08/29/2013 3:01PM

Arlington: Top three may control Washington Park Handicap

Coady Photography
Mister Marti Gras won the Washington Park in 2011 and finished second of seven in the 2012 running.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Each of the three primary contenders in Saturday’s Washington Park Handicap bears a different relationship to Arlington’s Polytrack: Mister Marti Gras likes it, Willcox Inn probably likes it, and Agent Di Nozzo is just meeting it for the first time.

Those three comprise half the field – the better half, by far – in the Grade 3, $150,000 Washington Park, a 1 1/8-mile main-track race for older horses. Mister Marti Gras and Willcox Inn are the co-highweights at 122 pounds.

Mister Marti Gras has become an annual member of the Washington Park lineup. He narrowly won the race in 2011, and finished second of seven in the 2012 edition. Trained by Chris Block for owner Bob Lothenbach, 6-year-old Mister Marti Gras has admirably held his form for several years, consistently turning in competitive Grade 3-level performances on a variety of surfaces, though the local all-weather course suits him at least as well as anything else. Besides the two fine Washington Park showings, Mister Marti Gras finished second earlier this meet in the Hanshin Cup, a one-turn mile well short of his best distance and won by Hogy, a Saratoga stakes winner in August.

Saratoga is where Willcox Inn might have been headed this weekend for a start in the Bernard Baruch, but a lack of easy travel arrangements prompted his connections to stay home for the Washington Park. Willcox Inn has not raced on the main track here since he beat subsequent Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom in his career debut three Septembers ago, but he has trained well enough over it, and has faced stronger competition this season than his opponents.

Agent Di Nozzo figures to offer longer odds than the other two, but could prove their equal if he takes to the unfamiliar surface. While Willcox Inn and Mister Marti Gras have combined to win 1 of 8 2013 starts, Agent Di Nozzo, a 4-year-old Ghostzapper gelding, is 4 for 5.

“He’s had a pretty good year,” said trainer Steve Margolis, who shipped Agent Di Nozzo here in midweek to get in two Polytrack gallops. “Any time you try a new surface, you’ve got a question mark. He’s going the right way, though.”

While the racing-surface question looms large in the Washington Park, so does race shape, which, owing to a lack of early speed, is muddled. The track here has been kind to front-runners this season, though more so in one-turn main-track races than two. Still, whoever seizes the initiative Saturday might wind up controlling the race.