• Close Hatches looking for third straight in Gazelle
• Jinxes don’t faze Pletcher
• Streaking Cluster of Stars pointing toward April 13 Distaff
In his four-start career, the Fox Hill Farms colt has started in post position No. 9 three times and No. 10 in the other. He also has had issues breaking from the gate, and, in his most recent start – the Grade 2 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds – stumbled after a tardy takeoff.
“For whatever reason, he acts well in the gate, but he hasn’t broke well out of the gate,” Brown said Friday morning while watching Normandy Invasion go through an easy gallop at Belmont Park. “He’s not in a hurry leaving the gate. The last two times, after breaking a step slow, he’s pretty much almost clipped heels, in both the Remsen and Risen Star, or stumbled onto the heels of another horse. And then it made the bad breaks even worse.”
Even with trouble, Normandy Invasion has been impressive. He blazed home late in the Grade 2 Remsen last November to miss by a nose to Overanalyze. In the Risen Star, he came seven wide on the turn and finished fifth, just 1 ½ lengths behind the winner, long shot Ive Struck a Nerve.
“He’s always drawn outside; this is the first time he’s drawn inside [post position 2], so I’m curious if he gets some benefit not having to lose a length or so,” said Brown. “He’s got a good post and if he can get out of there a little better – I’m not looking for him to be up in the race, just get a clean break and gain two or three lengths. That’s all I think we need.”
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Making her stakes debut as the 8-5 favorite in Saturday’s Grade 2 Gazelle is Juddmonte Farms’ Close Hatches, an impressive winner of both her starts at Gulfstream Park. Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, the First Defence filly was a seven-length maiden winner on January 26 and a front-running 1 ¼-length winner of an optional claimer on March 19.
“Kevin McCarthy [Mott’s assistant in Kentucky] had her last year, and said she was one of the nicest fillies he’s had,” said Leana Willaford, Mott’s New York assistant. “She came up from Florida, and in the two days I’ve had her she’s been nothing but classy. We’re hoping she steps up tomorrow.”
A victory in the one-mile race would give Close Hatches 100 points on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks point system, which will be used this year to determine the 14 starters for the May 3 race if 14 enter. The Todd Pletcher-trained duo of Unlimited Budget and Dreaming of Julia currently top the standings with 160 and 132 points, respectively, and the Mott-trained Flashy Gray is sixth with 60 points.
“It depends on how she runs and how she comes out of the Gazelle, but if everything goes right, the Oaks would seem a logical spot for Close Hatches,” said Willaford.
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Trained Todd Pletcher, who will saddle favored Verrazano in Saturday’s Wood Memorial, gently debunked a “Derby Jinx” that could follow his currently undefeated colt to Churchill Downs, namely, that no horse who was unraced at age two has won the Derby since Apollo in 1882.
Verrazano, who is the early favorite for the Derby, made his first start on his third birthday: January 1, 2013.
“If they had a race on New Year’s Eve he would have won that,” said Pletcher. “That’s totally out of our control. I think one thing we’ve seen over the last ten years is all the Derby jinxes and Derby trends have been blown up, starting with Barbaro.”
In 2006, Barbaro became the first colt since 1956 to win the Derby off a five-week break. In the ensuing years, several other jinxes fell by the wayside as well: In 2007, Street Sense broke two when he became the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and the first juvenile champion since Spectacular Bid in 1979 to win the Run for the Roses. In 2008, Big Brown became the first horse to win the Derby from post position 20, and in 2009 Mine That Bird joined Funny Cide (2003) as one of two geldings to win since 1929. Pletcher himself had his 0-24 streak snapped by Super Saver in 2010, and 2011 saw Animal Kingdom, making his first start on dirt, become the first horse since Exterminator in 1918 to win with only four previous starts. Finally, last year, I’ll Have Another became the first to win from post position 19.
“All those old adages about you can’t win the Derby if you did this, or if your last prep was then, it’s been well-proven, especially recently, that those are no longer true,” said Pletcher.
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Turtle Bird Stable’s Cluster of Stars, who notched her fourth straight victory on March 14 with a 9 ¼-length score in an optional claimer, is scheduled to make her first graded stakes start next Saturday in the 59th running of the Grade 2, $200,000 Distaff Handicap.
The six-furlong Distaff is the final stakes of the Aqueduct spring meet, with racing concluding on April 21 before moving to Belmont Park on April 26.
Trained by Steve Asmussen, Cluster of Stars broke her maiden by 5 ½ lengths last February, returned 11 months later to win an allowance by 6 ¼ lengths and next beat multiple graded stakes winner and odds-on favorite Nicole H in the Correction Handicap.
Also pointing to the Distaff, according to NYRA stakes coordinator Andrew Byrnes, are Hearts of Red, most recently sixth in the Grade 3 Sugar Swirl at Gulfstream Park, and Villanesca, exiting a 1 ¾-length optional claiming win on March 1. Silverette, winner of three of her last four starts, and Spectacular Sky, runner-up in the Grade 2 Inside Information at Gulfstream last time out, are possible.