December 15, 2018

Awesome Slew, Awesome Banner headline Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream Park

Awesome Slew with Paco Lopez riding won the Smarty Jones Stakes (G3) at Parx Racing on September 5, 2016 (c) Taylor Ejdys/Equi-Photo

California Chrome and Arrogate may be dominating the conversation ahead of the January 28 Pegasus World Cup (G1), but Gulfstream Park isn’t slacking in regards to exciting competition on Saturday.

The 15th running of the $200,000 Sunshine Millions Classic is one of five stakes for horses bred in the Sunshine State on Saturday’s 12-race card.

Eight contenders were entered in the 1 1/8-mile affair, including Awesome Slew. The Florida-bred son of Awesome Again makes his four-year-old bow in the Classic off a third-place effort in the December 17 Harlan’s Holiday Stakes (G3).

Prior to that Awesome Slew finished fifth in the Pennsylvania Derby (G2), which followed a romping seven-length victory in the Smarty Jones Stakes (G3) at Parx Racing that netted the bay colt a 105 BRIS Speed rating. Trainer Ed Plesa Jr. flirted with running his charge in the $400,000 Poseidon Stakes but ultimately decided to enter this spot instead.

“I think it’s a good spot for him because it is restricted to Florida-breds,” Plesa said. “Live Oak does breed horses that are Florida-breds and it’s an opportunity for us to run in a race that certainly isn’t going to be anywhere near a Pegasus-type race.

“He’s just stepping up to the plate,” Plesa added. “He’s been compromised by odd things that happen to horses, sickness being his main thing, and we were trying to play catch-up all last year. We finally caught up in the Smarty Jones and then I ran him back a little quicker than he probably would have liked in the Pennsylvania Derby. He’s been training great and he’s doing great. I think he’ll hit his full stride this year.”

Javier Castellano has the call on Awesome Slew, who is the 7-5 morning-line favorite from the far outside post 8.

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The Sunshine Millions has turned into an “Awesome” affair as Awesome Banner headlines the $100,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint.

The Mark Casse-trained four-year-old opened his sophomore season, and capped off a three-race win streak, with an easy five-length score in the Swale Stakes (G2) last January. He would go on to win four other stakes, though he was disqualified to second in the Steel Valley Sprint at Mahoning Valley in his penultimate race of 2016.

Awesome Banner closed out his three-year-old campaign with a fifth in the Malibu Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita Park on December 26.

“It was a tough race; I thought he just ran even,” Casse said. “California is always tough and then you fly out there, and it always makes it a little more difficult, but he held his own.”

Tyler Gaffalione will be holding the reins on Awesome Banner as the son of Awesome of Course takes on six rivals as the 2-1 morning-line favorite from the far outside 7 post.

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Kicking off the stakes action at Gulfstream on Saturday will be the $100,000 Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf. The 1 1/16-mile grassy contest drew seven runners, including Mom’s On Strike. That four-year-old lass just tried turf in her most recent effort, rallying for a close second in the Pebble Stakes at Belmont Park going a mile.

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One race later, six fillies and mares will line up in the $100,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff. Moment of Delight, You Bought Her and Lucky Switch finished in that order in the Millions Distaff Preview Stakes on November 12 and show up for the main event in Saturday’s six-furlong affair.

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Prior to the Classic, a field of eight will head to the gate for the $100,000 Sunshine Millions Turf. Reporting Star finished second in the 2015 running as well as last year’s edition before going on to capture the 2016 Appleton Stakes (G3). The seven-year-old gelding hopes third time’s the charm.

“He came out of the last race good (close fourth in the El Prado Stakes on December 17) and he’s been doing well, so hopefully we can rekindle his old form and if he can, he should be very live in there,” trainer Brendan Walsh said. “He was coming off a bit of a layoff (in the El Prado) but it was a good comeback and we thought he ran well.

“He wasn’t beaten far and he looked like he was back to his old self. He kind of lost his way after the Appleton last year but he seems like having had a break now he seems like he’s back to his old self again. We’re looking forward to it.

“I think he knows. You hear about course specialists but it appears like he loves Gulfstream. Palm Meadows, too,” Walsh added. “He trained in Gulfstream up to when I got him so he obviously likes Florida. Everything seems to suit him down here. It seems like it’s his track.

“I think he’s just one of those horses who’s a funny horse, temperamentally. There’s just certain things he likes. He’s a little unorthodox. There’s things he likes that most horses don’t like and things he doesn’t like that other horses do. You just have to train him a little different. Hopefully he’ll run good on Saturday.”

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