Curlin Stakes Preview: Travers Candidates Flying Under the Radar

Nyquist (inside) defeats Swipe in the Breeders' Cup - Photo Credit: Melanie Martines
Melanie Martines

Less than a week after the announced retirement of the legendary Rachel Alexandra’s 3-year-old daughter, Rachel’s Valentina, the 2009 Horse of the Year’s half-brother Dolphus will try to pick up the family mantle in his Spa debut on Friday in the $100,000 Curlin for 3-year-olds.

Trained by Joe Sharp, Dede McGehee’s homebred Dolphus will be returning from a nearly six-month absence from the races after a brief winter campaign that included a pair of wins and a third-place effort in three starts at Fair Grounds.

Dolphus, named for Rachel Alexandra’s breeder and original owner Dolphus Morrison, won his unveiling by three-quarters of a length sprinting last November. The Lookin At Lucky colt finished third facing allowance company the following month, checking in 3 ¾ lengths behind that day’s runner-up, recent Grade 2 Woody Stephens winner Tom’s Ready.

The chestnut colt regrouped in his third start on January 31 to earn a late-running three-quarter-length victory against optional claimers despite hitting the gate at the start before being turned out to Dr. Barry Eisaman’s Williston, Fla. farm for the spring.

“We had a few minor soundness setbacks, he just needed a little time to catch up physically,” Sharp said of the layoff. “It wasn’t anything serious, we didn’t have to do any surgery or anything like that. We just gave him a little time being a horse. We sent him back to the farm and brought him back and he hasn’t missed a beat since.”

The chestnut colt has worked steadily since rejoining Sharp’s Kentucky string in early June, including his most recent half-mile breeze in 50.05 over Saratoga’s main track on July 24.

“We’re excited to get him back on track, I know we did the right thing giving him a little break,” Sharp said. “I think that we’re going to have a nice, fresh 3-year-old for the summer and fall campaigns. Both physically and mentally, he’s really just changed a lot. He’s gotten a little lighter – he’s lost some of that baby look. We really couldn’t be happier with where he is physically right now.”

Brian Hernandez, Jr., who rode Dolphus in each of his first three starts, will ship in from Ellis Park for the return engagement. The pair will break from post 5.

Carded as Race 9 on the 10-race program, the 1 1/8-mile Curlin has also attracted a formidable pair of Chad Brown trainees in Connect and Gift Box as well as multiple Grade 1-placed Swipe.

An impressive allowance winner on Belmont Stakes Day, Connect will be ridden Hall of Famer John Velazquez from the rail, while Gift Box, victorious in his 3-year-old return on May 26, will have the services of jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr.

Swipe, trained by Keith Desormeaux, will try to bounce back from a pair of off-the-board finishes at Belmont Park, including a seventh-place result in the Grade 3 Dwyer on July 9. A four-time runner-up to Nyquist as a 2-year-old, including in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Swipe will be ridden by Junior Alvarado from the outside post 8.

Rounding out the field for the Curlin are 2015 Grade 3 Sanford winner Uncle Vinny and last-out allowance winner Ready Dancer from the Todd Pletcher barn; Majesto, in his first start since finishing 18th in the Kentucky Derby for trainer Gustavo Delgado; and the Dallas Stewart-trained Forever d’Oro, a half-brother to multiple graded stakes winners Forever Unbridled and Unbridled Forever who finished last in the Grade 1 Belmont last time out.

Likely Winners

#4 GIFT BOX – It’s Chad Brown’s world and we’re just living in it!  After taking home two stakes on the turf last weekend I believe he’s got them over a barrel in this dirt race for three year olds to kick off this weekend.  It took me a couple of hours to decide which one of his two horses to put on top, but in the end I believe the class and talent level of Gift Box slightly edges that of Connect.  Gift Box was highly thought of as a two year old, and after a lengthy delay he finally came back in a very tough allowance race as a three year old and romped.  He’s primed to win this race and head to the Grade 1 Travers Stakes to take on the big boys.  Much like VE Day did a couple of years ago its not out of the question that Gift Box could pull off a Curlin/Travers double.

#1 CONNECT – He’s certainly the up and comer of the Chad Brown pair of runners as he’s started twice this year and has won both races by a combined seven and a half lengths.  Seriously considered putting him on top after his allowance romp on Belmont Stakes day as he showed a ton of talent in that race.  Just couldn’t pull the trigger over Gift Box, but I’ll have this horse on all my tickets.  Wouldn’t it be something if this son of Curlin could win the Curlin Stakes?  The story might write itself on Friday…

Exotic Plays

#8 SWIPE – This is his last chance.  I’ve been careful not to back him since his very poor Lexington effort, but it looked as though he was starting back in the right direction heading into the Dwyer until he completely bombed.  Now what…certainly don’t trust him enough to play on top but his back class is still glaring.  It’s now or never though as he has to show us something here.

#6 MAJESTO – I pulled no punches when I talked about this horses Kentucky Derby chances when I said he had absolutely zero shot at winning.  However, in this race I won’t go that far as I do believe this is race is more his speed. Still not in love with him though which has me suggesting to play him underneath, but not on top.  Hasn’t been seen since the Kentucky Derby so could need a race for fitness, plus I want to see how he comes back before I back him hardcore.

Party Crashers

#7 UNCLE VINNY – I’ll be short and to the point…he would have been a total toss for me if it weren’t for the rider change to Javier Castellano.  The change puzzles me as this horse hasn’t done much of anything lately, and Castellano is the regular rider if Gift Box who will be the favorite so its a real head scratcher.  Maybe he’s just doing a big time favor for the owners of Uncle Vinny, or maybe he knows something we don’t know.  The blinkers are coming off today so that is another angle to consider.  Something is fishy to me with this one.

#3 READY DANCER – I’ve been a fan of this horse since day one, and for the most part he’s let me down.  Somehow last time out he did repay me though to the tune of 17-1 so that is why I didn’t completely through him out.  I’m not sure where that race came from last time out when he impressively won an entry level allowance by over three lengths, but if he can repeat it today he could accidently win this thing.  I respect the two Chad Brown runners too much to put Ready Dancer on top, but if the odds are right it wouldn’t hurt having him on a “saver” ticket.  He is one for one at this distance…

Throw Outs

#5 DOLPHUS – Obviously this horse is going to get a lot of attention due to his breeding and family line, but on the race track he’ll have to step up his game to compete today.  We haven’t seen since January so this will be a tall order off this kind of a layoff.  May need a race before he’s ready for this kind of competition.

#2 FOREVER D’ORO – Dallas Stewart sure does know how to pull off an upset, but can’t see it happening with this horse anytime soon.  Was thrown into the Belmont Stakes off only a maiden win, and didn’t enjoy that company at all as he was dominated.  Better chance today, but still not a very good one.

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