• Departing working toward G1 Whitney start for trainer Stall
• Motion barn loaded for upcoming turf stakes at Spa
• Better Lucky to point to G1 Ballerina following Shine Again victory
Purchased by Joseph Moss following the Grade 3 Hutcheson at Gulfstream Park in February, the gelded sophomore son of Pulpit came from off the pace to beat previously undefeated No Nay Never in the seven-furlong Swale.
A disappointing seventh in the Grade 1 Florida Derby at 1 1/8 miles four weeks later, Spot was off the board in both the Grade 3 Derby Trial and Grade 2 Woody Stephens presented by RTN before running fourth in the Grade 3 Dwyer on July 5 at 1 1/16 miles.
"Horses change," Zito said. "Right now, the way he's been training these last two months, we've thought for sure that he wanted to go long. The miles he's logged have indicated that he's changed. If you look at it, the Florida Derby wasn't bad. The Dwyer was a good indication that he will go long."
A longtime assistant and exercise rider for Zito, Maxine Correa echoed her boss' sentiments.
"When he gallops and breezes, he gallops out after the breeze as if he's still breezing," she said. "Never mind the breeze, at the end of the gallop he pulls even harder than at the beginning of the gallop."
Based for most of the year with Zito's string in Saratoga, Spot has worked steadily for the Curlin including a bullet half-mile breeze in 48.09 seconds on June 28. Most recently he went four furlongs in 49.54 seconds on July 17; both moves were over the main track.
"He's doing good here. He likes the main track," Zito said. "I wish, like everybody else, it was five weeks from the Dwyer but what are you going to do? It was a good race, and he did win a graded race. He won the Swale. We'll see what happens."
Jockey Jose Ortiz will ride Spot for the first time in the Curlin; they drew post eight in a field of 10 at 117 pounds, six less than co-highweights Tiz'naz and Joint Custody.
"I always like the inside because you always get position right off the bat, but from the outside he'll do what he's got to do," Zito said. "He's really strong right now. I talked to the jock; he's a bright kid. He looks like he's got a future. He was here the other day and we went over the race with him. Hopefully, he gets a good place and a good trip."
Zito picked up his first two wins of the meet on Monday in back-to-back seven-furlong dirt sprints with 3-year-olds, filly Another Incident in a $55,000 allowance and colt Tony B in a $20,000 maiden claimer.
Owned by Leonard Riggio's My Meadowview Farm, Tony B is a chestnut son of Old Fashioned who cost $500,000 as a 2-year-old in training last spring. Named for 87-year-old entertainer and artist Tony Bennett, he was seventh in his career debut last summer at Saratoga.
On Monday, Tony B was fractious in the gate but broke well and settled in third behind pacesetter Midnight Frolic under jockey Luis Saez before shaking clear at the quarter pole and spurting away to win by 11 lengths in 1:23.75.
"Sometimes you've got horses and they're not doing well and you put them in a claiming race and they run off the screen. Naturally, you hope they're not claimed," Zito said. "He wasn't claimed. Mr. Riggio liked him as a 2-year-old and he was an expensive 2-year-old. We just couldn't get a break with this horse his 2-year-old year. He had an issue here and an issue there. We gave him all the time. We're so grateful he wasn't claimed because of how he won and what could happen."
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Multiple graded stakes winner Departing will work Saturday morning as he continues his preparation for the Grade 1, $1.5 million Whitney on August 2.
The Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider homebred fired a bullet five furlongs in 1:00.24 last Saturday on the main track, best of 20 at the distance.
"He's training well," said trainer Al Stall. "He trained well here last year, and he seems to like it. He didn't get to run up here, and he'll get his first chance. His breeze last Saturday was very nice - five-eighths and a great gallop-out. Everything is on schedule."
Departing has a sterling 7-for-11 record with $1,491,340 in earnings. Last year at 3 he scored in the Grade 2 Super Derby and West Virginia Derby and the Grade 3 Illinois Derby.
