Winchester looks tough in McKnight

Saturday's Grade 2, $150,000 W.L. McKnight Handicap, among the traditional highlights of Calder's Tropical meeting, has attracted a solid field led by multiple Grade 1 hero Winchester. The McKnight is scheduled for 1 1/2 miles on the turf.

Third in the 2009 edition of the McKnight, Winchester has gone on to bigger and better things since his last appearance in the Miami area, winning such top-level events as the Manhattan Handicap and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational in 2010 and the Sword Dancer Invitational earlier this term. Forced to miss the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Turf after scoping dirty following a workout, Winchester seeks to rebound from a poor try in the October 1 Turf Classic contested over saturated ground.

Trainer Roger Attfield will send out his Woodbine-based pair of Musketier and Simmard, both of whom exit unplaced efforts in the Grade 1 Canadian International. Musketier, a two-time winner of the Grade 2 Elkhorn Stakes, has been out of the money three times since taking the Grade 3 Singspiel Stakes at Woodbine on June 26. Simmard, fifth in last year's McKnight which was rained off the turf, dipped into claiming company earlier this year but nearly pulled off a mild upset of the Grade 1 Northern Dancer Turf Stakes at Woodbine two months ago.

For Mambo Meister, the path of least resistance toward Calder winner's circle on Saturday appears to be the Grade 3, $100,000 Fred W. Hooper Handicap at 1 1/8 miles. However, trainer Phil Gleaves also entered the six-year-old gelding in the McKnight, and it seemed early in the week that all options were being left opened. The multiple Grade 3 hero has won at that level on both the main track and turf course at Calder, but has never raced beyond nine furlongs. He was most recently second as the 1-2 choice in the Grade 3 Spend a Buck Handicap.

Others of note in the McKnight include Center Divider, a close second in the Grade 2 Bowling Green Handicap in his most recent turf jaunt, and the South American invader Astral Thunder, who narrowly missed winning a Group 1 event in Argentina in late May. The latter will make his U.S. debut for noted turf conditioner Jimmy Toner.

Mambo Meister would be a prohibitive favorite in the Hooper, which attracted seven other runners. One of these, two-time Calder stakes winner Flatter This, was also cross-entered in the McKnight.

Among the potential upset candidates are a trio of ex-claimers. Jiminator, haltered by trainer Michael Trombetta for $20,000 at Monmouth in August, exits a romping 6 1/4-length win against second-level allowance foes at Parx Racing. Stimulus Plan, who could have been claimed for $10,000 in June, has earned minor awards chasing the likes of Mambo Meister and Flatter This in recent Calder stakes. Sky Venture, also no stranger to the selling ranks, was impressive winning an allowance in mid-September but might have bounced when only fourth in the Spend a Buck last out.