In New York, California and Florida, weekend racing put the Derby spotlight on horses either making their first start as 3-year-olds or breaking into the big time for the first time.
Oh, and then there was Harlan's Holiday, who won Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby the way a favorite is supposed to win -- even if he had a little help from his friends.
Harlan's Holiday finished second to Booklet in both the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth. Saturday, Booklet again went for the lead. But this time, he was accompanied by another speedster, Smooth Jazz. The duo blazed through the fastest half mile in the history of the race -- 45.36 seconds, dooming Booklet's chances for a three-peat.
When Harlan's Holiday made his move on the turn, he met no opposition and won by 3 ½ lengths over a late-closing Blue Burner. Peekskill, at 96-1, was a trifecta-killing third and Booklet struggled home fourth.
"He ran a super race in the Florida Derby and came out of the race in great shape," trainer Ken McPeek said of Harlan's Holiday. "He seems to be getting better with every race and I still don't think he's reached his peak yet. Hopefully, that'll be in the Kentucky Derby because that's our ultimate goal."
McPeek said he will keep Harlan's Holiday and Louisiana Derby winner Repent on separate courses until the first Saturday in May. That means Harlan's Holiday could run in the Blue Grass at Keeneland or the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 13 or the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park on April 6, he said.
Booklet's trainer, John Ward, said his colt "got caught in a kamikaze speed duel in the Florida Derby. There's nothing you can do about it now." He said he expects Booklet will make his next start in the Blue Grass.
Gulfstream also turned up two newcomers in the Florida Derby undercard.
In the 7-furlong Swale Stakes, Ethan Man was an impressive, 3-length winner, finishing in 1:22 1/5. "He'll run in either the Blue Grass or the Lexington Stakes," said trainer Pat Byrne. "If he runs well, then we'll take a look at the Kentucky Derby."
The wise guys were looking hardest at Buddha, who rallied from just off the pace in Saturday's third race to win by 9 ½ lengths. But trainer H. James Bond said Sunday he has "no definite plans" for the Unbridled's Song colt.
The weekend's biggest upset was in the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, the last local prep for the April 6 Santa Anita Derby. Siphonic was the 2-5 favorite, based mainly on his third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and victory in the Hollywood Futurity last year.
But it was the unheralded Medaglia d'oro who won the gold medal. Coming off his maiden victory and making just his third career start, the El Prado colt shot to the lead under Laffit Pincay Jr., then fell back to third on the second turn behind Siphonic and U S S Tinosa. But Pincay gathered his mount, found room on the rail and regained the lead at the eighth pole. The colt then took command and won by 2 ½ lengths. U S S Tinosa was second and Siphonic third.
Pincay said he didn't want to challenge Siphonic's move "because my horse is a very young horse....I took my time and I hoped for the best. Sure enough, I got through on the rail and he finished very well, like a good horse."
Jerry Bailey, on Siphonic, said when he asked for run in the final furlong, "I really had nothing left." Siphonic's trainer, David Hofmans, said he would scope the colt "and re-evaluate where we're going from here."
Medaglia D'oro's trainer, Bobby Frankel, said the colt has not been nominated to the Triple Crown but will be. Medaglia D'oro finished second in his only start last year at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, then broke his maiden last month at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said U S S Tinosa "ran real well" and will be moved along to one of four races: The Santa Anita Derby, the Illinois Derby, the Blue Grass or the Wood Memorial.
Sunday's Gotham featured two colts making much-antipicated 3-year-old debuts: Mayakovsky and Saarland. Mayakovsky, a son of Matty G and grandson of Capote, hadn't run since finishing second to Came Home in the Hopeful at Saratoga last September. Saarland, by Unbridled out of Versailles Treaty, hadn't raced since winning the Remsen at Aqueduct last November.
The race went almost as expected, with Mayakovsky getting the early lead and coasting home first, 3 ¾ lengths ahead of Saarland despite drifting out in the stretch. Parade of Music was a non-threatening third. Time for the one-turn mile was 1:34.90.
