Thursday, November 27, 2014

Barn Notes: Thursday, November 27



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Barn Notes:  Thursday, November 27, 2014                                                                                  

·        Murgia Brings Top Credentials to Local Colony

·        Bullet-working Whyruawesome Returns Sunday

·        Albano Back to Work, Targets 2015 Campaign

·        Poker Player Works Toward Possible Woodchopper Run





Globetrotting Sardinian jockey Antioco Murgia – known as ‘Coco’ to many – will look for his first American stakes victory Thursday afternoon when he hops aboard multiple graded stakes winner Nates Mineshaft in the Thanksgiving Handicap at Fair Grounds Race Course.  Represented by agent Rob Whitlock, Murgia has quickly gained an amiable reputation with his colleagues. 


“He’s not shy and doesn't get intimidated easily,” Whitlock explained.  “He’s also an excellent cook, which is really interesting for a jockey to be when you think about it.  He made a whole dinner for about 10 or so horsemen the other day.”


Murgia’s prowess extends to the racetrack as well and his reputation there is equally rich.  “He’s an excellent judge of pace,” Whitlock said.  “He rode for Godolphin in Europe and Dubai and is really good at listening to a horse.  The other day he convinced (trainer Jeff) Engler to run (eventual winner Battle On) short instead of long and the horse won the race.  That’s something you don’t see a lot of jockeys having the nerve to do.”


The 26-year-old seems to have courage in spades.  As a youth, he grew up riding in the streets in the famous Palio (di Siena) races in his native Italy – an incredibly dangerous event.  He went on to transfer that fortitude to being the rider of Godolphin’s Farhh – a multiple Group I-winning charge considered at the time to be that Dubai-based outfit’s best horse.  Murgia only had one chance to ride him in the afternoon but did so with aplomb when guiding the son of Pivotal to a handy victory in the Thirsk Hunt Cup Handicap in May 2012.  Fahhr would go on to win the Group I Champion Stakes, Group I Lockinge Stakes and twice finish second to the great Frankel.


“He really listens to horses and works with them individually,” added Anne Smith, trainer of Nates Mineshaft.  Murgia and Smith have been teaming up often in the mornings with her Windy Hill Farm-owned private stable, including multiple morning exercises with Nates Mineshaft, and Murgia is also scheduled to ride Smith’s other big horse – the come-backing graded stakes-placed Whyruawesome in an allowance on Sunday afternoon.


A lover of American racing, Murgia had always wanted to come to ride in the United States and is currently fulfilling that aspiration.  Riding his first race in England in 2008, Murgia has won 20 of his 232 American mounts since arriving in the United States last year and has gained the trust of trainers like Smith, Mike Stidham and Eddie Johnston, who all will be giving him a leg up Thanksgiving weekend.




            One year ago when Windy Hill Farm’s leggy and talented graded stakes-placed juvenile Whyruawesome came to Fair Grounds Race Course to prepare for 2014, his connections had high hopes that they may have a Kentucky Derby candidate.  After training locally and heading to Oaklawn Park to finish an inexplicably listless last in the Smarty Jones Stakes on Jan. 20 (to avoid stablemate Smarty’s Echo who raced in the local Grade III Lecomte two days prior), it was discovered that the chestnut gelding had painful and pestering stomach ulcers.  Given ample time to recover, he returned to the care of conditioner Anne Smith this summer at Arlington International Racecourse. 


            Since, the son of Whywhywhy has finished a good third in a Sept. 13 allowance at Arlington, failed in a Keeneland turf experiment when eighth on Oct. 5 and then awakened when breaking sharply and changing to front-running tactics in a one-mile Churchill Downs allowance in which he set sharp fractions of :22.53, :45.21 and 1:10.32 and was beaten by a head at the wire at odds of 65-1. 


Speed must presumably be what the ulcers were holding back, as such forwardly placed behavior was a departure from the deep-closing, eye-catching way he had broken his maiden upon debut last summer and the mid-pack closing tactics he subsequently used to finish second in last year’s Grade III Arlington-Washington Futurity.  His speed has further been on display since returning to New Orleans, including two consecutive bullet works under jockey Antioco Murgia – four furlongs on Nov. 15 in :47.60 (best of 134) and on Nov. 23 in :47.20 in the mud (best of 24).


