HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (KTHV) -- Hoping for more quickness and a confidence boost, trainer Mac Robertson has been working Jer-Mar Stable's Win Willy in blinkers including his last major breeze Sunday morning ahead of Saturday's $350,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2), the start of Oaklawn Park's six-day Racing Festival of the South.
The 5-year-old son of Monarchos started the year winning the Fifth Season Stakes in January, but because of difficult pace scenarios the confirmed closer came up short in the Essex Handicap and the Razorback Handicap (G3). The 1 1/8th-mile distance is one thing that Robertson feels will help Win Willy, but the blinkers should play an important role strategically as the race unfolds.
"Hopefully the blinkers will make him a little quicker," he said Sunday morning after Win Willy went a half-mile in 48 3/5 seconds. "He works quicker in the blinkers, but I'm not trying to change his style. I just want him to start passing horses a little sooner. If he can start getting by one horse, and then another, and another, he's like a human, he's going to start to swell up and get some confidence."
Jockey Cliff Berry was aboard for the workout after fellow rider Israel Ocampo had breezed the horse in his last two drills. Robertson indicated Berry would have a better chance of making the 115 weight assignment in the handicap than the heavier Ocampo. Both jockeys have ridden Win Willy in the past, although Berry had become the horse's regular Oaklawn pilot in the last two seasons ever since teaming to upset the 2009 Rebel Stakes (G2).
The main rival for Win Willy is expected to be Misremembered, the winner of the 2010 Santa Anita Handicap (G1) exiting an impressive 2011 debut in the Santana Mile last month for trainer Bob Baffert. His presence dissuaded a few other potential out-of-town rivals from making the trip, but Robertson is eager for his star to take the challenge.
"That horse beat us in the Indiana Derby, but that was 18 months ago," said Robertson of the 2009 matchup where Misremembered won and Win Willy finished fifth. "But he hasn't trained here and he hadn't raced in almost a year. I think the fact that he came back in a mile race seems a little dodgy. Almost like he's not quite the same horse he was. Baffert has obviously had a lot of success, but we aren't too worried."
Biehler Hoping Close Calls for Stachys Leads to Big Prize in Oaklawn Handicap
The well-traveled Stachys started out the year with the goal of competing in the $350,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2). After three in-the-money finishes in 2011, the 4-year-old son of Candy Ride won't be the biggest name in the finale of the older-horse series this Saturday, but he quietly has garnered respect ahead of the 1 1/8th-mile test.
Owned by Al and Bill Ulwelling, Stachys worked five furlongs in 1:02 3/5 Sunday morning at Oaklawn in his second breeze since finishing second in the Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston Race Park March 5. Trainer Michael Biehler thinks his charge may have a couple advantages that would help him turn his minor awards into the big checks.
"He's run hard every time and trained well throughout," said Biehler. "He ran great at Houston and that gives us an extra week over some of the others, so that's probably going to help us and we are bringing in Eddie Martin to ride him, and he seems to have gotten the most out of him. I think with the right trip, we should be right there again even though I know this is supposed to be a tougher race."
Martin is the veteran jockey with more than 3,000 wins who has found the most success with Stachys. He was with the colt for two straight stakes wins at Canterbury Park in Minnesota and Assinaboia for the Manitoba
Derby. He also traveled to New Mexico to team for a win in the Zia Park Derby and was aboard for the runner-up finish in Texas last time out. The injured Francisco Torres was aboard for the colt's runner-up finish in the Fifth Season behind returning rival Win Willy and for the third-place finish in the Essex Handicap in February.
Like Win Willy, Stachys tends to do his best running late in the race. Biehler sees a better pace and distance scenario shaping up for the Oaklawn Handicap.
"I think my horse wants to go farther," he said. "He's had to lay a little closer to the front than I think he would have liked in his last few races but that was because there wasn't much speed for him. It looks like there should be more pace with the horses coming for this one."