"Tonight," said winning trainer Patrick Biancone, "I am going to dream about the Derby. Maybe tomorrow, when I wake up, I can change my mind. Tonight, we're allowed to dream." If he stays on the Derby trail, Biancone said, Mayakovsky will return from his California base for the Wood Memorial.
Shug McGaughey said Saarland suffered from a slow pace but ran well. "This gives me a lot of confidence, the way he finished up," added the conditioner, who has yet to win the Kentucky Derby. "This is what he needed, both physically and mentally. He'll be staying in New York for the Wood Memorial."
Tampa Bay Downs:
Sunday's Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs turned up a new face. Equality took the lead from Political Attack on the backstretch and cruised home to win by 2 ¼ length over Tails of the Crypt. Political Attack held third. Equality, a Mt. Livermore colt ridden by Ramon Dominguez, got the 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.66.
"This is the first time we've won a Derby, so we're going to take some time and let this sink in," said winning trainer H. Graham Motion. "He might have won a place in one of the prep races."
Equality came into the race with just two victories -- a maiden event at Delaware Park last October and an off-the-turf conditioned allowance event at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 11 that he won by 16 ½ lengths. In that race, Motion said, "we didn't know if it was him or the field."
Cashel Castle finally made his first start as a 3-year-old in a 6-furlong optional claimer Sunday. Trainer Chris Block had tried repeatedly to get the Silver Ghost colt a race but ran into one problem after another with races not filling, weather-related cancellations, etc. After winning Sunday by 5 ¼ lengths against older horses, Cashel Castle now is undefeated in four races, including last year's Houston Juvenile. He is being pointed for the Lafayette Stakes April 7 at Keeneland.
Also Sunday, War Emblem won the $45,000 Illinois Derby Prep by 10 ¾ lengths and is expected back for the main event on April 6.
NEXT WEEK: Turfway Park's $600,000 Spiral Stakes is expected to provide an encore challenge for Request For Parole and Perfect Drift, who finished 1-2, a nose apart, in the March 2 John Battaglia Memorial. Top import is likely to be My Man Ryan, whose trainer, Richard Violette, opted for this spot over the Gotham at Aqueduct. "We think he has a legitimate chance to run big in a big money race like the Spiral," Violette said.
The UAE Derby in Dubai on Saturday should sort out any Godolphin pretenders to Derby glory.
Also on tap are the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, a prep for the Arkansas Derby, and the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway.
Tempera, last year's winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, was embarrassed in her 3-year-old debut Thursday in Dubai, losing to stablemate Infinite Spirit in the $250,000 UAE 1,000 Guineas. Tempera, previously considered an outside prospect for the Kentucky Derby by the Godolphin racing brain trust, put in a bid in the stretch run but couldn't come even with Infinite Spirit and wasn't pushed by jockey Frankie Dettori after it was clear she would have to settle for second. Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford called the effort "very disappointing."
At Gulfstream Park, Dust Me Off pulled a modest upset in Friday's $250,000 Bonnie Miss Stakes. With Mark Guidry up, the With Approval filly went quickly to the front, coasted through reasonable fractions and got home first, 3 ¼ lengths ahead of Nonsuch Bay. The favorite, previously undefeated Belterra, raced evenly to finish third in her 3-year-old debut. Dust Me Off came off a 6-length allowance victory in her last start and remains undefeated on the main track. Her only loss was on the grass.
At Tampa Bay Downs, French Satin led from gate to wire in winning the $150,000 Florida Oaks on Sunday. The French Deputy filly turned back a series of challenges before finishing 1 ¾ lengths ahead of Romancin Dixie. "There's a lot of options for her now," said trainer Steven Standridge. "I think we'll pick her spots and do real nicely with her." French Satin was fourth in the Forward Gal and third in the Davona Dale this winter at Gulfstream.
In other weekend racing:
Gold Mover tracked the early pace set by Mandy's Gold in Sunday's $100,000 Hurricane Bertie Handicap, then went on by in mid-stretch to win by 1 length. Celtic Melody was along to take second from the pace-setter. Gold Mover, a 4-year-old daughter of Gold Fever, completed 6 ½ furlongs in 1:15.38. Trainer Mark Hennig said Gold Mover could move along to the Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs on Derby Week.
