After registering a 108 BRIS Speed rating for his convincing victory in the December 16 Harlan's Holiday, Csaba will look to continue his winning ways in Sunday's Grade 3, $100,000 Hal's Hope at Gulfstream Park. The Phil Gleaves-trained colt will square off against nine rivals in the one-mile contest.
The four-year-old has streaked to three consecutive commanding stakes victories, posting a 14-length tally in the off-the-turf Tropical Park Derby and a 7 1/4-length score in the Grade 3 Fred Hooper at Calder before transferring his sharp form to Gulfstream last time. Csaba drew off to a 3 3/4 length victory in the 1 1/6-mile Harlan's Holiday, easily handling runner-up Delegation and fourth-placer Scatman, who will both return for the Hal's Hope.
"I like the turn back [in distance to a one-turn mile]," Gleaves said. "Woody [Stephens] made a habit of doing that over the years," referring to Gleaves' Hall of Fame mentor for whom he was a top assistant until going out on his own in the mid-80s. "If all goes well in the Hal's Hope, the Donn Handicap [on February 9] would be next on the radar."
Jockey Luis Saez will retain the mount on the son of Kitten's Joy.
Delegation was making his first start in the Harlan's Holiday since a good third-place try behind Tapizar and Rail Trip in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita. The Speightstown gelding won the Grade 3 Durham Cup at Woodbine before that and has never finished out of the money in eight career starts, recording a 4-2-2 mark. John Velazquez will guide the Mark Casse charge.
Casse also entered Pool Play as a supplementary entry into the Hal's Hope with regular rider Miguel Mena flying in for the mount. The eight-year-old veteran stakes performer will be making first start since an eighth behind Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders' Cup Classic and won the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup two starts back. Pool Play posted his biggest victory with a 36-1 upset in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap in 2011.
The connections of Soldat are hoping that a return to the friendly confines of Gulfstream will jump-start him back to prominence. The five-year-old established himself as a top contender for the Kentucky Derby when winning the 2011 running of the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at the South Florida oval, but the dark bay horse missed the rest of that season following a disappointing 11th in the Run for the Roses. He made it back to the races last March, easily winning a turf allowance/optional claiming event at Gulfstream, but went to the sidelines again for another lengthy hiatus before re-surfacing with a disappointing sixth in the grassy If Winter Comes at Aqueduct on November 17.
"We're looking at the future. It's probably a good time to try him back on the dirt and see what happens," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said of Soldat. "If he doesn't run well, we can put him back on the turf. But the races on the turf down here are going to be extremely difficult with Animal Kingdom and Point of Entry and others. We thought it would be a good time to switch to the dirt and see how it goes."
Javier Castellano has the call.
Another contender in the Hal's Hope on his best form would be five-year-old Pants on Fire, who was cross-entered as a main-track only runner in Saturday's Grade 2 Ft. Lauderdale on turf. The Kelly Breen trainee recorded his biggest career victory in the 2011 edition of the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and captured the Skip Away at Monmouth two starts back in May. Pants on Fire deserves a pass for his most recent engagement, a sixth as the odds-on choice in the November 17 Delta Mile, after acting up terribly at the starting gate and missing the break. Paco Lopez rides.