HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Itsmyluckyday and Palace Malice, major players on last year’s Triple Crown trail, will meet for the first time since the Kentucky Derby (G1) when they kick off their 4-year-old seasons in the one-mile $250,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) on Saturday.
Another veteran of the Triple Crown grind is Falling Sky, last of 19 in the Derby who comes into the race off a front-running victory in the Gulfstream Park Sprint (G3) on Feb. 8 for trainer George Weaver.
Eddie Plesa, who trains Itsmyluckyday for Trilogy Stable and his wife, Laurie, has been both patient and meticulous in his preparation for the Gulfstream Park Handicap, which will be the Lawyer Ron colt’s first start since suffering what was later diagnosed as a pelvic fracture in the Pegasus (G3) at Monmouth Park on June 16.
“I’m sure it’s been important for him,” Plesa said of the time off. “It’s been important for me because I wanted us all to be on the same comfort level as far as when he does run, I don’t want to look back and say, ‘Maybe this or maybe that.’ That’s why I really didn’t have a race in mind. This race coming up was not a goal of mine to reach; it just falls in the time frame that works as far as his road back.”
During last year’s Champions Meet, Itsmyluckyday won the Gulfstream Park Derby and Holy Bull (G3) before finishing second as the favorite to eventual Derby winner Orb in the Florida Derby. A distaste for the sloppy, sealed track at Churchill Downs led to Itsmyluckyday’s distant Derby finish, but he rebounded to be second behind Oxbow in the Preakness in his last start before the Pegasus.
Itsmyluckyday has breezed seven times since returning to the work tab on Dec. 31 at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream’s satellite training facility in Palm Beach County. Each of his last two have been bullets, going five furlongs in 1:01.45 on Feb. 27 and 59.75 seconds on Feb. 20.
“He’s training like he did when he was on the road to the Triple Crown,” Plesa said. “He’s training exactly the same. The only thing is he’s had eight-plus months off, so maybe in the long run we’ll be looking back and saying it ended up being a blessing in disguise.”
Jockey Paco Lopez will be back aboard Itsmyluckyday for the first time since their win in the Gulfstream Park Derby. Though the company is more difficult, Plesa is hoping for a comeback similar to that of Normandy Invasion, the fourth-place Derby finisher who returned from a 9 ½-month layoff to capture a one-mile entry-level allowance at Gulfstream on Feb. 22.
“I wish I could have found a little bit easier spot,” Plesa said, “but when you’re a horse like him who’s won as many races as he has, it’s not like Normandy Invasion who had an a-other-than condition to him that he was able to take advantage of. I don’t have that luxury, but it is what it is. He’s a good horse, and he’ll run well. I’m anxious, I’m happy, [but] I’m not nervous because he’ll go out there and give a good performance.”
Third in the Risen Star (G2) and second in the Blue Grass (G1), Palace Malice had only a maiden victory to his credit before his 3 ¼-length romp in the Belmont. He followed up with a professional win in the Jim Dandy and was fourth, beaten less than a length after stumbling out of the gate, in the Travers (G1).
In his only previous start at Gulfstream, Palace Malice was second in a seven-furlong entry-level allowance last January to kick off his 3-year-old campaign. He was second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) in his first try against older horses prior to the BC Classic. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez will ride.
“He’s been training really well and everything has gone smoothly so far. I felt like this is a good place to get him started again,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains Palace Malice for Dogwood Stable. “He’s always been a horse that trains very well, and doesn’t seem to have lost any enthusiasm. I think the freshening should have done him well, and we hope to have a big year.”
Falling Sky won the Sam F. Davis (G3) and finished second in the Tampa Derby (G2) heading into the Derby for previous trainer John Terranova. He was given time off and moved to Weaver, ending the year off the board in November’s City of Laurel Stakes at Laurel Park.
Since coming back, Falling Sky has had two outstanding races at Gulfstream. He led from the gate to deep stretch before finishing second by a half-length to Grade 1 winner Revolutionary in a one-mile allowance on Jan. 11 prior to his victory in the Gulfstream Park Sprint. Jockey Elvis Trujillo replaces Luis Saez in the irons.
“He ran a very strong race at a mile leading into that race but if I could write my own condition book, as well as he ran at seven-eighths, I wish I could come back at seven furlongs,” Weaver said. “The horse is in good form and he has been for a while. He came out of his last race in great shape. He seems to like it down here and he likes Gulfstream, so that’s why we’re looking forward to running him.”
Golden Ticket has won twice in 11 starts since dead-heating for first with Alpha in the 2012 Travers (G1) at Saratoga Race Course for trainer Ken McPeek. The 5-year-old son of champion sprinter Speightstown captured an 8 ½-furlong optional claiming allowance at Gulfstream last January as well as the Prairie Meadows Handicap in July. Owned by Magic City Thoroughbred Partners, Golden Ticket was second to Goldencents in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) at Santa Anita on Nov. 1.
Third in the Dirt Mile, Brujo de Olleros will make his second start at the Champions meet in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. The 6-year-old son of Wild Event rallied to be third, beaten six lengths by Falling Sky and just a half-length behind runner-up Narvaez in the Gulfstream Park Sprint.
Trained by Agustin Bezara for Stipa Racing Stable, Narvaez won a 7 ½-furlong allowance at Gulfstream last March, three weeks before pressing the pace and fading to fourth in the Florida Derby. This will be the third race off a layoff for the 4-year-old Holy Bull gelding, who kicked off his campaign finishing fourth in a 6 ½-furlong optional claiming allowance at Gulfstream on Jan. 11.
Canada’s champion 2-year-old colt and Horse of the Year in 2012, Uncaptured was off the board in both the Hal’s Hope (G3) and Donn Handicap (G1) this winter at Gulfstream for trainer Mark Casse. His lone win in eight starts last year came in the Prince of Wales Stakes, the 1 3/16-mile second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown and the only one run on dirt.
Rounding out the field is Sr. Quisqueyano, winner of the 8 ½-furlong Quality Road Stakes at Gulfstream in October. Most recently, the Exclusive Quality colt was sixth in the Fred Hooper (G3) at Calder on Dec. 7 and last of eight in the Harlan’s Holiday at Gulfstream on Dec. 22.