He opened his 4-year-old campaign with an easy score in an optional claimer and then went straight to the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap on June 14. Against top horses, he loomed boldly in the stretch before flattening out to third behind winner Moonshine Mullin. He was just a neck behind runner-up Will Take Charge, the 2013 Champion Three-Year-Old, who also will be running in the Whitney.
Stall believes the schedule sets up Departing perfectly for a top performance.
"That was his second race in 8 ½ months, going from a one-turn mile allowance race to a mile-and-an-eighth two turns," Stall said. "He was on the lead at the eighth pole [in the Stephen Foster] and just kind of evened off a little bit at the end. He figured to need the race, but I thought to get beat two lengths while he's still working his way up to fitness was a great race for him."
The Whitney has "been the goal since we turned him out last October," Stall said. "We figured his third race back would be the Whitney and so far, so good."
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Ring Weekend, second to the very impressive Tourist on July 18 in the $100,000 Sir Cat turf stakes, has come back in good form for trainer Graham Motion and may return for another stakes race later in the meet, according to assistant trainer Alice Clapham.
A likely spot would be the $100,000 Better Talk Now, a one-mile turf race for 3-year-olds on August 20. That race is named for Motion's 2004 Breeders' Cup Turf winner, who ranks among his favorite horses and is turned out in a paddock near his barn at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland.
Ring Weekend won the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby and was under consideration for the Kentucky Derby when he finished second in the Calder Derby on turf. His connections ultimately skipped the Run for the Roses and ran in the Preakness, where Ring Weekend was bumped and steadied in a rough-trip fifth-place finish.
After that, Motion sent Ring Weekend out in the Grade 3 Pegasus on dirt at Monmouth Park, and the Tapit gelding pulled up in the stretch after setting the pace.
The performance in the Sir Cat showed Ring Weekend was back on track and likely headed to more turf racing.
"We were very happy with the way he ran, especially after the race at Monmouth," Clapham said. "He ran huge. We were just happy that he put his mind back in the game. I think that horse of Mott's [Tourist] is a very nice horse."
The Motion barn has an intriguing English import, Stars Above Me, set to run July 30 in the $100,000 Coronation Cup, a 5 1/2-furlong turf sprint for 3-year-old fillies.
Despite only having one victory in five starts overseas, Stars Above Me has hit the board in four of those starts - all of which came against males.
"They wanted to bring her over here and get some black type with her," Clapham said. "She got here last week."
Bobby Flay's Auld Alliance and Gallagher Stud's multiple graded stakes winner Inimitable Romanee are both on track to run August 3 in the $100,000 1 ½-mile Waya turf stakes for fillies and mares 3-years-old and up. Both will van up for the race from Fair Hill.
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Trainer Tom Albertrani confirmed that Godolphin Racing's Better Lucky will now target the Grade 1, $500,000 Ballerina for filly and mare sprinters on August 23 after beating a small but select field in the $100,000 Shine Again on Monday.
The Shine Again was the first stakes win on the dirt for Better Lucky, who won the 2012 Grade 1 Matriarch and 2013 Grade 1 First Lady on the turf and was second in the 2014 Grade 1 Madison on a synthetic surface. She hadn't raced on the dirt since the start of her career when she won her debut and finished fifth in the 2012 Ruthless over the inner track at Aqueduct Racetrack. Her runner-up performance in the Madison was her lone previous start traveling seven furlongs.
In the Shine Again, Better Lucky rallied from last of four to beat Grace Hall by a head, who finished a half-length in front of My Miss Aurelia.
"I had high expectations [going into the Shine Again]," said Albertrani. "I didn't feel it was a matter of surface change. I felt as if was a matter of what her best distance is. It worked out in our favor with a fast early pace."
Albertrani added that Romansh, who won the Grade 3 Excelsior in March at Aqueduct and was third two starts back in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap in June at Belmont, remains on course for the Grade 1 Whitney on August 2 and is scheduled to have a workout on Saturday or Sunday. Romansh, also owned by Godolphin, was fifth in the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap on July 5 in his most recent start.