05/17/2012 1:14PM

Pimlico: Casino Host enters Dixie on the rise

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BALTIMORE − After an underachieving 3-year-old season, Casino Host has run two races this year that suggest he could be a significant player in the older male turf division.

He will try to continue his ascension Saturday, when he takes on 10 rivals in the Grade 3, $300,000 Dixie, the richest of six undercard stakes on Pimlico’s 13-race Preakness Day − and closing day − card.

Casino Host drew the extreme outside post in the 11-horse field and picks up 11 pounds from his 10-1 upset victory in the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz Handicap at Fair Grounds. He will meet several runners who finished ahead of him last year, most notably Air Support.

Despite winning just a maiden race from eight starts in 2011, his connections thought enough of him to try him in Grade 1 stakes in Chicago, New York, and California. His best finish was a fifth in the Secretariat.

After a brief freshening following a sixth-place finish in the Hollywood Derby, Casino Host won a first-level allowance at Gulfstream on Feb. 4 before the Mervin Muniz.

“He’s a horse that’s really come around as a 4-year-old, and his pedigree would suggest that,” said Chad Brown, who trains Casino Host for Gary and Mary West. “Physically, he’s matured. We gave him a little freshening after the Hollywood Derby, and he came back really well, bigger and stronger. Both of his races were very good numbers-wise and visually.”

Brown said he figured out that Casino Host prefers to lay a little closer to the pace than he did in some of his races last year and that he wants to be in the clear. Brown imparted that information to jockey John Velazquez, who has been aboard for both victories this year and rides again Saturday.

“Johnny took that information and executed it beautifully,” Brown said. “I’d like a similar trip Saturday, laying close and in the clear, and take it from there.”

Laying close should not be a problem, since there does not appear to be much pace in the Dixie. Only Straight Story, who has won two graded stakes on the lead, shows an affinity for the front. Straight Story has not run since last November.

Air Support won the Grade 2 Virginia Derby last July but was knocked out by the race and given the remainder of the year off. Trainer Shug McGaughey brought him back in a stakes-caliber allowance race at Keeneland, but the horse blew a shoe in the paddock, and the blacksmith couldn’t get it back on.

“We ended up having to pull the back shoes off him and ran him barefooted behind,” McGaughey said. “He was anxious, and he didn’t finish up the way I wanted.”

McGaughey scratched Air Support out of the Milesius Stakes at Belmont on May 3 that came off the turf and said he saw this as the next best option.

“I’ve got to run him,” McGaughey said.

Smart Bid, the 2011 Mervin Muniz winner, won the Fair Grounds Handicap in February before running seventh, beaten three lengths by Casino Host, in the Mervin Muniz.

“The track was pretty chewed up by the time we got down for that race, and I thought he struggled with it,” trainer Graham Motion said. “And in the second race off the layoff you always worry they’re not going to run back to that first race.”

Smart Bid gets a 10-pound shift in the weights from Casino Host from the Mervin Muniz.

Hudson Steel came off an 11-month layoff to win the Henry Clark Stakes over this turf course April 28. Trained by Todd Pletcher, he has won three of his last four starts, losing by a neck to Straight Story in last May’s Fort Marcy at Belmont in his lone defeat.

Other contenders in the field include Trend, second in eight of 14 starts, including a pair of Grade 3 stakes at Gulfstream this winter; and Forte Dei Marmi, who won a high-class allowance at Keeneland in April.