Coming up this weekend is the 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes, er, excuse me, the 56th running of the G1 Donn Handicap. Sorry about that, but with both Shackleford and Ruler On Ice making their 2012 debuts in the same race, it is easy to get confused. Add Animal Kingdom and a sloppy track, and you really would think to yourself, “Man, this seems familiar. Haven’t we already been here?” Okay, so it is not likely that Animal Kingdom will make an appearance this weekend, but rain is in the forecast for the Gulfstream Park area. I would say that is enough to inspire déjà vu in avid horse racing fans.
Without a doubt, the Donn Handicap has been one of the most anticipated races thus far this year. With the return of all three Triple Crown race winners, two in this race alone, it easy to see why many are looking forward to this weekend. In one corner, you have Shackleford, the “Iron Horse” of the stakes runners, who scored a gritty win in last year’s Preakness Stakes against a fast closing Animal Kingdom. Add four second place finishes, three in Grade 1 events, and you have a formidable opponent looking for some retribution after last season. In the other corner is the sloppy track loving colt, who, like Shackleford, has not been able to find the winner’s circle since his own Triple Crown triumph. So the big question for these two is whether or not they are one hit wonders. In order to prove that they their Triple Crown victories were not flukes, they need to make it back to the winner's circle. And that ladies and gentlemen is only the beginning.
Another seeking retribution of his own in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, er, excuse me, the Donn, is Flat Out. Last season he was at the top of the handicap division, and, if not for Havre de Grace, would likely have had two Grade 1 wins for the year. Trainer Scooter Dickey called an audible last month by sending out his charge in the G3 Fort Lauderdale at Gulfstream. The race was Flat Out’s first on turf, and he did not take to the surface change very well, finishing dead last in a field of twelve. With the return to dirt, the bay son of Flatter also looks to return to the winner’s circle and prove that he is still at the top of his game.
Also with some questions to answer are Trickmeister and Mission Impazible. Trickmeister, when healthy, has been unbeatable. He has not lost in five starts, but he also does not have any major wins. His last three wins have been in non-graded stakes races, and he beat the consistently inconsistent Duke of Mischief last out. Despite his unblemished record, he still has to prove that he is the real deal, but he will have his work cut out for him in this loaded field of talent. Speaking of consistently inconsistent brings me to Mission Impazible. Like Duke of Mischief, he is loaded with talent but does not always show it. Just when you count him out, he turns in a stellar performance that either gets him to the winner’s circle or close to it. He was last seen finishing second in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap, a race in which he beat fellow entrants Ruler On Ice and Flat Out to the wire. So which Mission Impazible will show up on Saturday, the Grade 2 winner or the underachiever?
These five are joined by Where’s Sterling, Redeemed, Soaring Empire, Al Khali, Hymn Book, and Sangaree. Where’s Sterling, a Grade 3 winner, enters the starting gate off a pair of second place efforts and is no stranger to stiff competition, having faced Headache, Mister Marti Gras, Giant Oak, and Rule in the Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap. Redeemed, also a Grade 3 winner and the third of the trio of four year-olds in the field, is lightly raced but has not finished off the board in eight starts. Soaring Empire looks to add a Grade 1 win to a résumé that includes a Grade 3 win and a couple of second place finishes in Grade 2 events. Hymn Book is also seeking his first Grade 1 win after coming up short in the Cigar Mile Handicap last out. Al Khali and Sangaree are both cross-entered in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, but Sangaree is a MTO entrant in the TurfCap, while Al Khali, a turf runner, is more likely to start in the Turf Cap than the Donn.
This is the toughest field assembled thus far in 2012. Despite the depth of talent, there are still many questions that need to be answered. By the end of the race, we should know if Trickmeister is the real deal; or if Ruler On Ice or Shackleford can make a return to the winner’s circle after only one major win apiece; or if Flat Out can rebound from his complete flop in the Fort Lauderdale. So far this week, the weather has been rainy and the track sloppy at Gulfstream. Should the weather continue in the same fashion throughout the weekend, you can expect Ruler On Ice to be the triumphant winner. Otherwise, if the weather is sunny and the track fast, the race is wide open. With so much talent, any one of these entrants could return to their respective barn with a(nother) Grade 1 win.