           “We weren’t even trying (to work that fast), he did it on his own,” Smith explained.   “The rider just went easy and smooched to him – no throwing crosses, no whip – he’s just feeling really good and much better compared to this time last year.  The ulcer medications have really helped him.  He’s such a thinker.  I almost think he internalizes emotionally (when things hurt physically), if that makes any sense.  He’s just much happier right now.”


Smith has not ruled out another attempt on the turf for the sophomore whose pedigree includes grass classic winners and champions Caro, Sky Classic, Nijinsky II and Blushing Groom in his first four generations – but for now she would prefer to take advantage of his newly honed speed.  “I don’t think a surface will make or break his racing career,” she said.  “I would love to try him on the grass again.  Right now, though, I would like to keep him under a mile, if possible.”


            Whyruawesome makes his much-delayed Fair Grounds debut Sunday in the eighth race.  He breaks from the rail under Murgia and is scheduled to face eight others, including JMJ Racing Stable’s sharp recent Keeneland maiden winner Hot Hot Heat from the barn of Brad Cox, who already has two wins in as many starts at the current meet – both with Hot Hot Heat’s scheduled pilot Florent Geroux in the irons.





            One of the more exciting horses of the 2013-14 Fair Grounds season on the road to the Louisiana Derby has recently resurfaced at the New Orleans oval.  Brereton C. Jones’ Albano worked an easy three furlongs on Nov. 18 as he prepares for what could be an promising 2015 season. 


“That was his first work back since the Smarty Jones (Stakes),” trainer Larry Jones said.  “We’re gearing up for the stakes here.”


Last Fair Grounds season, the son of solid miler Istan and half-brother to Grade III Mineshaft Handicap winner and Grade II Louisiana Derby runner-up Mark Valeski won the $60,000 Sugar Bowl Stakes in December and parlayed that into sharp runner-up performances in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes and Grade II Risen Star Stakes. 


After a disappointing fourth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby necessitated a break, the bay colt rebounded with the best showing of his career when a runaway winner of the Grade III Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park.  That performance earned the improving charge a spot in the Grade I Haskell Invitational – a race in which he finished a distant second to eventual Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern and ahead of subsequent Grade I Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Untapable, multiple graded stakes winner Wildcat Red and classic-placed Medal Count.  A perplexing performance next out when third at odds of 7-5 in the Grade III Smarty Jones at Parx constrained another break.


“I think Bayern is a pretty good horse and we ran second behind him,” Jones reflected.  “We did beat Untapable in that race and some of (Albano’s) bad races are a little better than what you may think.  We were a little disappointed in the Smarty Jones when he made his move he normally wins with; I think he just got a little tired from a long campaign and that’s why we gave him a little layoff.  He’s coming back good."


            Fair Grounds’ handicap division gets kick-started with the $75,000 Louisiana Handicap on Jan. 17 and progresses to the $125,000 Grade III Mineshaft Handicap on Feb. 21 and ultimately the Grade II $400,000 New Orleans Handicap on Louisiana Derby Day, March 28.  In 2013, the Jones-trained Mark Valeski used a similar break-and-return pattern to finish second in the Louisiana and New Orleans, in addition to his aforementioned Mineshaft victory.





Gary and Mary West’s Poker Player continued on the comeback trail with another solid work on Wednesday morning at Fair Grounds Race Course, negotiating five panels in 1:02.60 for trainer Wayne Catalano.  The move was the eighth in as many weeks of four- and five-furlong preparations for the gray Kentucky-bred colt’s first race since an eighth in the Grade III Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 19. 


According to assistant conditioner Fernando Canteria, the son of the late Harlan’s Holiday is under serious consideration for the $60,000 Woodchopper Stakes on Dec. 27 at the New Orleans oval.  Over a mile on the turf, the Woodchopper is one of the last stakes of the year restricted to sophomores and in 2013 was won by Martin Racing Stable’s Marchman, who would use the event to catapult him to a solid 2014 in which he won two graded stakes, placed in two others and competed in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. 


Poker Player’s best performance to date was an eye-opening win in the Grade III Bourbon Stakes as a juvenile over the then-Polytrack main surface of Keeneland in which he defeated eventual Belmont Stakes third-place finisher Medal Count and graded stakes winner Bashart.  That performance would earn Poker Player a chance to roll the dice in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf – a race in which he finished mid-pack.   





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