Lauren King, Gulfstream Park
Rare is the occasion when Florida-based trainer Marty Wolfson sends a stakes horse to New York. And rarer still is the occasion when he comes away empty-handed. The last time a Wolfson-trained horse exited a race on the New York Racing Association circuit without a check of some kind was in 1999, when Silica Key Service finished last in the Grade 2 Diana at Saratoga Race Course. More to the point, his record at Aqueduct Racetrack over the past 25 years is 4-4-3 from 14 starters for earnings of $709,729.
The man can pick his spots.
Saturday, Wolfson will be looking to increase his slugging percentage at the Big A when he sends out Cali Star to face six other fillies and mares in the $150,000 Heavenly Prize Invitational, which shares the card with the Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham.
Unlike the Wolfson-trained Swagger Jack, who was 15-1 when he upset the Grade 1 Carter in 2013, Cali Star is the 3-2 program choice in the 1 1/16-mile Heavenly Prize, entering the race off a solid second-place finish in the Grade 3 Houston Ladies Classic in January. The now 5-year-old mare closed out 2015 with three-length win in the Grade 3 Rampart in her second start for Wolfson, having won an optional claimer at Gulfstream Park West in her first foray from his barn.
"She had been a slow work horse in the mornings in Kentucky, and the first time I breezed her I expected the same," said Wolfson, who will journeying from Florida to New York himself for the first time since the 2013 Carter. "She went in :46 2/5 and I said, 'This is not the same horse.' I called the owner [Ben Walden, Jr.] and said, 'Are you sure this is Cali Star?'
"But she's been fine," he added. "She's not a high-maintenance horse and seems to take her track with her wherever she goes."
Cali Star will have her third rider in as many starts on Saturday, with Irad Ortiz, Jr. taking over from Julien Leparoux, who was aboard in Houston, and Tyler Gaffalione, who rode her in Florida. The pair will leave from post position 6 under co-high weight of 123 pounds, which she shares with multiple graded stakes winners Include Betty, the second choice on the morning line at 3-1, and House Rules, 4-1 on the morning line.
Include Betty, who won the Grade 1 Mother Goose at Belmont Park last June, will be making her 4-year-old debut in the Heavenly Prize. The Tom Proctor trainee was 5-2-1 from 11 starts in her sophomore season, including victories in the Grade 3 Fantasy at Oaklawn Park, the Remington Park Oaks, and the Suncoast at Tampa Day Downs.
Aaron Gryder rides from post position 4.
House Rules, trained by Jimmy Jerkens for Joseph Shields, Jr., will be making her first start outside a graded stakes in more than a year, that being last January's Bal Harbour at Gulfstream Park, which she won by a resounding 9 ¼ lengths. Fifth in the Grade 1 Beldame on September 26 at Belmont Park last time out, she has been training steadily towards her return, most recently turning in a bullet five-furlong move in 1:00.65 on February 25 at Palm Meadows.
Junior Alvarado will be aboard when she leaves from post position 3.
Venturing back into open company is Saythreehailmary's, who won the Ladies Handicap to launch her 2016 campaign and then finished second in the Biogio's Rose facing New York-breds. The 5-year-old Repent mare, who carries the colors of the Very Un Stable, is a 15-1 outsider.
"This will be the toughest field she's faced so far, so there are question marks," said trainer John Morrison, who will give a leg up to Manny Franco, with the pair departing from post position 4. "But I am pleased with the way she has been training towards it. She's just an honest horse."
Rounding out the field are Pangburn, winner of the Maryland Racing Media Stakes at Laurel Park in her 2016 debut for trainer Tony Dutrow; the Todd Pletcher-trained Mei Ling, third behind Pangburn in that race, and Storied Lady, winner of the Biogio's Rose.
Source: NYRA Communications