OZONE PARK, N.Y. — Coming off a pair of stakes wins on the local strip, the venerable New York-bred Mr. Buff will look to finally break through in a graded stakes race on Saturday on Aqueduct Racetrack’s main track when he lines up against six rivals in the nine-furlong Grade 3, $150,000 Excelsior for 4-year-olds and up.
Off as Race 8 on the 11-race card, the Excelsior is part of an action-packed day at the Big A that features the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial presented by Resorts World Casino, the final local prep for the Kentucky Derby offering 100-40-20-10 qualifying points to the top-four finishers, as well as the Grade 1, $300,000 Carter Handicap, the Grade 3, $200,000 Bay Shore and the Grade 3, $250,000 Gazelle, offering 100-40-20-10 qualifying points to the Kentucky Oaks.
Mr. Buff, who has already secured millionaire status, still stands out as a leading attraction. The Chester and Mary Broman homebred has 17 wins to his credit, 11 of them in stakes races, but has been unable to seal the deal in a graded race in five attempts.
Despite his graded woes, the 7-year-old son of Friend Or Foe has compiled an imposing resume. His ledger at Aqueduct features 10 wins and earnings in excess of $600,000.
After a distant fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap to begin the Big A winter meet on December 5, Mr. Buff rebounded with an encouraging runner-up performance in the Alex M. Robb for New York-breds just seven days later and has since rattled off wins in the Stymie and Jazil, the latter of which he accomplished by seven lengths at the Excelsior distance.
With his affinity for Aqueduct well established, his trainer John Kimmel hopes at long last the Excelsior will mark his first graded triumph.
“He’s doing terrific,” Kimmel said of the chestnut gelding. “He’s been acting great, breezing great, and he certainly has a good record at Aqueduct. He’s been so consistent on this track that I have to think he’s going to give another good performance. He’s beaten a lot of graded winners, so we’ll see what happens.”
Kendrick Carmouche, who was aboard for his runaway score in the Jazil when he came from just off the pace, will have the call from the outermost post.
“If he’s ridden the right way I think he’s going to win,” said Kimmel. “Kendrick understands the kind of horse he is; he knows he doesn’t need to be committed to the lead. He can find his rhythm with that big stride of his and high cruising speed and hopefully he can make a comfortable lead, but if not Kendrick knows to be patient.”
An eclectic group of challengers will enter the starting gate to face Mr. Buff, with small barns being well represented in the Excelsior.
Limonite has been a revelation since being claimed by trainer Amira Chichakly three starts ago for $40,000. While Limonite began his career as a highly promising 2-year-old and a potential Kentucky Derby prospect in 2019, his development had plateaued by 2020 as he bounced around the claiming ranks in the latter half of the year.
His fortunes changed suddenly when haltered by Chichakly and owners Brian and Kerry Novak on January 30 at the Big A, and in his first start for his new connections, which came little more than a week later, Limonite exploded to a five-length win over optional claiming company.
Last out he proved that performance was no fluke with a game runner-up finish in the Stymie behind Mr. Buff, missing by just a half-length to that one in the end.
Fresh off his first NYRA jockey title at the Aqueduct winter meet, Eric Cancel will be aboard Limonite from post 4.
Backsideofthemoon, another popular older claimer, will rejoin the stakes ranks in the Excelsior after being taken back by trainer Robert Klesaris in his last start for $62,500. Like Mr. Buff, Backsideofthemoon has a history of running his best races at Aqueduct, and the 9-year-old even ran a career best race here on December 19 in the Queens County, which he won by six lengths with a 106 Beyer Speed Figure.
He will break from post 3 with jockey Trevor McCarthy in the irons.
Representing the bigger stables will be trainer Todd Pletcher, who looks to saddle a horse-for-course with Haikal. Formerly under the care of now-retired trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, the Shadwell homebred made a name for himself over this track in early 2019, when he won the Grade 3 Gotham and looked like a legitimate Derby prospect before being forced to hit the sidelines following a third-place finish in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial that same year.
Haikal nearly returned a winner at the Big A to begin his 2020 campaign, but three subsequent tries, all at Gulfstream Park, have produced underwhelming results.
“He didn’t seem to like Gulfstream at all,” said Pletcher, who took over Haikal’s training duties when McLaughlin retired early last year. “His form is good at Aqueduct. Hopefully by getting him back to Aqueduct, we’ll get him back on course.”
Haikal will be ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr. from the inside post.
Rounding out the field are Modernist [post 5, Junior Alvarado], a former graded winner for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott who finished second in his 2021 bow in the Grade 3 Challenger; the Tom Albertrani-trained Tintoretto [post 6, Jose Ortiz] looking to improve off a fourth in the Stymie; and Grumps Little Tots [post 2, Manny Franco], who steps up in class for conditioner Rob Atras following a nose win in a $50,000 claimer traveling nine furlongs on February 26 at Aqueduct.
First post on Saturday’s 11-race program is 12:50 p.m. Eastern.
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Aqueduct Press Release
Photo: Mr. Buff, (Joe Labozzetta)