12/21/2011 4:37PM

Gulfstream Derby key early test for Gold Megillah

Tom Keyser
Stephanoatsee, one of trainer Graham Motion's top 2-year-old prospects, will be pointed to the Jan. 7 Count Fleet at Aqueduct, and then could ship to Florida for bigger stakes.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom spent his 3-year-old birthday in relative anonymity, a virtual unknown with but a single Polytrack maiden win to his credit at 2.

Gold Megillah will begin his 3-year-old campaign in much the same manner, his only victory in four outings a one-sided, 18- length triumph over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs. But like Animal Kingdom, trainer Graham Motion is hoping Gold Megillah will emerge from the shadows to make a name for himself at 3, beginning here New Year’s Day in the inaugural Gulfstream Park Derby.

“We originally took Gold Megillah over to Saratoga to run on the grass to begin his career,” Motion said. “When the race didn’t fill we ran him six furlongs on the dirt and he ran into a buzzsaw. He was very unlucky in his next start at Belmont when we finally got him on grass, with a better post he’d likely have won, and he ran well again over Keeneland’s turf three weeks later but not good enough to try the Breeders’ Cup.”

Gold Megillah was scheduled to make his 2-year-old finale over the Churchill Downs turf on Nov. 18. Rain moved the race to a sloppy main track, a switch which produced a lopsided victory and the opportunity to take on stakes company for the first time next weekend.

“He put it all together in his last start and anytime a horse wins a race by 18 lengths you’ve got to start thinking he may just be all right,” said Motion. “Granted, he beat a field of horses who wanted to run on grass but he did it easily and handled the dirt well. It’s that time of year when you’ve got to find out where you’re at with a good 3-year-old and hopefully we’ll find out with Gold Megillah on New Year’s Day.”

Gold Megillah was one of three horses Motion nominated to the 1 1/16-mile Gulfstream Park Derby along with Stephanoatsee and Went the Day Well.

Like Gold Megillah, Stephanoatsee also won his maiden in an off-the-turf race at Laurel before finishing seventh in Aqueduct’s Remsen to close out his 2-year-old season.

“It wasn’t a fair test for him in the Remsen,” said Motion. “The pace was slow, he dropped well back, and then raced wide. I’ll leave him in New York for the next stakes on the seventh,” he said referring to the Count Fleet, “and if he runs well there I’ll probably bring him down to Florida.”

Went the Day Well was purchased privately by Team Valor after finishing second in his only two starts at 2, both of which came on grass in Europe.

“Both his races were pretty good at 2 and the idea is to get him on dirt sometime because he’s got a dirt pedigree,” said Motion.

Motion will spend Christmas at home, not only with his family but also with his two top 3-year-olds of 2011, Animal Kingdom and Toby’s Corner, both of whom are still at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland.

“Toby’s Corner had a real easy three-furlong breeze last week,” said Motion. “Animal Kingdom has not worked yet. They’ll both work next week and then ship to Palm Meadows around the first of the year.”

Motion has gotten off to a quick start at the current meet, winning with 3 of his first 8 starters. And not surprisingly, he said he’s a big fan of Gulfstream’s early opening this year.

“It really works out well for me since we shipped into Palm Meadows right after Keeneland and the early start gives us an opportunity to run some horses we’d otherwise have had to sit on until January,” said Motion. “It was like treading water down there in December. The new schedule enables us to keep things flowing better with our stable.”

Meet off to a strong start

The early opening of the Gulfstream meet has proven a success from a business standpoint. Through the first 10 days of the meet, which began on Dec. 3, the all-sources handle has averaged $6.6  million per day while field size has averaged slightly less than 10 starters per race.

“We really didn’t know what to expect opening early other than I was sure we would exceed the business we did on the April dates we traded off and that was the principal goal,” said Timm Ritvo, Gulfstream's president and general manager. “Granted, we’ve been blessed with good weather and used a lot of grass races but being able to average 9.8 starters a race exceeded expectations and thus far all our numbers, from a business standpoint, have been a pleasant surprise.”

◗ Redeemed, winner of Aqueduct’s Grade 3 Discovery Handicap in his 2011 finale, was the big name on Wednesday’s work tab at Gulfstream breezing an easy half mile in 50.43 seconds for trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. Redeemed is a candidate for the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 8.

◗ Post time for Saturday’s Christmas Eve program has been advanced to noon. The nine-race card is expected to end around 3:30 p.m.