Only one runner in Saturday’s $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita Stakes is exiting a win, and that one is Hard Aces.
The John Sadler-trained seven-year-old takes on eight rivals in the 1 1/4-mile affair while seeking to improve upon his third-place run in this contest last year. Hard Aces prevailed by a nose in 2015 to earn his first graded victory, but then went on a nine-race losing streak before finally re-visiting the winner’s circle last year in the Cougar II Handicap (G3). A six-race dry spell followed before the bay son of Hard Spun secured a neck win most recently in the April 2 Tokyo City Cup (G3) under returning jockey Santiago Gonzalez.
Midnight Storm will be looking to avenge his three-quarter length second in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) on March 11, where the Philip D’Amato-conditioned six-year-old set the pace before being caught on the wire by Shaman Ghost. The dark bay son of Pioneerof the Nile preceded the Big ‘Cap with a pair of easy wire jobs in the Native Diver Stakes (G3) and San Pasqual Stakes (G2), and followed the 10-furlong contest with a third-placing in the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) last out on April 15. Flavien Prat will be aboard Midnight Storm for the first time in this spot.
Cupid will be making his four-year-old bow here after closing out 2016 with an eighth-place run in the Pennsylvania Derby (G2) on September 24. Prior to that, the Bob Baffert pupil lived up to his favoritism when capturing the Indiana Derby (G2) and West Virginia Derby (G2). Cupid will be returning to the site of his 5 1/4-length maiden score for the first time and gets Rafael Bejarano in the irons.
Stablemate American Freedom just returned to competition with a fourth-place effort in the Alysheba Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs on May 5. The Pulpit four-year-old won the Iowa Derby (G3) last July before finishing second in both the Haskell Invitational (G1) and Travers Stakes (G1). He wouldn’t be seen in competition again until showing up for the Alysheba, and Baffert adds blinkers to his equipment along with a new rider in Martin Garcia.
Accelerate’s last win came in the Los Alamitos Derby (G2) in 2016, which earned the John Sadler trainee a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1). The Lookin at Lucky chestnut reputed himself well that day, running third to close out his sophomore campaign, and opened 2017 with a second behind Midnight Storm in the San Pasqual. The four-year-old has since placed in the San Antonio Stakes (G2) and an allowance/optional claimer, and keeps regular rider Tyler Baze aboard here.
Big John B just missed to Hard Aces last out as the defending champion of the Tokyo City Cup. The D’Amato eight-year-old also won the Cougar II Handicap (G3) in 2015, and is 3-2-1-0 from his past three starts on dirt. Mike Smith has the call on the Hard Spun gelding.
Follow Me Crev, Texas Ryano and Prime Attraction all ran in the Californian Stakes (G2) last out on April 22. The former rallied for second under returning jockey Kent Desormeaux and was also third in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 11. Texas Ryano filled the fourth spot while making his main-track debut in the Californian, and gets a rider switch to Gary Stevens for this second try. Prime Attraction was a well-beaten last of five when trying stakes rivals for the first time in the Californian. Jamie Theriot returns to the saddle.