02/05/2015 12:33PM

Fred Hooper Stakes tough puzzle for handicappers

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Barbara D. Livingston
Race Day (left) breezed four furlongs with Protonico on Sunday in preparation for the Fred W. Hooper.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Handicappers are in for a real challenge trying to sort out the 12 scheduled starters in Saturday’s $100,000 Fred W. Hooper Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Topping the wide-open field in the Grade 3 Hooper are likely favorites Confrontation and Race Day.

Confrontation is coming off a game second-place finish behind Lea, the defending Donn Handicap champion, in the one-mile Hal’s Hope here last month, rallying from last at the head of the lane to take the lead at midstretch before losing by a half-length.

“It’s back a little sooner than I wanted, but he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do,” said Confrontation’s trainer, Barclay Tagg. “The race has come up pretty tough, but I think he’ll run his race.”

:: DONN HANDICAP: Get PPs, watch Saturday’s card live

Race Day earned a career- and field-best 109 Beyer Speed Figure in cruising to an 8 1/2-length win in a second-level optional $62,500 claiming race going a mile here Dec. 21, his first start since joining trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn the previous month.

:: DRF Live: Get real-time updates and insights from DRF reporters and handicappers on Saturday

“He certainly ran a stakes-caliber race,” said Pletcher. “It’s a step up, so we’ll see how he handles the move into stakes competition.”

Other key contenders in the one-mile Hooper include Grade 2 winners Alpha Bettor and Valid; Grande Shores, who has not finished worse than second in his last 12 starts; Mosler, who returns to dirt after finishing sixth in the Grade 2 Fort Lauderdale; Purple Egg and Midnight Cello, who finished one-two in a well-graded optional $100,000 claiming race Dec. 26; and Ulanbator and Looking Cool, who finished heads apart while upsetting the odds-on Commissioner under second-level optional $62,500 claiming conditions Jan. 10.

Fred W. Hooper, race 11

KEY CONTENDERS

Confrontation (Last 3 Beyers: 106-99-73)

◗ He has finished off the board just once in 10 starts, the lone blemish on his record a ninth-place finish in the Grade 1 Forego.

◗He reunites with jockey Rajiv Maragh, who has been aboard for all five of Confrontation’s victories.

Race Day (Last 3 Beyers: 109-86-83)

◗He’s 2 for 2 in one-turn miles, having won his entry-level allowance condition at Churchill Downs prior to freaking to a career-best Beyer here in his 2014 finale.

Alpha Bettor (Last 3 Beyers: 85-81-87)

◗He must step up from a Beyer standpoint to compete with many others in this lineup, although he hails from one of the hottest barns at the track; trainer Danny Vella has gone 4 for 8 at this meet.

Valid (Last 3 Beyers: 104-111-101)

◗Has posted triple-digit Beyers in seven of his last eight starts.

◗Switches to a new rider, Paco Lopez, who has won with 24 percent of the 66 horses he has ridden for trainer Marcus Vitali over the past five years, for a return on investment of $2.98.