06/27/2013 1:49PM

Prairie Meadows: Cornhusker favorites have questions to answer


ALTOONA, Iowa – Saturday’s Grade 3, $300,000 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap, this meet’s signature event, has attracted multiple graded stakes winners Prayer for Relief and Silver Max.

The 1 1/8-mile Cornhukser is one of three stakes on the second and final card of the Iowa Festival of Racing. The other races are the Grade 3, $250,000 Iowa Derby and the Grade 3, $200,000 Iowa Oaks.

Prayer for Relief, the 8-5 morning-line favorite in the field of six, brings the best main-track form into the Cornhusker following a pair of second-place finishes to his Steve Asmussen-trained stablemate Master Rick in the Grade 3 Texas Mile and Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap.

Prayer for Relief enjoyed his best season in 2011, posting consecutive wins in the Iowa Derby, West Virginia Derby, and Super Derby while under the care of Bob Baffert. Now 5, Prayer for Relief is winless in 12 races since the Super Derby, despite maintaining his consistency against tough stakes company.

Prayer for Relief’s owner, Zayat Stables LLC, transferred the horse to Asmussen last summer after deciding that the Jump Start horse was not effective on the major Southern California surfaces. He has since started five times.

After a sixth-place finish in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park last September, Asmussen determined that “Prayer for Relief had endured a tough campaign and needed plenty of down time.”

“Prayer for Relief has come back well this season, and we’re almost pleased with him,” Asmussen said. “Master Rick is a pretty nice horse, too.”

Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr., who had a breakthough meet when winning the 2013 Oaklawn Park riding title, has the mount.

Silver Max, trained by 2012 Eclipse Award winner Dale Romans, has three graded wins on turf, including the Grade 2 Virginia Derby. In his last start, Silver Max romped to a 9 1/2-length victory at Churchill Downs after the Opening Verse was moved from the grass to a sloppy main track.

With mild, dry weather expected for the region, Silver Max is likely to encounter a fast dirt track for the first time since running second as a 2-year-old in his career debut at Saratoga in 2011.

“Silver Max is doing great, and we want to see if he can do it on a fast track versus good horses,” Romans said. “That’s what we’re in Iowa to find out.”

Robby Albarado, who has been aboard the 4-year-old Badge of Silver colt for his last six starts, will ride.

With questions surrounding both of the favorites, the connections of the field’s other four entrants must be encouraged.

Taptowne, a Tim Glyshaw trainee based at Churchill, is effective on or near the lead. He has been facing allowance company since his second-place finish to Cyber Secret in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Park Handicap.

Most recently, Taptowne set strong fractions of 47.23 seconds and 1:10.92 in a 1 1/16-mile Churchill allowance test. Taptowne was reeled in late by the well-regarded Agent Di Nozzo that day and has trained forwardly since.

Jockey Calvin Borel retains the mount.

Nicklaus Way is trained by Ian Wilkes, who won the 2012 Cornhusker and Breeders’ Cup Classic with Fort Larned. Nicklaus Way is improving and ran well when second between the classy duo of Mr. Bowling and Sabercat in a May 24 Churchill allowance route.

Deep closing Red Lead, trained at Prairie Meadows by Chris Hartman, has back class and has been plying his trade recently on the Canterbury Park grass. In his last start, Canterbury’s June 16 Brooks Fields Stakes, Red Lead had his chance compromised by pedestrian fractions. His late kick could be effective if Silver Max and Taptowne tangle on the front end early.

Tiz Ready, trained locally by Lynn Chleborad, has ability but would need a big step forward to contend.

The Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap will be the eighth race Saturday and has a scheduled post time of 9:50 p.m. Central.