Updated on 10/06/2012 8:27PM

Hawthorne: Pool Play relishes return to dirt in Hawthorne Gold Cup

Four-Footed Fotos
Pool Play, ridden by Miguel Mena, pays $34 for his upset in the Hawthorne Gold Cup.

The 7-year-old horse Pool Play is competent on turf, and he is even better on synthetic surfaces, having won five such races. But it’s safe to say Pool Play prefers dirt. Before Saturday, he was 1 for 1 on it, scoring a 36-1 shocker in the 2011 Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap. And now he’s 2 for 2.

Ignored by bettors again, this time paying $34 to win, Pool Play captured the Grade 2, $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup by a half-length early Saturday evening at Hawthorne Race Course. Cease finished second, 1 ¼ lengths in front of Eldaafer. Alternation, the 4-5 favorite, threw a clunker, checking in last of six after setting a moderate pace on a deep, tiring track.

The victory had to be especially satisfying for trainer Mark Casse -- who won the Grade 1 Alcibiades on Friday at Keeneland -- and his staff.  Pool Play is well liked by the humans that handle him, assistant trainer Randi Melton said, and Pool Play has come back strong after missing more than a year’s worth of racing because of an injured tendon. Following his Stephen Foster win on June 18, 2011, Pool Play didn’t start again until July 2 this past summer.

“After the Stephen Foster we were thinking of big things for this horse -- Breeders’ Cup Classic or something – and then he got hurt,” said jockey Miguel Mena, who rode Pool Play in the Stephen Foster and was back aboard him again Saturday.

Pool Play returned to training in February, Melton said, and had made three starts before Saturday, improving race by race. He finished an even third on Polytrack in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington and took a solid step forward Saturday getting back to his favorite type of racetrack.

“He felt 10 times better on dirt,” Mena said. “From the three-eighths pole to the finish, he was fantastic.”

Indeed, Pool Play rallied from last behind a slow pace on a deep, laboring track. Alternation, drawn on the inside and mildly encouraged to lead by Luis Quinonez, set splits of 24.68 seconds for his first quarter-mile and 49.40 for the half while being hounded by Eldaafer. Cease raced fifth in the early going, running up into contention on the backstretch but losing ground while moving well around the far turn. Three quarters went in 1:13.97, and – surprisingly – it was Eldaafer, not Alternation, who emerged in front at the top of the long Hawthorne stretch. Cease came alongside and looked a possible winner, but Pool Play stayed on steadily racing even wider, outlasting Cease with a determined finish.

Final time for 1 1/4 miles was 2:06.36. Mister Marti Gras finished fourth and Fly Lexis Fly fifth.

Pool Play, an Ontario-bred by Silver Deputy, was bred by Windfields Farm and is owned by Bill Farish. He won for the seventh time in 32 starts and became a millionaire Saturday. Melton said Pool Play will ship back to Casse’s small string at Churchill Downs.

Trainer Donnie Von Hemel said Quinonez could offer no ready explanation for Alternation’s poor showing.

“I was as optimistic going into this race as you can be,” Von Hemel said. “We’ll just have to see.”

Favorites sweep undercard stakes

The favorite won both of the supporting turf stakes on the Gold Cup card – but in totally different fashion.

In the $100,000 Indian Maid, for fillies and mares, heavily favored Romacaca set a comfortable pace under Cisco Torres and finished well to win by 1 ¾ lengths. But in the $100,000 Robert Carey Memorial, Suntracer had to rally from last in a nine-horse field to win by a neck over Nikki’s Sandcastle.

Romacaca ($3.20), owned by Frank Calabrese and trained by Danny Miller, won the Grade 3 Modesty Stakes this summer at Arlington, and finished a respectable fifth in the Grade 1 Beverly D. Her victory Saturday was her 15th from 31 career starts. The 6-year-old Romacaca, Miller said, has been entered in Fasig-Tipton Kentucky’s November auction. Julie’s Love finished second and Kepi was third. Winning time for the 1 1/16 miles on firm turf was 1:43.62.

Suntracer’s stretch-running style was aided in the Carey by a swift early pace, with Cherokee Lord and Raratat going the opening half-mile in 46.93 seconds. Neither of the pacesetters stuck around till the end, and Suntracer, coming wide under Eddie Perez, needed the entire homestretch to push past Nikki’s Sandcastle. Tazz stayed on well for third. The winner, who paid $6.20, was timed in 1:48.75 for 1 1/8 miles.