HALLANDALE BEACH, FL â€“ East Hall followed up an impressive triumph in the $500,000 Indiana Derby (G2) with a decisive two-length decision over Wildcat Red in the Millions Classic Preview at Gulfstream Park West on Nov. 8. It was the first time the Bill Kaplan-trained gelding got the better of his fellow Florida-bred, who had finished ahead of him in their first four meetings.
The late-developing East Hall should prove once again to be a formidable opponent in Saturdayâ€™s $250,000 Sunshine Millions Classic, but trainer Jose Garoffalo is optimistic that Wildcat Red can come out on top again with a return to Gulfstream Park, the site of the two 4-year-oldsâ€™ first four meetings.
â€œI think the track is a factor here that helps him. His speed helps him on this track. The surface is best for him. Itâ€™s better for him that he doesnâ€™t have to ship to race,â€ Garoffalo said. â€œThatâ€™s an advantage when you race on your home track and you have a horse that likes the track.â€
Wildcat Red has shown a distinct affinity for Gulfstreamâ€™s main track, over which he has never been worse than second and has finished first six times in eight starts. The son of Dâ€™wildcatâ€™s most important victory came last February in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2), which set him up for a valiant effort in the $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby (G1), in which he finished a game second, beaten by just a neck by Constitution.
Purchased for $30,000 at the 2013 OBS 2-year-olds-in-training sale, Wildcat Red would become a millionaire with a victory in the Classic, one of five stakes restricted to horses bred in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland on Saturdayâ€™s modified $700,000 Sunshine Millions program.
â€œPersonally, itâ€™s a gift to have a horse like that, especially for a guy like me who canâ€™t invest too much money in buying horses,â€ said Garoffalo, who trains Wildcat Red for the Honors Stable Corp. â€œItâ€™s very rewarding because we have to pick a horse in our budget.â€
Wildcat Red finished a troubled 18th in the Kentucky Derby (G1), but rebounded on his home track with a sharp 10 Â¼-length triumph in the Quality Road Stakes in June. Heâ€™s been winless in four subsequent starts on the road, finishing third in the Haskell (G1) at Monmouth and Oklahoma Derby (G3) at Remington Park and fifth in the Kingâ€™s Bishop (G1) at Saratoga before checking in behind East Hall in the Millions Classic Preview.
After experiencing his great early-season successes in which he was on or fighting for the lead, Wildcat Red chased or stalked the early pace in his four most recent efforts. Garoffalo expects his colt to be more actively involved in the pace in the 1 1/8-mile race, which attracted six horses, all Florida-breds.
â€œHe has the spirit of a fighter. He likes to be out front fighting with another horse. It makes him better, more aggressive,â€ said Garoffalo, who named Joel Rosario to ride his colt for the first time Saturday. â€œFrom now on, my instructions are going to be, â€˜Go to the lead. Donâ€™t worry about the fractions.â€™â€
East Hall, who is scheduled to be ridden by Luis Saez, finished behind Wildcat Red in last yearâ€™s Gulfstream Park Derby, Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and Quality Road, but he has won three of his four subsequent starts, including stakes victories in the $300,000 Ohio Derby, the Indiana Derby and the Sunshine Millions Preview. His loss came in a sixth-place finish in the Super Derby (G2).
â€œWe ran him before that in the Florida Derby, the Gulfstream Park Derby, and he ran good in all those races against the best horses in the country. In the Ohio Derby, youâ€™re not running against the horses he ran against here,â€ said Kaplan, who trains East Hall for H. Jack Hendricks and Roger Justice. â€œYou have the second tier, and he was able to handle those second-tier horses.â€ Kaplan hopes that the son of Graeme Hall is just coming into his own.
â€œI think there is room for improvement. He really wants classic distances. We havenâ€™t run him farther than a mile and an eighth, and heâ€™s the type of horse that wants a mile and a quarter. He can run all day long,â€™ he said. â€œHeâ€™s got a wonderful cardio-vascular system and his demeanor helps him. He wants to go long, and I think heâ€™ll be best at classic distances.â€
Catholic Cowboy, who captured the $200,000 Claiming Crown Jewel at Gulfstream on Dec. 6, is set to return in the Classic. The Jewel was his first race since being gelded due to behavioral issues.
â€œItâ€™s made all the difference,â€ said Zito, who noted that training hours are much less eventful since the son of Heatseeker was gelded. â€œHow much, weâ€™ll find out on Saturday.
Paco Lopez is named to ride the former claimer.
Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Transparent is set to make his first start since finishing off the board in the Cigar Mile (G1) at Aqueduct on Nov. 29. The 5-year-old son of Bernardini had previously won a second-level optional claiming allowance at Belmont Park. As a 3-year-old, Godolphin Racingâ€™s ridgling won the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga, before finishing out of the money in the Travers (G1).
Multiple-stakes winner Sr. Quisqueyano, and fourth-place Classic Preview finisher Iâ€™m Steppinâ€™ It Up round out the field.
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