Quality Road keeps his cool

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- Quality Road was on his best behavior Sunday - from the time he came into the paddock right up until he left the winner's circle following his 2 3/4-length victory over You and I Forever in the $100,000 Hal's Hope Stakes on opening day at Gulfstream Park.

Earlier on the card, the third race had to be declared a no-contest due to a delay in removing the starting gate from the turf course, resulting in refunds of more than $730,000 systemwide.

Quality Road, winner of the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Grade 2 Fountain of Youth here last winter, was making his first start in the Grade 3 Hal's Hope since being scratched at the starting gate prior to the Breeders' Cup Classic. Trainer Todd Pletcher had schooled Quality Road extensively both in New York and at Palm Meadows since his arrival at the training center last month and said he really wasn't too concerned that the incident at Santa Anita would be repeated on Sunday.

"He's been perfect in the morning and we were pretty confident he'd be okay loading into the gate," Pletcher said after the race. "They loaded him first and Johnny [Velazquez] said he walked in just fine."

Quality Road broke alertly and quickly gained the lead while kept several paths off the rail by Velazquez, who was able to slow the opening quarter of the one-mile Hal's Hope down to a pedestrian 25.15 seconds. Quality Road remained slightly wide while controlling the pace, then was put to the test when joined by You and I Forever along the inside around the turn. But the 2-5 favorite still had plenty in reserve, turning back the challenge before pulling away to his fifth victory in eight career starts.

Congressional Page rallied mildly from outside to finish third, another neck behind You and I Forever, with Harlem Rocker fading to fourth in a field of nine older horses.

Quality Road covered the distance over a fast track in 1:36.33 and paid $2.80.

"I pretty much left the race in Johnny's hands," said Pletcher. "We thought Le Grand Cru and Spin Master might show a little early speed, which is why he elected to take him off the rail and get him to settle, which I guess he did considering the slow opening quarter. I thought Johnny had plenty in reserve when that other horse came up inside him. Quality Road kind of eyeballed him and went on from there. At that point the race pretty much turned into a sprint and I knew he [Quality Road] had more speed."

Pletcher said Quality Road would now be pointed, as expected, for the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 6.

Newly appointed track president Ken Dunn deemed opening day a big success despite the incident in the third race. He said the problem was caused when the tractor driver had some difficulty getting the tractor in gear when first attempting to pull the gate off the turf course. The outrider alerted riders of the potential danger as the field approached the stretch, with the majority of the horses in the field either eased or pulled up before reaching the wire. The stewards quickly declared the race a no-contest.

A crowd of more than 9,000 witnessed the opening-day program, with the total all-sources handle on the eight-race card in excess of $6.5 million.