Trainer Tom Albertrani is following a familiar blueprint when it comes to his older turf star Twilight Eclipse, bringing the gelded son of Purim back to Gulfstream Park to begin his five-year-old season in Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 Mac Diarmida.
Twilight Eclipse made his first start of 2013 in the 11-furlong Mac Diarmida, running fourth. In his subsequent start, however, he set a world record of 2:22.63 for 1 1/2 miles in winning the Pan American by four lengths.
"We always had this race targeted," Albertrani said. "He appears to be training exactly the same way he did going into his last race, so I'm really pleased with how he's looking and how he's been training."
Twilight Eclipse capped last year by going gate-to-wire to defend his title in the W.L. McKnight Handicap at Calder on December 28, despite it being moved off the turf to the main track.
In addition to his two wins last year, Twilight Eclipse was second in a pair of Grade 1 contests -- the Sword Dancer at Saratoga and Man o' War at Belmont Park -- and was a closing sixth of 12 in the Breeders' Cup Turf, beaten just 2 1/4 lengths by the winner.
"He's been second-best in a couple of big races, and we were a little unlucky in the Breeders' Cup. I thought he should have actually finished a little closer that day," Albertrani said. "I thought he was a little too far back early on in the race, and he wasn't beaten that far for the whole thing.
"We were a little disappointed, so it was good to bring him back and end the year with a win. It was definitely a race that we wanted to win again."
Albertrani hopes not to see Twilight Eclipse as far back in the Mac Diarmida, but will leave the decision up to jockey Jose Lezcano, who was aboard for the McKnight. They will carry 121 pounds from post 6.
"A lot depends on the pace scenario," Albertrani admitted. "He did it on the front end last time because there was no pace at all. He's pretty versatile. If there's no speed he likes to be a little closer; if there's a strong pace then he's going to be just a little off of it. This horse's whole key is his stamina. He's a mile-and-a-half horse. He loves to run all day."
The Mac Diarmida will also provide Albertrani with a line on how to map out a campaign for Twilight Eclipse, which could include a trip to the Middle East where the trainer was based with Godolphin Stable from 1995-2003.
"We're using this race, hopefully, as a steppingstone for Dubai," he said. "I definitely think he's a horse that's going to go on and train well and run well this year. If all goes well and he runs well this weekend, our plans are to take him to Dubai. Depending on everything there, how he ships and runs and comes back, we would like to target similar races that he was in last year, all the big races later on. Everything will depend on the outcome of this week." Alpha hasn't visited the winner's circle since prevailing in a muddy duel with Flat Out (outside) in last August's Woodward (NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography)
After beginning last year in Dubai, Alpha will make his seasonal debut in the Mac Diarmida. A multiple Grade 1 winner on dirt, the five-year-old son of Bernardini will be trying grass for the first time in his 20th lifetime start.
"We feel like we've always wanted to try the turf," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin declared. "He's out of a Nijinsky II mare, and there's a lot of turf in the family. We were able to work him on the turf and see how he liked it. He's always been good on the lead, and going a mile and three-eighths on the turf, I think he will be on the lead. If he likes the turf, we have a whole new lease on life with him."
Owned by Godolphin, Alpha will be racing for the first time at Gulfstream. He won the 2012 Travers and 2013 Woodward at Saratoga, but has failed to hit the board in nine other starts. He was fourth in the Hawthorne Gold Cup to end his four-year-old season.
Alpha will break from post 9 as the 123-pound highweight under jockey Joel Rosario.
"He's taken a step back from his last Grade 1 win," McLaughlin said. "He obviously loves Saratoga and we will keep that in mind, but we've talked within our camp at different times about trying the turf. He's just bred so much for it, we thought this would be a great opportunity to try it. If he doesn't like it we can go back to the dirt, and if it rains he loves the slop. There's a lot of good reasons to try it."
Others in the Mac Diarmida with a chance include Amen Kitten, who won the Tropical Park Derby at Calder last October before rallying to be third in the December 1 Hollywood Derby, and Cozy Kitten, an allowance winner at Gulfstream on January 16 who is returning to graded competition for the first time since finishing fourth in the 2011 Sir Beaufort at Santa Anita.
