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Departing highlights stakes-laden card at Sam Houston

Trainer Al Stall Jr. knew he had a talented colt in his barn with the undefeated Departing. Owned and bred by Claiborne Farm and Adele B. Dilschneider, the War Chant colt won both of his starts at Fair Grounds and ably won his stakes debut Saturday night at Sam Houston Race Park in the $50,000 Texas Heritage Stakes.

Rider Brian Hernandez Jr. kept his mount in a tracking position as Seeking Payday went to the lead. Departing made his rally three wide around the far turn and drew off in the stretch for a 2 3/4-length victory. The bay covered one mile in 1:37 4/5 over the fast track.

"I was happy to follow the six horse and give him a target," Hernandez said. "He did it in hand."

"We're in a good spot," Stall stated. "They send nice horses to us year in and year out. He's a good horse and has everything put together. We know he has talent and will just see how far he can go."

Stall indicated that Departing will likely be pointed to the Grade 2, $1 million Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on March 30.

Departing returned $3.20, $2.40 and $2.10 as the 3-5 favorite, keeping his record a perfect three-for-three and increased his lifetime earnings to $78,000. Holiday Mischief was a game second, followed by Worldventurer, who had won two previous stakes this season at Sam Houston Race Park. Completing the order under the wire were Whiskey Bravo, Real Appeal Deal, Furious Candy, Seeking Payday and Mula Run.

Unstoppable U lived up to his name in the Maxxam Gold Cup (Jack Coady/Coady Photography)

The featured event of the evening, the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup, has attracted nationally prominent horses since its first running in 1994, and Saturday night's field included multiple-stakes winners and two horses that had run in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. It was Unstoppable U who showed his class and maturity in capturing the 1 1/8-mile feature.

The four-year-old son of Exchange Rate won his first two career starts last year at Aqueduct before running sixth in the Belmont Stakes. Trained by Kenny McPeek for owners Magdalena Racing (Susan McPeek) and Mojallali Stables, he began his 2013 campaign at Oaklawn Park and shipped into Sam Houston fresh off an allowance score on February 9.

"He's acted like a good horse from the beginning," McPeek said. "He had some breathing issues as a three-year-old. That's why he didn't run well in the (Grade 2) Dwyer (last June). He's maturing and this was a good test for him. We'll look for a Grade 3 for his next start."

With confident handling by jockey Chris Landeros, the Kentucky-bred sat off early pacesetter Hurricane Ike, who posted fractions of :23 4/5 for the first quarter-mile and :48 2/5 for the half-mile. At the top of the stretch, Unstoppable U and Landeros took command and drew off in a final time of 1:50 4/5 over the fast main track. The gray colt returned $15.80, $9 and $4.40 as the fifth betting choice in the eight-horse field.

"I would like to say thank you to Mr. McPeek and the owner," Landeros said. "They had him ready to go; I just had to hang on. I didn't have to push him, but wanted to get on Hurricane Ike's hip. I knew he was the horse to beat."

McPeek was at Sam Houston in 2002 to saddle the incomparable Take Charge Lady in the $275,000 NTRA Great State Challenge Distaff.

"I've had a bit of luck over the years," McPeek said. "I need to come back more often, I suppose."

Trainer Michael Stidham finished second and third in the Maxxam with Dreaming Blue ridden by Paul Nolan and Hurricane Ike, who was sent off as the 2-1 post-time favorite. Twinspired ran fourth, followed by Sabercat, Ocean Seven, Cajun Don and Unlatch.

"Everything went well for him," said Hurricane Ike's rider, James Graham. "Then they came and got him."

Artemus Kitten ran second in the 2012 Jersey Lilly Stakes but got the job done during Saturday's running of the race earlier on the card. With a skilled ride from jockey Rosie Napravnik, the five-year-old daughter of Kitten's Joy rallied for a 1 1/2-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile turf stakes, covering the firm course in a final time of 1.44.

Bred and owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey and trained by Mike Maker, the talented mare won her fifth career race, returning to the winner's circle for the first time since taking the July 14 Ellis Park Turf Stakes.

"I love coming here to ride on the turf; this is a great course," Napravnik said. "This filly had a great stalking trip on the outside; she was much the best."

"It was nice to see her get a good trip today," said Joe Sharpe, assistant to Maker. "She was very unlucky last year."

Sandwiched between the Texas Heritage Stakes and Jersey Lilly Stakes, five runners lined up in the $50,000 Sam Houston Sprint Cup, which was taken by Flashpoint. The gray took on some of the nation's top three-year-olds in 2011, capturing the Grade 2 Hutcheson and finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Florida Derby prior to a last-of-14 run in the Preakness Stakes for trainer Steve Asmussen.

Rider Glen Murphy had the call on the five-year-old son of Pomeroy for Peachtree Stable in Saturday evening's Sam Houston Sprint Cup. This was the fifth win from 11 starts for the Florida-bred, who covered six furlongs in 1:10 1/5 on the main track.

"He's a big horse and left the gates well," Murphy said. "He's a tough horse to work in the morning, but put it together tonight."

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