G1 winner Nucky slated to come East for Heft S.
Hockey Puck won the $100,000 Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes at Parx Racing. Photo By Barbara Weidl /EQUI-PHOTO.
Rockingham Ranch’s Nucky, risked for a tag one start before becoming a Grade 1 winner, launches his comeback after an absence of three months between races in Saturday’s $100,000 Heft Stakes at Laurel Park.
The Heft for 2-year-olds and $100,000 Gin Talking for 2-year-old fillies, both contested at seven furlongs, are among five stakes worth $500,000 in purses on a nine-race Christmastide Day program. Laurel will open its doors at 11 a.m. with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m.
Trained by California-based Peter Miller, Nucky is a son of 2004 Horse of the Year and 2012 Hall of Famer Ghostzapper that went winless in his first three starts, two of them in maiden special weight company, before being entered with a $100,000 claiming price Aug. 21 at Del Mar. After dueling for the early lead, Nucky drew off and romped by 10 ½ lengths in 1:10.89 for six furlongs.
“We thought he was a nice horse, but we took a shot and ran him for a tag and got lucky no one took him,” Miller said. “He likes to be up close in his races. He doesn’t need the lead, but he wants to be up close.”
Stretched out to seven furlongs for the Del Mar Futurity (G1) in his subsequent start, Nucky overcame a troubled trip where he got bumped at the three-sixteenths pole and emerged with a 2 ¾-length triumph at odds of 35-1.
“It was a crazy run race where a couple horses collided, but the horse ran a great race that day,” Miller said. “I think if he runs back to that race that he’ll be tough to beat.”
Nucky hasn’t raced since finishing eighth in the 1 1/16-mile American Pharoah (G1) Sept. 27 at Santa Anita, but shows a steady string of works at the San Luis Rey training center for his return, most recently going six furlongs in 1:16.60 Dec. 12.
“He seems to be coming into the race real well,” Miller said. “He didn’t run well in his last race and came out with a little splint so we backed off him and fired the split and he seems to have come back fine and is training great.”
Trevor McCarthy, battling for the fall meet riding title, will be aboard Nucky from Post 8 of nine. All horses will carry 123 pounds.
The other stakes winner in the field is Wagon Wheel Farm’s homebred Hockey Puck, who sprung a 13-1 upset of the Pennsylvania Nursery Dec. 7 at Parx for trainer Erin McClellan. The bay gelding drew Post 7 with regular rider Tyler Conner.
A Pennsylvania-bred son of 2012 Jersey Shore (G3) winner Well Spelled, Hockey Puck shares another commonality with Nucky in that both horses have both raced and won at the Heft’s seven-furlong distance.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster for us knowing that he’s run at the distance and won at the distance. And I actually like that maybe he wants more than that,” McClellan said. “You’re not worried that you’re going to come up short; you’re worried whether it will be enough. It’s very reassuring to have run and won at seven furlongs and one thing I like about Laurel is the long stretch. I think that’s to his benefit.”
Laurel’s fall meet-leading trainer Claudio Gonzalez entered the Euro Stable-owned pair of Grade 3-placed Lebda and the undefeated Romanoff. Lebda, purchased by Valter Ramos for $100,000 out of Joseph Besecker’s Dec. 10 dispersal and kept with Gonzalez, was third in the 1 1/16-mile Iroquois (G3) Sept. 14 and has run once since, finishing ninth in the one-mile Nashua (G3) Nov. 3 at Aqueduct.
Lebda broke his maiden second time out May 4 in his lone try at Laurel, a 4 ½-furlong maiden special weight sprint, then followed up with an 11-length romp going 5 ½ furlongs Aug. 22 at Delaware Park in his first try against winners. Romanoff, a gelded son of Fast Anna, is a perfect 2-0 with front-running waiver maiden and optional allowance scores going six and seven furlongs, respectively, both at Laurel, the latter Nov. 30.
“They’re doing good,” Gonzalez said. “I’m very happy with the last breeze; both of them went very good. I have to talk to the owner about whether we’re going to run both or we’re going to run one. We have to decide what is the best way to go. The good thing is they’re both doing great.”
Monday Morning Qb, scratched as the program favorite for the Dec. 7 Maryland Juvenile Futurity, and Butch Reid-trained stablemate Admiral Eastwood; Dontmesawithme and New Commission complete the field.
Irish War Cry, a three-time graded-stakes winner of more than $1.2 million in purses; Diamond King and Alwaysmining, who each went on to earn a spot in the Preakness Stakes (G1), have won the last three editions of the Heft.
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