03/29/2011 12:36PM

Gulfstream feature has graded competitors in marathon


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – A couple of long-winded veterans who have kept steady diets of graded stakes competition – Free Fighter and Simmard – suddenly show up with price tags on their heads when they cross paths once again in Thursday’s 1 1/2-mile main event at Gulfstream Park. The second-level optional claiming and allowance race, which is scheduled to be run on the grass, drew a field of eight to vie for a $61,700 purse.

Free Fighter has made his last six starts and seven of his last eight against Grade 2 and Grade 3 opposition. A 6-year-old son of Out of Place, trained and owned in part by Chris Block, he last visited the winner’s circle 10 months ago when he rallied from just off the pace to a two-length victory in Churchill Downs’ Grade 3 Louisville Handicap. He has been graded stakes-placed three times since, including Calder’s Grade 2 McKnight in his 2010 finale when he was second-best behind Prince Will I Am in a race switched from the turf to a sloppy main track.

Free Fighter has started once here this winter, prompting the early pace before tiring to finish eighth in the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida, a race that produced the first three finishers in last Sunday’s Pan Am Handicap. He figures to be close to if not on the lead this time around, dropping in class against a field lacking much in the way of any early speed.

Simmard, who like Free Fighter will compete under a $62,500 claiming price, has made his last five starts against graded company, including the Grade 1 Canadian International last fall at Woodbine, in which he was beaten just over three lengths by Joshua Tree. He had turned in an even better performance five weeks earlier, when he was narrowly defeated by Al Khali and Winchester in Belmont Park’s Grade 2 Bowling Green.

Simmard, who finished last of five over the soggy main track in the McKnight, also exits the tough Mac Diarmida, in which he rallied mildly to finish seventh after racing at the rear of the pack into the stretch. He, too, figures to race much closer to the leaders when squaring off again with Free Fighter on Thursday.

Sporty comes off one of the best races of his career when he was second, beaten a half-length, under similar conditions here last month. Sporty is also one of only a few members of this lineup who has shown any semblance of form on dirt, a noteworthy asset considering heavy rain earlier in the week posed the threat of this race being moved from the turf to the main track.

En Fuego has not started since finishing fifth in Woodbine’s 14-furlong Valedictory Stakes on Dec. 5 but is a proven stayer and has run well fresh in the past for trainer Christophe Clement.