Even if it wasn’t in the original plans, the connections for claimer-turned-Grade 1-winning multi-millionaire Zulu Alpha couldn’t have found a better landing spot for Kentucky Downs’ $1 million Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup winner than Saturday’s $200,000 Kitten’s Joy Pan American at Gulfstream Park.
The 59th running of the 1 ½-mile Pan American for 4-year-olds and up on turf is part of a blockbuster 14-race program that includes 10 stakes, six graded, worth $1.825 million anchored by the $750,000 Curlin Florida Derby (G1), one of the country’s premier Triple Crown preps. First-race post time is 11:30 a.m.
Fans can live stream the action at www.gulfstreampark.com.
Trainer Mike Maker had wanted to give Zulu Alpha some time following the 7-year-old gelding’s repeat victory in the Mac Diarmida (G2) Feb. 29. It was the second triumph of the Championship Meet for Zulu Alpha, who opened 2020 with a career-highlight victory in the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (G1) Jan. 25. Zulu Alpha — claimed by owner Michael Hui for $80,000 in September, 2018, with Kentucky Downs’ 2019 meet in mind — finished last season with a very good fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf after a troubled trip at Santa Anita.
“He continues to do excellent. I called an audible since the Derby Day stakes had been canceled, so we elected for the Pan American,” Maker said, referring to the Grade 1 Old Forester Turf Classic the race before the now-posted Kentucky Derby. “He’s had a great winter.”
Zulu Alpha trailed all but two horses before using a patient rail-skimming trip to find room in the stretch and go on to a two-length victory in the 1 3/16-mile Pegasus. He got the exact opposite trip in the 1 3/8-mile Mac Diarmida, making a sweeping five-wide move before getting up to win by a length.
Both races came under jockey and Kentucky Downs regular Tyler Gaffalione, who returns to ride from Post 9 of 10 at co-top weight of 124 pounds.
“It’s just the way the races shaped up. The bottom line is, the horse likes to win,” Maker said. “The last time he didn’t get away good and had a wide trip, but he was able to get the job done. We’re looking for another big performance this Saturday.”
Zulu Alpha owns 11 wins and $2.02 million in purse earnings from 32 lifetime starts, hitting the board 20 times. He has run 12 times for Maker – all in graded-stakes. Five of them have been wins, including the 2019 W.L. McKnight (G3), and he owns four straight wins over the Gulfstream turf from five career starts.
“I feel blessed. How often does an individual like me get this kind of horse with this kind of success and compete at this level?” Hui said. “You just don’t see it.”
Added Maker: “Winning the Pegasus was exciting and the fact that Michael Hui got to experience it – he’s just been such a great client and a great guy that it was very well-deserved.”
Maker will also send out Paradise Farm Corp.’s Bemma’s Boy, a 5-year-old Into Mischief gelding he claimed for $30,000 last May. Bemma’s Boy was fourth, beaten less than a length, in the 1 1/8-mile River City Handicap (G3) to end his 2019 campaign, and kicked off this year running second by the same three-quarter-length margin in the 1 ½-mile John B. Connally (G3) Jan. 26 at Sam Houston.
“He’s another one that is on top of his game. He had some bad luck at Sam Houston last time, otherwise I felt he was the best horse in the race,” said Maker, Kentucky Downs’ all-time win leader who is battling Todd Pletcher for the Gulfstream Park championship-meet training crown. “He’s been his own worst enemy at the gate.”
Florent Geroux has the call on Bemma’s Boy from Post 2.
A third Maker trainee, Paradise Farms Corp. and Mad Dog Racing Stable’s Go Poke the Bear, will make his stakes debut in the Pan American. He was a head winner of a 1 1/8-mile optional claiming allowance Jan. 1 at Gulfstream, his most recent start and first off a $50,000 claim last fall.
Calumet Farm’s Channel Cat, Kentucky Downs’ 2018 Exacta Systems Dueling Ground Derby winner, enters the Pan American with a lifetime bankroll just shy of the $1 million mark at $938,992 from 21 starts including his lone graded-stakes triumph in the 2019 Bowling Green (G2) last summer at Saratoga.
A 5-year-old son of turf champion English Channel, who shared the same trainer in Pletcher, Channel Cat ran into trouble early in the Pegasus Turf and was never in contention finishing 10th. It was one of only two off-the-board efforts in seven tries at Gulfstream, where he owns two wins, one second and two thirds.
“He’s a cool horse. I think getting back to a mile and a half is sort of his specialty. He seems to be in good form, so we’re looking forward to getting him going again,” Pletcher said. “He’s run well over the Gulfstream course before, but I think most importantly getting back to a mile and a half is in his favor.”
Channel Cat will carry 122 pounds including jockey Joel Rosario from Post 1.
Pletcher also entered Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Robert LaPenta and Dixiana Farms’ Grade 3 winner Current. Fifth in last year’s Florida Derby, the 4-year-old Curlin colt returned from a six-month layoff to be third in a March 6 optional claiming allowance at Tampa Bay Downs.
West Point Thoroughbreds, New Phoenix Stable, Louisa Stevenson and Tango Uniform Racing’s Focus Group was a popular nose winner of last year’s Pan American, which marked his third win and second stakes in four starts. He went winless in five subsequent tries to end the year, and will be racing for the first time in five months and first for trainer Christophe Clement.
Terry Hamilton’s Spooky Channel, neck winner of the 1 ½-mile McKnight Jan. 25; six-time stakes winner Galleon Mast; Grade 2-placed Prince of Arabia and Manicomio are also entered.
(Coglianese Photography photos of Zulu Alpha winning Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup under Tyler Gaffalione)