Charles C. Smith-trained String King often was considered the horse to beat in big Fair Grounds turf races such as the Louisiana Champions Day Classic, the Col. E.R. Bradley Stakes, the Fair Grounds Handicap and the Muniz Memorial Handicap.
“He was the dominant Louisiana-bred horse on the grass at the Fair Grounds that was able to take his game against open competition and be competitive,” trainer Tom Amoss said.
Then String King, now 9, was beaten in the 2015 Muniz by Chocolate Ride and also in the 2016 Col. E.R. Bradley — again by Chocolate Ride.
Just when it appeared Chocolate Ride would be the next big thing on turf in top Fair Grounds turf races, Take The Stand won the 2016 Muniz.
When the 25th Muniz Handicap, a $300,000 race for 4-year-olds and up, happens Saturday at the Fair Grounds, Chocolate Ride will not be there.
“We were just looking to get him in a spot where he could kind of get his confidence back, because he hadn't won in a year,” trainer Brad Cox said.
The door appears open for another horse to become a top turf horse at the Fair Grounds. Cox said it's an opportunity for his Special Ops.
But trainer Michael Maker has four in the race, including Enterprising, a 6-year-old gelding who is coming off an impressive three-length win in the $125,000 Fair Grounds Handicap turf race at at 1 1/8 mile on Feb. 25.
That came after he lost by a neck in the Sunshine Million at Gulfstream.
“Enterprising seems to be getting better with age, and he's a Florida-bred and a very consistent horse since we've had him,” Maker said. “We didn't have many opportunities to go better than a mile and a sixteenth at Gulfstream Park, so I liked that fact that we stretched him out. He responded, so I'd like to see another performance and move on to bigger and better things with him.”
Granny's Kitten, also trained by Maker, was fifth in the Fair Grounds Handicap but won the Col. Bradley on Jan. 21. Granny's Kitten showed much promised after winning his maiden as a 2-year-old hold but has not been as consistent as Maker would like to see.
“He had an injury, so his 3-year-old year,” Maker said. “Now, it seems like he's getting his act together.”
Oscar Nominated — like Granny's Kitten, owned by renowned Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey and trained by Maker, too — has drawn as much notice as his stablemates. However, he finished second in three consecutive races from Dec. 31, 2016, to Feb. 28. He had a five-race stretch last year in which he won three times, including in the Black Gold Stakes at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 27.
“We felt he was close to something big,” Maker said. “He's been a hard-luck horse in some of the races, whether it's the trip or racing luck or some other horse. But he keeps bouncing back and running a tough race.”
Oscar Nominated should not be sold short, however, Maker said, “because he has run with the best.”
The winner of the Muniz certainly will get that opportunity, automatically qualifying for the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and the Arlington Milion.
A horse to keep an eye on, Maker said, is Special Ops, trained by Cox, who has two seconds and a win at Belmont Park in his past three races.
“We think he'll get the job done, hopefully Saturday,” Cox said. “(Jockey) Brian Hernandez rode him last time. He knows the horse and has confidence in him.”