McPeek Leads Pletcher by One as Title Chase Goes to Wire

Durham Racing and partners’ 3-year-old filly The Best Day Ever was all out to win Thursday’s last race at Gulfstream Park by a nose in a photo finish for trainer Ken McPeek to take a lead of one over Todd Pletcher (32-31) with five days to go before closing on Thursday.

Both powerful stables left divisions in South Florida to compete in the final weeks after shipping the majority of their horses north to Kentucky and/or New York. McPeek continues to close in on a personal career milestone of 1,000 victories as The Best Ever Day’s victory marked No. 994.

Pletcher is bidding for a sixth straight Gulfstream meet training title and McPeek his first. The rivalry continues on Friday’s program with both Pletcher and McPeek entered in three races apiece. McPeek has three in on Saturday and Pletcher one and both have two runners entered Sunday.

While the trainers’ title race could go down to the final day, jockey Jose Lezcano is virtually assured of capturing his first Gulfstream riding championship with 63 wins, 15 more than Elvis Trujillo and Kent Desormeaux, tied for second with 48 apiece, followed by John Velazquez fourth with 47 and Julien Leparoux fifth at 45.

While Lezcano and Trujillo continue in action here through the end of the meet before heading to Monmouth Park for the summer, Leparoux, Desormeaux and Velazquez left for Keeneland two weeks ago and currently rank one, two, three in the standings there, respectively.

Four Gulfstream Starters in Keeneland’s Lexington Saturday

Saturday’s $300,000 Lexington Stakes (G2) at Keeneland represents a last chance for a 3-year-old to earn a berth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs two weeks later, and four of the 12 entered in the race ran at Gulfstream Park one or more times earlier this year.

Saturday’s group in the Lexington is led by G. Watts Humphrey Jr.’s El Crespo, winner of the Palm Beach Stakes (G3) here on turf on Mar. 14 for trainer Rusty Arnold. The homebred son of A.P. Indy broke his maiden on turf in early January, but finished a dull ninth in the Holy Bull Stakes (G3) in two previous starts at the meet.

Trainer Shug McGaughey sends out Phipps Stable’s homebred Conservative in the Lexington after the son of Unbridled’s Song won his last two starts at Gulfstream, breaking his maiden on turf and winning an ‘off-the-turf’ allowance going one mile on a sloppy track on Mar. 19.

The other two are Robert La Penta’s Brave Victory, fourth last out in the Swale Stakes (G2) here on Mar. 28 for trainer Nick Zito; and Peachtree Stable’s Masala, second in an allowance in late January behind Todd Pletcher-trained stablemate Take the Points. Masala subsequently finished fourth behind I Want Revenge in the Gotham Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct on Mar. 7

Leading the Gulfstream-raced team expected to line up for the Kentucky Derby will be Edward P. Evans’ Quality Road and Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith’s Dunkirk, one-two in the $750,000 Florida Derby (G1) here on Mar. 28.

Trained by Jimmy Jerkens, Quality Road will bid to become the third Florida Derby winner in four years to win the ‘Run for the Roses’ following Barbaro in 2006 and Big Brown last year.