Once part of a triumvirate of classic preps hosted by Gulfstream Park, and with an honor roll that includes such standouts as Spectacular Bid, Swale and Holy Bull, the seven-furlong Hutcheson is now viewed more as a race for up-and-coming sprinters and milers rather than as stepping stone to the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and Grade 1 Florida Derby.
While no points toward Kentucky Derby participation will be awarded to the top four finishers, the Grade 2, $150,000 stakes on Saturday has attracted a highly competitive group of 10 three-year-olds with no clear-cut favorite.
Merit Man, whose only loss in four starts was a photo-finish beat in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint, is easily the most accomplished member of the field. However, the dual stakes winner doesn't look quite as formidable on paper with his recent win in the Spectacular Bid achieved by a margin of only three-quarters of a length and in an unremarkable time of 1:11 1/5 for six furlongs.
"I was happy with his race in the Spectacular Bid, although he ended up on the lead from the one post, which wasn't ideal," said trainer Bob Hess as he accompanied the colt to school in the walking ring during the fifth race Wednesday. "He was hooked and was very game to go on from there. He doesn't need to be on the lead. I'd rather see him sit and stalk. He's got a better post for this race .
"I think he will have to improve from the Spectacular Bid to handle the competition he'll face in the Hutcheson. I'm not really worried about the seven furlongs. I think anything up to a one-turn mile is well within his range."
Little Distorted, third as the 6-5 favorite in the Spectacular Bid, could bounce back from that third-place effort. The Distorted Humor colt was one of the more impressive maiden winners in New York last fall, beating the highly-regarded Revolutionary by 2 1/4 lengths in his debut while blitzing six panels in 1:09 3/5.
Pataky Kid was a three-length winner of the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity over Polytrack in September, but has been a non-factor in two previous starts on dirt.
"He's got ability, but he's a little quirky kind of horse," trainer Tom Proctor said. "We're looking for this race to get him started and see where we go from there. We still don't know whether he'll be best on dirt, Poly or maybe even grass. We tried blinkers on him for the Iroquois and he didn't break. They do that sometimes the first time with blinkers."
Others with noted stakes form are Really Sharp, who placed in the Grade 3 Bourbon and Grade 2 Nashua last year; Undrafted, a distant third behind Itsmyluckyday in the Gulfstream Park Derby; and Weekend Hideaway, a multiple stakes winner in the New York-bred ranks who finished third in the Grade 2 Futurity.
The unbeaten Todd Pletcher trainee Forty Tales enters off an impressive allowance score at Parx Racing last month, while fellow two-time winner Falling Sky makes his debut for new connections after bringing $425,000 at the OBS January Mixed Sale.
"We've had him up here at Palm Meadows for a couple of weeks and he's doing well. He's talented and ran in some key races," said trainer John Terranova, referring to the fact that Majestic Hussar and Singanothersong each won their next starts at Gulfstream after finishing second and third to Falling Sky in a December 15 allowance.
Singanothersong is back to oppose Falling Sky and is joined by Honorable Dillon, who finished second to Singanothersong in a 6 1/2-furlong Gulfstream allowance on January 4.
Great Attack, runner-up in the past two editions of the Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint, is the likely favorite to get over the hump when the $75,000, five-furlong dash is renewed on the Hutcheson undercard. The Wesley Ward trainee has padded his resume over the past year, winning the Grade 3 Twin Spires Turf Sprint last May and the January 5 Turf Dash at Tampa Bay Downs.
Among the five set to oppose the six-year-old are Something Extra, winner of last year's Grade 2 Connaught Cup in Canada; recent Florida Sunshine Millions Sprint upsetter Off the Jak; Group 1-winning Brazilian import Berlino Di Tiger; and stakes winner Varsity, a three-time winner over the Gulfstream lawn.