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Barn Notes: Thursday, February 26


                                     A DOZEN FOR DIXIE POKER ACE STAKES

            Saturday’s $60,000 Dixie Poker Ace Stakes, for Louisiana-bred four year olds and upward at a mile on the Stall-Wilson turf course, has attracted an even dozen in what appears to be a well-balanced field of Pelican State participants.  Led by classy stakes performer Benwill and last year’s off-the-turf winner Hopeful Notion, the 34th renewal of the grassy event looks to be a wide open affair.

            Oak Leaf TC LP’s Benwill comes into Saturday’s race off a fifth-place finish in the Grade III $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston and reapplies blinkers after experimenting without them last out.  Trainer Scott Tubbs, who takes over the conditioning duties entering this race from Mike Burgess, will hope to guide the 6-year-old son of Leestown back to the form that saw him win two turf stakes last year at Evangeline Downs – including the $60,000 John Henry Stakes in open company.  Robby Albarado picks up the mount from post nine. 

            Autumn Hill Farm Racing Stable’s defending champ Hopeful Notion makes the second start off a layoff for the always-dangerous stable of Eddie Johnston, which bats 44% in that category.  Last out, in a rained-off one-mile optional claimer, the 5-year-old son of Notional showed speed but faded after being fractious in the gate.  Last year, he won the Dixie Poker Ace over Benwill and Skip the Pinot, who is entered again, with a stalking rally and will look to emulate that on the grass this year – a surface upon which he is three-for-six.  Regular rider Richard Eramia will ride from post 11 for the consistent charge who has finished in the exacta in 10 of his 15 career attempts. 

            Winchester Place Thoroughbreds and Gary Scherer’s Tiger Run is a lofty 15-1 on the morning line but enters the race as conceivably the horse who could upset the apple cart if he pulls together his dichotomous form.  In his past three starts, the son of Yonaguska has finished 54½ lengths behind in an optional claiming event on the dirt on Nov. 23, was a superbly game second when losing to graded stakes winner String King by 1½ lengths in the $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Turf on Dec. 13 and then returned to finish ninth – beaten nearly 20 lengths – as the even-money favorite in a turf optional claimer on Feb. 7.  Denny Velazquez will hope to stabilize the form of this Scherer trainee when he breaks between Benwill and Hopeful Notion in post 10. 

The remainder of the Dixie Poker Ace field is comprised of Skipberry Wine (Willie Martinez, rail), Skip the Pinot (Francisco Torres, post two), Beauty’s Pioneer (James Graham, post three), Fist Full (Donnie Meche, post four), Cougar Bait (Mitchell Murrill, post five), Masters Degree (Forest Boyce, post six), Heavy On Themister (Miguel Mena, post seven), McGehee’s Mercy (Florent Geroux, post eight) and Valse (Chris Rosier, post 12).

                                    FOREVER UNBRIDLED CONTINUES TO IMPROVE

            Charles Fipke’s lightly raced and promising sophomore filly Forever Unbridled continued her steady improvement last Saturday in the Grade III $175,000 Rachel Alexandra when third behind I’m a Chatterbox and Lovely Maria.  The regally bred daughter of Unbridled’s Song and Kentucky Oaks winner Lemons Forever will try to get one step closer to emulating her dam when she possibly completes the triad of Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots sophomore filly stakes next month in the Grade II $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks. 

            “She came out very well and I was very pleased with her race,” trainer Dallas Stewart reported.  “She finished strong and she’s getting better.  This time she only got beat 2½ lengths (by I’m a Chatterbox) and last time it was eight.  She’s really starting to come into herself.”

            In just four starts, the robust bay filly has yet to perform poorly.  In her debut she finished a game second to well-regarded Silverpocketsfull, losing by less than two lengths after breaking dead-last in the 6½-furlong event.  Forever Unbridled returned five weeks later to take a mile and 70-yard maiden at Fair Grounds by 2¼ lengths at short odds.  Left in her wake that day (by nine lengths in third) was recent sharp maiden victor Audrey’s Double. 

The Fipke homebred followed her December graduation with a jump up into Listed company in the $125,000 Silverbulletday Stakes on Jan. 17 in which she was a good second behind a runaway I’m a Chatterbox prior to her Rachel Alexandra effort.

                                  MYSTERY TRAIN TO LOOP BACK FOR NEW ORLEANS

            Jed Cohen’s Mystery Train is likely to return to Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, according to trainer Darrell Vienna, for the Grade II $400,000 New Orleans Handicap – the centerpiece for the Fair Grounds handicap division.  Second last Saturday in the Grade III $125,000 Mineshaft Handicap – the local prep for the New Orleans – after a game front-running performance, the multiple Group I winner in his home country of Argentina has exited that effort well. 

            “He came out in good shape,” Vienna confirmed.  “He’s doing really well and it was a relief to see him run well.  The (Fair Grounds main) track is closer to what he ran on in Argentina.  The plan right now is to come back for the New Orleans Handicap.  My preference would be to have (Francisco Torres) ride him again.”

            Saturday’s effort, in which the game charge set a swift pace – including a half-mile in :46.97 (two-turn horses rarely dip below :47 and endure at Fair Grounds) – comes after three consecutive poor performances in California.  In all three American graded stakes attempts – including two Grade Is – the dark bay 5-year-old ridgling seemed uncomfortable.  In the Mineshaft, under the patient hands of veteran jockey Torres, the eight-time winner in 23 tries ran like one of the favorites, despite his 17-1 odds.  Last spring in Argentina, the seven-time stakes winner annexed two consecutive 1¼-miles Group I races in a month’s time – including the prestigious $275,000 Republica Argentina at Argentino de Palermo on May 1.