07/02/2011 2:45PM

Churchill Downs: General Quarters back on turf for Firecracker Handicap

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Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
General Quarters will start from the rail in Monday's Grade 2, $175,000 Firecracker Handicap.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Few Kentucky Derby stories have been more compelling in recent years than the one involving General Quarters, but the sequels haven’t been bad, either. Owned and trained by retired high school principal Tom McCarthy, the 5-year-old horse stands a chance to tack on another remarkable tale Sunday when going postward as the 119-pound highweight in the Grade 2, $175,000 Firecracker Handicap, the closing-day feature of the 39-day spring meet at Churchill Downs.

McCarthy was elated with the way General Quarters returned from a lengthy layoff with a sharp runner-up finish in a June 10 allowance at seven furlongs on the main track, and he is hoping the star of his tiny stable will benefit from that effort when stretching out to a two-turn mile while switching back to the grass.

“He came out of the race well, and I think it’s going to set him up nicely for the Firecracker,” said McCarthy, 77.

General Quarters, 10th in the 2009 Derby after winning the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes, won the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on the 2010 Derby undercard, furthering his reputation as a big-day performer and making him a millionaire.

With Jamie Theriot to ride, General Quarters will break from the rail post Monday.

“Drawing the rail is sometimes a good thing and it’s sometimes a bad thing,” McCarthy said. “We’ll just have to see.”

Eleven older horses were entered, but Mister Marti Gras has been scratched because of a procedural miscue involving the post-position draw Friday. The race actually was redrawn to include him, but after further review, the Churchill stewards declared the horse was not entered in a timely fashion and therefore was ordered scratched.

Other contenders in the 21st Firecracker include Baryshnikov (post 7, Julien Leparoux), a one-time lower-level claimer in career form since Mike Maker assumed his training over the winter; Strike Impact (post 9, Robby Albarado), who also has come to a peak in recent months; Wise Dan (post 10, Jon Court), the 2010 Phoenix winner making his turf debut; and Lubash (post 11, Kent Desormeaux), one of the top New York-breds in training.

Ralph Nicks will run an uncoupled pair in El Caballo (post 4, Corey Lanerie) and Joshua Reynolds (post 6, Brian Hernandez Jr.). El Caballo has shown versatility when earning more than $400,000 in 18 career races. Joshua Reynolds will be making his stakes debut after winning his last three starts.

“It’s a big step, but it seems like the right time to make it,” Nicks said.

First post for the spring finale is 12:45 p.m. Eastern. The Firecracker, the 10th of 11 races, goes at 5:25, and the last goes at 5:55, leaving plenty of time for fans to get to their fireworks destinations before dusk.

A very tight race for leading trainer could very well come down to closing day, with Steve Asmussen, Tom Amoss, Eddie Kenneally, and Ken McPeek all having multiple entries in attempts to win or share the title.

◗ Ontrack attendance for the fourth and last Friday night card of the spring meet was 27,787, bringing an end to another successful season of racing under the lights. Once again, young fans made up the majority of the crowd, meeting a major aim of Churchill’s marketing efforts. Fortune Play ($10) won the feature, the $77,270 Roxelana Stakes, by a neck over Decelerator.

Crowds for the three previous night dates at this meet numbered 38,142 on April 30; 23,332 on June 17; and 25,523 on June 24.