08/22/2013 3:10PM

Woodbine: Excaper seeks elusive stakes win in Play the King


ETOBICOKE, Ontario – Excaper stamped himself as a bona-fide turf horse as a 2-year-old, finishing second in both the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs and the Grade 3 Summer Stakes at Woodbine. But while he has gone on to place in four more turf stakes, the 4-year-old Excaper is still looking for his first stakes win after 12 career starts.

On Sunday, Excaper could be poised to break through in the Play the King, a seven-furlong turf stakes that offers Grade 2 status and a purse of $200,000.

That premise is based on Excaper’s 2013 debut, in which he returned from an eight-month absence with an impressive, front-running victory in an optional claimer over seven furlongs of firm going here July 19.

“He was in Payson Park with me all winter, but he had a setback there, and we weren’t looking to get him started until the middle of summer,” said Ian Black, who trains Excaper for Richard Kaster and Frederick Wieting. “I thought his race was very good. He wasn’t wound down that tight, and when I saw how quickly he was going – even though I knew it had to do with the firmness of the turf – he had a license to get a little tired. Instead, he drew off.”

Excaper stopped the clock in 1:19.91, threatening the course record of 1:19.38 set by recent Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee Soaring Free back in 2004.

The Kentucky-bred’s three subsequent workouts, all over the training track turf course, have been progressively quicker, culminating with a bullet 58.20-second clocking for five furlongs here last Sunday.

“I thought he worked very well,” Black said.

Justin Stein was aboard for that drill and has the call for the Play the King.

Luis Contreras, in the irons for Excaper’s recent win, will be at Del Mar on Sunday to ride Delegation for trainer Mark Casse in the Pacific Classic.

Dan the Tin Man, a 3-year-old gelding conditioned by Ricky Griffith, is scheduled to make his first start on turf in the Play the King.

“He worked on the turf and handled it well,” said Griffith, who trains Dan the Tin Man for the Debmar Stable of Glenn Harvey and Steve Duffield. “Dan is a different horse this year. He’s a lot more focused; nothing really fazes him.”

And it’s not that Griffith has been avoiding the new surface, as Dan the Tin Man was entered on turf for his last two starts only to see the races switched to the main track. The first occasion was the July 7 Highlander Stakes, when a sudden and fierce rainstorm led to a last-minute change in surfaces. Dan the Tin Man broke slowly in that race and finished well to end third, beaten 5 1/2 lengths.

In his most recent start, which came in the 6 1/2-furlong prep for the Play the King here Aug. 2, Dan the Tin Man set the pace but was beaten a nose by the hard-knocking Consolidator Joe.

“That was a very tough beat,” Griffith said. “Steve Duffield said that he got robbed on the bob.”

Griffith has two for Swynford Stakes

The Griffith barn also will be represented in Saturday’s $125,000 Swynford Stakes by Tuscan Getaway and Ria Antonia among the field of seven 2-year-olds for the seven-furlong feature.

Tuscan Getaway, a Kentucky-bred owned by Debmar, raced twice at Delaware Park, winning over five furlongs in his second outing. He then finished third behind the formidable Go Greeley and Conquest Two Step here in the open Colin Stakes at six furlongs.

“I thought it wasn’t a bad race,” Griffith said. “He seemed to take to the Polytrack pretty good. Obviously, the horses that beat him are good horses. I think this spot is going to suit him well. There should be an easier pace.”

Tuscan Getaway also will be running without blinkers for the first time since a second-place finish in his debut.

“We took the blinkers off to get him to relax as he stretches out,” Griffith said. “We want to give him a chance to settle in a little bit.”

David Garcia, who rode Tuscan Getaway for the first time in the Colin, retains the mount.

Ria Antonia, a Kentucky-bred who races for Griffith’s son, Kyle, began her career with a fifth-place finish in the My Dear Stakes and then was a six-length winner when facing males in a six-furlong maiden race.

“We’d like to get her back running against her own gender,” Griffith said. “But I really want to see her going a little further, so I found myself in with the boys again because of the distance.”

Griffith’s brother, Chris, returns aboard Ria Antonia.

Stakes contenders put in works

Pender Harbour and Welloiledmachine, both yearling sales stakes winners last year, tuned up here Thursday morning with an eye toward Wednesday evening’s renewal of the six-stakes program for horses who went through the ring at a local yearling sale.

Jesse Campbell was aboard Pender Harbour, who breezed in 48.80 on the main track for trainer Mike De Paulo.

“He thought he worked really well; he said he was in good order,” said De Paulo, who plans to cross-enter Pender Harbour in the Elgin and Halton stakes, worth $125,000 apiece.

Pender Harbour won last year’s Elgin, a 1 1/16-mile race for colts and geldings.

Welloiledmachine won the Halton, a one-mile turf race for 3-year-olds and up, and breezed five furlongs in 59.20 on the dirt training track under jockey Jim McAleney.

“His last couple of works have probably been his best works of the season,” trainer Mike Keogh said.

Speyside, a Halton candidate for trainer Reade Baker, breezed five furlongs in 1:02 on the training track while going in company with Man o’ Bear, whose target is the $200,000, 6 1/2-furlong Simcoe for 2-year-old colts and geldings.

Campbell will ride Man o’ Bear in the Simcoe and was aboard for the work, with Emma-Jayne Wilson doing the honors on Speyside.

“We’ll enter [Speyside] and see how he measures up,” Baker said.

Speyside’s only win came over one mile on grass, and he has finished second or third on six other occasions from 12 career starts.

“He’s an extremely difficult horse to ride,” Baker said. “He has a tiny one-eighth-of-a-mile move; that’s all he’s got. We’ll get the timing right one of these days.”

Man o’ Bear has raced just once, closing to be beaten three lengths by the talented Go Greeley and Heart to Heart in the 5 1/2-furlong Vandal Stakes for Ontario-sired 2-year-olds.

“He was just green; he backed away a little bit,” Baker said. “He’s going farther this time, and he’s got the experience under him.

Heart to Heart, who shipped in from Arlington Park for trainer Michael Stidham and was beaten a nose in the Vandal, breezed four furlongs on the Polytrack in 48.80 under Wilson, who retains the call for the Simcoe. Stidham left Heart to Heart here with trainer Malcolm Pierce to prepare for the Simcoe.

Eyes Her Man and It’s Gail, both trained by Bob Tiller, breezed five furlongs on the main track for their respective yearling sales stakes. Eyes Her Man was clocked in 1:01 and is a candidate for the $200,000 Muskoka, a 6 1/2-furlong race for 2-year-old fillies.

It’s Gail worked in 1:02.40 and is bound for the $125,000 Algoma, the 1 1/16-mile stakes for fillies and mares.