Saturday, Bay Street Gal led all the way in the $100,000 One Dreamer Stakes, beating Company Storm by 1 ½ lengths. Clearly a Queen was third. Bay Street Gal, a 5-year-old Marco Bay mare, raced 1 mile on the grass in 1:33.81.
Ask Me No Secrets took the lead into the first turn of Saturday's $200,000 Oaklawn Breeders' Cup Stakes, repelled a bid by Red n'Gold and went on to win by 4 ½ lengths. Red n'Gold held second while the even-money favorit, Descapate, could do no better than third in the field of five starters. Ask Me No Secrets, a 4-year-old Seattle Slew filly, got the 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:44.56. Jockey Mike Smith said the plan was to get Ask Me No Secrets right into the race. "When she hit her best stride, those 'antennas' came up and I knew she was going to give me a big race," he said. Added assistant trainer Grant Hoffmans, "She has that way of relaxing and pricking her ears, that you can see when she is running easily."
Mr Ross won a three-way sprint to the wire in Saturday's $100,000 Razorback Handicap. Racing in the middle, the 7-year-old Slewacide gelding finished a neck ahead of Remington Rock on the outside and another neck better than pace-setting Big Numbers nearest the rail. The favorite, Crafty Shaw, was fourth. Winning trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel said when Crafty Shaw didn't go to the lead, Don Pettinger was able to keep Mr Ross right behind a soft pace. "The big surprise," he said, "was the first part." Crafty Shaw's trainer, Pete Vestal, said his charge "was just a tired horse -- empty."
Tampa Bay Downs
Platinum Tiara got right to the front from the No. 1 post in Sunday's $100,00 Hillsborough Stakes and stayed in front until she flashed under the wire, 1 ½ lengths ahead of the even-money favorite, Step With Style. Ioya Two was a neck farther back in third. Platinum Tiara, a 4-year-old Cozzene filly, knocked off the 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:41.34. Rob Murphy, who heads the syndicate that owns Platinum Tiara, said the filly will go back to Calder "and will go from there. I've learned that a long-term perspective is one day at a time." Murphy, who pitched for the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox during his major league career, reminisced about different times at the track. "I used to come here every day during spring training with Pete Rose when he managed the Reds," Murphy said.
Golden Gate Fields
Once again, trainer Bobby Frankel had so many prospects for Saturday's Golden Gate Breeders' Cup Handicap that when his main one, Northern Quest, was sidelined, he still won the race. No Slip rallied four-wide into the turn after racing at the back of the pack and swept to a 2-length victory over Kerrygold. Sumitas, another Frankel charge, led early and held third. "We had four nominated and Northern Quest was our main one," said Frankel assistant Humberto Ascanio. "But when he came up with a quarter crack, we figured No Slip was a good substitute." No Slip, a 4-year-old French-bred by Exit to Nowhere, covered the 1 1/8 mile on firm turf in 1:49.41. Two weeks ago, Frankel sent out Milwaukee Brew to win the Santa Anita Handicap as a sub for Mizzen Mast.
Affirmed Success hadn't won since last Independence Day when he lined up in the gate for Saturday's $100,000 Toboggan Handicap. No horse as old as his 8 years had won the Toboggan in its previous 108 runnings. No matter. With Richard Migliore up, the Affirmed gelding took his time into the turn, then took command and won by 2 lengths over Vodka. Multiple Choice was third and the favorite, Wrangler, was fourth. The 7 furlongs took 1:22.87. "He's an amazing horse," said winning trainer Richard Schosberg. "He's quite a story. You just don't see horses maintain a level like this for so long." He said Affirmed Success will be nominated to the Carter on April 13.
Wired to Fly lived up to her name in Saturday's $100,000 Cicero Handicap. The 5-year-old Flying Victor mare shot out of the gate and dragged jockey Alfredo Juarez Jr. to the lead, then held on gamely in the final sixteenth to beat Adam's Tune by a head. Hattiesburg, the favorite, was third. The 6 furlongs took 1:12.52. "I was a little surprised that I was on the lead," said Juarez, "because I was supposed to come from off the pace. But she broke real sharp and went to the lead on her own." Noting he had never been aboard Wired to Fly previously, Juarez added, "you just have to play it by ear and go by what the Form says."
