Owner-trainer Tom McCarthy’s General Quarters, a versatile Grade I winner on both turf and synthetic surfaces, drew the rail post when a field of eleven older horses was entered Friday to compete in the 21st running of the $175,000-added Firecracker Handicap Presented by GE (Grade II) on Monday, July 4, the closing day of Churchill Downs’ 38-day Spring Meet.
The one-mile race for 3-year-olds and up on the Matt Winn Turf Course is the final stakes race of the Spring Meet and is scheduled as the 10th event on an 11-race Independence Day program that opens with its first race at 12:45 p.m. (all times EDT). Post time for the Firecracker Handicap is set for 5:25 p.m.
A true “rags to riches” story, General Quarters was claimed for $20,000 out of his racing debut and has earned nearly $1.2 million dollars and for a good part of his career has been the only horse in McCarthy’s stable. He won the Toyota Blue Grass (GI) over Keeneland’s synthetic Polytrack course as a 3-year-old and subsequently ran 10th in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) won by Mine That Bird. At four he returned to Churchill Downs to win the $500,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (GI) and was being pointed toward a race in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at the Louisville track when he was injured following a seventh-place run behind Debussy in late August in the Arlington Million.
General Quarters was out of action until June 10, when he returned with a strong runner-up finish to multiple stakes winner Native Ruler in a seven-furlong, stakes-quality allowance race on dirt at Churchill Downs. The Firecracker marks the return to graded stakes competition for General Quarters, who will carry high weight of 119 pounds and will be ridden by Jamie Theriot.
A pair of rapidly improving veterans – Jeffrey A. Columbro and Connie Apostolos’ Baryshnikov and Chester Miller and Patrick Dupuy’s Strike Impact – will attempt to knock off General Quarters and collect their first victory in a graded stakes race.
Baryshnikov finished 12th of 14 in last year’s Firecracker won by Tizdejavu, but comes into this year’s renewal of the Independence Day race on an impressive run of five victories in his last seven races. The most recent of those was a runner-up finish to Grade I winner Paddy O’Prado in the Dixie (GII) on the Preakness undercard at Pimlico. The Mike Maker-trained son of Empire Maker started his hot streak with a victory in a race for $15,000 claiming horses over Polytrack at Turfway Park on Dec. 12.
Baryshnikov will carry 117 pounds and Julien Leparoux, who is on a torrid tear of his own and has surged to the lead in the race for leading rider of the spring meet, will be in the saddle. Maker’s veteran, who will break from post seven, has a career record of 7-6-5 in 34 races with earnings of $246,343.
Strike Impact, trained by co-owner Dupuy, is another former claiming horse who has developed into a strong performer on turf. The 7-year-old gelded son of Smart Strike comes into the Firecracker off impressive back-to-back allowance wins over the Matt Winn Turf Course and just missed collecting a stakes win earlier this year when he lost by a head to Due Date in the Colonel Power at 5 ½ furlongs on turf at Fair Grounds. Strike Impact has a record of 4-1-0 in six races over Churchill Downs’ Matt Winn Turf Course, and his career slate stands at 16-5-8 in 54 races with earnings of $465,860.
Robby Albarado will ride Strike Impact, who will break from post nine and will carry 117 pounds.
Other possible contenders in the Firecracker include Morton Fink’s homebred Wise Dan, winner of the Phoenix (GIII) over Polytrack last fall at Keeneland, and Lothenbach Stables LLC’s Mister Marti Gras, a listed stakes winner on turf who was runner-up over the surface in last fall’s Hawthorne Derby (GIII).
Wise Dan will attempt to become the first horse to win the Firecracker without a previous race on turf. The 4-year-old Wiseman’s Ferry gelding worked a solid half-mile over the Matt Winn Turf Course this week and that move convinced trainer Charles Lopresti to enter him in the Firecracker. Wise Dan has a career record of 4-0-0 in races and earnings of $203,480, and will be ridden from post 10 by Jon Court.
Mister Marti Gras comes into the Firecracker off a turf allowance win at the Firecracker distance at Churchill Downs on June 3. Trained by Chris Block, the 4-year-old Mister Marti Gras won last year’s Oliver Stakes on turf at Indiana Downs and finished third earlier this year to Exhi in the $150,000 Ben Ali (GIII) over the synthetic Polytrack course at Keeneland. Shaun Bridghmohan will ride Mister Mardi Gras from post three.
The field for the Firecracker Handicap, in post position order from the rail out (with jockey, weight), includes: General Quarters (Theriot, 119), Omniscient (Manoel Cruz, 113), Mister Marti Gras (Bridgmohan, 115), El Caballo (Corey Lanerie, 114), Mystic (Jesus Castanon, 114), Joshua Reynolds (Brian Hernandez Jr., 114), Baryshnikov (Leparoux, 117), Plutonium (James Lopez, 112), Strike Impact (Albarado, 117), Wise Dan (Court, 115) and Lubash (Kent Desormeaux, 115).