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NEW ORLEANS, LA – The early returns on Robert and Lawana Low’s Colonel Liam were admirable enough for a young horse.
A diet of steady works allowed the son of Liam’s Map to post a victory via disqualification in his career debut and, while he was beaten in his second outing, there was reason to believe Todd Pletcher, his Eclipse Award-winning conditioner, had plenty to work with moving forward.
In order to bring that upside to the surface, however, Pletcher needed to get the gray colt a change in surface scenery. Since switching Colonel Liam to the grass, Pletcher has indeed found himself with a new stable star on his hands, one who can further enhance his budding reputation when he starts in Saturday’s $300,000 Muniz Memorial Classic Stakes (G2) against 11 rivals at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
Contested at 1 1/8 miles over the Stall-Wilson Turf Course, the Muniz is race 12 of 14 and one of eight stakes races on Saturday’s program. The headliner is the $1 million TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2 – a Championship Series event on the Road to the Kentucky Derby (G1). The All Stakes Late Pick 5 (races 10-14) and All Stakes Late Pick 4 (races 11-14) are both estimated at $750,000.
The expectations Colonel Liam (post 5 as the 3/1 favorite on Mike Diliberto’s morning line, with Irad Ortiz Jr. to ride) has carried since being purchased for $1.2 million at the 2019 OBS April 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale were met in his last start when he prevailed in the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (G1) at Gulfstream Park on January 23. Since making his first 2 starts on dirt, Colonel Liam has won 3 of his 4 tries on the turf — confirming Pletcher’s belief that life on the lawn would ultimately bring out the 4-year-old’s best intangibles.
“We always sort of had in the back of our minds that he’s got quite a bit of turf on the bottom side of his pedigree,” said Pletcher, a finalist for racing’s Hall of Fame class this season. “He trained well enough on the dirt that we got him started but we also felt like maybe we weren’t quite seeing the best of him. We worked him on the turf at Saratoga and that’s when we saw a significant improvement. That’s why we switched him to the turf, and he seems to have found a home there.”
The only blemish Colonel Liam has had on the turf came when he was bumped hard at the start of the Saratoga Derby last August en route to finishing fourth. A signal of what was to come then emerged last December when he came from off the pace to capture Gulfstream Park’s Tropical Park Derby by 3 1/4 lengths.
In his first try against older horses and first venture into graded stakes company, Colonel Liam accelerated in the lane to best stablemate Largent by a neck in the Pegasus Turf while taking down a field that included Grade 1 winner Next Shares and fellow Muniz entrant Pixelate.
“We felt very good coming into (the Pegasus),” Pletcher said. “He had got what we’d hoped for in the prep race and subsequently came back and trained great. We were very optimistic that he was sitting on a good race and would perform well. Aside from (the Saratoga Derby), he’s been perfect on the grass and I think he’s versatile enough he can handle multiple distances.”
The turf male ranks were ripe with parity last season as the top contenders took turns beating up on one another. Should Colonel Liam perform as expected in the Muniz, Pletcher would likely target the $1 million Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 1 with hopes of having his charge emerge as a definitive divisional leader.
“I will say now as an older horse, he has trained more impressively on the dirt than he used to so at some point we might consider trying that again, but he’s doing so well on the grass now that we felt that the Muniz was good timing-wise to hopefully propel him forward to the race at Churchill on Derby Day,” Pletcher said. “Right now, the plan it to hopefully go from the Muniz to Churchill, and then there is a really good schedule of some high-quality grass races all summer. Hopefully, we can have a good season with him.”
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Gaining Ground Racing’s Factor This (post 1 at 4/1 with Shaun Bridgmohan) will try stymie Colonel Liam’s progression as he takes to the course where he has earned two of his four career graded stakes victories for trainer Brad Cox. The 6-year-old son of The Factor captured last year’s Muniz Memorial—part of a 4-race win streak for the bay horse—but has been off the board in his last 3 starts, including a fifth-place run in the February 13 Fair Grounds (G3).
“(Being on the rail) going 1 1/8 miles doesn’t play a big role or scare me any, being down inside,” Cox said. “I like him better in this race than in the last race, from the standpoint that it looks like we’re going to have a little bit of a softer pace and not be pressed as much, and that’s what he likes. There’s no secret about how he likes to run and the trip he needs; he needs to be able to take a breather, and hopefully, he can be able to get that on Saturday.”
Though Godolphin’s homebred Pixelate (post 12 at 8/1 with Luis Saez) was fifth behind Colonel Liam in the Pegasus Turf, he was beaten less than 3 lengths by the winner and has the back class of his victory in the Del Mar Derby (G2) last September for trainer Mike Stidham.
“He ran very well (in the Pegasus Turf), he only got beaten a few lengths,” said Stidham. “He’s one of those horses that, every time he runs, he’s going to give you a huge effort. We’re taking a shot; this race did come up very tough. But I think we’re live, he tries every time, and if he gets a decent trip from that outside post, I think we’re in there with a decent chance.”
Lothenbach Stables’ homebred Captivating Moon (post 3 at 12/1 with Marcelino Pedroza) comes into the Muniz off a victory in the February 13 Fair Grounds, the first graded win for the 6-year-old horse in 29 career starts for trainer Chris Block. He is cross-entered in the New Orleans Classic (G2).
Completing the Muniz Memorial field from the rail out:
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