06/20/2013 3:58PM

Colonial Turf Cup: Air Support back where he runs best

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Air Support (left) will try for his first stakes victory since taking the Grade 2 Bowling Green last September in the Colonial Turf Cup.

The best race of Air Support’s 18-start career might have been his win in the 2011 Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs, and one of his better performances last season came at Colonial when he was second to a loose-on-the-lead Turbo Compressor in the Colonial Turf Cup. Back in Virginia for another crack at the Grade 2, $300,000 Turf Cup on Saturday, Air Support looks like the favorite in an eight-horse field.

“He runs on about anything, but his two races down there were both really strong,” New York-based trainer Shug McGaughey said.

The Turf Cup, formerly restricted to 3-year-olds as a lead-in to the Virginia Derby, will be contested over 1 3/16 miles on Colonial’s spacious grass course, and with hot, dry weather forecast late this week, the going should be firm. The feature is supported on the card by the Grade 3, $100,000 All Along Stakes for fillies and mares, and the $75,000 Da Hoss. The 12-race, all-turf card starts at 5 p.m. Eastern, with the Turf Cup scheduled for 7:46.

[COLONIAL DOWNS: Get PPs, watch Saturday's full card live]

Air Support, a Smart Strike horse bred and owned by Stuart Janney III, races at about an ideal distance Saturday, and though he has taken allowance-race losses – a third at Keeneland, a fourth at Churchill – in his two 2013 starts, McGaughey said believes Air Support’s form to be solid.

“The first race at Keeneland he ran a great race off a layoff,” McGaughey said. “At Churchill, Joel [Rosario] never had ridden him before. He was fighting him off a slow pace, and that took his race away from him. He probably needs a little farther than that race, too.”

Air Support, Javier Castellano named to ride, has raced with blinkers added this year. McGaughey said he wanted to make the change after Air Support won the Sept. 8 Bowling Green Stakes by a neck, but rules at Woodbine, where Air Support concluded his 2013 campaign by finishing fifth in the Canadian International, forbade him adding blinkers after a win.

“I just thought he wasn’t focusing as much as he needed. In the Bowling Green, it looked at the three-eighths like he would win by himself, but he started clocking another horse,” said McGaughey.

Atigun, Swift Warrior, and Hyper are Air Support’s major rivals. With only three grass starts, Atigun probably is not fully exposed on the surface, and trainer Ken McPeek said he thinks Atigun could have won the May 25 Louisville Handicap – in which he finished second – with better luck.

“He was saving ground, got boxed in, and got out a little too late,” McPeek said.

Julien Leparoux rode Atigun to a turf allowance win two starts ago, and is back aboard after a one-race absence.

Swift Warrior won a pair of Grade 3 turf stakes over the winter but finished seventh in the Dixie Stakes on the Preakness undercard. The Pimlico turf course favored speed that day, but even if Swift Warrior rebounds, he is no sure thing to stay the 9 1/2-furlong distance Saturday.

The 6-year-old Hyper’s ceiling already has been reached, but the Chad Brown-trained horse would only need his recent form to tick up a notch or two to land a high placing.

On paper, the Turf Cup pace looks at least fair, with Two Notch Road and General Logan the likely front-runners.