HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- Anyone looking for an emerging star in the wide-open handicap division need only turn to Saturday's Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park to find a number of worthy candidates hoping to enhance their reputations in the season's first major test for older horses on dirt.
The $500,000 Donn will share top billing on Saturday's 13-race program with the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (:: Gulfstream: Buy PPs, watch Saturday's card live). The card also includes a pair of Grade 3 stakes, the Fred Hooper and the grassy Suwannee River, along with the Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint and its filly counterpart, the Ladies Turf Sprint, which features the 2016 debut of Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint runner-up Lady Shipman. First post is 12:05 p.m. Eastern.
Keen Ice is the only member of the eight-horse Donn field currently considered among the nation's elite in the handicap division, and as such, he'll carry the high weight of 121 pounds in the 1-1/8-mile Donn. And while trainer Dale Romans is making no bones about the fact that the Donn is a means to an end, the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 26, he is also confident that the hero of the 2015 Travers can kick off his 4-year-old campaign on a winning note.
"We're in the race to win, and the horse is training better than ever," said Romans.
Romans said he has some concern about the local track, which does not favor Keen Ice's running style.
"The track here is similar to Keeneland, which I thought compromised his chances in the Breeders' Cup, but he's fresh, and while I don't want to take him out of his game, I think he'll put himself in it a little better the way he's been training, just like he did in the Travers," said Romans.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will counter the likely favorite with the trio of Mshawish, Itsaknockout, and Madefromlucky.
The versatile Mshawish is the only other Grade 1 winner in the field aside from Keen Ice, that victory coming here a year ago in the Gulfstream Park Turf. The son of Medaglia d'Oro became a graded stakes winner on dirt earlier at this meet in the one-mile Hal's Hope.
Itsaknockout, the winner of the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth here last winter, went to the sidelines following a ninth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, returning Dec. 31 with an explosive 4-3/4-length optional-claiming victory that earned him a berth in the Donn.
"He's always been a nice horse who's trained at a different level this year," said Pletcher. "He's acting like he's coming up to the race in career form."
Madefromlucky was a two-time Grade 2 winner last year at 3, closing out the campaign by finishing second, beaten less than a length by Valid, in the Harlan's Holiday.
Valid was a last-minute addition to the field, and his presence should affect the pace scenario, with Financial Modeling the only other front-running type in the lineup. Valid dropped a tough neck decision to Mshawish in the Hal's Hope after defeating Madefromlucky four weeks earlier in the Harlan's Holiday.
Mexikoma, coming off a career-best performance in winning the Sunshine Millions Classic, and the Grade 1-placed (on turf) Closing Bell complete the field.
Keen Ice, by Curlin
Last 3 Beyers: 102-104-106
He will be reunited with jockey Javier Castellano, who orchestrated the trip that carried Keen Ice to his upset victory over American Pharoah in the Travers.
Mshawish, by Medaglia d'Oro
Last 3 Beyers: 104-102-101
The Hal's Hope was his first victory on dirt after he'd posted his first six wins on turf, and he figures to be positioned close to the pace while coming off a series of races at a mile.
Itsaknockout, by Lemon Drop Kid
Last 3 Beyers: 98-90-76
He'll have to work out a trip under regular rider Luis Saez from an outside post. "He's a very tactical horse, and I envision he'll be in stalking position behind the speed," said Pletcher.
Financial Modeling, by Street Sense
Last 3 Beyers: 104-92-75
Trainer Chad Brown said his horse really put it together during the second half of 2015. "He's a pretty talented horse on both dirt and turf, and he's just coming into his own now, so it's a good time to take a shot in a big race while he's in top form."
Valid, by Medaglia d'Oro
Last 3 Beyers: 103-102-98
He has never been off the board in four starts at 1 1/8 miles, winning the Grade 3 Philip H. Iselin at that distance last summer at Monmouth Park, and could be the pacesetter after drawing inside of Financial Modeling.
Madefromlucky, by Lookin At Lucky
Last 3 Beyers: 101-92-84
He has an affinity for the local track, having posted two wins and a second in three starts at Gulfstream Park.