12/18/2010 6:43PM

Prince Will I Am wins off-the-turf McKnight Handicap

Jim Lisa Photos
Prince will I Am cruises home over a sloppy Calder track in the McKnight Handicap.

MIAMI - Heavy rains earlier in the day might have put a damper on Saturday’s $150,000 W.L. McKnight Handicap at Calder but not on trainer Michelle Nihei’s enthusiasm or love for her star 3-year-old Prince Will I Am. The versatile Prince Will I Am became a graded stakes winner on dirt when rallying to a popular 2 1/2-length victory over Free Fighter and three other rivals in the 1 1/2-mile McKnight, which was switched from the turf to a sloppy main track earlier in the day.

The McKnight, a Grade 2 race, was automatically downgraded to a Grade 3 due to the surface change although it could have its Grade 2 status reinstated when reviewed by the National Graded Stakes Committee at the group’s next meeting.

Prince Will I Am, who won the Grade 1 Jamaica over the Belmont Park turf course earlier this fall, was one of three Grade 1 winners originally entered in the McKnight along with Telling and Presious Passion. Trainer Steve Hobby opted to scratch Telling shortly after the decision was announced by track management to take the McKnight off the grass just before 2 p.m.

Only five of the 10 original starters contested the McKnight with Presious Passion, as expected, setting the pace under jockey Elvis Trujillo, who kept the 2007 and 2008 McKnight winner well off the rail while posting splits of 25.72 seconds, 50.62, and 1:16.71 for the opening six furlongs.

Prince Will I Am rated nicely about four to five lengths off the leader while also guided to the outside by his rider, Javier Castellano, during the early going.

Presious Passion remained clear leaving the backstretch the second time but offered little resistance when Prince Will I Am challenged just inside the three-eighths pole. Prince Will I Am quickly opened a three-length lead midway on the bend and had more than enough in reserve to withstand a bid from Free Fighter through the stretch. It was another 3 1/2 lengths further back to Memorial Maniac. A tiring Presious Passion and Simmard rounded out the order of finish.

Prince Will I Am completed the distance in 2:38.40 and paid $4.

“This horse is everything to me,” said Nihei, who trains Prince Will I Am for Casa Farms I LLC. “I would have loved to have been able to put the measuring stick up against Prince that the original field would have provided but you always want the easiest spot you can find for your horse and we knew we were going to run whether this race stayed on the grass or came off.”

Nihei said Prince Will I Am is certainly capable over dirt and turf and she’s uncertain at this point what would be next for her star.

“We have a couple of races in mind at Gulfstream, including the Donn Handicap and Gulfstream Park Handicap,” said Nihei. “I like the way he comes out of his turf races but he’s clearly capable on dirt at the longer distances so the choice for our next race will be less a point of surface than the company he’ll have to meet.”