program and drew a field of 12, including one main-track only entrant. Grade 1 scorer Lochte is the big name in the race, having captured his last three including the Tropical Turf H. (G3) to close out his five-year-old campaign on November 21 at Gulfstream Park West.
The Vitali trainee is no stranger to Gulfstream Park proper, having racked up five wins and a third from nine starts, including his 2014 victory in the Gulfstream Park Turf.
“He loves to train. He’s strong. He’s straight-forward,” Vitali said. “The only quirk he has is that you can’t let him run too much. He’ll train all day.
“He loves it in Florida. I’ve always said he’s a horse for the course. He’s always done better in South Florida.
“He’s definitely on the improve. He’s doing good; he’s doing everything right,” Vitali added. “The exercise rider said he’s stronger than ever.”
Among those lining up against Lochte is Grade 2 hero Takeover Target, who was last seen adding the Hill Prince S. (G3) to his resume in early October at Belmont Park.
“We backed off him a little bit. We’ve been gearing up for his four-year-old year,” Brown explained. “I think he’s a top horse and we believe he’ll be a major player in this division this year, and this is a good place to start.”
War Correspondent (Appleton S. [G3]) and Heart to Heart (River City H. [G3]) also enter the Ft. Lauderdale off graded scores.
Kicking off the day’s stakes action will be the Marshua’s River, which attracted a field of 12 filly and mares, including three main-track only runners.
Brown will saddle two in the race – dual stakes winner Partisan Politics and Grade 3-placed Hope Cross – but the Pletcher-trained Sandiva could garner most of the attention.
The five-year-old chestnut mare sports just one win from 2015, with that coming in the Suwannee River S. (G3) over the course last February, but placed in three other graded events from five total starts. Sandiva’s only unplaced effort came as a fifth in the Just a Game S. (G1) going a mile at Belmont Park in June.
She wouldn’t be seen again until showing up for the My Charmer H. (G3) last out, where she rallied to get third while missing second by only a nose on November 21.
“I thought she ran well for her first start off the bench,” Pletcher said. “She just hung a little bit the last part of it so I would expect her to move forward for having that race.”
Only three in the Marshua’s River bring last-out wins into the contest: Strike Charmer (allowance/optional claimer), Quiet Kitten (Claiming Crown Tiara) and Tuttipaesi (South Beach S.).
Tuttipaesi actually brings a pair of stakes wins into the race while Quiet Kitten has won three of her last four.
“Kitten’s Joys sometimes take a while to bloom. She was entered in a claiming race, and she seemed like she was worth the money,” Vitali said of former claimer Quiet Kitten. “She’s showed us as she’s gotten older she’s gotten better.”
Valid photo courtesy of Lauren King/Adam Coglianese Photography
Lochte photo courtesy of Kenny Martin/Adam Coglianese Photography
Sandiva photo courtesy of Leslie Martin/Adam Coglianese Photography