By Mike Farrell
Give the race office at Aqueduct credit for gamely trying to keep the New York turf season alive, carding grass races through this weekend.
In all likelihood, that will be the conclusion of racing on the lawn up north until the spring.
Yes, it’s the time of year when the top-flight East Coast turf action shifts south to Gulfstream Park where the “Championship Meet” is already underway.
Gulfstream offers four graded stakes on Saturday with the $200,000 Fort Lauderdale (G2) at 1 1/8 miles on the turf the main event.
The Fort Lauderdale is the local prep for the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational on Jan. 23. The race drew a solid field of 10 topped by Halladay and Factor This, both making their first starts since hooking up last month in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1).
Halladay blasted right to the front that afternoon at Keeneland with Factor This immediately pressing the pace. It wasn’t a winning strategy for either.
Halladay finished sixth, two positions better than Factor This.
A rerun of the BC Mile is possible. Both horses do their best work when they can dictate the pace. Neither seems inclined to back off that strategy.
Those tactics have already carried Factor This, a 5-year-old trained by Brad Cox, to three stakes wins this season including the Wise Dan (G2) at Churchill Downs.
Halladay, a gray 4-year-old trained by Todd Pletcher, earned a Grade 1 badge with a frontrunning score in the Fourstardave in August at Saratoga. He is a perfect 3-for-3 at Gulfstream against lesser company.
“This is going to be a tough race,” said Pletcher, who also sends out Largent. “This is a prep race with some real teeth to it. I think if either one of them were able to perform well in here, it would certainly tell us they belong in the Pegasus.”
The horse best positioned to pick off fading speedsters is Somelikeithotbrown from the rail for turf master Mike Maker. He has plenty of early speed to allow Tyler Gaffalione to keep him close to the action while being rateable enough to avoid prematurely engaging the early leaders.
Somelikeithotbrown cruised to a victory over New York-breds most recently in the Mohawk Stakes at Belmont Park
Maker will also run Tide of the Sea, a 4-year-old making his stakes debut.
Maker won last year’s Turf Pegasus with Zulu Alpha and would love another crack at the meet’s richest grass race.
“We’re going to give both of them a shot,” Maker said. “It would be great to get back to the Pegasus.”
Channel Cat is the only runner in the field who contested last year’s Pegasus Turf, finishing 10th. He was a rallying third in last year’s edition of the Fort Lauderdale.
He hasn’t run since March and has transferred from the Pletcher barn to Jack Sisterson. Past history suggests he might need a race or two to hit his best stride.
In the supporting trio of Grade 3 stakes, all on the main track:
Tatweej, a $2.5 million yearling purchase, rides a three-racing winning streak, all at Gulfstream, into his stakes debut for Pletcher in the $100,000 Harlan’s Holiday.
The competition includes Phat Man, second in last year’s edition of this stakes.
Saffie Joseph, Jr. will saddle Math Wizard, winner of the 2019 Pennsylvania Derby (G1).
Lady’s Island returns to defend last year’s victory in the $100,000 Sugar Swirl for filly and mare sprinters.
She faces Golden Ami, making her stakes debut for trainer Josie Carroll after a pair of dominant wins here and in Canada.
The Rampart for fillies and mares going a mile kicks off the stakes program as the fourth of 11 races that start at 12:05 p.m. ET.
Sally’s Curlin should love the distance (4-0-1 in five tries at a mile) and the class relief after finishing seventh in the Breeder’s Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1).
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.