GULFSTREAM PARK TURF HANDICAP | PURSE: $300,000 | 4-YEAR-OLDS & UP | GRADE 1 | 1 1/8 MILES (TURF)
Saturday's Grade 1, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap was billed as a clash of titans, and so it proved when Phipps Stables' homebred Point of Entry engaged 2011 Kentucky Derby-winning champion Animal Kingdom in a rousing stretch duel. Point of Entry was cutting back sharply in trip to nine furlongs here, but emphatically rejected the label of one-dimensional marathoner. Finding a superior change of gear inside the final furlong, Point of Entry pulled away from 4-5 favorite Animal Kingdom and spoiled his American farewell.
Trained by Shug McGaughey, Point of Entry was last seen finishing a troubled, but hard-charging, second to Little Mike in the November 3 Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita. That half-length loss ended a five-race winning streak, along with his hopes for a divisional Eclipse Award.
But the five-year-old son of Dynaformer was back in business on Saturday, despite dropping down to 1 1/8 miles. He had not raced over this short a trip in nearly a year, when fourth in an allowance/optional claimer at this same course last February, and accordingly went off as the 2-1 second choice behind the odds-on Animal Kingdom.
As expected, Salto bustled out to the early lead and carved out splits of :25 and :50 2/5 on the firm turf. Point of Entry was perfectly spotted in second by regular rider Johnny Velazquez, while Animal Kingdom was reserved farther back by new partner Joel Rosario.
Down the backstretch, Animal Kingdom improved his position, and when Salto left an inviting opening along the rail, the Derby hero suddenly burst through in an unexpected move. The tempo now ratcheting up considerably through six furlongs in 1:13 1/5, Animal Kingdom found himself in a tussle with Salto rounding the far turn. Point of Entry was hovering in a close third, but a patient Velazquez had not yet set him down in earnest.
Cornering for home, Animal Kingdom spat out Salto and kicked clear briefly. Then Point of Entry attacked, and the eagerly-anticipated battle was joined. Animal Kingdom tried to dig in, the pair appeared to brush, and Animal Kingdom switched to his left lead. Adding piquancy to the battle was the fact that Velazquez used to ride Animal Kingdom, most famously in his Derby victory, but now was on his leading opponent.
Point of Entry was getting the upper hand at the eighth-pole, reaching the mile in 1:35 3/5, and he forged clear to win his fourth Grade 1 title by 1 1/4 lengths. After zipping his final eighth in an impressive :11 1/5, the handsome bay stopped the teletimer in 1:47 and returned $6.20, $2.60 and $2.10.
"There was no speed," Velazquez recapped. "We went to the middle of the track, and I know Animal Kingdom well. If he would have waited behind me, he probably would have beaten me from the quarter-pole home. He made a move so big that he changed his style to my horse's style, so it worked out to my advantage. I had my horse running so much by the time we got to the three-sixteenths pole, my horse got his momentum going. It worked out for us."
"It was quite a race," McGaughey said. "We had our tactics. I figured [Salto] would go to the lead and I was hoping we'd break good and be laying second to him without pressing too much and try to make Animal Kingdom commit a little early. It was kind of fun to watch, even though I was leaning a little bit trying to get him in front going around the turn.
"We're very pleased the way he came back, and to win a Grade 1 going a mile and an eighth is another feather in his cap."
Animal Kingdom's trainer, Graham Motion, cited the premature move as the reason for his loss.
"I think Joel was worried the speed was a little slow, so he moved a little early, which cost us the race," Motion said. "It gave Point of Entry a chance to follow him, which surprised (him) a little bit.
"He was beaten by a very good horse, under very awkward circumstances," the horseman continued. "I was a little concerned that maybe he got tired, but actually it looked like he galloped out with the winner. I think more than anything it caught him off guard for him to find himself in front so early. I think Animal Kingdom was surprised by that.
"I imagined Salto would go to the lead and we would be following him not far behind.
"The only thing I was concerned about going into this race was having another rider on him," Motion admitted. "Somebody who has ridden him and had more confidence on him might have been more patient with him. I think Joel was just anxious with the other riders going slowly and felt they should catch up, which confused the horse a little.
"Joel made a split-second decision and I'm not going to second guess him for it. If he won he would have looked like a hero."
Animal Kingdom held second by 1 1/4 lengths from Unbridled Command, who raced fairly evenly in third. There was a 6 1/4-length gap back to Salto, followed by Where's the Baby and Film Making.
Both of the top two were auditioning for potential engagements in Dubai March 30 -- Point of Entry is under consideration for the Group 1 Sheema Classic at about 1 1/2 miles on turf, and Animal Kingdom is bound for the Group 1 Dubai World Cup on Tapeta.
The well-bred Point of Entry, a half-brother to ill-fated multiple Grade 1 star Pine Island, now brandishes a record of 16-8-3-1, $2,014,490. He flashed talent at three, romping in an off-the-turf maiden at Belmont by 15 1/2 lengths, and finishing fourth in the Curlin on Saratoga's main track. McGaughey exercised his trademark patience by subsequently keeping him to allowance company on turf. Point of Entry began to come around with an entry-level allowance score at Gulfstream Park in December 2011, then wound up an excusable fourth at the same venue in February.
The four-year-old has since come into his own with a course record-setting coup at Keeneland on April 12, and wheeled back 15 days later to take the Grade 2 Elkhorn. Freshened in the interim, Point of Entry returned to dominate the Grade 1 Man o' War by 3 1/2 lengths on July 14. He was similarly explosive in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Invitational on August 18 at Saratoga, where he ran off by four lengths.
Point of Entry extended his skein to five with a professional display in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, despite not really relishing the boggy ground. His Breeders' Cup chances were compromised by his losing tactical position right at the start, and although he finished like the proverbial freight train, the wire came in time for Little Mike.
The Kentucky-bred is out of the winning Seeking the Gold mare Matlacha Pass, herself a full sister to Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Pleasant Home and multiple Grade 2 winner Country Hideaway, the dam of multiple Grade 2 vixen Boca Grande and Grade 3 victor Vacation. Matlacha Pass is also a full sister to Home Sweet Home, who has produced Japanese Grade 3 scorer Birdie Birdie.
Point of Entry's third dam is multiple Grade 1 winner Maplejinsky, who produced Hall of Famer Sky Beauty. His fourth dam is champion sprinter Gold Beauty, who also produced multiple European highweight Dayjur.
This family is also responsible for multiple Grade 1 winner Tale of Ekati and recent Grade 1 CashCall Futurity star Violence, a prominent Kentucky Derby contender.