Top Turf Cup contenders haven’t arrived, but they’ll come running

by Nick Hahn

Hyper, Roadhog, General Logan, Swift Warrior, Atigun, London Lane, Two Notch Road and Air Support.  It sounds more like a WWF cage match then a horse race.  And we’re all waiting for the grand entrance.

Friday morning, the stakes barn on backstretch of Colonial Downs was empty of contenders for Saturday’s Grade 2, $300,000 Colonial Turf Cup, with participants slated to begin arriving during the day.


Shug McGaughey and his team hope that Air Support can reprise his winning 2011 visit to Colonial Downs tomorrow. Photo by Nick Hahn.

Sudden appearances at Colonial Downs are nothing new for 2011 Virginia Derby winner Air Support (5-2).  At the Virginia Derby two years ago, the then-three year-old arrived Friday evening —  just in time to head Banned at the wire of the mile-and-a-quarter turf event.   Last fall he won the Bowling Green (gr. IIT) at Belmont Park.  Now a five-year old, the Smart Strike-sired Stuart Janney homebred has been competitive in his first two appearances this spring.

“He’s training very well.   He’s got two races under his belt like he did last year.  I think he’ll come down there and run a good race,” commented trainer Shug McGaughey.   “He ran a really good race at Keeneland, and the race at Churchill was sort of ‘iffy,’ but then he came back and trained very well.”

His mornings at Belmont Park must be eye-catching, as Air Support has bulleted the training worksheet three times in June alone.

Last year an impeded start and slow pace hindered his hoped-for triumphant return to Colonial, but he was nevertheless good enough to earn second.

“He didn’t have any help in the race, no pace,” remembers McGaughey.  “So he had a hard time catching up.”

Javier Castellano gets the call on Air Support, who was ridden by Alex Solis in his first two Colonial starts.

The reigning Kentucky Derby-winning trainer wants to get back to business now that the Triple Crown is over.  He hopes to add the Colonial Turf Cup to a long stakes race bucket list that has already checked off the Run for the Roses and a Virginia Derby.

“The Kentucky Derby was a thrill of a lifetime for me, racing-wise, but life goes on after that,” McGaughey commented.  “The top race I wanted to win is taken care of.”

The mile and three-sixteenths Colonial Turf Cup was opened to older horse several years ago, offering an opportunity for Virginia Derby participants to return for a romp on the turf at Colonial Downs.  Two Notch Road set the pace in the 2010 Colonial Turf Cup — then open only to sophomores — and Virginia Derby, finishing behind winner Paddy O’Prado in both.  Sheldon Russell rode the 12-1 longshot in 2010.  Saturday evening, Glenn Thompson hands the reins to Shannon Uske.

The transition to the turf appears to be working out for Atigun, who made the board in last year’s Belmont Stakes.  Atigun (3-1) nearly won the mile and a half Louisville Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Churchill Downs last month in Air Support, closing-bid style.  His turf win this spring was on the front end.

Similar to the Colonial Turf Cup, the Grade 3 Edward P. Evans All Along has a field that is modest in size but includes several contenders.  English Channel won the Virginia Derby and inaugural running of the Colonial Turf Cup in 2005.  Now he sires All Along morning line favorite Channel Lady (7-5) for James Scatuorchio and trainer Todd Pletcher.  Scatuorchio slapped five with every raised hand on his strolls to the winner’s circle in English Channel’s wins at Colonial.

Yet trainer Graham Motion has won 6 of the 14 editions of the All Along Stakes since it has been run at Colonial Downs.  With Edgar Prado aboard Appealing Cat (3-1), Motion can add to his dominance in this race.

McGaughey and Janney are teamed up with Adjacent who won on the Gulfstream Turf in February, a Bermuda turf course like Colonial’s.

“She’s only run in one stake. She was third in a very good race.  I think she fits in that spot.  She’s training well and I think we got a good rider on her,” McGaughey noted.  That rider is Jose Lezcano, currently ranked seventh nationally among jockeys in earnings.

Susan Cooney’s Embarr (6-1) is 3 for 3 at Colonial, and Clare Skies Ahead (12-1) was last year’s first runner up in the filly and mare turf test at a mile and an eighth.

Hudson Steele (4-5) was nominated to the Turf Cup but Pletcher opted for the Da Hoss instead, where he is a daunting favorite.  He will contest Colonial favorite Action Andy, a past Da Hoss winner who loves the Secretariat Turf Course.

Action Andy loves to jump out on the lead and force tempo, resulting in dramatic photo finishes that he sometimes does and sometimes does not win.   Trainer Carlos Garcia conditions Action Andy and stablemate Saintly Love for owner Robert Gerczak.  Saintly Love is looking for his fifth straight win in the $40,000 Old Nelson where he is the favorite (2-1).  The tandem spent Friday morning across the clover looking at the empty stakes barn.