02/07/2013 4:18PM

Gulfstream Park: Abaco tests Suwannee River's deeper waters

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Kenny Martin
Hard Not to Like comes into Saturday's Suwannee River off a win in the Marshua's River Stakes.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – After allowing Abaco to take the conservative route and run through her allowance conditions, trainer Shug McGaughey will finally give her the opportunity to test the stakes waters in Saturday’s $150,000 Suwannee River at Gulfstream Park.

The 1 1/8-mile Suwannee River is one of two Grade 3 races on Saturday’s 12-race program that also includes the $150,000 Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship for older horses to be decided at seven furlongs.

Abaco, a 5-year-old Giant’s Causeway mare, needed nine starts to finally win her maiden last summer at Saratoga, but she has been undefeated ever since. Abaco then swept right through her allowance conditions, beginning with a nine-furlong, entry-level optional claiming victory at Belmont Park on Sept. 21. She followed that triumph with two more optional claiming victories, by 2 1/4 lengths at Belmont on Oct. 25 and 1 1/4 lengths in her 2012 finale here six weeks later.

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“This is a big step up for her,” McGaughey said. “We’re looking forward to the race, and I think she’ll be competitive. It’s only February, so as long as she goes over and shows she can be competitive at that level, and maybe be even a little better down the line, I’ll be satisfied.”

Abaco tuned up for her stakes debut by working a very easy half-mile in 47.50 seconds over the turf here last Sunday.

Abaco will begin on the extreme outside in a well-matched field of eight fillies and mares that includes the first three finishers from last month’s Grade 3 Marshua’s River – Hard Not to Like, Channel Lady, and Leading Astray – along with Romacaca, Inglorious, Kya One, and Affair Dabbler.

Hard Not to Like made her first start for trainer Michael Matz a winning one, rallying along the inside to a game half-length decision over Channel Lady in the Marshua’s River. The outing was the first for Hard Not to Like since she finished an unlucky sixth in the Kentucky Oaks eight months earlier.

The lightly raced Channel Lady prompted the pace, led through midstretch, but could not withstand Hard Not to Like’s closing surge while making her graded stakes debut in the 1 1/16-mile Marshua’s River.

Leading Astray had some traffic issues after dropping well off the early pace and was ultimately beaten three lengths as the tepid 2-1 choice in the Marshua’s River. It was her third straight graded stakes placing since her neck victory late last summer in Arlington Park’s Grade 3 Pucker Up.

Romacaca looks to bounce back from a third-place finish as the odds-on favorite in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf in a race decided over a yielding course. Romacaca, who won the South Beach Stakes earlier in the meet, may prove the one to catch Saturday.

Inglorious has started just once since early July, that lone outing a third-place finish as the favorite in Hollywood Park’s Bayakoa Handicap on Dec. 8. Inglorious is winless in six starts since defeating males to capture Woodbine’s prestigious Queen’s Plate at 3.

Kya One has been freshened by trainer Chad Brown since winning Calder’s Grade 3 My Charmer Handicap on Nov. 22 in just her second U.S appearance.