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Summer Preview: First Empire Stretches Out
First Empire winning the Soaring Free (Credit: Michael Burns Photo)

Summer Preview: First Empire Stretches Out

TORONTO, ON – Harlequin Ranches’ First Empire has his sights set squarely on remaining perfect over the Woodbine turf as he stretches out beyond 6 1/2 furlongs for the first time in Sunday’s $400,000 Summer Stakes (G1).

The Summer is a one-turn turf mile event restricted to 2-year-olds that serves as the ninth event on an 11-race card with a local post time of 5:39 PM. The race is also a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” event, awarding an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar this November.

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Here’s a look at the full field for the Summer:

1. Dripping Gold 9/2 – He broke his maiden on debut with an impressive 2 1/4-length score in a 1 1/16-mile Saratoga inner turf route on August 7, using a close-running inside trip that he’ll likely get again here. Trainer Shug McGaughey repeats with last-out winners at a 24% rate overall but is 0 for his past 8 next-out attempts with debut-winning 2-year-olds, though his runners hit the board in 5 of those.

2. Luckman 20/1 – This maiden missed by a neck on debut as the 8/5 favorite in a local 7-furlong off-turf sprint, where the stretch-rallying colt bumped with the eventual winner near the 1/16 pole. The first of four entries from trainer Mark Casse loses his last-out rider to a stablemate but picks up the riding services of Emma-Jayne Wilson, who wins at a 16% clip for the barn.

3. Grafton Street 10/1 – Casse’s second entry, also a miden, was a well-beaten third in his only start to date, a 5-furlong off-turf sprint over a sloppy (sealed) Belmont Park track. Bettors who made him the 8/5 favorite in that seven-horse field may catch a much nicer price this time around and the barn’s top rider Rafael Hernandez takes the mount on a horse with 2 bullets on his workouts page.

“I’ve kind of always thought he was one of our better colts,” Casse said. “The race that came off the grass at Belmont, he ran, and that was hard on him. It took him a while to bounce back.” 

4. Albahr 7/5 – Top European trainer Charlie Appleby makes his annual sojourn to Woodbine with a horse whose resume features a 3-race win streak while running either 7 furlongs or a straight mile. World-renowned rider Frankie Dettori, aboard 2 starts back for his most impressive victory (by 4 3/4 lengths) to date, picks up the mount for a barn that won a Grade 1 in each of its past two local visits.

“He’s done little wrong this year,” said Appleby’s travelling head lad Chris Durham. “He won a listed race in Salisbury, probably not on the ground you’d want. It rained and it got a bit of water on it. The ground wouldn’t have been in his favor and he still won. Charlie’s really happy with him. This has been his plan.”

5. Heat Merchant 15/1 – He broke his maiden at third asking last time out, stalking the pace and rallying to a 3/4-length score while going 6 furlongs over the local synthetic. Gary Boulanger rides for the third straight start and has won 2 of his last 9 mounts for trainer Ralph Biamonte, who wins 14% with a superb $3.14 ROI when his runners switch from synthetic to turf.

6. Degree of Risk 8/1 – He broke his maiden at second asking in a 5 1/2-furlong Arlington Park synthetic sprint, then finished second in the 6 1/2-furlong Soaring Free Stakes over the local turf. He’ll have to find a way to turn the tables on the gate-to-wire winner who returns here, but this field has a bit more pace on paper, so perhaps that will help his revenge quest. Justin Stein retains the mount.

7. Souper Legacy 15/1 – Casse’s third entry broke his maiden on debut in an 7-furlong off-turf local sprint and showed a good amount of fight to keep the lead after taking over with 1/16 of a mile remaining. He should relish the added distance, and though he loses his last-out rider to a stablemate, new jockey Antonio Gallardo connects at 24% with a $2.92 ROI when riding for the barn at Woodbine.

“I thought his first race was good,” Casse said. “We definitely think he’s a little better on the grass.”

8. First Empire 5/2 – Jockey Patrick Husbands opted to keep the mount on Casse’s fourth entry, whose 2 wins running gate to wire over this course make him a deserving favorite. He broke his maiden on debut going 6 furlongs before caputring the Soaring Free, and Casse and Husbands have teamed up to win 24% of their shared mounts together. Will added pace presence in this race affect him?

“His last race ended up being very good,” Casse said. “He’s doing everything right, he definitely loves the turf, and he’s coming into this race good. This is a little tougher task, but I don’t see the mile being an issue.”

9. Ready for the Lady 20/1 – He finished a rallying second to Souper Legacy on debut, missing by 1 length after racing nearly 7 lengths off the pace at the halfway point. Kevin Nicholls retains the mount and may attempt to navigate a similar trip, which allowed the colt to rally steadily down the long Woodbine front stretch while in the clear. If the front-runners all stumble-bunny home, watch out for him.

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