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Nikki's Sandcastle surges late in El Prado

Nikki's Sandcastle almost scratched after drawing the far outside post (Courtney Heeney/Adam Coglianese Photography)
The razor-sharp Nikki's Sandcastle added another laurel to his resume with a late-running victory in Saturday's $75,000 El Prado Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Last seen landing the December 1 Claiming Crown Emerald over the same turf course, the David Kassen trainee circled the field on the turn, rolled past 2-1 favorite Salto, and bested Kharafa by three-quarters of a length. Nikki's Sandcastle, the 5-1 second choice, returned $12, $5.80 and $3.80.

After breaking from the far outside in the 13-horse field, jockey Corey Lanerie called an audible and anchored Nikki's Sandcastle in 11th, much farther back than usual. A contested pace unfolded up front, with Xin Xu Lin reeling off fractions of :22 4/5 and :46 1/5 under pressure from Tune Me In. The stalking Salto ranged up on the far turn, when Tune Me In took over through six furlongs in 1:10 1/5. Meanwhile, Nikki's Sandcastle was making eye-catching headway.

Swinging into the stretch, Salto pounced, but was soon confronted by Nikki's Sandcastle wider out, and by Kharafa along the inside. Nikki's Sandcastle produced the best kick of all, forging clear to complete the firm-turf mile in 1:34 2/5.

"He broke really well," Lanerie recapped, "and my instructions were to move him away from there and send him a little bit and save some ground. About halfway through the first turn, I looked over my shoulder and saw about five or six of them and realized the plan wasn't going to work, so I started to ease her back.

"We got bumped a little, but was able to save ground. The fractions felt fast but I didn't panic. He showed me a lot of confidence and finished very well. I was a little concerned about breaking from post position (13), but I felt in my heart that this horse could come from off the pace. We tried to do what Mr. Kassen wanted and it worked out in the end. Now we know he can do it."

Kassen was relieved that Nikki's Sandcastle overcame his poor draw.

"I really was (concerned about the post position)," Kassen said. "We were really serious about scratching because of that. We had another race down the road in Texas we're kind of planning for (the Grade 3 John B. Connally Turf Cup on January 26), so I said, 'This will be just a good prep for it even if we don't win.' Rather than having to do a lot of training I'd just as soon run him. So it worked out good.

"He's a nice horse, runs good over this thing (the Gulfstream turf). The jock rode him good. He looped the field but that's all it took. Stay out of trouble."

The 17-1 Kharafa had 1 1/2 lengths to spare over the weakening Salto, who just held third by a neck from Empire Builder. Hoofit checked in fifth, followed by Bad Debt; Beau Choix; Zimmer; millionaires Get Serious and Teaks North, who failed to perform up to their back class; Xin Xu Lin; Tune Me In; and Hobbs. Hollinger, Tell Tale Friend and the main-track-only Associate were scratched.

A homebred campaigned by Richard Sherman, Nikki's Sandcastle improved his record to 30-8-9-3, $384,067. The reformed claimer has enjoyed a banner five-year-old season. The gelded son of Castledale captured the June 9 Sea O Erin at Arlington Park in his stakes debut, just missed in both the Edward J. De Bartolo and Robert F. Carey Memorial Handicaps, and finished second in the Grade 2 Fayette over Keeneland's Polytrack before taking the Claiming Crown Emerald.

The John B. Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston will likely remain on the agenda.

"We're thinking about that," Kassen said. "We could stay here. There's a $200,000 out there 1 1/8 miles on the turf. It will probably be a lot softer than the horses we'd have to run against here. We'll play it by ear. I'd prefer to stay here rather than ship 2,000 miles. But $200,000 is $200,000."

The Kentucky-bred is the first registered foal from the winning Sandpit mare Sandtina. Although his branch of the family has been undistinguished for several generations, he traces to the influential Sister Sarah.

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