01/06/2011 3:32PM

Sunday turf stakes offer compelling matchups

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Battle of Hastings will be one of the favorites in Sunday's Fort Lauderdale Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Battle of Hastings and Get Stormy were assigned posts 1 and 2 as the likely favorites in a field of 12 older horses that will clash Sunday in the Fort Lauderdale Handicap, the first of back-to-back Grade 3, $100,000 stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the turf.

Battle of Hastings comes off a victory in the Nov. 4 River City Handicap at Churchill Downs, while Get Stormy is a six-time stakes winner making his first start since finishing well back of Goldikova in the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Other contenders in the 54th Fort Lauderdale include Blues Street (post 5), winner of the Grade 2 Muniz last year at Fair Grounds for Todd Pletcher; and Souper Spectacular (post 8), an improving 4-year-old trained by Seth Benzel.

The Marshua’s River, the filly-mare counterpart, drew an overflow field of 15, including one “main-track-only” entry, Happy Week. Favoritism appears very much up for grabs in the ninth running of this race, with Mary’s Follies, Never Retreat, Wild Mia, Kiss Mine, and C.S. Silk all likely to draw a fair share of action. As many as 14 can run on the spacious Gulfstream turf course.

The Fort Lauderdale is the eighth and the Marshua’s River is the ninth on a 10-race Sunday card.

Sheppard expects quite meeting

Jonathan Sheppard isn’t necessarily here for the sun and the season, but don’t look for the Hall of Fame trainer to make much noise at the 2011 meet. Sheppard has 12 horses on the Gulfstream backstretch, and eight of those are 3-year-olds.

“We’re basically just laying the groundwork for later in the year,” Sheppard said. “Most of the younger horses we have are bred to do something later on.”

Earnings-wise, the last three years (2008-10) combined to be the most productive period for Sheppard since he began training nearly 45 years ago. The stable earned more than $12.7 million during that span, but most of the horses responsible were recently retired.

“Forever Together, Informed Decision, and Cloudy’s Knight have all been retired, and Just as Well has gone to South Africa to be a stallion,” said Sheppard, the 70-year-old Englishman who was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1990. “We still have Rainbow View, Fantasia, and Fugitive Angel, but they’re all back at the farm in Pennsylvania getting a little break. They’ll all be back, hopefully in time for Keeneland in the spring.”

Gone Astray sets sights on Donn

Trainer Shug McGaughey is targeting the Grade 1 Donn Handicap as Gone Astray’s main goal here this winter, and with that in mind breezed his multiple Grade 2 winner a half-mile in 49.21 seconds over a fast track here Thursday.

The work was the fourth for Gone Astray, a 5-year-old son of Dixie Union, since he arrived in south Florida shortly after closing out his 2010 campaign finishing a narrowly beaten second in Monmouth Park’s Frisk Me Now Stakes.

“I thought he ran really well at Monmouth,” McGaughey said. “I just gave him an easy half this morning and will come back with a five-eighths next week. I’d like to get a prep into him before the Donn if I can, but it’s getting kind of close and if not I can just train him into the race.”

McGaughey also had planned on running Imperial Council in Saturday’s Grade 3 Hal’s Hope but changed his mind at the last minute when he discovered the race was coming up a little tougher than he’d first expected.

“I didn’t think Morning Line was going in there,” McGaughey said. “So I entered him for a three-other-than allowance race on Sunday, hoping to find an easier spot.”

Never On Sunday back to work

Joining Gone Astray on Thursday’s tab was Never On Sunday, who finished second here last season in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and the Grade 3 Pan American. Never On Sunday worked an easy half-mile in 49.50, his first work since finishing 10th in Calder’s Grade 3 Tropical Turf Handicap on Dec. 4. The Tropical Turf was Never On Sunday’s second start since the Pan Am.

“He suffered a little injury last May that set us back a while,” trainer Patrick Biancone said. “He hated the track over at Calder and just protected himself out there the last time. He’s a little bit older now, and we’ll find something for him during the meet. The Gulfstream Park Turf is a question mark at the moment but still remains a possibility.”

Biancone also is looking forward to getting Pulsion back to action. Pulsion, who finished off the board in both the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Grade 2 Fountain of Youth here last year, has not started since finishing fifth in a first-level allowance race over the Monmouth turf course in late June. He has worked five times since arriving here in early December, including a bullet three-eighths in 35 seconds from the gate Wednesday.

“I’ve got Pulsion in an allowance race on Sunday,” Biancone said. “I’m trying to get him ready for the Sunshine Millions. We gelded him last summer and gave him some time off and a chance to grow. He’s come back really good, more focused and more mature than he was here last winter.”

◗ D’ Funnybone, winner of both the Grade 2 Swale and Hutcheson stakes here last winter, breezed a very easy half-mile in 54.31 here Thursday. It was the third official work for D’ Funnybone since his last start, a last-place finish in Saratoga’s Grade 1 King’s Bishop on Aug. 28.

◗ Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Big Drama heads a list of 20 horses nominated to Saturday’s Grade 3 Mr. Prospector. Big Drama has been working steadily for his return at Calder but is scheduled to make the short trip over here to breeze locally for the first time Sunday morning.

◗ Trainers Nick Zito, Wesley Ward, and Juan Vazquez shared the No. 1 star on Wednesday’s opening-day program, winning two races apiece. Joel Rosario and Rajiv Maragh were the only double winners out of the jockeys room.

“Winning two like that on opening day was really cool,” Zito said. “I think we’re starting to get a good feel for Gulfstream the last several years.”

– additional reporting by Mike Welsch