Clement holds strong hand in chase for 2,000th win on Florida Derby Day
by Keith McCalmont
Hill has high hopes for returning Vekoma
Trainer Christophe Clement is two wins shy of 2,000 victories in North America and the veteran New York-based conditioner will send out five starters in an attempt to secure the milestone on Saturday's Florida Derby Day card at Gulfstream Park.
Leading the charge for the Clement quintet is Grade 1-winner Decorated Invader, who makes his return in the $100,000 Cutler Bay. He is joined on the Florida Derby Day card by Clement stakes-minded stablemates Focus Group (Grade 2 Pan American), She's My Type and Seducer ($100,000 Sanibel Island), as well as Traipsing in a turf allowance to kick off the card.
West Point Thoroughbreds, William T. Freeman, William Sandbrook, and Cheryl Manning's Decorated Invader, a $200,000 purchase at the 2018 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, graduated impressively at second asking in August at Saratoga Race Course.
The Declaration of War bay then traveled north to Woodbine where he won the Grade 1 Summer on a yielding turf ahead of a wide-trip to finish fourth with a strong late charge in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita Park in November.
Decorated Invader will make his seasonal debut in the Cutler Bay (Race 4, 1 p.m.), a two-turn mile on the Gulfstream green.
"He's training very well. We're excited for him to make his seasonal debut," said Miguel Clement, assistant trainer to his father.
A graduate of Duke University and the Darley Flying Start program, Miguel enjoyed apprenticeships with trainer Mike de Kock in Dubai and South Africa as well as with conditioner Hugo Palmer in England.
With wins on the tight turns at Saratoga and the more expansive E.P. Taylor Turf Course at Woodbine, Clement said he expects Decorated Invader to perform well in his Gulfstream debut when exiting post 10 under Joel Rosario.
"I think he'll handle any course in the country, but I wish we had drawn a better post position," said Clement. "Nevertheless, it's out of his control but I think he'll run a good race regardless."
Decorated Invader was a deceptively good fourth at the Breeders' Cup when rallying from 13th in a 14-horse field to earn fourth, just 1 ½-lengths back of the victorious Structor.
"He might have been a bit unlucky that day, but we believe he's one of the best 3-year-olds in the country on the grass," said Clement. "We're hoping he'll be able to demonstrate that this year."
Clement said the main target for Decorated Invader this season is NYRA's Turf Triple Series. After a successful program launch in 2019, the Turf Triple for males includes the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational going 1 ¼ miles, followed by the Saratoga Derby this summer and the Jockey Club Derby during the Belmont fall meet.
"That would be our biggest objective of the season, assuming all goes well," said Clement. "The Turf Triple series is our main focus."
Focus Group, a 6-year-old son of Kitten's Joy, will make his first start for new connections when he looks to defend his title in the Grade 2 Pan American (Race 12, 5:26 p.m.), at 1 ½-miles on the Gulfstream turf.
A five-time winner from 17 starts with $494,569 in purse earnings, Focus Group, previously conditioned by Chad Brown, was purchased from the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale and will make his seasonal debut for owners West Point Thoroughbreds, New Phoenix Stable, Louisa Stevenson and Tango Uniform Racing from Post 10 under Luis Saez.
"He's a new acquisition and has been training forwardly, but he also drew a tough post. On paper, there doesn't seem to be much pace in the race, which is not ideal," said Clement. "He's the defending champ and he's had a good break here at Payson Park. We'd be disappointed if he didn't put in a good effort. He has a new pilot in Luis Saez and they'll have to work out a trip from that outside post."
The Clement barn will have two chances in the $100,000 Sanibel Island (Race 7, 2:30 p.m.), a one-mile turf event for sophomore fillies with well-regarded She's My Type and maiden winner Seducer.
Ghislaine Head's French-bred She's My Type has made all three of her starts on the Gulfstream turf, including a visually-impressive debut win on December 7 at one mile. The dark bay daughter of Dunkerque, out of the Kendor mare Theoricienne, followed up with a neck score in the 7 ½-furlong Ginger Brew ahead of an even fourth last out in the Grade 3 Sweetest Chant on a turf course rated good.
She's My Type's second dam, the French-bred Theorie, produced the Clement-trained multiple graded-stakes winner Blacktype. Clement said She's My Type has the talent to return to winning form on Saturday.
"She's a very classy filly with an explosive turn of foot. She should, on paper, have a lot of pace to run at and she should be dangerous in there," said Clement. "We believe the reason she didn't run to her usual stellar performance the other day was the soft turf. It looks like we'll have a firmer course on Saturday and I think she'll rebound with a good effort."
Cheyenne Stables' Seducer, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Cairo Prince, wired an 11-horse field in her lone start in November when travelling 1 1/16-miles on the Aqueduct turf. Joel Rosario retains the mount on Seducer, who will make her stakes and seasonal debut off the layoff.
"The race might be a little early in the season for her," said Clement. "It's a bit ambitious, but she's training well enough to be competitive."
