Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans will play a strong hand on Saturday when he sends out the accomplished duo of millionaire Silver Max and 2012 winner Guys Reward in a bid to win the 24th running of the $200,000-added Firecracker (Grade II) for 3-year-olds and up on Churchill Downs’ Matt Winn Turf Course.
A win by either of Romans’ charges over their six rivals on Saturday would be the trainer’s fourth Firecracker victory in the race’s last 10 renewals. He collected his first Firecracker win in 2005 with reigning American turf champion Kitten’s Joy, and followed that victory with successful runs by Thorn Song in 2008 and the win by Guys Reward two years later.
The Firecracker is one of three stakes races on a 10-race program on the final Saturday program of Churchill Downs’ 2014 Spring Meet. It is scheduled as the eighth race with an approximate post time of 4:18 p.m. (all times EDT). Other stakes events on Saturday include the 113th running of the $100,000-added Bashford Manor (GIII) for 2-year-olds and the $65,000-added Kelly’s Landing, an overnight stakes for 3-year-olds and up at seven furlongs. Those races are scheduled as the day’s sixth and seventh events, respectively. Post time for Saturday’s first race is 12:45 p.m.
Mark Bacon and Dana Wells’ Silver Max is the likely favorite in the Firecracker although he has not raced since a fourth-place finish to two-time Horse of the Year and two-time Firecracker winner Wise Dan in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Mile (GI) at Santa Anita. The Breeders’ Cup loss snapped a three-race win streak for the son of Badge of Silver that included an upset over Wise Dan on Keeneland’s synthetic Polytrack course in the Shadwell Turf Mile (GI), a race that was moved from the grass course because of excessive rain. Silver Max handed Wise Dan his only defeat of 2013 in that win, which was preceded by victories by the Romans-trained star in the Bernard Baruch (GII) at Saratoga and the Oceanport (GIII) at Monmouth Park.
Regular rider Robby Albarado will be in the saddle aboard the 5-year-old Silver Max, whose record of 11-5-1 in 23 races includes nine stakes victories. The Shadwell Turf Mile was his only Grade I triumph, but he has two wins in three stakes starts over the Churchill Downs grass course. He sailed to front-running victories in the American Turf (GII) at three and won last year’s Opening Verse. His only loss beneath the Twin Spires came in a fourth-place run behind Wise Dan in the 2013 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (GI).
One of two millionaires and Grade I stakes winners in the Firecracker field, Silver Max brings a bankroll of $1,778,403 into Saturday’s race in which each starter will carry 121 pounds. He will break from post four.
Guys Reward’s 2012 Firecracker victory remains the career high point for the 7-year-old son of Grand Reward, who has earned $665,903 for owner Michael Bruder while compiling a record of 8-5-10 in 44 races. Jesus Castanon will ride from post one.
Five of Guys Reward’s 10 wins have come over the grass at Churchill Downs, a record that includes a victory in the 2012 Opening Verse. His local record also includes a runner-up finish in the 2010 Commonwealth Turf (GIII) and third-place runs in the 2011 Louisville Handicap (GIII) and 2010 American Turf (GII). Guys Reward also has three allowance wins over the course.
A major Firecracker rival for the Romans-trained duo could be Richard Sherman’s Nikki’s Sandcastle, a 7-year-old Castledale (IRE) gelding who won the Grade III Hanshin over Polytrack at Arlington Park in his most recent start. Trained by David Kassen, Nikki’s Sandcastle also won last fall’s Hagyard Fayette (GIII) over Keeneland’s Polyrack course and earned stakes wins on turf in Arlington Park’s Sea O Erin and Gulfstream Park’s El Prado. Leandro Goncalves has the mount on Kassen’s star, who breaks from gate five.
Vinery Stables LLC’s Regally Ready, the winner of the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (GII) at Churchill Downs, stretched out to defeat Firecracker rival Villandry in the 1 1/16-mile Opening Verse at Churchill Downs on May 31. The 7-year-old More Than Ready gelding has a career record of 13-2-6 in 33 races and has earned $1,423,518. The victory by the Steve Asmussen-trained Regally Ready was his fifth in seven races over the Churchill turf course, where he also earned wins in the 2011 Twin Spires Turf Sprint (GIII) and a pair of allowance races. Shaun Bridgmohan will ride Regally Ready from the outside post in the field of eight.
Free World, campaigned by the Spring Meet’s leading owner Maggi Moss, is the hottest member of the Firecracker field as the 4-year-old son of Stormy Atlantic has won five consecutive races and six of his last 10. The speedy Tom Amoss trainee scored a front-running win in his most recent outing on May 18 in a one-mile allowance race on Polytrack at Arlington Park. That was his first start in nearly a year and followed a win in the $200,000 Centaur at Indiana Grand last June. Leading jockey Corey Lanerie will ride Free World, who will break from post two.
Wade Wacker’s Joha is the second Grade I winner in the Firecracker field and will be ridden by Joe Rocco Jr. from post seven. The 4-year-old son of Johar won the Keeneland’s Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity (GI) at two, but has managed only one victory in 13 races since. Joha comes into the Firecracker off of one of his better recent efforts for trainer Joshua Flores: a fast-closing fourth-place run behind Nikki’s Sandcastle in Arlington’s Hanshin.
While trainer Charlie LoPresti does not have his champion Wise Dan available for the Firecracker, he could earn his third victory in its last four runnigs with Gaineway Stable’s Villandry, who finished a late-running second to Regally Ready in the Opening Verse. Prior to that he won a stakes-quality allowance race over the Matt Winn Turf Course on May 9 and finished a troubled fourth over the same course last fall to longshot Potomac City in the River City Handicap (GIII). The 5-year-old Mr. Greeley gelding also won an allowance race over Churchill Downs grass in the fall of 2012. Julien Leparoux will ride Villandry for the fourth consecutive race and LoPresti’s horse will break from post six.
Completing the field is Bruce Lunsford’s homebred Valentino Beauty, the winner of an April 16 turf allowance at Keeneland in which he defeated Grand Arch, who won last week’s King Edward (GII) on the grass at Woodbine. Brian Hernandez Jr. will ride the 5-year-old Vindication gelding, the fifth-place finisher in Arlington’s Hanshin for trainer Tommy Drury. Valentino Beauty will start from gate three in search of his first stakes victory in the Firecracker.
The field for the Firecracker, from the rail out (with jockeys): Guys Reward, Castanon), Free World (Lanerie), Valentino Beauty (Hernandez Jr.), Nikki’s Sandcastle (Goncalves), Silver Max (Albarado), Villandry (Leparoux), Joha (Rocco Jr.) and Regally Ready (Bridgmohan).