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Excaper in search of first stakes win in Woodbine Mile

A stakes win has so far eluded the competitive Excaper (Lauren Pomeroy/Horsephotos.com)

Excaper, who finished second in both the Summer Stakes and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf as a two-year-old, will look to make the grade in Sunday's Grade 1, $1 million Woodbine Mile.

Despite having banked just shy of $500,000 though 13 career starts, the multiple stakes-placed colt is still seeking his first added-money score. The now four-year-old son of Exchange Rate enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign finishing fifth, defeated less than two lengths in the Saranac at Saratoga, as well as a strong second in the Kent at Delaware Park.

Trainer Ian Black is still incredulous that the talented gray has yet to win a stake, while recalling Excaper's gutsy second-place run in the Breeders' Cup.

"If someone had told me that day, that 20 months later this horse would still have not won a stake, I'd have been very surprised," Black said. "He's been stakes-placed so many times. Last year we raced in the Kent and we ran into Optimizer that day who broke the track record. Unbridled Command won the Saranac and he's a good horse. As well, the horse who ran second to Wise Dan in the Fourstardave, King Kreesa, was a head in front of us in the Saranac.

"He's (Excaper) running in good company and I always feel he's just a couple lengths off of really doing it. I'm not sure if we've just been unlucky, but he's as good now as he's ever been."

On Monday, Excaper breezed four furlongs in :50 2/5 over the Woodbine turf with jockey Luis Contreras up.

"I was really impressed with the work," Black said. "The dogs were way out so he didn't go that fast, but he did exactly what I wanted him to do, which just pick it up from the five-eighths pole and go a half-mile and let him gallop on out. He was really strong finishing up. I thought it was a good work."

Last time out, Excaper finished second to Woodbine Mile rival Dimension in the Play the King Stakes -- a race where Black expected his colt would dictate the pace. Instead, Dimension, normally a stalking type, took the lead and set a blistering pace en route to a 2 1/4-length score.

"I was really surprised (to find Dimension on the lead)," Black said. "It looked like the speed was outside us and we'd be on the lead getting pressured and it turned out the two horses to our inside (Dimension and Danger Bay) broke running. We were sitting off of them turning for home and we did lose a little ground. I thought he'd win that day, but the winner ran a huge race."

Black knows that his hard-trying colt has found yet another monster to battle in the shape of Horse of the Year Wise Dan. Drawing up a game plan to face the champion chestnut is no easy task.

"Wise Dan is never far out of it, he doesn't need the lead and will probably be in a stalking position," Black said. "He's shown such versatility. I know they get a lot of pressure to run him on the dirt again, but he's made over $4 million doing what he's doing and he's already won on three surfaces in good company. You look at a horse with form like his and it's hard to know how you go about beating him."

Still, Black, who bucked the odds to defeat Ventura and Kip Deville in the 2008 edition of the Woodbine Mile with Rahy's Attorney, believes his horse will put up a good fight.

"Winning the Mile with (Rahy's Attorney), beating two very good horses doing it, is a big part of what I've done here as a trainer," Black noted. "Winning the Plate is what everyone wants to do and we were lucky enough to do it (in 2007 with Mike Fox), but winning an open Grade 1 was a very big deal."

Za Approval was a sharp winner of the Appleton in March (Adam Coglianese Photography)

Could a mile on the turf be Excaper's best lick?

"I hope it is," Black said. "I would say the mile really suits him."

In other Woodbine Mile news:

Za Approval, owned and bred by Charlotte Weber's Live Oak Plantation, will make his first start in over two months when he contests the Woodbine Mile.

Trained by Christophe Clement, the five-year-old by Ghostzapper enters off a second place finish to highly-regarded Obviously in the Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park. It was his last outing, since he was scratched from Saratoga's Fourstardave Handicap and Bernard Baruch Handicap in August because of soft turf conditions.

"We're looking for firm turf with him, regardless of the competition," said Clement's long-time assistant trainer, Christophe Lorieul. "We think he's a very good horse but he's a lot more effective on firm turf. So we went to California. We knew Obviously was a good horse but we took a shot. He was second best that day but he ran a very good race. I'm not sure we can beat Wise Dan. Wise Dan is a very good horse. But we'll take him on and see what happens. Our horse is doing very well." 

Za Approval, who has won six of his 14 career starts including the Appleton and the Red Bank, will be ridden for the first time by Garrett Gomez, who has won the Mile twice, with Shakespeare in 2007 and Ventura in 2009.

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