Patricia Generazio's homebred Pure Sensation is training at Payson Park towards another season of sprint stakes. The 9-year-old Zensational grey won four of six starts last year, including Grade 3 wins at Parx in the Parx Dash and Turf Monster, along with a neck score in the Pennsylvania Governor's Cup at Penn National.
Pure Sensation has made four starts in the Parx Dash - winning in 2016, 2017 and 2018 - and sports a perfect record in four Turf Monster starts winning in 2015 and 2017-19.
"He loves Philadelphia," said Clement. "We'll look to get him back in all the graded stakes at Parx and Penn National. Hopefully, he can have a similar campaign to last year. He's had a good break and enjoys his life here. He looks terrific."
Clement said the barn is keen to reach the mark of 2,000 wins in North America this weekend.
"It would be a terrific achievement for the entire team and the boss himself," said Clement. "Hopefully, we can get it done this weekend."
Hill has high hopes for returning Vekoma
R.A. Hill Stable and Gatsas Stables' Vekoma makes his seasonal debut in Saturday's $75,000 Sir Shackleton, a seven-furlong sprint for 4-year-olds and up at Gulfstream Park.
"He's put weight on and really filled out now," said co-owner Randy Hill. "He looks like a different horse."
Trained by George Weaver, the 4-year-old Candy Ride chestnut has not raced since being elevated to 12th in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby in May. Hill said they had hoped to bring Vekoma back in the postponed Grade 1, $400,000 Carter Handicap, which was initially slated for April 4 at Aqueduct Racetrack.
"George brought him along slowly in training and he was ready to race. This looks like a good spot for him," said Hill. "We thought we'd bring him back at seven furlongs off the long layoff and see where we go from there. He was training so well, we were toying with the idea of bringing him back in the Grade 1 Carter.
"We want to get him a Grade 1 win for sire rights," added Hill. "The Carter didn't work out, but this race is here and he's ready to run. You have to run the when they're ready."
The talented chestnut won on debut in September 2018 at Belmont ahead of an impressive score in the Grade 3 Nashua at Aqueduct in November 2018.
Vekoma's path to the Kentucky Derby included a third in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream in March 2019 ahead of a 3 ½-length score in the Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland.
Vekoma, who shows a number of bullet works at Palm Beach Downs, will depart from post 8.
"He's doing well. He's a very special horse. He's clearly the best horse I've ever owned," said Hill. "We had a wonderful run last year culminated by winning the Blue Grass. We're confident in him and I think this horse will win a Grade 1. We have a lot left to prove."
R. A. Hill Stable and Gatsas Stables' Our Country is training towards a 3-year-old campaign from Weaver's base at Palm Beach Downs. The Constitution bay graduated on the Saratoga turf in August ahead of a troubled fourth in the Grade 3 With Anticipation.
Bred in Kentucky by WinStar Farm, Our Country rallied from last-to-third in the Grade 3 Pilgrim in September at Belmont and completed a promising campaign with a ninth in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
"George has a race in mind for him in the next couple of weeks at either Gulfstream or Tampa Bay Downs," said Hill.
Hill spoke highly of the promising Up in Smoke, a 3-year-old grey daughter of The Big Beast he co-owns with Black Type Thoroughbreds.
Purchased for $230,000 at the 2019 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Two-Year-Olds In Training Sale, Up in Smoke is undefeated in two starts at Gulfstream Park. She romped by 4 ¾-lengths in her February 8 debut which garnered a lofty 76 Beyer Speed Figure, and followed up with a four-length score in a six-furlong optional-claiming sprint.
"Her last race was one of the most impressive races I've ever seen," said Hill, of the strong rallying effort on the often speed-friendly Gulfstream strip.
Notables on the Belmont Park work tab
More than 1,300 horses continue to train at Belmont Park with a number of notable horses on the work tab this week, including Montauk Traffic, Carrera Cat, and No Hayne No Gayne.
Chris Mountoukis' Montauk Traffic, trained by Linda Rice, captured the Jimmy Winkfield in February at the Big A ahead of a rallying fourth in the Grade 3 Gotham on March 7. The Cross Traffic grey, bred in Kentucky by Mike G. Rutherford, breezed six furlongs in 1:14.33 on Wednesday on the Belmont dirt training track.
Stone Bridge Farm and Very Un Stable's Carrera Cat was a game winner of the Union Avenue in August at Saratoga. Bred in New York by W.S. Farish, the 5-year-old Courageous Cat mare boasts a consistent record of 16-5-3-2 with purse earnings of $301,556.
On Wednesday, Carrera Cat worked an easy half-mile in 50.86 on the Belmont training track.
No Hayne No Gayne, a 6-year-old New York-bred daughter of Haynesfield, breezed five-eighths in 1:03.19 on Monday at Belmont.
Trained by Steve Asmussen, the veteran mare captured the Jack Betta Be Rite last year at Finger Lakes. With a record of 29-6-4-8 and purse earnings of $361,221, No Hayne No Gayne finished third last out in the Heavenly Prize Invitational.