02/09/2012 1:57PM

Weekend Warrior for Feb. 11: Wet track for Donn would help Hymn Book

Tom Keyser
The stretch-out from a mile to 1 1/8 miles for the Donn Handicap should play to the strengths of Hymn Book.

It’s Donn Handicap Day at Gulfstream Park, where that Grade 1, $500,000 event heads an excellent card that also includes the Grade 1, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, the Grade 2, $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes, and the Grade 3, $150,000 Suwannee River Stakes. The other graded stakes race on Saturday’s schedule is the Grade 2, $150,000 San Marcos at Santa Anita.

Donn Handicap

A big field loaded with quality makes this a terrific betting race, one that I found best tackled by envisioning the potential pace scenario. The undefeated Trickmeister, who will certainly be well bet, will probably go for the lead. Trickmeister has looked like a genuine star at times, and he has a right to move forward off his easy win in the Harlan’s Holiday Stakes earlier in the Gulfstream meet as that was his first start in 16 months. But Trickmeister has never faced opposition this strong before, nor has he encountered the kind of pace pressure he figures to get from last year’s Preakness winner Shackleford, who was a game second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in his last start. I can see these two hooking up in a protracted battle down the backstretch, and that could compromise both.

Mission Impazible, Redeemed, and Soaring Empire are three who could be sitting pretty just off the pace. But Redeemed, though he completed his 2011 campaign with two straight stakes wins, is moving way up, and Soaring Empire doesn’t figure to be at his best at this nine-furlong distance. Mission Impazible is the most dangerous of this trio, and he ran some big races last year, most notably his seconds in the Foster and Clark. But I’m not sure he can close the deal at this level of competition.

So, I’m looking to the deeper closers, one of whom – Al Khali – is cross-entered in the Gulfstream Turf Handicap. Since he is a grass specialist, I’m ruling out Al Khali.

Of the deeper closers, Flat Out and Ruler On Ice are the big names. Flat Out was one of the best older males in the country last year when he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Suburban, and finished second in the Whitney and Woodward. And Flat Out will certainly appreciate the return to dirt after an experiment on turf last time out in the Fort Lauderdale Stakes that was a stone cold prep for this spot. However, after racing prominently early in the Fort Lauderdale, Flat Out backed off to finish last of 12. That, combined with his flat third and fifth in the Clark and Breeders’ Cup Classic as the favorite in his two starts before, makes me wonder if Flat Out might not be below his best form right now.

I do think Ruler On Ice is dangerous. I can forgive his fifth in the Clark most recently, writing it off as a Hail Mary start in an attempt to snare the 3-year-old championship. Before that, he finished a rallying third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic after racing on a rail most of the way that some people thought was dead, and was second in the Pennsylvania Derby while perhaps being compromised by a speed track. Ruler On Ice’s recent works are tremendous. I just couldn’t go for him because, up to this point, his one big win came in the Belmont Stakes when he was close to a slow pace while racing with the grain of a speed-favoring track, and at a 12-furlong distance most dirt horses just don’t want.

Where’s Sterling and Sangaree are coming off sharp seconds over the track in one-mile races, and both will like stretching out Saturday. I just don’t think they are quite good enough.

That leaves Hymn Book, and he’s my upset play. Hymn Book also comes into this off a second in a one-turn mile race, that being the Cigar Mile, in which he finished very well to be behind only the high class To Honor and Serve. Judging from his previous three starts on dirt, which were two solid victories and a second, Hymn Book, if anything, is more effective in longer races such as this. Hymn Book’s recent Beyer Figures are as good as anyone’s in here, and he loves an off track. That’s an important consideration given the wet conditions at Gulfstream on Wednesday, and the weather forecast for south Florida.

Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap

Silver Medallion has certainly come into his own since focusing on turf racing after moving into Todd Pletcher’s barn, and it would be no surprise if he made this his third straight stakes score. Get Stormy won two Grade 1 stakes last year and is perfectly capable of taking a field like this wire to wire. But I’m going with Yankee Fourtune.

Yankee Fourtune ran well last time out to be nosed by Little Mike, a noted Gulfstream grass lover who controlled the pace as the 4-5 favorite and came back to win the Sunshine Millions Turf in his next start. But perhaps the most important thing about Yankee Fourtune’s recent effort was, after a spotty and light campaign last year, it marked a return to form for him. And Yankee Fourtune is tough when he’s on his game, as he showed when he won five straight in 2010, including a strong Commonwealth Turf Stakes. Yankee Fourtune overcame a tough post and beat five next-out winners in that race, as well as Turallure, who last year won the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile, and who was nosed in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

San Marcos Stakes

Sanagas dominated when he won the 12-furlong Hollywood Turf Cup last time out. But – in the “words you never thought you would write” department – the 10 furlongs in this race might be too short for him. I like The Usual Q. T.

While it is true that The Usual Q. T. was a soundly beaten third behind Norvsky in the San Gabriel most recently and must face that opponent again Saturday, The Usual Q. T. was at a disadvantage that day coming off an eight-month absence. But The Usual Q. T. probably got a lot out of that effort after running his second half-mile in 46.73 seconds, and he did win the 2009 Hollywood Derby at this distance. And though it might be true that The Usual Q. T. isn’t the Grade 1 horse he used to be, he is still capable of winning a race like this.