Leading Trainer Pletcher Attempts to Defend Title with Charming Kitten
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – On the way to an unprecedented 12th consecutive Championship Meet training title, Todd Pletcher won 15 stakes last winter at Gulfstream Park including its signature race, the $1 million Florida Derby (G1), for a second consecutive year.
Ranking just as high on Pletcher’s list was Unitarian’s victory in the $100,000 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes, created by Gulfstream to honor the legendary Hall of Fame horseman and run for the first time less than seven weeks before his death last March at the age of 85.
Winner of a record seven Eclipse Awards as champion trainer, Pletcher returns to defend his title in the two-mile turf stakes for 4-year-olds and up with Ken and Sarah Ramsey homebred Charming Kitten.
A 6-year-old son of Kitten’s Joy, Charming Kitten already owns a victory at the rare distance, having won the inaugural Belmont Gold Cup Invitational in June 2014 at Belmont Park. Seven of his eight rivals in the Jerkens will be trying two miles for the first time.
“I’m going to venture to say he’ll be the only horse in the race with a two-mile win under his belt,” Pletcher said. “I hold the race in high regard. Like I said last year, there’s a lot of big races at Gulfstream and that’s one I’d love to win.”
Charming Kitten won the first stakes of his career in the 2013 Kitten’s Joy at Gulfstream and returned to close 2015 with a hard-fought neck victory in the 1 ½-mile W. L. McKnight (G3) Dec. 26 for his lone graded-stakes triumph.
“He ran great in the McKnight,” Pletcher said. “He seems like he came out of it even better. He’s a solid, honest horse and it’s great to know that he’s got a win at two miles. We’re looking forward to defending our title.”
Charming Kitten will carry Hall of Famer John Velazquez and highweight of 123 pounds from post one.
John D’Amato’s Roccia d’Oro will take another shot at Charming Kitten in the Jerkens. Trained by Tom Albertrani, the 4-year-old Irish-bred colt was fifth by less than four lengths at odds of 20-1 in the McKnight.
The McKnight was the third start for Roccia d’Oro since coming to the U.S. last spring after racing in Italy. He was fifth in the Derby Italiano (G2) last May in his last race before joining Albertrani.
“He came out of the race really well. I thought he was in a bad spot throughout the whole race and never really got a chance to use himself,” he said. “I was really pleased that he ran well but I thought with a little more racing room he may have actually been a little closer. That part was a little disappointing, but I thought he ran well in that spot. He’s been doing really well since then.”
Roccia d’Oro will be making his seventh lifetime start in the Jerkens. He opened last season with a half-length victory in a 1 ¼-mile turf allowance at Milan prior to the Derby, then didn’t race again until finishing fourth in his North American debut last October at Belmont Park.
“I guess you never know until you try it. Two miles is pretty far,” Albertrani said. “I don’t know what this horse’s best distance is but he sure seems to handle a mile and a half and I’m sure like any of the others it’s all the same. To me, when he ran his last two races, he seems to want to stay on so that gives me a little more optimism that he can get a little further.”
Albertrani is no stranger to saddling Italian imports for D’Amato at Gulfstream. Last March 7 he sent out multiple Group stakes winner Biz the Nurse to victory in a 1 7/16-mile turf event, his North American debut.
“This horse came with a pretty good reputation,” he said. “They thought that our program here might suit him. When I first got him he had some minor issues and we just needed to get him through it. Actually, the horse has just trained great since the fall, definitely a lot more mature and stronger looking. I’m hoping that if he makes another step forward from his last couple of races he might be a useful type of long-distance horse.”
Championship Meet-leading rider Javier Castellano has the call from post two at 117 pounds.
Great Hill Stables’ Morning Calm is the other Jerkens entrant with experience at two miles, having finished fifth in the Belmont Gold Cup last June for trainer Michelle Nihei. The 5-year-old son of Broken Vow won the 1 ½-mile Raymond Earl Handicap last May at Gulfstream.
Another Gulfstream stakes winner in the field is Signal Hill Farms’ Mucho Mas Macho, who is winless in 15 starts since his upset in the 2013 Fort Lauderdale (G3) at odds of 41-1. Now trained by Niall Saville, he closed to be fifth in an optional claiming allowance Dec. 20 at Tampa Bay Downs.
Rounding out the field are 2015 Laurel Turf Cup winner St. Albans Boy, most recently fourth in the McKnight; Good and Proper, third in the Bear’s Den Stakes last July at Gulfstream; Garnet Stable’s Xaverian, making his stakes debut; maiden 4-year-old Neutronstar, and Matuszak, who ships in from Fair Grounds.