07/07/2011 4:39PM

Arlington: Firmer turf should enhance Willcox Inn's chances in American Derby

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Barbara D. Livingston
Firmer ground and longer distance should work in the favor of Willcox Inn in the American Derby.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Willcox Inn won the Arlington Classic on May 28 racing 1 1/16 miles over a wet turf course. Saturday, Willcox Inn will go 1 3/16 miles on what should be far firmer grass in Saturday’s American Derby, but the changes may only help the colt.

Willcox Inn won last time despite not particularly caring for a yielding course, trainer Mike Stidham said, and Stidham, who debuted Willcox Inn in a route race late last summer, eagerly awaits longer distances.

“The farther the better with him,” Stidham said.

Willcox Inn looks like the favorite in the Grade 2, $200,000 American Derby, which drew an apparently well-matched field of 10. A winner over Kentucky Derby hero Animal Kingdom in his Polytrack maiden win last summer, Willcox Inn went on to finish a closing third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His other grass tries produced a second in his 2011 debut and his win in the Arlington Classic, and Willcox Inn should still have room to improve on turf. He worked strongly between starts and possesses tactical speed. Robby Albarado has a return call Saturday.

Churchill shipper Close Ally has yet to win a two-turn turf race, but he was narrowly beaten May 30 in the $200,000 Lone Star Derby after running into leading 3-year-old grass horse Banned in the American Turf.

“He’s been improving all the time,” said trainer Neil Howard. “I thought his last couple races were pretty decent. He’s not the best one out there, but he’s a nice horse.”

Suntracer finished second to Willcox Inn in the Arlington Classic while making up about three lengths between the stretch call and the finish.

“I think you can move him into a little closer position up the backside,” said trainer Chris Block. “He struggled with the turf a little last time. It was pretty darn soft, and it took him a little while to get that run going.”

Irish trainer Dermot Weld, a three-time American Derby winner, has shipped Cannon Hill for this year’s race. Cannon Hill has only about $37,000 in career earnings, and has not won any race of consequence, but he held his own against Treasure Beach and Casamento last year at 2. Treasure Beach in particular has turned out to be a good horse, winning the Irish Derby in his last start. Irish jockey Pat Smullen is named to ride.

The race also includes Derby Kitten, winner of the Lexington Stakes over Keeneland’s Polytrack, and Lil Bit O’Fun and Chalice, the one-two finishers in the $214,000 Oliver last month at Indiana Downs.

Tajaaweed fits well in Arlington Handicap

Since last October the goal for Tajaaweed has been two turf races at Arlington Park, the Arlington Handicap and the Arlington Million. Who knows how Tajaaweed will stack up against Grade 1 horses in the Million, but he looks salty in the $100,000 Arlington Handicap.

Tajaaweed is a 6-year-old Dynaformer horse owned by Shadwell Stable. His trainer, Dan Peitz, was found at 10 a.m. Thursday crouched down in Tajaaweed’s stall, giving the horse treatment on his back end. Tajaaweed has earned the handle Mr. Grumpy for his behavior around the barn, but he let Peitz do what he needed, and physically, the horse is thriving, his trainer said.

“He’s bigger and stronger than he was last year,” said Peitz. “These Dynaformers often mature late.”

Tajaaweed finished second May 8 in his 2011 debut here, and was second again June 17 in the Opening Verse at Keeneland. Both races were fell short of Tajaaweed’s desired distance, but the 1 1/4 miles of the Handicap suits the horse.

“Those last two races were just what we wanted.” Peitz said.

Juniper Pass, who arrived here from California in good order Wednesday, won back-to-back Grade 2 races this past spring at Santa Anita, but makes his first start since April 17 and probably prefers longer races.

“He’s not geared up to run the race of his life, but I think he’s where he needs to be to give a good account of himself,” said trainer Ray Bell.

Two Handicap entrants, Sanagas and Interaction, make their North American debut Saturday. Interaction, trained by Christophe Clement, was a top horse in his native Argentina in 2009, but finished seventh in a listed French race in his only 2010 race, and wintered in Dubai this year with mixed results. German import Sanagas has won 4 of 5 starts while earning less than $19,000.

“He’s done everything nicely since I’ve had him,” said trainer Graham Motion. “It’s hard to gauge what he’s been running against. I’m just hoping he’s of this caliber.”