Merit Man showed his affinity for sprint distances in Tuesday's $140,000 Spectacular Bid at Gulfstream Park, prevailing by nearly a length in the six-furlong event for newly-turned three-year-olds. The Bob Hess Jr.-trained colt was making his first attempt outside the state of California, winning his first two starts at Del Mar and Santa Anita before a nose second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint as the odds-on favorite.
"That was a lot of fun," Hess said of the front-running win. "He broke so sharp he (jockey Joel Rosario) really had to go on with him. We love Santa Anita, but for him the series of races for three-year-olds is better here. We'll look to run him again in about a month. The (Grade 2) Hutcheson (at seven furlongs on February 2) looks like the logical spot."
Hess was asked about trying the son of With Distinction at longer distances, with the allure of a Kentucky Derby bid always a major temptation for the connections of talented three-year-olds.
"Everything about him says sprinting and that's what we'll concentrate on for now," the conditioner said.
Sent off the 6-5 second choice among six rivals, Merit Man broke sharply from his rail post and completed the opening quarter-mile in :22 with a head advantage. It was a four-way battle for the early lead down the backstretch, with Rockyshomerun, Cat Five Hurricane and Brave Dave mixing it up to the outside of Merit Man. City of Weston stalked in fifth behind the leaders and 6-5 favorite Little Distorted trailed.
Merit Man and Rockyshomerun continued to match strides around the far turn, with the latter sticking a head in front through a half-mile in :44 4/5, but Merit Man shook free from his rival entering the stretch drive. City of Weston, the 50-1 longest shot, advanced into contention after straightening for home and loomed a threatening presence on the far outside with a furlong remaining, but Merit Man gamely repelled his challenger and was edging away late.
"He's a nice horse and broke well out of the gate," said Rosario, who was picking up the mount for the first time. "He waited a little bit turning for home but that's how he is. I think he's a nice horse and I know how far he can run, probably seven-eighths (of a mile). I'm very glad I had the opportunity to ride him."
Merit Man paid $4.40, $3 and $2.10 after stopping the teletimer in 1:11 1/5 on the fast track. City of Weston easily held the place, 4 1/2 lengths better than third-placer Little Distorted, who was followed under the wire by Rockyshomerun, Cat Five Hurricane and Brave Dave.
Campaigned by Bruce Chandler, Robert McKee and James Glavin, Merit Man posted a near one-length score when making his debut against maiden special weight foes at Del Mar September 2 and followed it with an eye-catching 5 1/2-length decision in the October 6 Tim Conway at Santa Anita. He has now earned $292,000.
Bred in Florida by Hartley/De Renzo Thoroughbreds and Stephen Barberino, Merit Man was purchased for $75,000 at the OBS April two-year-old sale last spring. The bay is the first foal to race out of the winning Precise End mare Precise Strike.