Looking forward to the Breeders' Cup Mile next Oct. 26 at Arlington Park? Take a look at Mountain Rage, who rolled home a 2-lenghts winner in the first division of Friday's Adademy Road Stakes for 3-year-olds. The gray son of Mecke tracked the pace-setter and rallied through the final sixteenth to pull clear under jockey David Flores. Bob Baffert trains the Florida-bred. In the second division, Royal Gem, a son of Royal Academy, came from last in a field of nine to win by 1 length over Stormy Forever. Alex Solis rode for trainer Bobby Frankel.
Looking forward to the Breeders' Cup Turf (same time, same place)? Check out Continental Red, winner by a last-jump nose over Keemoon in Saturday's $250,000 San Luis Rey Handicap. Longshot Speedy Pick set the pace and just failed to last, finishing third. Continental Red, a 6-year-old son of Flying Continental, ran the 1 ½ mile on firm turf in 2:26.81.
In Sunday's $100,000 Irish O'Brien Stakes, Above Perfection got off to a clear lead in the stretch and held on to beat Jeweled Pirate by ¾ length. Song of the Moment was third. Above Perfection, a 4-year-old In Excess filly, raced the about 6 ½ furlongs down the hillside green in 1:13.16. "I just let her out and be comfortable," said winning rider Corey Nakatani. "If somebody wants to go, let them go. If not, I let her dictate to me what she wants to do." Trainer Darrell Vienna noted this was Above Perfection's first try on the grass and said he has no plan for a next race.
Serena's Tune heads off the breeding shed a winner. The 4-year-old daughter of Mr. Prospector and Serena's Song stalked the early pace in Saturday's $125,000 Victoria Lass Handicap before taking charge in the stretch run. She won by 3 ¾ lengths over Sweet Nanette, with Dominica third. The 6 furlongs took 1:10. "She got a little sluggish behind horses," said winning rider Robby Albarado. "But that probably helped with all the speed." Serena's Tune -- a winner seven times in 14 starts -- is booked to Storm Cat.
Sunday, Explicit finally found a dry track after months of shipping around the country and made the most of it, winning the $150,000 Bpelleteri Breeders' Cup Handicap with a pace-stalking trip. After letting Abajo and Entrepreneur lead the way, Explicit took command on the turn and won by 1 ¼ length. The 6 furlongs went in 1:09 1/5. "The last time we raced at Santa Anita it was wet," complained trainer Ian Jory. "We shipped to Florida and it rained all damn week and the track was real slick. This horse does not like off tracks."
Double Affair came from well back to just catch Frazee's Folly in the stretch run of Saturday's $50,000 Tejano Run Stakes. The margin was a hea, with Two Point Two Mil just a nose farther back in third. The 9 furlongs on a muddy track took 1:50.72. Double Affair is an 8-year-old son of Black Tie Affair.
First Amendment posted a front-running, 3 ¼-length upset victory in Saturday's $50,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Handicap. P Day was second and Lyracist took show. First Amendment ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.35 under Ramon Dominguez.
Sunday, Rusty Spur saved ground after a poor start in the $50,000 Endless Surprise Stakes and got home first. With Oliver Castillo up, Rusty Spur ran 6 furlongs on a wet-fast track in 1:09 4/5. Deer Run was second and Trounce was third.
Around the world, around the track
Olympic Express drew off in the stretch run to win Sunday's Hong Kong Derby at Sha Tin by 3 ½ lengths. The victory confirmed the form displayed with Olympic Express won the Hong Kong Classic Mile last month. Winning trainer Ivan Allen said Olympic Express gets stamina from the dam side of his pedigree (Rachael Tennessee). "Looking at how he won there, I would say he would even get farther" than Sunday's 2000 meters, Allen said. Racing under the name Ecclesiastical, Olympic Express was second last year at Royal Ascot in the Britannia Handicap.
Also Sunday, Allen sent out Firebolt to win the Centenary Sprint Cup, the second leg of the Champion Sprint series.