“The way he trained, the way he carried himself, I thought he could be a special horse,” Baker said. “He ran second in his first race, but he has done everything right since then, so he’s doing what I thought he could do.”
Since that first lost last April, Manteca has won four consecutive races and his smallest margin of victory came in his last start, when he defeated the dangerous Giant Moon by two and a half lengths.
This will be the first time Manteca, a New York-bred son of 2000 Belmont Stakes runnerup Aptitude, will race beyond a mile and seventy yards and it will be his first time in open company.
“I really don’t consider this to be open company,” said Baker, a native of Jamaica, who followed his father into the business of training horses and who has been a regular at the New York Racing Association tracks, as well as Finger Lakes. “There are many familiar faces in this race. I am looking more forward to run him at the distance, because I have always felt that a mile and an eighth would be ideal for him.”
Last year, Manteca followed his maiden trip with two more races before Baker stopped on him.
“He had some foot issues and we decided to take some time and clear them up,” Baker said. “We weren’t in a big hurry with him because we felt he was a good horse.”
Manteca came back to the races on December 27, rating well under jockey Rajiv Maragh before drawing off to a six-length victory. It was his first start around two turns and he covered the mile and seventy yards on Aqueduct’s “good” inner track in 1:43 4/5.
In his next start, on February 6, he led all the way and defeated Giant Moon in the overnight Rough Rogue, this time going a mile and seventy yards in 1:42 2/5 on the fast inner track. It was Giant Moon’s first start since finishing eighth in the 2008 Preakness because of foot problems, but it was also only Manteca’s second start off a seven-month layoff.
“I think Manteca is a much better horse coming from off the pace, and the two turns has definitely been to his liking,” Baker said. “In his last race, he wound up on the lead and that was not a problem for him.
“I think he is a horse that can do whatever you ask, and that will be determined as the race unfolds.”
Maragh, the only jockey who has ever raced aboard Manteca, has the mount on Saturday from post 5. Manteca will carry 119 pounds, getting four pounds from Rutledge Farm’s highweight Researcher.
Researcher, a 5-year-old gelded son of Two Smart, has also won four in a row, but has not raced since December 12, when he beat stakes-placed Brilliant Son, who is also entered in the Stymie, by a half-length in the Grade 3 Queens County Handicap here at a mile and a sixteenth on the inner track.
“He’s a pretty neat horse, even if his form seems a little different,” said Charles Town, Va.-based trainer Jeff Runco. “We tried him on the turf, and then we brought him back and the race came off the turf. It seems that the dirt-to-turf-to-dirt made the biggest difference in him. He won the (HBPA) Governor’s Cup here by 14 lengths and that was really some race.”
Researcher ran a 101 Beyer Speed Figure that day; he has since run a 104 in winning the Mountaineer Mile and a 105 in the Queens County ‘Cap. He is scheduled to arrive in New York on Friday, while Runco will fly up on Saturday.
“I expect him to run really well,” Runco said. “We’ve been working him long; he worked a mile the other day, but I think (clockers) only caught his last half-mile. We have a few spots picked out for him. He’s had some issues that he is over and we want to use this race to help get ready for a $1 million race down here in April.”
That race is the inaugural running of the nine-furlong Charles Town Classic for four-year-olds and upward on Saturday, April 18. Using a tiered purse structure, the Charles Town Classic will have a guaranteed purse of $500,000. Grade 1 winners will run for the full $1 million, Grade 2 winners will compete for $750,000 and Grade 3 winners for $600,000.
Darley Stable’s Barrier Reef has won two in a row for trainer Tom Albertrani, including a neck victory over Broadway Producer in the Evening Attire Stakes at a mile and a sixteenth here on January 17.
J. Paul Reddam’s Barcola is a speedster who has shown dismal recent form. The 6-year-old Old Trieste horse, however, was third behind two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and Einstein in last year’s Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Judith’s Wild Rush, Real Merchant (CHI) and True Resurgence complete the field.