Empire soars over Morning in Hal's Hope
Report: USA, Saturday
Gulfstream Park: Hal's Hope Stakes (Grade 3) 1m, dirt, 4yo+
SOARING EMPIRE (Cam Gambolati/Jose Lexcano) won his first graded stakes in decisive fashion on Saturday - in the process landing an early blow to Morning Line's hopes of becoming one of the top older horses in the country this year.
The Pennsylvania Derby winner could finish only third after setting the pace and getting overwhelmed in the stretch - in stark contrast to his Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile effort, where only the late-running Dakota Phone could peg him back.
Reluctant to enter the gate, Soaring Empire was sent off the 2-1 second favourite behind odds-on Morning Line, whom he tracked in the early stages before being moved up to challenge on the far turn.
The son of Empire Maker was ahead on exiting the turn and soon opened up a two-length lead before holding the late run of Rule by a length and a quarter, with Morning Line a half-length back in third.
"He's always been a very talented horse, buta little quirky," said trainer Cam Gambolati said. "When he gets to the front, he has a tendency to wait on other horses."
Although the Hal'sHope is a designated trial for the $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream on February 5, Soaring Empire won't be there as his trainer reckons he is a one-turn specialist.
"He's a chute horse and the main goal here will be the Gulfstream Park Handicap [Macrh 12]," said Gambolati.
On the other hand Rule, who hadn't run since finishing third in last year's Florida Derby as the favourite, is likely to run in the Donn.
John Velazquez was disappointed with Morning Line. "It was a good pace, but not too fast for these kind of horses," he said.
"I had to get after him a little bit early, and when I did he ran on. He just didn't give me the kick that he usually does. He didn't stop, he just didn't do his normal running."
Also on Saturday
Santa Anita: San Pasqual Stakes (Grade 2) 1m½f, dirt, 4yo+
Aggie Engineer (Paddy Gallagher/Joe Talamo) showed commendable versatility to record his second graded-stakes victory here in this recognised trial for the celebrated Santa Anita Handicap.
Having stolen the Native Diver at Hollywood from the front, this time the six-year-od rallied from off the pace in a race where he faced several speed rivals - including a ‘rabbit' stablemate for chief opponent Spurrier, who was beaten 3¼ lengths into second in a good time of 1m49.94s.
"The tactics today were great," said winning jockey Joe Talamo. "Two horses went to the lead and he laid right off. He's such a professional horse in the way he relaxes and does things so easy. It was just a great race."
Aggie Engineer, a gelding by E Dubai, was made 17-10 favourite ahead of Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Dakota Phone, who was conceding weight all round and was never a threat.