05/16/2013 1:48PM

Pimlico: Willcox Inn tops loaded field in Dixie


BALTIMORE – The depth of the Grade 2, $300,000 Dixie at Pimlico on Saturday makes it one of the best betting races on the Preakness card. The field of 13 has accounted for 14 graded stakes victories and includes Willcox Inn, Doubles Partner, Forte Dei Marmi, Optimizer, and Swift Warrior.

“It’s a very competitive race, a very well-balanced field,” said Graham Motion, who will send out Grade 3 winner Howe Great.

Pimlico’s oldest stakes, the Dixie is for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles on the grass. It is one of seven stakes on the Preakness card and will go as the 11th race on a 13-race program, which has a special first post of 10:45 a.m. Eastern.

The Dixie also is part of a $1.5 million-guaranteed late pick four that covers races 9-12. The bet has a 50-cent minimum.

Willcox Inn should get good support Saturday following his runner-up finish to Amira’s Prince in the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz Handicap at Fair Grounds in his last start March 30. He was beaten a half-length in the 1 1/8-mile turf fixture and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 99, the best last-race number in the Dixie.

“I thought his race last time was one of the better races of his career,” trainer Michael Stidham said of Willcox Inn, a 5-year-old who at 3 won the Grade 2 American Derby and Grade 3 Hawthorne Derby. “The fractions of that race were amazing. The clock showed the winner coming home [the final eighth] in 11 flat, which makes [Willcox Inn] come home in under 11 because he made up a little ground on the winner coming to the wire.

“The horse that won, Amira’s Prince, since coming to the states, he’s been a monster,” Stidham said.

Amira’s Prince has won all four of his starts since being imported from Ireland, including the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida at Gulfstream Park. As for Willcox Inn, his connections, much like those of Howe Great’s, decided to bypass a start in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs earlier this month after the race became the target for reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan and four-time Grade 1 winner Point of Entry.

“This was the next obvious spot that looked like it fit our horse,” Stidham said. “We think he’s still got some of his better races ahead of him.”

Stidham said he believes the Pimlico course will suit Willcox Inn, who will break from the rail under James Graham.

“He’s got the speed to go to the lead, but he’s much better when sitting off a fairly good pace and finishing at the end,” he said.

Optimizer took on Wise Dan in the Woodford and after prompting the pace held for second, beaten 4 3/4 lengths.

“He was second-best, but it was Wise Dan,” said D. Wayne Lukas, who trains the three-time Grade 3 winner for Calumet Farm. “There was no disgrace in losing to Wise Dan. We thought he ran well.”

Calumet and Lukas will also send out Skyring, who races as a separate betting interest. He won last year’s James W. Murphy over the Pimlico course on the Preakness card. Gary Stevens will ride Skyring, and Joel Rosario rides Optimizer.

Howe Great won a highly rated Keeneland allowance in his last start April 6, when he fought for a half-length win over Grade 3 winner Middie and multiple Grade 2 winner Air Support. It was his second start of the year following a seventh-place finish in the Grade 3 Canadian Turf at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 23.

Motion called the Canadian Turf “a strangely run race” and said he felt the Keeneland race was more indicative of Howe Great’s ability.

“I think the horse has improved from last year,” Motion said.

Alan Garcia will ride Howe Great, who races for Team Valor International.