Lea Entered for Stakes Defense in Saturday’s $500,000 Donn Handicap

December 10, 2019

Mott Trainee to Concede 2-7 Pounds to 9 Rivals in Grade 1 Handicap

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Adele Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm’s Lea made a rapid ascension to the top of the handicap ranks last year at Gulfstream Park, where he captured the Hal’s Hope (G3) and the Donn Handicap (G1) back-to-back.

The 6-year-old son of First Samurai, who made his meteoric rise while shifting from turf to dirt, will have the opportunity to repeat his 2014 feat in Saturday’s $500,000 Donn Handicap, the first Grade 1 stakes for older horses in the country this year that will highlight a 13-race program that will also feature the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (G1) and four other stakes.

Should the Bill Mott trainee prevail over nine rivals in the 1 1/8-mile event Saturday, it would be all the more outstanding, considering that his Hal’s Hope-Donn doubles would be accomplished without a race in between. Lea, who was afflicted with a virus following his Donn victory last year, made a remarkable return from an 11-month layoff to capture the one-mile Hal’s Hope with a late rally by a half-length on Jan. 10.

Lea is scheduled to go to post as the starting highweight with an assignment of 121 pounds, between two and seven pounds more than his opponents.

“I’d say, he’s probably coming into the Donn the same as he was last year,” Mott said Wednesday morning.

Lea will attempt to become the first horse to win back-to-back runnings of the Donn Handicap since Mott-trained Cigar launched his back-to-back Horse of the Year campaigns with victories in the 1995 and 1996 editions.

“He’s coming off a good race and I’m happy with him,” Mott said. “He’s good enough to be in the race, but I can’t predict the outcome.”

After Lea earned Grade 1 credentials in last year’s Donn, his owners could have opted to retire him from racing and send him off to stud this year, especially considering all the time lost due to complications stemming from the virus.

“He had been sick. He had a virus and it was a case where he had done enough. He was a Grade 1 winner, and he could have gone to the breeding shed. They opted to give him this chance right here. I told them what the condition of the horse was and how he was doing,” Mott said. “They made the decision. I told them step by step on a daily and weekly basis the condition of the horse and where we were at with him. I guess I made it sound good enough to keep him in training.”

Joel Rosario, who rode Lea to victory in last year’s Donn and in his return in the Hal’s Hope, has the return mount Saturday.

Among Lea’s nine challengers are three horses entered by trainer Todd Pletcher: Constitution, Commissioner and Protonico.

Twin Creeks Racing Stables and WinStar Farm’s Constitution is undefeated in three starts at Gulfstream, where he broke his maiden Jan. 11, 2014 before going on to capture an allowance race and the $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby (G1). The 4-year-old son of Tapit, who will carry two pounds fewer than Lea, went to the sidelines with a hairline fracture of his right front cannon bone following his Florida Derby score. He returned from a seven-month layoff to finish fourth in a Belmont allowance in October before finishing third behind Hoppertunity and stablemate Protonico in the Clark Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs on Nov. 28.

“We thought about a race between the Clark and the Donn, but we just felt that with two races under his belt and a little time between that the right move was to go directly into the Donn,” Pletcher said. “The horse has been training really well. He certainly seemed to like Gulfstream last year.”

Javier Castellano has the return mount on Constitution.

Sumaya U.S. Stables’ Protonico blossomed last fall, capturing the Smarty Jones (G3) at Parx and the Discovery Handicap (G3) at Aqueduct before coming up just a half-length short of catching Hoppertunity in the Clark.

“I think his Discovery was very impressive and he came back to run well in the Clark. I’m taking the same approach with him as I am with Constitution,” Pletcher said. “He seems like a horse that is continually improving.”

Joe Bravo has been named to ride the 4-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway, who is scheduled to carry 118 pounds.

WinStar Farm’s Commissioner, who won an allowance race at Gulfstream last winter, concluded his 3-year-old campaign with a runner-up finish behind Tonalist in the Belmont Stakes (G1) in June. Sidelined following surgery to remove an ankle chip, the 4-year-old son of A.P. Indy returned to action on Jan. 10 in a 1 1/16-mile Gulfstream allowance, in which he pressed or set the pace before grudgingly giving way to finish third by a neck.

“I think he ran well and I think it should springboard him forward into this race,” Pletcher said. “I think the added distance will be to his liking. He seems to be coming into this race in good order.”

Commissioner also has been assigned 118 pounds. John Velazquez has the mount.

The Donn field includes a pair of shippers set to make their Gulfstream debuts: Beverly Engelberg, Shroeder Farms and Jan Steeper’s Blue Tone and Mrs. Susan Roy’s Sloane Avenue.

Blue Tone, trained by Bob Hess Jr. at Santa Anita, finished third, two lengths behind Hoppertunity, in the San Pasqual (G2) on Jan. 10.

“I’d classify it as good, but we’re still looking for a breakthrough race,” Hess said. “This race is brutally tough, but I think there’s a little bit more there.”

The son of Birdstone had previously finished second in the Native Diver (G3) and won an overnight stakes over Del Mar’s synthetic surface.

“I still think there’s another two or three lengths in him,” Hess said. “I think he’ll like this track. People may not think it’s soft, but it’s comparatively soft to what he’s been running on. This track might bring out the best in him. I think he’s run so well on synthetic. It’s slightly kinder. I don’t think he’s been a little better on synthetic. I don’t think he’s better on synthetic because he handles it better. It’s just a little kinder.”

Jockey Corey Lanerie has been named to sub for regular rider Kent Desormeaux for the Donn, in which the 6-year-old gelding will carry 116 pounds.

Sloane Avenue has shipped from England to make his dirt debut in the Donn. The 4-year-old son of Candy Ride has won three races on synthetic tracks in Europe.

“We’ve wanted to give him a go on the dirt for a little while. We thought about going to Dubai for the Maktoum Challenge and, then discussing it with Paul Roy, decided we’d sort of take a different route and have a go in America,” trainer Jeremy Noseda said. “I had to look at races that would suit him, and if you’re going to come this far and the expense that goes along with it, you have to go for something that has a decent purse. Yes, the competition is going to be harder but it’s something that’s worthwhile.”

Sloane Avenue, who has been assigned 114 pounds, is scheduled to be ridden by Jose Lezcano. H. Jack Hendricks and Roger Justice’s East Hall, who captured the Indiana Derby (G2) and the Ohio Derby last year, has been assigned 117 pounds for the Donn, in which he’ll be ridden by Luis Saez. The Bill Kaplan-trained son of Graeme Hall finished a game second in the Sunshine Millions Classic in his 2015 debut at Gulfstream on Jan. 17, when he finished a half-length behind Sr. Quisqueyano at the 1 1/8-mile distance.

Shadwell Stable’s Elnaawi (116; Julien Leparoux), a convincing winner of the Native Dancer Stakes at Laurel last time out for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin; Zayat Stables’ Prayer for Relief (116; Edgard Zayas), who finished just a half-length behind Lea while finishing third in the Hal’s Hope for trainer Dale Romans; and Mossarosa’s Catholic Cowboy (115; Paco Lopez), who was saddled by Nick Zito for a third-place finish in the Sunshine Millions Classic; round out the Donn field.

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