HAL'S HOPE STAKES | PURSE: $100,000 | 4-YEAR-OLDS & UP | Grade 3 | 1 MILE
Favored Csaba ran his stakes winning streak to four and likely stamped his ticket to next month's Donn Handicap with his victory in the $100,000 Hal's Hope Jan. 13 at Gulfstream Park.
Angled deftly to the rail mid-stretch by Luis Saez, 9-5 shot Csaba rallied to get the lead in the final strides of the one-turn mile event for older horses, holding off the strong-closing Pool Play for a neck victory. The final time was 1:35.69 over a fast track.
"When we came to the three-eighths [pole] I didn't think we'd win, but coming down the stretch I saw a little hole on the inside and we went for it," Saez said. "When I asked him, he gave me everything."
In a terrific finish, Pants On Fire was a neck back in third, a head better than Soldat in fourth.
Red-hot Csaba, trained by Phil Gleaves for owners Bruce Hollander and Cary Shapoff, began 2013 the same way he ended the preceding season, with a stakes victory at Gulfstream.
His winning streak started last October with a 14-length romp in the off-the-turf Tropical Park Derby at Calder Casino & Race Course. His next win came in a dead-heat with Ducduc in the Fred Hooper Stakes at Calder Nov. 24. Moving over to Gulfstream for the Harlan's Holiday Dec. 16, Csaba responded with a 3 3/4-length triumph.
The son of Kitten's Joy was bred in Kentucky by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, and is the first stakes winner from his dam, the multiple-winning High Chant, by War Chant . Despite the superior turf breeding, Csaba is winless in three tries on grass while 8-for-14 on dirt.
Csaba broke on top in the eight-horse field before dropping back into sixth position as Associate, leaving from the rail, accelerated soon after the start to grab an early lead over Good Morning Diva and Scatman. Associate was keen to go, stepping an opening quarter mile in :22.64 and the half in :44.75 before he began to weaken approaching the quarter pole. Good Morning Diva took a narrow edge as they completed six furlongs in 1:09.25.
Several others, including Pants On Fire and Soldat on the outside, were in contention down the lane and Csaba appeared beaten. But after angling to the rail, he dug in gamely to hit the front in deep stretch and got to the wire just in time.
Gleaves said he thought Csaba was laboring down the backstretch and was surprised to see him racing so far back.
"I thought he'd be laying close and going easier, but the fractions were solid, obviously," he said. "I've got to give all the credit to Luis Saez. He's a brilliant rider. He's going to do great in New York. He's one of the best riders in the country."
Pool Play, coming from eighth at the quarter pole under Miguel Mena, flew down the center of the track in his first start since the Breeders' Cup Classic, but came up a bit short in his prep for the Feb. 2 Donn Handicap. Pants On Fire and Soldat also turned in game efforts.
Prior to the race, Gleaves said that with a strong effort in the Hal's Hope, the Donn would be next for his bay colt. Csaba improved his overall mark to 8-1-3 in 17 starts and extended his earnings to $372,525.
"He's certainly bearing out now what we felt about him last year," Gleaves said afterward. "We wanted to go on the Derby trail last year and ran him in the Fountain of Youth trying to do that. It didn't pan out, but we've always thought highly of him and he's showing it now."
Carrying co-top weight of 121 pounds, Csaba paid $5.60, $3.40, and $2.80, and keyed a $52.40 exacta. Pool Play, trying the one-mile distance for the first time for trainer Mark Casse, returned $9 and $3.80. Pants On Fire paid $4.60 to show.
Soldat was followed by Good Morning Diva, Scatman, Associate, and Delegation. Cool Blue Red Hot and Swagger Jack were scratched.