Nine years after its last run at Hollywood Park, the Grade 1, $400,000 Hollywood Gold Cup returns once again on Memorial Day. The race remains strong at Santa Anita Park, with good horses such as Country Grammer, Improbable, Vino Rosso and Accelerate winning the last four editions.
When handicapping this Gold Cup, a good question to answer is whether Stilleto Boy runs the same as a stalker as he does when setting the pace, and which style will the 4-year-old gelding employ on Monday.
In his most recent start, Stilleto Boy turned in the best race of his career when he won the local Californian Stakes (G2) by 2 1/4 lengths with a lofty 134 TimeformUS Speed Figure. Only top horses earn that kind of figure. For DRF users, Stilleto Boy earned a 128 Beyer Speed Figure.
The most impressive part of Stilleto Boy’s run in the Californian is that he opened up easily on every horse except Express Train with no effort under Juan Hernandez when approaching the far turn. Express Train continued to stay close to Stilleto Boy on the far turn, but Victor Espinoza noticeably needed to keep working on his mount to keep up.
The fractions were not slow. Stilleto Boy hit the opening quarter in 22.90 seconds and half-mile 46.30, which translated into 128 and 135 TimeformUS Pace Figures. Pace figures around 140 on that scale are considered fast.
Opening in 128 and 135 TimeformUS Pace Figures to start off is a demanding task, even if those are not the fastest pace figures possible.
After running six furlongs in 1:09.70, Stilleto Boy kept finding more. At the top of the stretch, Hernandez finally began to work on Stilleto Boy, while Express Train already had been under a drive for a while leading up that point. Stilleto Boy held Express Train at bay until the wire.
Watching the race replay makes Stilleto Boy’s win appear more impressive than the margin indicates. Express Train went all-out in his runner-up finish. In his two starts prior to the Californian, Express Train won the San Pasqual Stakes (G2) and San Antonio Stakes (G2). He had been a hot horse leading up to his loss to Stilleto Boy.
Did the pacesetting tactics lead to Stilleto Boy’s career-best effort?
Consider that Stilleto Boy also won the Iowa Derby and broke his maiden after setting the pace. All three of his wins came with pacesetting tactics.
Yet trainer Ed Moger Jr. is not certain to send Stilleto Boy to the lead. In fact, recent comments by Moger found in Santa Anita Stable Notes indicate that he thinks Stilleto Boy runs better as a stalker than as a leader.
According to Moger, “He got a pretty easy lead and that’s how it was, but I think his best races have been when he’s halfway close to the pace (although he did win twice wire-to-wire before the Californian).”
In fairness, Stilleto Boy performs well at the highest level as a stalker or mid-pack type.
When Stilleto Boy made this Grade 1 debut in the Awesome Again Stakes (G1) last September, he found a way to finish second at 54-1 behind the dominant Medina Spirit after stalking the pace. After a fifth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Stilleto Boy then ran third in the Malibu Stakes (G1), although he ended up 12 1/2 lengths behind the romping Flightline.
To start off this campaign, Stilleto Boy ran an excellent third in the Pegasus World Cup (G1). This time, he lost by only 4 1/4 lengths behind Life Is Good. Stilleto Boy came back west after the Pegasus to finish a dull third and nine lengths behind Express Train in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1). He then rebounded from the lackluster effort by winning the Californian Stakes (G2) over the same foe, as described above.
Except for the Big Cap effort, Stilleto Boy kept firing big races at the highest level as a stalker or mid-pack type. He just could not finish off the races by winning. Winning races came for him only when in front.
With the trainer’s recent comments, it is unclear whether Stilleto Boy will set the pace, settle into a stalker role or come from mid-pack. Reverting to a more conservative style might result in the version of Stilleto Boy who consistently loses races while hitting the board every time.
Is Stilleto Boy really better as a stalker, as his trainer suggests? Which running style will Stilleto Boy employ on Monday? Moger did not make it clear. Those some thoughts to ponder when handicapping the Hollywood Gold Cup.