Strong field headlines Festival

Steve Bortstein
For The Daily Times

SUNLAND PARK — A dozen of the best sophomore thoroughbreds in America will square off in today’s $415,000 Festival of Racing Stakes at Sunland Park and Casino.

GM Gage, with Roimes Chirinos aboard, gets to the wire first in a driving finish to score an upset victory in Saturday's New Mexico State University Handicap at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino.

While there are no points for this race in terms of getting an invitation into the starting gate in the May 7 Kentucky Derby, for the winning connections, there are nearly $250,000 reasons to run.

The Festival of Racing Stakes, previously run as the Sunland Derby, doesn’t come with the standard fanfare of being a ticket to Churchill Downs. A backstretch virus that slowed the racing season to a crawl for more than a month effectively eliminated visiting horsemen from running horses here. That outbreak, now officially over with at the facility with its backstretch taken off the quarantined list, made it possible for some of the nation’s top horsemen to send their elite runners to this event.

Trainer Bob Baffert, a three-time winner of the Sunland Derby, is represented today by Collected. A two-time winner from four career starts, the Kentucky bred son of City Zip won the Sham Stakes in January at Santa Anita in southern California before running fourth as the favorite in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.

Baffert, coming off last year’s historic run with Triple Crown conqueror American Pharoah, could be on the verge of a very big weekend, having saddled Cupid to an impressive win at Oaklawn Park in the $900,000 Rebel Stakes. A win by Collected would give Baffert a rare weekend sweep of the nation’s top three-year-old races.

Collected, once again, will be ridden by Martin Garcia, who also rode Cupid to victory in the Rebel. They will break from the eight hole in the starting gate as the 5-to-2 morning-line favorite.

Another of the nation’s leading trainers, Todd Pletcher, is represented in the Festival of Racing Stakes with Gettysburg.

Drawn all the way to the outside in the race, Gettysburg broke his maiden two starts back at Gulfstream Park in south Florida before finishing fifth as the favorite in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.The winner of that race, Destin, came back last weekend to score another victory in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby.

Gettysburg, a Kentucky bred son of Pioneerof The Nile, will be piloted by his regular rider Javier Castellano and is the second choice on the morning line at 3-to-1.

Trainer Doug O’Neill, another who has had success at Sunland Park, will send out railsitter Found Money and jockey Mario Gutierrez. Found Money.

The California-bred son of Square Eddie, has won three times from eight lifetime starts, including a win in the state-bred restricted King Glorious Stakes last December at Los Alamitos Race Course. He sandwiched that win around fourth place efforts in the Delta Downs Jackpot in Louisiana before finishing behind Collected in the Sham Stakes in his only start in 2016.

O’Neill has twice saddled winners in the Sunland Derby, his most recent being in 2005.

Found Money has been installed as the 7-to-2 third choice on the morning line for the Festival of Racing Stakes, which will be contested at one and 1/8 miles.

The Festival of Racing Stakes is the final of seven stakes races on an extraordinary card of live action, which also includes the $200,000 Plum Pretty Stakes, as well as the $100,000 Bill Thomas Memorial Stakes and the $100,000 Harry Henson Handicap.

First post for today’s program is 1:30 p.m., with the Festival of Racing Stakes set for 5:05 p.m.

GM Gage takes over NMSU Handicap

Making his first start in a stakes race, GM Gage and jockey Roimes Chirinos swept past leaders Weather Dodger and Song of Laura in the final yards before posting a 16-to-1 upset in the $85,000 New Mexico State University Handicap.

A son of Elijah’s Song, GM Gage raced far back early off a contested pace, set by Song Of Laura and Weather Dodger, who competed in their own private match race through moderate fractions of 24 minutes and 17 seconds, and 47.50 for the opening half-mile.

GM Gage moved to the outside of horses on the far turn, but was still in eighth place as the field raced to the top of the lane.

Chirinos got busy aboard GM Gage, picking off rivals through the length of the stretch before passing the leaders in the shadow of the wire and prevailing by a neck. GM Gage ran the mile and 70 yards in 1:41.4 and returned $34.60 to his winning backers.

Owned & bred by Maurcenia Cross and trained by Gary Cross, GM Gage earned $51,000 with the win, bringing his career earnings total to over $141,000. A four-time winner from 18 lifetime starts, GM Gage has never finished worse than third in eight starts at Sunland Park.

Weather Dodger held the place spot ahead of Song Of Laura, with Vic Tories, Streaks Bro, The Waki Rapper, Desert Mystery, E Bar Way, Rising Giant and Cross Chris Run rounding out the order of finish.

Steve Bortstein hosts "First Sports" and "The Fast Track" on Fox Sports 1340 AM and 93.9 FM and on iHeartRadio. He serves as paddock show host at SunRay Park & Casino and is a voting member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Follow him @fox1340am on Twitter.