If promising sophomore SOLDAT's (War Front) entry in Friday's 9TH race at Gulfstream Park was something of a reconnaissance mission to gauge his aptitude for dirt, it yielded one conclusive result: the classy turf performer relishes the slop. The Kiaran McLaughlin pupil skipped to the early lead, consented to race in tandem with Cool Blue Red Hot (Harlan's Holiday) for a while, then pulled right away in the stretch to romp by 10 3/4 lengths, opening up a new battery of options on the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail.
The 1 1/8-mile entry-level allowance lost some cache when trainer Nick Zito decided to scratch his highly-regarded debut winner Dialed In (Mineshaft). Nevertheless, the field still included a few useful prospects, and Harvey A. Clarke and W. Craig Robertson III's Soldat simply dismissed them all.
Dispatched as the 6-5 favorite off his fine second in the November 6 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G2), Soldat strode to the front through an opening quarter in :24 1/5. Cool Blue Red Hot advanced to press the pace through splits of :48 1/5 and 1:12, and the top two steadily opened up on the rest of the pack.
As it turned out, though, Soldat was only allowing his rival to stay close on sufferance. Once Alan Garcia urged him on, Soldat left Cool Blue Red Hot standing at the top of the stretch. The dark bay widened his advantage dramatically and finished his tour de force in 1:49 1/5 on the sloppy, sealed oval, paying $4.40, $2.60 and $2.20.
"I was very impressed with the way he ran today after he was pressed all the way by that nice horse of Angel Penna's (Cool Blue Red Hot)," McLaughlin said. "He ran hard all the way and then he galloped out really strong.
"We decided some time ago that, despite how well he did on turf last year, we didn't want to wait until October (this year) to find out if he was as good on dirt.
"They are only three-year-olds once," added McLaughlin with an obvious eye toward the Triple Crown. "Also, he's by War Front, by Danzig, who never turfed and was a good horse on dirt."
Cool Blue Red Hot held second by 1 3/4 lengths from the closing Beamer (Vindication). Another five lengths back came Mas Trueno (Afleet Alex), who was followed by the uncoupled Todd Pletcher duo of Lauburu (Unbridled's Song) and Financial Empire (Empire Maker), and the tailed-off Halo's Thunder (Thunder Gulch).
Dialed In, who was withdrawn because of the sloppy conditions, is likely headed to the January 30 Holy Bull S. (G3) at Gulfstream.
"I spoke to the stewards and told them that I didn't feel comfortable running him," Zito said. "I don't know if he can handle a sloppy track. I don't want to waste a race as good as he's been doing.
"It's not what I wanted to do (to run in the Holy Bull), but it looks like that's what we're going to do," Zito noted. "I'll try to get another race, but if not, we'll go to the Holy Bull."
Soldat, who was returning to dirt for the first time since a pair of maidens over the summer, has still not had the opportunity to race on a fast main track. He made his debut at Belmont on June 10, in a five-furlong dash in the mud, and ultimately lost his duel with Bail Out the Cat (Tale of the Cat) by 2 1/4 lengths. Soldat was 10 1/2 lengths clear of next-out winner Pluck (More Than Ready). Next time out on a good track, Soldat was no match for the highly-regarded Wine Police (Speightstown) in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden at Saratoga on July 24, but was again 5 3/4 lengths clear of third. Wine Police boosted the form when third in the Hopeful S. (G1) at the Spa.
Switched to the turf for the September 3 With Anticipation S. (G3), Soldat broke his maiden in convincing fashion by three lengths. It remained an open question whether the surface, or the stretch-out to two turns, was responsible for his improvement. Soldat stayed on the grass and concluded his two-year-old campaign with two strong efforts in defeat. He hit the gate en route to finishing second in the October 3 Pilgrim S. (G3) to Air Support (Smart Strike), whom he beat in their other meetings, and was an honorable runner-up to the impressive Pluck in the Breeders' Cup. Soldat's record now stands at 6-2-4-0, $314,300.
Bred by Brookfield Stud in Kentucky, Soldat brought $180,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. He is the first registered foal from the unraced Le Relais (Coronado's Quest), who has since produced an unnamed two-year-old filly by Badge of Silver and a yearling colt by Tiz Wonderful. Le Relais is herself a half-sister to Canadian Grade 3 winner Mulrainy (Star de Naskra), and she hails from the family of Grade 2 victor Pine Dance (Pine Bluff) and seven-time stakes queen and Grade 2-placed The Happy Hopper (El Prado [Ire]).
McLaughlin said that Soldat would likely run next in the February 26 Fountain of Youth S. (G2) at this same track and trip. It is the first race at Gulfstream in the Preakness 5.5 series that could result in a $5.5 million bonus for the winner of the May 21 Preakness S. (G1) at Pimlico Race Course.
"There still may be some question of how he handles a fast track, although I'm not really that concerned the way he has trained," McLaughlin said. "And now we know the distance isn't a problem."