The first major bout of the older horse division will go down this Saturday in the Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. The $500,000 Donn will pit eleven battle-tested stakes horses against one another in the kick-off for what is looking to be an interesting year. Past winners of the Donn have gone on to claim a series of Grade I races down the road, but this race is shaping up to be one of many times these horses will test each other.
The winners of last year’s Preakness and Belmont, Shackleford and Ruler on Ice, are set to butt heads once again. Both of them are looking for their first win since their Triple Crown victories; while both have run more or less to form, the spark of those spring performances has yet to reappear. Shackleford ran second in three graded races following the Preakness, but also tossed in a couple of dud performances that underlined the toll 2011 was beginning to take on him. On the shelf since the Breeders’ Cup, where he finished second to a brilliant Caleb’s Posse in the Dirt Mile, hopefully Shack has had the chance to recharge and will return to luster. Ruler on Ice seemed to come out of nowhere when he upset in the Belmont, but used his summer and fall campaign to prove that score was no fluke. The son of Roman Ruler went on to run third in the Haskell behind Coil and Shackleford, and second behind To Honor and Serve in the Pennsylvania Derby before finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Perhaps it’s his fifth-place finish in the Clark, his most recent start, that will tell us where he ranks among the horses in this field.
While the winner of the Grade I Clark, Wise Dan, has yet to return since that performance, the runner-up in that race, Mission Impazible, has chosen the Donn as the first start to his 5-year-old campaign. Poor Mission Impazible is becoming the Giant Oak of his generation. Hit or miss, depending on the track, the temperature, his mood—who knows—this Todd Pletcher trainee is a tough one to figure out. His best performances have come at Fair Grounds—the only track where he’s won a race outside of his maiden—and Churchill Downs, where he has finished second in two Grade Is. The question is, does he like Gulfstream? Well, in his two starts at the Florida track, he’s finished second, and those were in allowance races to horses barely seen again. When it comes to this horse, bet on him at your own risk.
The most exciting in this horse (sorry, Shack) is Trickmeister. As incredible as it sounds, this undefeated 5-year-old horse will be making his graded stakes debut in the Donn. After winning the 2010 Pleasant Colony Stakes at Saratoga, he was sidelined by cannon bone and tibia injuries; now the horse is poised to make a comeback in a huge way. In his first start off his 16-month layoff, Trickmeister laughed at his rivals in the Harlan’s Holiday at Gulfstream; he didn’t even break a sweat on his way to a 5 1/4th-length victory. Now a winner of five races, this horse could be the next big thing in his division if he can stay healthy.
Hymn Book has been waiting in the wings to run a big performance. A winner of 6 of 13 races, this son of Arch last finished second to To Honor and Serve in the Grade I Cigar Mile. He has two wins in ungraded stakes races—the Firethorn and Three Coins Up Stakes at Belmont. He won an allowance at Gulfstream last January while he was in the middle of a four-race win-streak, but hasn’t returned to Florida since. Outside of two races, he has finished in the money in each of his starts. In a field packed with inconsistency, Hymn Book may be the breath of fresh air to shake up this division.
Flat Out, previously one of the favorites for last year’s Breeders’ Cup, will try to wipe away the embarrassment of his last race, which came in the form of a 12th-place finish on the turf this January at Gulfstream. In his defense, Flat Out never was and never aspired to be a turf horse. Apparently, he needed a race, and his trainer, Scooter Dickey, couldn’t find a dirt race suitable for him. Any other day, Flat Out is almost always in the money; his claim to fame is a win in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup last year, as well as a second place finish in the Whitney. He disappointed in the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a fifth place finish, and followed that up with a third in the Clark before his big bomb on the turf. While he is not a model of consistency, he has definite upside. But so do several horses in this field, so he can’t afford to be anything but at his best in this battle.
Soaring Empire, Sangaree, Al Khali, Redeemed, and Where’s Sterling round out the field. Even with the odds stacked in favor of the intriguing Trickmeister, this grade I handicap is a fairly wide-open affair. Redeemed, with 5 wins in 8 starts, has the opportunity to run the race of his life here and make his mark early on in the older horse division. The stakes are similar for many here. The importance of the Donn lies in how this race sets up the rest of the year. Certainly, many of these horses will live to battle against each other another day, in several more grade I affairs, but can one take it to the next level and dominate the rest? While the older horse division will be more heavy with competition this year, it isn’t necessarily going to be full of a lot of great horses. All you need is one to get excited about. The question is, is he in this race?
The Grade I Donn Handicap will air live from Gulfstream Park on HRTV. Post time is slated for approximately 4:45pm ET.