Havre de Grace Heading into Apple Blossom at Top of her Game
Fox Hill Farm's impressive Azeri Stakes (G3) winner, Havre de Grace, who has never been worse than third in nine career starts, continues to show that she's ready to step out of the shadows and take center stage in the April 15 $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1), the highlight of the Oaklawn Park season for fillies and mares.
Working with stablemate Rabbit Tracks, a 5-year-old Mizzen Mast horse, she covered five furlongs in 1:00 3/5, while he covered the same distance in 1:01.
Last year, as a 3-year-old, the Saint Liam filly played second-fiddle to eventual 3-year-old filly champion Blind Luck, finishing just behind her in the Delaware Oaks (G2) and Alabama Stakes (G1) and third to her and the winner Unrivaled Belle in Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (G1). However, Havre de Grace turned the table in two of their last three meetings, including the March 19 Azeri when she equaled the stakes record time of 1:42 for 1 1/16 miles.
"She worked really, really good," said trainer Larry Jones. "We worked her with a horse we have in on Thursday. We're just trying to teach her to draw away from horses and not wait. She's getting that down."
Jockey Ramon Dominguez, the 2010 Eclipse Award winning rider, aboard for the first time in the Azeri, retains the mount in the Apple Blossom.
Jones said that despite threats of bad weather, he will work his other Racing Festival of the South horses -
Winslow Homer and Joyful Victory - on Monday morning. Winslow Homer is preparing for next Saturday's $350,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2), while Joyful Victory will be the likely favorite for the following day's $300,000 Fantasy Stakes (G2) for 3-year-old fillies coming off her win in the March 12 Honeybee Stakes (G3). She will once again have the services of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith.
Even a Short Fantasy Field Scares Hearts on Fire into Instant Racing
Nolan Creek Farm's Hearts on Fire breezed five furlongs Sunday morning with an eye toward the Racing Festival of the South at Oaklawn Park, but even with an expected short field, trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel doesn't feel inclined to join the showcase race for 3-year-old fillies - Saturday's $300,000 Fantasy Stakes (G2).
"If they could guarantee me third-place I'd maybe go," joked Von Hemel.
With the Fantasy the likely target of both Joyous Victory and Arienza, Von Hemel thinks his filly would be more suited to the $100,000 Instant Racing Stakes April 16 on the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) undercard.
"I'm just not sure our filly is quite up to the level of the leaders around here quite yet," he said of the Kentucky-bred 2-for-3 daughter of Lion Heart.
Hearts on Fire breezed in company with 3-year-old colt Pulpitarian, going five furlongs in 1:03 2/5 together.
"It was a nice solid work," said Von Hemel. "The two of them were head-and-head the whole way and finished up well together."
Von Hemel reported Pin Oak Stable's Alternation returned from his Saturday workout in good order. He said a decision on trying the Arkansas Derby after the colt flipped in the gate of the Rebel Stakes (G2) would be made early this week. The trainer indicated the choice of the marquee event over the $100,000 Northern Spur Stakes on the undercard would be based on the competition expected for the Derby and how the colt performs over the next few days.
Meanwhile, McNeill Stables' Rebel Stakes runner-up Caleb's Posse continues to motor along toward the Arkansas Derby.
"He just keeps doing everything we ask of him and doing it well," said Von Hemel. "He really hasn't had a hiccup all winter."
On the Worktab:
WinStar Farm's Brethren, looking to follow in the footsteps of his half-brother Super Saver, who used a runner-up finish in the Arkansas Derby as a springboard to victory in the Kentucky Derby (G1) last year, posted a bullet workout of 59 4/5 at Palm Meadows Training Center in South Florida, the fastest of 22 at the distance. The Todd Pletcher trainee is expected to fly to Arkansas next Monday, April 11 with several stablemates, including Life at Ten, a candidate for the Apple Blossom. She also worked Sunday, covering six furlongs in 1:13 2/5.