Astronaut Set to Launch Season in $200,000 Mac Diarmida (G2)
6YO Horse Chasing Third Graded-Stakes in 1 3/8M Grass Test
Among Nine Stakes, Eight Graded, Worth $1.85 Million Saturday
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – John M.B. O’Connor’s Astronaut, a graded-stakes winner in his only two previous tries at the distance, looks to make it three in a row and give trainer Tom Albertrani his third career win in the $200,000 Mac Diarmida (G2) Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
The 1 3/8-mile Mac Diarmida for 4-year-olds and up on the grass is the eighth of nine stakes, eight graded, worth $1.85 million in purses on a blockbuster 14-race card anchored by the $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2) for 3-year-olds on the road to the $1 million Curlin Florida Derby (G1).
Post time is 11 a.m. EST. The Mac Diarmida immediately precedes the Fountain of Youth as Race 13 with a post time of 5:09 p.m. EST.
By Quality Road, winner of the 2009 Florida Derby (G1) and 2010 Donn Handicap (G1) at Gulfstream, Astronaut began his career with Albertrani going winless in three starts including a second in a Gulfstream maiden special weight in April 2020. He was shipped out to California where he graduated in May 2021 and later that summer captured the Del Mar Handicap (G2) in his first try at 11 furlongs.
Astronaut followed up with off-the-board finishes in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) and Hollywood Turf Cup (G1) before getting time off and returning to be eighth in the Del Mar Mile (G2) last fall. Following that race, he was returned to Albertrani and ran third in the 1 ½-mile Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) at odds of 67-1 before springing a 15-1 upset in the 1 3/8-mile Red Smith (G2) over Thanksgiving weekend.
“He ran a huge race last time. Actually, his last two races were really good,” Albertrani said. “He looked like he really stepped up since he came back from California. He’s been training really well. We gave him a little break and freshened him up a little bit and he’s been working really well. We’re really excited to see him come back and run Saturday.”
Albertrani won the Mac Diarmida in 2018 with Sadler’s Joy and 2014 with Twilight Eclipse, both retired as multi-millionaires. Astronaut himself is more than halfway to seven figures, having banked $511,860 from 14 starts with three wins and five seconds, including the 2021 San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita (G3) in his stakes debut.
“He likes to be up close and he’s got a lot of stamina to go with it,” Albertrani said. “The way he ran in the Red Smith, he got to an easy lead I’d say and had a lot to finish with. He probably could have gone a little longer even, who knows.”
Luis Saez is named to ride Astronaut from Post 7 in an overflow field of 13 that includes one also-eligible, Rachid Racing Inc.’s Marwad, a winner at the course and distance Jan. 28.
“It’s off the layoff, but he didn’t miss a day of training. We just gave him a light month for the first month and then right back on the work schedule,” Albertrani said. “Fitness-wise, I’m not concerned at all about how fit he’s going to be. I know he stays pretty fit, and one thing about him is he just never seems to get tired.”
Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Alex Daigneault’s Abaan is a two-time stakes winner over the Gulfstream turf, having taken the two-mile H. Allen Jerkens to cap 2021 and the 1 ½-mile William L. McKnight (G3) to open 2022. He has gone winless since, running fourth in last year’s Mac Diarmida and most recently ninth after being pressured up front Jan. 28 in his McKnight title defense.
A familiar foe for Astronaut will be Master Piece, who closed to be second by a half-length behind the winner in the Del Mar Handicap two summers ago. He was purchased privately for a partnership headed by Michael and Jules Iavarone following the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Turf, where he ran eighth, for a run in the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) Jan. 28 at Gulfstream.
In the 1 1/8-mile Pegasus Turf, Master Piece found himself trailing the field after encountering some early trouble but rallied to finish ahead of five horses while running seventh, beaten just three lengths by Atone.
“He was far back last time and gave himself too much to do. If he could have gotten a little closer position early on, he might have even gotten closer,” Championship Meet leading trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. said. “He didn’t hit the board or get a piece of it, but we felt like he ran well enough to try this spot. The extra distance should work well for him. I feel like he has a very good chance going into the race.”
Tyler Gaffalione, also up in the Breeders’ Cup, gets the return call on Master Piece from Post 2.
“He’s got a race over the course now. Coming from California we didn’t have him too long before the last race, but he’s bene able to settle in a little longer,” Joseph said. “He’s a very smart horse, a very relaxed horse, a very easy-going horse. I feel like he goes over there with a very good chance.”
Already a record three-time Mac Diarmida winner with Zulu Alpha (2019-20) and Temple (2022), trainer Mike Maker entered the trio of Bemma’s Boy, Value Engineering and Wicked Fast. Paradise Farms Corp.’s Bemma’s Boy won the 1 ½-mile Pan American (G2) over Zulu Alpha in 2020 at Gulfstream, missing nearly a year before returning last February. He was fourth in a Gulfstlream optional claiming allowance going one mile Jan. 1, his first race in eight months.
Michael Hui and Phil Forte’s Value Engineering won the 2022 H. Allen Jerkens on Tapeta and was second by a length to Maker-trained stablemate Red Knight in the Jan. 28 McKnight, beating Jordan Wycoff’s Wicked Fast in both races. Third by two lengths in the McKnight and second by 1 ¼ in the Jerkens, Wicked Fast also closed to be fourth by 2 ½ lengths in the 1 1/8-mile Hill Prince (G2) last fall.
Winner of the 2019 Curlin on dirt as a 3-year-old, W.S. Farish homebred Highest Honors seeks his first graded triumph after running second in the Red Smith and third in the Sycamore (G3) at Keeneland and Louisville (G3) at Churchill last year, the latter two at 1 ½ miles. Trainer Chad Brown won the 2017 Mac Diarmida with Wake Forest.
Bloom Racing Stable’s Henley’s Joy is a millionaire that won the 2018 Pulpit at Gulfstream and the 2019 Belmont Derby Invitational (G1) but has gone winless since and will be facing graded company for just the second time since finishing eighth in the January 2021 John B. Connally Turf Cup (G3) at Sam Houston. Last out he was second to Marwad at Gulfstream.
Rhianon Farms Inc.’s Barberini, third in the Jerkens; Lawrence Goichman and Jennifer Goichman’s Shawdyshawdyshawdy and Jeff Hiles and Thorndale Stables’ Time for Trouble, respectively fourth and sixth in the McKnight; and Rore Champion Racing’s Value Proposition, winner of the 2021 Oyster Bay at Belmont Park, round out the field.