10/06/2017 6:07PM

Whitmore back on the rise with nose victory in Phoenix

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Coady Photography/Keeneland
Whitmore (#11) got the nod over Awesome Banner at the wire in Friday's Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland.

Coming off consecutive losses, Whitmore rose up to resurrect his status as one of the favorites for next month's Breeders' Cup Sprint, prevailing in a long drive for a nose victory in the Grade 2, $250,000 Phoenix Stakes on Keeneland’s opening day. The race awarded the winner a fees-paid berth in the Nov. 4 event at Del Mar.  

"[We were looking for] a tightener, something to show that he's back to Whitmore," said trainer Ron Moquett, who co-owns the 4-year-old gelding with Robert LaPenta and Head of Plains Partners. "Our end-of-the-year goal has always been the Breeders' Cup. We were happy to be able to do this on the way to the Breeders' Cup."

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Awesome Banner, who had been fractious in the paddock, was fastest away from the gate in the Phoenix and led the field by 1 1/2 lengths through an opening quarter of 22.27 seconds, and the half in 45.75. Meanwhile, Whitmore ($8.80) and Manny Franco broke from the outside in the field of 11 and wound up racing in the five path, 2 1/2 lengths behind Awesome Banner in fourth, down the backstretch.

Whitmore gained ground around the far turn, with Threefiveindia also making a bid between horses. Awesome Banner still clung to a narrow lead as Threefiveindia, Whitmore, and favored Limousine Liberal, in that order, went after him in earnest in upper stretch, the top four separated by heads. Whitmore prevailed in the long drive, getting the nod at the wire over a dead game Awesome Banner. Limousine Liberal was another neck back in third, besting Threefiveindia by a half-length for that placing.

The final time for the six furlongs was 1:09.90.

Whitmore was considered a classics prospect in the spring of his 3-year-old year after finishing second in both the Grade 3 Southwest and Grade 2 Rebel Stakes and third in the Arkansas Derby. But he finished 19th in the Kentucky Derby, after which he got an extended break.

The gelding returned in December 2016 at Oaklawn, capturing a pair of allowance-optional races before stepping back into stakes company, this time in one-turn events. He found his niche, rattling off wins in the Hot Springs Stakes and Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap before shipping to Pimlico to win the Grade 3 Maryland Sprint Stakes.

Moquett said that Whitmore can be "a bit of a handful at the barn" and credited members of his team – the trainer's wife Laura Moquett, exercise rider Greta Kuntzweiler, and groom Jose Espinoza – for their work with the gelding.

"They've all had the patience to help him develop into what he's meant to be, and that's a really cool horse," Moquett said.

But Whitmore's win streak ended at five when he was a well-beaten third as the favorite in the Grade 2 True North Stakes at Belmont. He wasn't seen in the afternoon again for three months, as he shipped to Saratoga but was forced out of the summer's Grade 1 action with a foot issue. He finished third of four in last month's Grade 3 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel, where Moquett said his charge didn't relish the track.

"We had a few setbacks," Moquett said. "I'm not mad. If you can have a bad race and run a 95, 97 Beyer Speed Figure, you're not doing too bad. The horse has carried us."

Whitmore will now carry his team to the Breeders' Cup at Del Mar, where the Sprint field is expected to be led by reigning divisional champion Drefong.

"There's obviously some great sprinters out there, but we're not afraid of anyone," Moquett said. "We respect and appreciate what they've done, but we're not afraid of anyone."