C Z Rocket (left) wins the Hot Springs by a neck over four-time race winner and champion sprinter Whitmore
So far, Whitmore and C Z Rocket have fought to a split decision. Round 3 is Saturday at Oaklawn when they tangle again in the $500,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) for older sprinters at 6 furlongs.
“They’re two warriors,” said Peter Miller, trainer of C Z Rocket. “It’s Ali-Frazier. It’s going to be a battle. I think it will probably come down to who gets the trip.”
Round 1 went to Whitmore, who beat C Z Rocket by 3 ¼ lengths in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) Nov. 7 at Keeneland for co-owner/trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs. That outcome secured Whitmore an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion male sprinter of 2020 and snapped C Z Rocket’s five-race winning streak (all the victories, including two Grade 2 stakes, came after being claimed for $40,000 last April at Oaklawn).
Round 2 went to C Z Rocket, who beat Whitmore by a neck in the $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes March 13 at Oaklawn. That outcome made C Z Rocket, a 7-year-old gelding, a millionaire, denied Whitmore his record-extending fifth consecutive Hot Springs victory and from becoming the outright leader in career Oaklawn stakes victories with eight (the 8-year-old gelding shares the record with Swift Ruler). Whitmore has won the Count Fleet a record three times (2017, 2018 and 2020).
“They’re very comparable horses,” Miller said. “Really super-good horses.”
Whitmore and C Z Rocket headline the Count Fleet, which has drawn a field of seven. Probable post time for the Count Fleet, which goes as the 11th of 13 races, is 6:05 p.m. (Central). First post Saturday is 12:02 p.m.
The projected lineup from the rail out: No Parole, Ramon Vazquez to ride, 118 pounds, 9-2 on the morning line; Whitmore, Ricardo Santana Jr., 123, 9-5; Mojo Man, Francisco Arrieta, 116, 8-1; Strike Power, Joel Rosario, 117, 5-1; Empire of Gold, David Cabrera, 117, 8-1; C Z Rocket, Florent Geroux, 122, 2-1; and Mr. Jagermeister, Rocco Bowen, 116, 12-1.
Whitmore and C Z Rocket were making their first starts since the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in the Hot Springs. Both races were 6 furlongs. Tipping the scales, so slightly, in C Z Rocket’s favor last month may have been geography. He was training in Southern California, while Whitmore’s routine in Arkansas was interrupted for roughly two weeks by severe winter weather. Oaklawn lost 11 days of training (Feb. 12-22) to snow and arctic temperatures.
“We missed two works,” said Laura Moquett, who assists her husband and regularly gallops Whitmore, a career winner of almost $4.3 million. “That stunk. And he went five-wide. Had he gone on the rail and missed two works, maybe it would have been even. Had he had the two works and gone five-wide, maybe it would have been even. But doing both – missing two works and going five-wide – it’s not possible.”
Whitmore has had two half-mile works since the Hot Springs. Miller has kept a small string of horses at Oaklawn, but he opted to send C Z Rocket back to Southern California following the Hot Springs. The gelding has posted two works at his home base, San Luis Rey Downs.
“We were torn,” Miller said. “Leave him there or bring him home? Just with the weather there and everything like that, we thought it was prudent to bring him back.”
C Z Rocket was flown back to Arkansas Wednesday. He and Whitmore figure to again have plenty of pace to chase Saturday with the presence of Grade 1 winner No Parole, 2020 Breeders’ Cup fourth Empire of Gold, multiple stakes winner Mr. Jagermeister and Grade 3 winner Strike Power, who has the fastest 6-furlong time of the 2021 Oaklawn meet (1:08.91).
“Lots of pace,” Miller said. “There’s definitely lots of pace. We’re just going to leave it up to Flo.”
Let Round 3 begin.
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