01/24/2013 5:10PM

Sam Houston: Connally Turf Cup represents softer spot for Willcox Inn

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After consecutive run-ins with eventual Horse of the Year Wise Dan last fall, Willcox Inn will shake the three-time Eclipse Award winner Saturday night in the Grade 3, $200,000 Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston Race Park. The class move figures to make him a strong favorite in the 1 1/8-mile race for older horses that also drew King David, a Grade 1 winner last year at 3, as well as Florida shippers Swift Warrior, Lockout, and Seal Cove.

The Connally will share a card with the inaugural $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic and together the races will make for the meet’s richest night of racing. The main stakes are supported by the $75,000 Champion Energy Services that drew 2010 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Chamberlain Bridge, and the $50,000 Allen’s Landing, topped by recent stakes winner Tour Guide.

Willcox Inn was second to Wise Dan in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland on Oct. 6, then one start later finished ninth to that rival in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita in his most recent race Nov. 3.

“He did have a little trouble in the Breeders’ Cup,” said Michael Stidham, who trains Willcox Inn for All In Stable and Lael Stable. “It was early in the race, coming out of the first turn. He was about to get squeezed. [Jockey] James [Graham] had to kind of use him a little bit to maintain position, and at that point [Willcox Inn] kind of grabbed the bit and got aggressive and put in run down the backside that really used him up a little bit.

“In no way am I trying to say we were going to win, or be in the money, but I think we would have run a little better. At the end of the day, we only got beat six lengths.”

Stidham is hopeful the Connally will be the starting point of a strong year for Willcox Inn, a multiple graded stakes winner who has just turned 5.

“Hopefully, this could be his year,” he said. “He’s doing well physically. He’s an older horse, he’s a little more seasoned.”

Graham has the mount, from post 9 in the field of 10.

King David took on older horses in Claiming Crown Emerald in his last start Dec. 1 and finished fourth by 1 1/2 lengths. Following that race, winner Nikki’s Sandcastle came back to take the $75,000 El Prado at Gulfstream with a Beyer Figure of 97. Rosie Napravnik has the mount on King David for Mike Maker, the same jockey-trainer team that won this race last year with Papaw Bodie.