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Mucho Macho Man, Ron the Greek headline Florida Sunshine Millions

Ron the Greek's gutted out the win in his most recent victory, the Stephen Foster, last June (Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography)

Ron the Greek began and ended his 2012 racing season finishing behind Mucho Macho Man, who defeated him by 1 1/2 lengths while winning the Florida Sunshine Millions Classic and was more than seven lengths ahead when second in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

On Saturday, the duo will face off once again in Gulfstream Park's $400,000 Florida Sunshine Millions Classic, the top draw on the track's $1.3 million Florida Sunshine Millions program of six stakes restricted to registered Florida-breds. The Classic will be joined on the card by the $300,000 Distaff, $150,000 Turf, $150,000 Filly & Mare Turf, $150,000 Sprint and $150,000 Filly & Mare Sprint.

Besides Ron the Greek and Mucho Macho Man, five other runners will line up in the 1 1/8-mile Classic.

"We're taking on a top horse in Mucho Macho Man," trainer Bill Mott said after entering Ron the Greek. "He's been working very well and it seems like he's very sharp, so he'll just have to see what happens."

Ron the Greek's fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic, in which Fort Larned edged Mucho Macho Man by a half-length, was a better performance than it might appear. After getting off to an awkward start, the six-year-old son of Full Mandate closed well on the outside over the speed-favoring track.

"He's doing well enough. He came out of the Breeders' Cup and had a short, brief vacation. Obviously, nothing too long or we wouldn't be running here. He's come back and we got a few works in him," Mott said.

Ron the Greek captured the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap between his meetings with Mucho Macho Man, and may have earned a long rest, but Mott wasn't about to give him one.

"He's an older horse and I don't think an extended vacation at this point in time would necessarily be the right thing for a horse like him. Sometimes it's hard to bring them back in peak form if you're off too long, and there was no reason to lay off for an extended period of time," Mott explained. "He came back fine. We got him back to Florida, and he had nearly three weeks without training. He was just turned out in the paddock, and we brought him right back into full training."

Mucho Macho Man easily conquered the Florida Sunshine Millions Classic in 2012 (Adam Coglianese Photography)

Mucho Macho Man also received a brief freshening following his Breeders' Cup run, just recording his first official work since late October on December 22 at Gulfstream. The five-year-old son of Macho Uno most recently posted a five-furlong move in :59 3/5 for trainee Kathy Ritvo, who will be adding blinkers to her charge's repertoire for the Classic.

"He came out of the Breeders' Cup really, really well," Ritvo said. "He's older and stronger now than last year. He will be wearing blinkers to keep him a little more focused. He'll be on his schedule with a race about every two months. He's been training great and loves this race track. As always we'll let Mike (Smith) ride his race and say 'good luck.'"

In addition to last year's Florida Sunshine Millions Classic, Mucho Macho Man also captured the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap and Grade 2 Suburban Handicap while placing in the Grade 1 Woodward and Grade 2 Alysheba.

Jose Lezcano has the call aboard Ron the Greek, while Mike Smith retains riding duties on Mucho Macho Man.

A somewhat surprising entrant in the Classic is four-year-old Fort Loudon, who has spent the majority of his career sprinting and was expected to show up in the six-furlong Sprint. Instead, trainer Nick Zito opted to give his Grade 3 winner a shot in the feature.

"I've always wanted to stretch him out," Zito admitted. "I talked to (owner) Mr. (Fred) Brei about stretching him out again, and we'll give it a whirl.

"It's interesting that those two horses are Florida-breds," he added about Mucho Macho Man and Ron the Greek. "You usually don't see those kind of horses in a race like this. One just gets beat in the Breeders' Cup Classic and Ron the Greek won the Santa Anita Handicap. When do you see that? It's a credit to the Florida-bred program."

Fort Loudon defeated BC Sprint champion Trinniberg in last year's Carry Back (Calder/Coady Photography)

Stretching out from sprint distances, Fort Loudon is expected to be forwardly placed in the Classic.

"He should be on the lead or close to it. He definitely should be right on the pace," Zito said. "Ron the Greek is tough; the other horse is tough, Mucho Macho Man, but Loudon fits right in there after that. So if they have a bad day, and we have a good day, who knows?"

Zito, who saddled Jackson Bend, a Brei homebred for two Grade 1 victories the last two years, is impressed with Brei's knack for breeding tough and talented Florida-breds.

"Loudon's a typical Fred Brei horse that's durable. Fred, for some reason, breeds a durable horse. He's a throwback horse," Zito said. "I enjoy the friendship I have with Fred. We have a very good relationship. He likes our work; we like his work."

While Mucho Macho Man and Ron the Greek will be carrying the torch forward from last year's Classic, My Pal Chrisy will be the only familiar face from the 2012 Distaff. The bay mare ran fourth in last year's edition behind champion Awesome Feather.

My Pal Chrisy will take on six rivals in Saturday's Distaff off a third in the restricted Ocala and a 7 1/4-length repeat win in the Elmer Heubeck Distaff Handicap in her past two. The Alex's Pal five-year-old keeps regular rider Luca Panici in the irons.

Successful Song will seek more success in the Distaff on Saturday (Ryan Denver/Equi-Photo)

Successful Song spent last summer at Monmouth Park -- taking the Lighthouse and placing in the Grade 2 Molly Pitcher, Monmouth Beach and Lady's Secret -- before finally getting the best of My Pal Chrisy in the Ocala after running behind that rival in their prior three meetings. The Ocala could have been her last race, as plans call for the Successful Appeal six-year-old to be bred this spring, but trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. decided to give her one more start.