Mucho Mas Macho, an upset victor of the 2013 Fort Lauderdale but last of eight in his title defense of that race last month, and English-bred Slumber, fourth in the Fort Lauderdale last out, are also in with chance.
Multiple stakes winner Suntracer, Bingo Bango Bongo and Irish-bred Dashing David complete the turf field while Long Branch hero Micromanage was entered for main track only.
The Grade 3, $100,000 The Very One going 11 furlongs is the co-feature event on Saturday at Gulfstream and features the return of Anjaz, who has not faced the starter since early August. Godolphin's regally bred daughter of Street Cry and Group 1 winner Playful Act has been scheduled to run several times in the interim, but has been at the mercy of external forces, according to Albertrani.
After beginning her career in Europe, Anjaz finished fourth in the Orchid Handicap last March at Gulfstream in her first start for Albertrani. She was second in the Sheepshead Bay at Belmont in May and rallied for the runner-up spot in the August 5 Waya two starts later at Saratoga.
"You talk about having bad luck. Every time she was supposed to run something happened," Albertrani explained. "At Saratoga, the Glens Falls (on September 2) came off the grass and we scratched her.
"She was supposed to run at Belmont, but the week before she bruised her foot, so we didn't get to run her in that race. And then she was supposed to run in the La Prevoyante (at Calder in December) and they decided to not even card the race. So between the weather and races that didn't go, she hasn't run in a while." Preferential will try U.S. graded company for the first time in The Very One (Keeneland Photo)
The five-year-old mare has been breezing steadily at Palm Meadows since mid-November. Her dam, Playful Act, established a world record when she sold to Sheikh Mohammed for $10.5 million at Keeneland November in 2007, and Albertrani is optimistic that Anjaz can live up to her pedigree in 2014.
"She's training really well and we are looking forward to getting her back on track," Albertrani added. "She's run some really good races in the past. We're trying to get a graded win for her, so hopefully she has a good season ahead of her this year. We're going to target all of the long races with her."
Anjaz will have Lezcano in the irons when she breaks from post 7 in The Very One.
Drawn outside in the eight-horse field is Group 1 winner Viva Rafaela, a Brazilian import who is stretching back out in distance for trainer Todd Pletcher. The five-year-old captured the Grande Premio Diana over 1 1/4 miles in her Brazilian finale for owner/breeder Stud TNT, but has been competing in shorter contests in four starts in this country.
While the bay mare notched a win in a nine-furlong allowance over the Gulfstream sod on November 11, her pace-pressing tactics in the Marshua's River in January didn't pay off and she faded to eighth.
"We are hoping for improvement in a three-turn race," Pletcher said. "She's been training well."
John Velazquez will pilot Viva Rafaela on Saturday.
Trainer Bill Mott, who saddled recent The Very One heroines Starformer (2013) and Changing Skies (2010), will have a serious contender in Preferential in Saturday's 29th renewal. Juddmonte Farms' daughter of Dansili has improved steadily since arriving stateside, most recently notching the 12-furlong Dowager Stakes at Keeneland on October 20. Jockey Julien Leparoux has the mount aboard Preferential, who is drawn in post 5.
Trainer Tom Proctor will have a pair of runners in The Very One. Left a Message, whose best form has come in longer events, stretches back out following a sixth in the January 25 Endeavour at Tampa Bay, while Seanchai scored over this course and distance last January before finishing fourth in the 2013 running of The Very One. In her most recent outing, the daughter of English Channel came home fifth in an 8 1/2-furlong allowance at Gulfstream on January 18.
Left a Message and Seanchai will be next to one another in posts 2 and 3 on Saturday. Javier Castellano will ride Left a Message, while Paco Lopez will be aboard Seanchai.
The field for The Very One is completed by Grade 3 heroine Inimitable Romanee, Grade 3-placed Aigue Marine and Dame Marie.