February 7, 2014 - 7:45 AM
By Gene Kershner
Trainer Nick Gonzalez stood in the winner's circle for the first time in a graded stake at Churchill Downs last November and will look to duplicate that feat at Gulfstream Park on Sunday. He'll enter his star 4-year-old River Seven into the $500,000 Grade 1 Donn Handicap at 1 1/8 miles, which will be the debut broadcast on the new Fox Sports 1 series, "The Jockey Club Tour on Fox."
The field for the 59th edition of the Donn is stacked with formidable contenders including 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge, who was assigned the highweight of 123 pounds. Revolutionary, a fixture on last year's triple crown trail will make his first start of 2014, last running in the Belmont Stakes after finishing third in the Derby.
Gonzalez is more than excited in attempting to win a fourth straight stakes race with River Seven, who set the Gulfstream track record for 1 1/16 miles in the $100,000 Harlan's Holiday Stakes going 1.41.73. The track record was set during his second career start on dirt, his first coming in last year's Prince of Wales Stakes at nearby Fort Erie where he finished second to Uncaptured, who drew the rail on Sunday for trainer Mark Casse.
The field of 11 will also include Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up Will Take Charge trained by the venerable D. Wayne Lukas. "There was supposed to be a whole pile of them last week and then when Wayne Lukas showed up with WTC, it scared a few off," said Gonzalez by phone from Florida on Wednesday.
The defending champion trainer of last year's Queen's Plate winner Midnight Aria isn't scared of taking on the big boys. "That's what you get in those kinds of races, if you're thinking or expecting anything less than a field like that you're just kidding yourself anyways. You just have to be prepared for the big show when you're entered in a half million dollar Grade 1 race."
River Seven will receive a seven pound weight break from Will Take Charge and three from Revolutionary, which should help his cause. "The weights seemed kind of peculiar to me at first, but I guess when you start at the highweight at 123 and go down that's a realistic weight for River I guess so. We're happy with it," said Gonzalez.
Joe Rocco, Jr., who was aboard during the track record ride in the Harlan's Holiday, will ride River Seven on Sunday. Gonzalez is confident he will give him the best chance to extend his winning streak to four. "He's had three different riders on his last three stakes wins and he's not one of those horses where you have to give him a lot of instructions to anyone who rides him. He's got tracking speed, it's one of those things where you have a smart rider who knows the pace, you just have to figure it out once you go a half a mile and take it from there," said the Fort Erie-based trainer.
River Seven's last breeze was a successful one on Sunday morning and he had a chance encounter with two-time Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf champion Groupie Doll. "They both breezed at the same time Sunday morning. It was funny they were walking back to the barns after their workouts, it was very cool to see them side by side," he said.
"It's going to be a big day with Groupie Doll running and making her last start in the Hurricane Bertie. It would be great to see a champ like that go out with a win," said Gonzalez.
The Hurricane Bertie and the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap will both be a part of the Fox broadcast on Sunday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. ET.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.