Keen Ice Tackles Another Tall Task in Whitney

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Keen Ice | Sarah K. Andrew

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – It has been nearly two years since Donegal Racing's Keen Ice (Curlin) forged past American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) in deep stretch to capture the GI Travers S., and the late-running veteran will get another chance to add his name to Saratoga's extensive list of high-profile upsets when he takes on two-time Grade I winner and expected heavy favorite Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg} in Saturday's GI Whitney S. Jerry Crawford, President of Donegal Racing, said Keen Ice is thriving and ready to compete at Saratoga for the first time since his defining victory.

“We're excited,” Crawford said when asked about the Whitney match-up Wednesday morning. “There's nothing on paper that suggests that we can beat Gun Runner on Saturday, but there was surely nothing on paper that suggested we would beat American Pharoah on Travers day a couple years ago. We're running at a place we know he loves.”

While Gun Runner does not carry quite the same mystique as a once-beaten Triple Crown winner, he has developed into a formidable handicap horse–one that would likely tower over the division if not for the presence of international superstar Arrogate (Unbridled's Song).

Keen Ice, of course, was trained by Dale Romans when he defeated American Pharoah, but after failing to regain his top form in five subsequent starts, he was transferred to the care of Todd Pletcher midway through the 2016 season. The bay finished a good third behind Arrogate in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita in November and ran fourth and seventh behind his gray foe in the Jan. 28 GI Pegasus World Cup Invitational and Mar. 25 G1 Dubai World Cup, respectively.

Settling in at Pletcher's barn in New York upon his return to the States, Keen Ice responded with a resounding upset of heavily favored MGISW Shaman Ghost (Ghostzapper) in the July 8 GII Suburban H. at Belmont, thrilling an enthusiastic crew of Donegal partners who were on hand to watch.

“Keen Ice's win at Belmont was more satisfying than anything I could ever describe,” Crawford said. “First of all, he's an old guy like me, and there are extra points for that. He's spent his career first running against American Pharoah, then running against California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit), and now running against Arrogate (Unbridled's Song).”

Crawford speculated that, depending on how Arrogate exits his recent disappointing fourth-place finish in Del Mar's GII San Diego H. July 22, Gun Runner could be ready to assume the role of the top older male in training. As such, the Donegal team strongly considered calling an audible and sending their stable star to the West Coast for the Aug. 19 GI Pacific Classic.

“Once Arrogate lost, all of a sudden the Pacific Classic was back in front of us as a desirable option,” Crawford explained. “It's a mile and a quarter as opposed to a mile and an eighth, which I would love. It's a race we won three years ago with Dullahan. It would give us two extra weeks. There was a lot to be said for it, but at the end of the day we're a little more east coast-oriented…And most importantly, Todd Pletcher believes the horse is training literally the best he's trained since he's had him under his care.”

Crawford said he believes jockey Jose Ortiz has an immense amount of confidence aboard the horse in both the afternoons and mornings, where Keen Ice has been breezing with good energy.

Donegal Racing has an opportunity to play the role of upsetter on Whitney eve as well, with their sophomore turfer Arklow (Arch) set to do battle in the GII National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame S. Never favored in his eight previous starts, the bay pulled off a 16-1 shocker in the GII American Turf S. on GI Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs in his first start facing winners. From a handicapper's perspective, Crawford admitted that he fully expected Arklow to contend for a victory in the July 8 GI Belmont Derby, but his hopes were dashed when the colt encountered trouble at the start and endured a wide-the-whole-way trip.

“If he runs his American Turf race in the Hall of Fame, he should win [Friday],” Crawford said. “Conversely, he really was disappointing in the Belmont Derby. We thought he would win that day, and we bet accordingly, frankly. That's the way to tell whether an owner really believes what he's saying.”

Always offering a frank assessment of his horses' chances, Crawford explained that Arklow hasn't been as flashy in the mornings compared to the days prior to the Belmont Derby–which may be a sign of maturity rather than a negative indicator.

“We're very optimistic, and believe there's an excellent chance he'll give his best Friday–but no guarantees,” Crawford said. “We know what he can do, and we know what he can do is good enough. And we know he's as sound as he can be.”

Donegal will send out a total of four starters between Friday and Saturday at the Spa, and recent GIII Poker S. hero Ballagh Rocks (Stormy Atlantic) is scheduled to compete in next Saturday's GI Fourstardave S. Crawford said it is simultaneously rewarding and tense to see the partnership “dancing in all the big dances.”

“On the days when we've been fortunate enough to be 3-5 in a graded stakes race, it seems like more pressure, but on days when we're an underdog, I feel like I'd rather be the favorite,” Crawford said with a laugh. “Horse ownership is not for the faint of heart. It's always something.”

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