Multiple Stakes Winner Faces Eight Rivals in $350,000 Stakes
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Looking for a place to launch Sharp Azteca’s 4-year-old campaign, trainer Jorge Navarro found the perfect spot in Saturday’s $350,000 Hardacre Mile Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) at Gulfstream Park.
The 73rd running of the one-mile Gulfstream Park Handicap is one of three graded stakes worth $850,000 in purses on the 12-race program, along with the $350,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (G1) for 4-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles and $150,000 Suwannee River (G3) for females 4 and up, also at nine furlongs on the grass.
Gelfenstein Farm’s Sharp Azteca has been a model of consistency through his still-young career, finishing worse than third only once in nine lifetime starts with four wins and three seconds. He is a perfect in three tries at the one-mile distance, two of them coming last winter over Gulfstream’s main track, breaking his maiden and beating an entry-level allowance field by a combined 11 ½ lengths.
“This is the best I’ve seen him. He’s matured a lot. He should run pretty good. He’s been training good and he came out of his last race really good,” Navarro said. “We pointed him for this race. We’ll try to keep him a one-turn mile. I think that’s going to be his best distance.”
Sharp Azteca won the Pat Day Mile (G3) on the undercard of the Kentucky Derby (G1) last May and was a front-running winner of the City of Laurel Stakes in November at Laurel Park. Navarro then took him out to Santa Anita, where he dueled for the lead for a half-mile before taking over only to get edged late by Mind Your Biscuits in the Malibu (G1).
“We took him to California and nothing seemed to bother him. He was eating good after the race and training really good for the race,” Navarro said. “He put on weight, and he looks like a stallion. He’s a 4-year-old now and he’s a beautiful-looking animal.
“I think California did him really good,” he added. “Don’t get me wrong, he looks exactly the same as he did when he came from California. He’s been doing everything nice and easy. I’m expecting a big race from him.”
A big race is expected to earn Sharp Azteca a trip to Dubai for the $1 million Godolphin Mile (G2) March 25 at Meydan Racecourse as a precursor to the Metropolitan Handicap (G1) June 10 at Belmont Park.
“He is 100 percent [going] to the mile in Dubai. It all depends on how he runs [Saturday],” Navarro said. “Dubai came up because our main goal is the Met Mile, so after this race we have nothing else for him. Why not take the chance?”
Among Sharp Azteca’s eight rivals in the Gulfstream Park Handicap is a pair from Championship Meet-leading trainer Todd Pletcher, Tommy Macho and Zulu, both coming off open-length victories at Gulfstream.
Paul Pompa Jr. and J Stables’ Tommy Macho romped by 5 ¾ lengths in the one-mile Hal’s Hope (G3) Jan. 14, his third start and first win back in 11 months since taking the Fred Hooper (G3), also at a mile, last February.
“He’s put together two huge races here going a mile so I think this race makes perfect sense,” Pletcher said. “His win here last year and the way he ran the other day, those type of races put him in the very top of the mile division.”
Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, Susan Magnier and Stonestreet Stables’ Zulu also came off an extended gap between races to win the seven-furlong Tamarac Dec. 18, his first start in eight months.
The effort made him three-for-four lifetime at Gulfstream including maiden and allowance wins last winter by 9 ¼ combined lengths, and he also ran third behind multiple graded stakes winner Mohaymen in the Fountain of Youth (G2).
“Zulu is doing really well. We’ve been pointing for this race since [the Tamarac],” Pletcher said. “He seems to be in good form. I think he’s a horse that continues to improve.”
Pletcher has won three of the last four runnings of the Gulfstream Park Handicap including last year with Blofeld, who returns to defend his title in his first start for trainer Rusty Arnold. A 5-year-old son of Quality Road, winner of the Futurity (G2) and Nashua (G2) at 2, has not raced since running fifth of six in the Monmouth Cup (G2) last July.
Trainer Mark Casse will also send out a pair of runners in Awesome Banner and Awesome Slew. Jacks or Better Farm’s Awesome Banner has finished in the top three in nine of 10 lifetime starts at Gulfstream with six wins, five in stakes, topped by the Hutcheson (G3) and Swale (G2) in 2016.
Live Oak Plantation’s Awesome Slew joined Casse after finishing third by less than a length in the Sunshine Millions Classic Jan. 21. It was the second straight show finish for the winner of the 2016 Smarty Jones (G3) following the Harlan’s Holiday (G3) Dec. 17 at Gulfstream.
Rounding out the field are Squadron A, winner of the Mr. Prospector (G3) Jan. 1 at Gulfstream; Realm, third in the Cigar Mile (G1) and Hal’s Hope; and Sunshine Millions Classic winner Hy Riverside, most recently fifth in the $400,000 Poseidon Jan. 28.