After winning his first seven attempts around one turn, Whitmore enters Friday’s $250,000 Phoenix (G2) at Keeneland in search of better form after dropping two straight as a heavy favorite. In order to turn things around, the Ron Moquett-trained gelding will have to overcome post 11 in the six-furlong dash, a “Win & You’re In” prep for the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1).
Recognized as the oldest stakes run in North America, the Phoenix dates to 1831 and had been used a spring board to recent Breeders’ Cup success by Work All Week (2014) and Runhappy (2015). Another prominent winner earlier this decade was Wise Dan (2010), the future two-time Horse of the Year.
Whitmore started off the season strong winning four straight, including the Count Fleet Sprint (G3) and Maryland Sprint (G3). However, a hard-fought win in the latter perhaps dulled his form for the June 9 True North (G2), in which he finished more than six lengths behind Roy H. A three-month freshening followed, but Whitmore never seriously contended in the September 16 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash (G3), finishing nearly two lengths behind outsider Chublicious.
“The only thing was whether to train up to the Breeders’ Cup or run here, and I was going to let him tell me,” said Moquett after the four-year-old galloped on Monday. “Right now, he’s a happy boy.”
Limousine Liberal, who narrowly missed in last year’s Phoenix to A. P. Indian, looks to rebound off a distant third-place finish in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt (G1). The Ben Colebrook trainee had previously won three in a row at Churchill Downs, including the eponymous Grade 2 event on Kentucky Derby Day and the Aristides (G3).
Awesome Banner out-finished Limousine Liberal by a head in the Vanderbilt, but subsequently threw in a clunker in the De Francis Dash. A place-getter in the Maryland Sprint and Smile Sprint (G3) earlier this year, the four-year-old still seeks his first graded win.
Grade 2 veteran Favorite Tale, third to Runhappy in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint held at Keeneland in 2015, makes just his second start since March 2016 in the Phoenix. Sidelined for 16 months until September 2, he comes in off a runner-up finish in the $114,000 Ben Perkins Sprint at Parx Racing.
The lone three-year-old in the field is Uncontested, who briefly flirted with the classic trail last winter following a dominating winner over Petrov in the $150,000 Smarty Jones at Oaklawn. The Wayne Catalano trainee recently won for the first time since that January test, beating allowance foes at Churchill on September 17.
Others stepping up in class are recent Saratoga allowance winner Threefiveindia, Gulfstream stakes winner Richard the Great, and Maryland invader It’s the Journey.