"As well as she ran to win the Ocala we just thought there was no reason not to run her this one more time in Saturday's race," Plesa explained. "That (Ocala) was actually the first two-turn race she's ever won. Her biggest successes have come in two-turn races."

A graded-caliber field of eight will take to Gulfstream's grass for the Turf one race prior to Saturday's Classic. Slews Answer was a game second behind Eclipse Award finalist Little Mike in last year's running of the race for trainer Graham Motion and will likely still be the one of the favorites despite returning from seven-month layoff in Saturday's 1 1/8-mile test.

The six-year-old gelded son of Ghostzapper didn't make his career debut until he was a four-year-old in early 2011, winning first out on turf and finishing second in an allowance before scoring in the Turf Classic at Tampa Bay Downs in his third start. Following the Sunshine Millions last year he made only two more starts, finishing third defending his Turf Classic victory at Tampa Bay and a sixth-place finish last out in the Da Hoss Stakes at Colonial Downs on June 16.

Fellow six-year-old gelding Bad Debt ran a good third in the Turf a year ago and gets another try with jockey Kevin Caramouche flying in to ride for trainer Michael Trombetta.

"He had a little trouble at the start in the race last year, but nobody was going to beat Little Mike that day," Trombetta said. "He's been a very reliable horse and fun to have over the past few years."

A son of Grand Reward, Bad Debt finished sixth last out in a bulky field of 13 in the one-mile El Prado Stakes on December 22. That broke a streak of 20 consecutive races in which Bad Debt ran one-two-three going back to 2010.

Doubles Partner returns to the site of his Canadian Turf victory (Courtney Stafford/Adam Coglianese Photography)

The solid favorite in the Turf will likely be six-year-old Doubles Partner with jockey Javier Castellano to ride for trainer Todd Pletcher as he makes his first start since a good third-place effort in the Grade 2 Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park on November 23.

The son of Rock Hard Ten won the Grade 3 Canadian Turf Stakes over the Gulfstream course last spring and followed up with a third in the Grade 1 Maker's 46 Mile at Keeneland as well as a pair of fourths in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill and Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile back at Keeneland.

The Filly & Mare Turf a few races earlier on Saturday's card will feature yet another rematch, this time between Hooh Why, Romacaca and Speak Easy Gal, the respective top three from last year's running.

Hooh Why and Romacaca met again last out in the South Beach Stakes on December 9, with Romacaca the winner while Hooh Why finished third.

"We might have run her back too close in her last couple of starts," co-owner and sometime trainer Mark Hoffman said of Hooh Why. Hoffman has hauled the widely-traveled daughter of Cloud Hopping to stakes engagements throughout the East, Midwest and to Woodbine in Canada over several seasons. "This time she'll have 40 days since her last race and we're coming with a full tank."

The Grade 1-winning mare is scheduled to be bred this spring, but may have a few races left in her.

Hooh Why has yet to finish worse than third in three starts at Gulfstream (Adam Coglianese Photography)

"That's the plan this spring," Hoffman said. "After this race we'll breed her and bring her back to run a couple of more times in foal. I wouldn't consider doing it if she wasn't so sound."

Regardless off where she finishes, Hooh Why has already accumulated more than $1.1 million in earnings during her time on track. That's something dual Grade 3 victress Romacaca will be shooting for on Saturday, but the Running Stag mare needs a win in the race to reach that mark.

"She's never been better and hasn't lost a step," trainer Danny Miller said. "She may even be better with age as she relaxes more in her races than she did when she was younger. We've been pointing for this race since we got down here.

"She's at an age where you would consider breeding her with what she has accomplished, but we haven't talked about that as yet. (Owner) Frank (Calabrese) loves to race. She's very sound and there is no reason she can't continue to perform at the top level. Naturally, I'd like to keep her in training."

The Sprint will showcase the largest stakes field on Saturday's Sunshine Millions program, with 12 runners entered to go six furlongs. Bahamian Squall was very impressive winning the Sunshine State by 3 1/2 lengths over Fort Loudon on December 2 for trainer David Fawkes and will likely be the favorite.

Emma's Encore will make her four-year-old bow in the Filly & Mare Sprint (NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography)

"I think Bahamian Squall might end up the favorite in the Sprint. He couldn't be doing any better," Fawkes asserted. "We talked about maybe bringing him back in the (Grade 3) Mr. Prospector (on December 29) after he won the Sunshine State so impressively, but decided to give him the extra time after running such a big race."

The Filly & Mare Sprint will get the stakes action underway Saturday when Grade 1 diva Emma's Encore makes her highly-anticipated seasonal debut as the likely favorite in the six-furlong dash with jockey Junior Alvarado aboard for Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens.

"She worked good on Sunday morning and has trained pretty much on schedule since we got here (in November)," Jerkens said. "We couldn't make the first one (Grade 3 Sugar Swirl Stakes on December 8), but I think she's ready now. We'll see where we go from there."

The four-year-old daughter of Congrats worked a sharp five furlongs in :59 4/5 at Gulfstream Sunday and is poised to make her first start since finishing eighth behind projected Eclipse Award winner Groupie Doll in the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes at Keeneland on October 6.

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