02/05/2015 11:58AM

Lea in good form coming into defense of Donn Handicap

Barbara D. Livingston
Lea will try to becomes the first horse since Cigar to win back-to-back renewals of the Donn Handicap on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Cigar was the last horse to post back-to-back victories in Gulfstream Park’s premier event for older horses, the Grade 1 Donn Handicap, accomplishing that feat in 1995-96. On Saturday his trainer, Hall of Famer Bill Mott, will attempt to do it again when he sends out Lea as the starting highweight and likely favorite against nine rivals in defense of his title in the $500,000 Donn.

The 1 1/8-mile Donn will be run as the final event on a 13-race program that includes the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and four other stakes. Both the Donn and the Gulfstream Park Turf are part of the X-Country Pick 4 along with the San Antonio and San Marcos stakes at Santa Anita, and coincides with the live broadcast of those races on Fox Sports 1 beginning at 5:30 p.m. Eastern.

Post time for the first race at Gulfstream is noon.

Lea forced all the pace en route to a 1 1/2-length victory over Will Take Charge in the 2014 Donn. The victory came on the heels of an easier, 3 1/4-length triumph four weeks earlier in the Grade 3 Hal’s Hope and turned out to be his last start of the campaign, one that ended prematurely due to a virus Lea contracted shortly after winning the Donn.

:: DONN HANDICAP: Get PPs, watch Saturday’s card live

Lea made a triumphant return here last month, overcoming an unlucky trip to successfully defend his title in the Hal’s Hope with a well-earned half-length win over Confrontation.

“He seems to be coming into the Donn much the same as he did a year ago,” said Mott. “His works have been the same, and he’s coming off what appears to be a pretty good race. Even though he got plugged up in the Hal’s Hope, I thought the whole experience was positive, especially the way he showed he could sit and wait and still quicken.”

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Trainer Todd Pletcher will counter Lea with three of his top handicap performers, a trio that consists of defending Florida Derby winner Constitution, Belmont Stakes runner-up Commissioner, and Clark Handicap runner-up Protonico.

DRF FORMULATOR FACT: No. 1 Constitution and No. 8 Protonico. Trainer Todd Pletcher is 10-3-4-0 with a $2.44 ROI over the past four years in dirt route graded stakes at Gulfstream Park following a layoff of between 61 and 180 days. Click for more details. Dan Illman

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“We like to keep our horses separated if possible, but this is not a difficult situation for us since this is a prestigious, Grade 1 race and the right race for each particular horse,” said Pletcher.

Protonico and Constitution have not started since finishing second and third, respectively, behind Hoppertunity in the Grade 1 Clark.
“We’re taking the same approach with both horses,” said Pletcher. “That the right move for each of them was to go directly into the Donn. They’re both improving and training well at this time.”

Commissioner finished third, beaten a neck by Ulanbator, following a game effort when making his first start since the Belmont going 1 1/16 miles under allowance conditions on Jan. 10.

“I thought he ran well even though he did not win, and the race should springboard him forward into this one,” said Pletcher. 

Elnaawi ships to south Florida off a career-best effort winning the Native Dancer at Laurel over a muddy track on Jan. 3. Blue Tone comes cross country from Santa Anita after a third-place finish in the Grade 2 San Pasqual. Sloane Avenue made the longest trip to compete in the Donn, shipping to the United States from his home base in England for trainer Jeremy Noseda.

:: DRF Live: Watch live handicapping analysis of Saturday’s biggest races, starting at 12:30 Eastern


Lea (Last 3 Beyers: 107-114-101)

◗ This horse for the course is undefeated in three starts at Gulfstream, and is 4 for 5 with jockey Joel Rosario aboard.

◗ He was in receipt of six pounds from runner-up Will Take Charge in the 2014 Donn but must concede two to seven pounds to the field as defending race winner this time.

Constitution (Last 3 Beyers: 101-90-98)

◗ Like Lea, he too is perfect in three trips over the local strip with his only two career setbacks coming at Belmont and Churchill Downs.

◗ He appeared a bit rank and raced well off the rail throughout setting the pace in the Clark, and he figures to be with or on the lead again breaking from the rail on Saturday.

Commissioner (Last 3 Beyers: 96-100-97)

◗ This long-winded colt was not racing at his most effective distance when upset in his return here last month. “The added distance should certainly be to his liking,” said Pletcher.

DRF FORMULATOR FACT: No. 2 Commissioner. Trainer Todd Pletcher is 10-6-1-0 with a $3.04 ROI over the past three years in dirt route graded stakes at Gulfstream Park in the second start following a layoff. Click for more details. Dan Illman

Protonico (Last 3 Beyers: 103-101-90)

◗ He continues to improve with every start. “His race in the Discovery was very impressive, and he was even better in the Clark,” said Pletcher. But he must prove his affinity for the local surface having never raced or trained at Gulfstream.