Merit Man, a colt widely regarded as one of the country’s best 3-year-old sprinters, will face what could be his toughest test yet Saturday in the $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes (Grade 2) at Gulfstream Park
The Hutcheson is seven furlongs on dirt, with Merit Man the 3-1 morning-line favorite in a field that could have as many as nine starters.
On Saturday, Gulfstream also will have the $75,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint at five furlongs for 4-year-olds and up.
Great Attack, who finished second in the race last year and in 2011, heads a six-horse field.
Merit Man has won three of his four career starts, including the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 1.
His only loss was a second-place finish, by a nose to Hightail on Nov. 2 in a five-horse field in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
In both races, Merit Man appeared to relax briefly while leading in the stretch. He battled back in the Breeders’ Cup race but fell just short of catching Hightail, who is not in the Hutcheson.
“He is still learning some things,” said Bob Hess Jr., the trainer of Merit Man.
Hess is hoping that Merit Man will not have to take the lead Saturday and will be catching horses in the stretch run.
“He does not need to be on the lead, and there is some speed inside and outside,” Hess said of Merit Man, who has post position No. 5.
Paco Lopez will ride Merit Man for the first time. Joel Rosario, who rode the horse in the Spectacular Bid, will be at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday.
Forty Tales, Weekend Hideaway and Pataky Kid loom as the top challengers to Merit Man in a deep field.
Forty Tales, trained by Todd Pletcher, will make his stakes debut following wins at Aqueduct and at Parx Racing.
Pataky Kid won last year’s Arlington-Washington Futurity (Grade 3) at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Ill.
Weekend Hideaway won stakes races restricted to New York breds at Saratoga and at Belmont Park.
Pataky Kid and Forty Tales probably will stalk the pace.
Weekend Hideaway could be among early leaders, along with Undrafted and Singanothersong.
New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, who began his NFL career with the Dolphins, owns Undrafted.
Falling Sky is listed among Hutcheson entrants. But trainer John Terranova instead plans to run that horse in Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes (Grade 3) at Tampa Bay Downs.
Pick 6 carryover
On Saturday, Gulfstream will have a carryover of $1,122,165 on its Pick 6 bet on the last six races.
The bet is 10 cents only, with multiple horses permitted in each race. For example, a ticket with two horses in each race has 64 combinations and costs $6.40.
Gulfstream pays out the entire Pick 6 pool including the carryover only on days when there is just one winning ticket.
When there are multiple winners, such as Friday, it divides 60 percent of the day’s new bets. The other 40 percent goes into the carryover.
Bettors probably will add more than $200,000 on Saturday — bringing the pool above $1.3 million. The record payoff of $791,364 was last April 1.