06/22/2012 12:38PM

Woodbine: Highlander features Sovereign finalists Gypsy Ring and Essence Hit Man

Michael Burns
Gypsy Ring returns to the turf in the Highlander.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario – The versatile Gypsy Ring goes back to the grass Sunday at Woodbine in the Grade 2, $200,000 Highlander Stakes. There is an extra $40,000 for eligible Ontario-breds in the six-furlong sprint on the Queen’s Plate undercard, and Gypsy Ring qualifies for the bonus.

Gypsy Ring is owned and trained by his breeder, Paul Buttigieg. He captured both of his starts at the meet in Ontario-sired stakes, the five-furlong Debut and six-furlong New Providence.

Gypsy Ring has three wins from seven starts on the grass, over which he finished third on yielding ground in the Grade 1 Nearctic Stakes in October. Regally Ready, who came back to take the Grade 2 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, edged out one of England’s top sprinters, Bated Breath, to win the six-furlong Nearctic.

“He only got beat a head and a neck in the Nearctic,” Buttigieg recalled. “I think he likes the turf better. I’m hoping for rain. He’s in top shape. He doesn’t mind the space in between races. He’s so laid back.”

Gypsy Ring has had hanging tendencies, but Buttigieg felt that jockey Justin Stein has been able to time his move just right during crunch time.

[Watch Woodbine’s Queen’s Plate card live]

“The last two starts, he didn’t [hang],” said Buttigieg. “Justin knows him well. He knows exactly what to do on him.”

Gypsy Ring was a Sovereign finalist for the 2011 champion sprinter, an award which was won by the speedy Essence Hit Man, another Highlander entrant.

Essence Hit Man picked up right where he left off last year in the spring, when he won the six-furlong Jacques Cartier Stakes and the Grade 3 Vigil Stakes over seven furlongs on the Polytrack. His average Beyer Figure in those two races was an impressive 100.5.

Essence Hit Man faded out of contention after leading in each of his two career turf attempts, although he was beaten just three lengths when seventh in last year’s Highlander.

“If the rain stays away, I’ll like him a lot,” said owner/trainer Audre Cappuccitti. “I would love firm turf.”

Trainer Sid Attard entered Signature Red and Smokey Fire.

Signature Red took the last two runnings of the Highlander on firm ground, but is winless since last year’s edition.

Smokey Fire hasn’t seen action since his productive 2010 campaign, during which he won the Grade 2 Play the King Stakes on turf and the Bold Venture Stakes.

Smokey Fire began working at the Fair Grounds over the winter, before shipping here in the spring via Keeneland.

“He’s been training for a long time,” said Attard. “He’s doing very well. He’s ready for it.”

Shippers Fiddlers Patriot and Surfrider are both coming off a decisive victory.

The George Weaver-trained Fiddlers Patriot notched the five-furlong Jim McKay Turf Sprint May 18 at Pimlico. He was beaten a nose when second in the 2011 Highlander.

Surfrider won a six-furlong allowance/optional claimer June 3 at Belmont for trainer Eddie Kenneally.