There’s a different kind of lull on the second Saturday in May this year, which would normally come between the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve and Preakness Stakes. With major tracks such as Churchill Downs and Santa Anita planning to open next week, the spotlight falls on Gulfstream Park with the running of the $75,000 Sunshine Forever stakes. The race features a number of graded stakes winners so it is classier than it might be given credit for.
Leading the field in terms of accomplishments is 2019 Preakness Stakes winner War of Will, making his first start since a ninth-place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall and trying turf for the first time since the fall of 2018. Admission Office is another with a number of higher-level efforts, most recently when the runner-up in the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida Stakes over the course in February. El Tormenta won the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile last summer and makes his second start of the year off a 12th- and last-place effort in the Grade 3 Appleton Stakes at Gulfstream, which was won by Social Paranoia. Horses with wins in non-graded stakes over the course include Halladay (Tropical Park Derby) and Aquaphobia (Old Man Eloquent Stakes), the latter dropping significantly in class off a fourth-place effort in the Grade 2 Muniz Memorial Classic Stakes in March. Another proven competitive at the level is Cullum Road, who is returning from a six-month layoff but who missed by a neck in the Grade 3 River City Handicap when last seen in the fall. Hawkish is another returnee, not seen since October, but he finished a close second off a similar layoff in the 2019 Appleton Stakes so could fire nicely off the bench. Highland Sky returns from seven months off and appears to be prepping for longer as his last win came in the mile and one-quarter John’s Call Stakes in August. Sand Dancer, whose last stakes placing came in the Grade 2 Hill Prince Stakes in 2018, steps up off a runner-up effort over the course in March. Regally Irish won the Bridgetown Stakes 13 months ago but is winless in six straight since then, including a last of 10 finish last month. Just Whistle rounds out the field and is entered for the main track only so is hoping for inclement weather to help him run as well as when he came in second in the Grade 3 Hal’s Hope Stakes in March.
I like Aquaphobia to win the Sunshine Forever Stakes just as he won the Old Man Eloquent Stakes on the course at the same distance in February. That win came right after trainer Michael Maker claimed him for $62,500 and it was the best effort he put forth in over a year in terms of the 107 Equibase Speed Figure earned in that race. Stepping up into the much tougher Muniz Memorial Stakes one month later, Aquaphobia wasn’t disgraced when fourth of 12. Getting the services of Irad Ortiz Jr., who has been red-hot (15 for 48) since returning from time off in April, Aquaphobia should be in a stalking position around fourth in the early stages just as he was in the Old Man Eloquent in February and get up in time to win.
Social Paranoia certainly deserves a lot of respect when considering who can win this race as he just won the Appleton Stakes over the course. Rallying from last of 12 until the turn, Social Paranoia was visually impressive moving from seventh near the top of the stretch to draw off late. Having won the Dueling Grounds Derby in September prior to that, it’s likely Social Paranoia might run even better in the Sunshine Forever. The 118 figure earned in the Appleton is the best last-race figure in the field and there’s no concern with the jockey change to Edgard Zayas, who has won with eight of 30 (27%) of starters he’s ridden for trainer Todd Pletcher in the last year.
Admission Office is another with credentials to succeed although he doesn’t find the winner’s circle very often. Winner of three of his first five races, although none of those were stakes races, Admission Office missed by a half-length in the Dixie Stakes on Preakness day last spring. Duplicating that fine effort, Admission Office missed by a half-length in the Wise Dan Stakes one month later, then followed up with defeats by less than a length in the River City Stakes and Fort Lauderdale Stakes. In his most recent race, Admission Office rallied from far back in seventh to make the lead at the top of the stretch in the Mac Diarmida Stakes, only to get run down by multiple stake winner Zulu Alpha in the last sixteenth of a mile. That effort earned a 117 figure on par with the 118 figure Social Paranoia earned over the course one month later so it appears clear that Admission Office fits with the top contenders in this race.
Both Halladay and Hawkish get honorable mention as contenders. Halladay earned a career-best 115 figure winning his most recent race on April 4 and won a non-graded stakes, the Tropical Park Derby, at this distance over the course two races prior to that. Hawkish won the Cliff Hanger Stakes nearly a year ago to the day and one race prior to that earned a 115 figure on the Gulfstream turf. Although attempting to win following seven months off, he did win in his career debut at a mile on grass so could be the type to fire big when fresh.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is Cullum Road (115), El Tormenta (116), Highland Sky (114), Just Whistle (108-dirt), Regally Irish (102), Sand Dancer (104) and War of Will (119).