11/24/2011 3:00PM

Calder: Winchester, Musketier look to bounce back in McKnight Handicap

Tom Keyser
Winchester will aim to put a last-place finish in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic behind him when he starts as one of the favorites in Saturday’s Grade 2 McKnight Handicap.

MIAMI – Winchester and Musketier have a lot in common. The two veterans are long-winded turf specialists, and both are coming off atypically disappointing efforts over yielding courses in their most recent starts. The pair will cross paths Saturday at Calder, separated by just a single pound, when going postward as the co-choices in the $150,000 W.L. McKnight Handicap.

The 1 1/2-mile McKnight, the only Grade 2 race on the Tropical at Calder stakes schedule, highlights the final Saturday card of the 2011 Calder season that also includes the Grade 3 Fred W. Hooper Handicap.

Winchester, who totes 122 pound in the McKnight, will attempt to bounce back after finishing fifth and a distant last in defense of his title in Belmont Park’s Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational on Oct. 1. In his previous start, Winchester won the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga.

“I think he was kind of spinning his wheels over the soft course in his last start,” said Ben Colebrook, assistant to trainer Christophe Clement. “He really had no other excuse, except the ground. He came back out of the race well, had a breeze at Payson, and looked good earlier this month. He also seems to be a lot happier mentally since leaving New York and getting down to Florida. If he can get back to his old form, he should run well on Saturday.”

Musketier finished sixth, beaten 10 lengths by Sarah Lynx, making his only Grade 1 start this year in Woodbine’s Canadian International on Oct. 16. He is one of two horses that trainer Roger Attfield entered in the McKnight along with Simmard, who finished a well-beaten 13th in the International.

The 9-year-old Musketier missed an important prep for the International, Woodbine’s Northern Dancer on Sep. 18, when coming down with a case of colic less than a week before the race. He returns to south Florida for the first time since finishing second in Gulfstream Park’s Grade 3 Pan American in March. He also was third last winter in Gulfstream’s Grade 2 Mac Diarmida.

“Neither of my horses were super happy over the soft ground in the International,” Attfield said. “But Musketier is doing as good as ever since getting down to Payson Park.”

A field of 11 was entered for the McKnight but will likely scratch down to as few as nine starters, with both Mambo Meister and Flatter This cross-entered in the Hooper.

The most intriguing member of the McKnight field is Astral Thunder, who makes his U.S. debut after racing exclusively in his native Argentina to begin his career. Astral Thunder, trained by James Toner, has won just once in 15 starts, but was Group 1 placed earlier this season.

Center Divider has won just once this year for trainer Chad Brown, but did finish second behind Sanagas in Saratoga’s 1 5/8-mile Johns Call. Sanagas recently captured the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup.

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