01/31/2013 2:39PM

Gulfstream Park: Hess expects Hutcheson favorite Merit Man to improve upon Spectacular Bid performance

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HALLANDALE BEACH,Fla. – Merit Man is a nose shy of being undefeated in four career starts, the lone blemish on his record a heart-breaking setback in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint. He is also coming off a game three-quarter-length victory in his 3-year-old debut in the Spectacular Bid Stakes.

But trainer Bob Hess Jr. is expecting Merit Man to run even better as the likely favorite in a well-matched field of nine 3-year-olds expected to start Saturday at Gulfstream Park in the $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes. The Hutcheson will be supported on the 11-race program by the $75,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint carded at five furlongs on the grass.

A field of 10 was entered for the seven-furlong Hutcheson, but Falling Sky will scratch in lieu of running Saturday in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

Merit Man, who missed by a nose after setting all the pace in the Breeders’ Cup, was similarly game surviving a pace battle long before withstanding a closing surge from the improving City of Weston in the six-furlong Spectacular Bid. Merit Man, a son of With Distinction, also captured Santa Anita’s Tim Conway by five lengths during the fall.

“I felt his last race wasn’t that impressive visually and I believe he’s better today than he was a month ago,” said Hess. “And he’ll have to be to beat this group. I think it’s a very wide-open race. I do like his post much better than in the Spectacular Bid, when he had the one hole. He always breaks like a shot and barring anything unforeseen, he should be in front leaving there and I’ll just leave it up to the jock after that.”

Merit Man will be ridden by Paco Lopez for the first time.

There is no shortage of contenders in the Hutcheson. The field also includes the undefeated Forty Tales, two-time New York-bred stakes winner Weekend Hideaway, graded stakes winner Pataky Kid, recent allowance winner Singanothersong, the speedy Undrafted, the improving Honorable Dillon, the graded stakes-placed Really Sharp, and Little Distorted, who disappointed as the 6-5 favorite making his first start in the Spectacular Bid since being purchased privately off an impressive debut win at 2.

Forty Tales is perfect in two starts, at Aqueduct and Parx, for trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the Hutcheson five straight times from 2003 to 2007. Forty Tales must break from the rail in his local debut.

Weekend Hideaway tries open company for the second time in his career. A New York-bred son of Speightstown, Weekend Hideaway sandwiched a third-place finish behind Overanalyze in the Grade 2 Futurity at Belmont between a pair of easy statebred wins at 2 but has not started since winning the Bertram Bongard on Oct. 20.

Pataky Kid has also been idle since late October, when he finished fifth after an unlucky start in the Grade 3 Iroquois at Churchill Downs. Pataky Kid captured the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity and finished fourth in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity earlier at 2.

“We’re looking at a race to get him started and then we’ll see where we’ll go from there,” said Tom Proctor, who trains Pataky Kid for Swifty Farms Inc. “We tried blinkers with him for the first time in the Iroquois and he didn’t break but horses will do that sometimes the first time with blinkers.”

Singanothersong outlasted Honorable Dillon by three parts of a length when the pair met at 6 1/2 furlongs on Jan. 4.

“I think he needed the first race and will move forward,” said Eddie Kenneally, who trains Honorable Dillon. “That’s the way it worked with him last summer at Saratoga.”

Turf Sprint: Great Attack one to beat

Great Attack will be favored over five rivals, including Sunshine Millions Sprint winner Off the Jak and the speedy Varsity in the Turf Sprint.

Great Attack finished second in each of the last two renewals of the Gulfstream Turf Sprint. He was also fourth and fifth, respectively, in the 2011 and 2012 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. A late-running specialist, Great Attack has won each of his last three starts going five furlongs, including the Tampa Dash on Jan. 5.

Off the Jak will try grass for the first time. The speedster rallied from just off the pace to upset Bahamian Squall over a sloppy track in the Sunshine Millions.

Varsity has used his speed to win three of four starts over the local course, including an open allowance race here in December.