Winter racing in Florida usually is one of the primary proving grounds for Kentucky Derby contenders. This year is no different - except that, so far, the best prospects either remain on the sidelines or are still awaiting public attention.
A couple of last year's top 2-year-olds, Sky Mesa and Toccet, are expected to get cranked up for the Feb. 15 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. A few others, including last year's top Canadian 2-year-old, Added Edge, are pointing for the Jan. 18 Holy Bull Stakes.
But many observers are watching closely to see what other talent emerges from the South Florida proving ground and Saturday's informal festival of 3-year-old races could turn out to be a useful study, indeed. The day's card included six events for sophomores - two for youngsters coming off their first win and four for maidens.
Notable among the maidens was Christine's Outlaw. The Wild Again colt, ridden by John Velazquez and trained by George Weaver, chased the early pace, got to the front on the turn and won off by 11 ¼ lengths over Discover the Glory, a Nick Zito-trained colt ridden by Pat Day. Christine's Outlaw ran 7 furlongs in 1:22.67.
Minister's Wild Cat, a son of Deputy Minister out of the champion mare Hollywood Wildcat, was equally impressive and faster, winning a 7-furlong event by 7 ½ lengths in 1:22.57 under Kent Desormeaux for trainer Neil Drysdale. Strength Within scored in the third 7-furlong heat, also in 1:22.57. The son of Belong to Me won by 1 length over Draw Fire.
In a 1 /16-mile maiden event, Color Me Gone -at 69-1 odds, beat favorite Formal Attire by ½ length in 1:44.75. Color Me Gone, a gray son of Skip Away, came from far back in the field of 12 under Jorge Chavez.
The favorites also were upset in each of the 7-furlong heats for non-winners of one "other than."
In the first, Region of Merit finished fastest to beat favored Aristocat by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:23.19. Region of Merit, a Kentucky-bred son of Touch Gold, is trained by Christophe Clement for Calumet Farm.
Conservation provided the upset in the second event, catching favored American Mon at the sixteenth pole and winning off by 1 length in 1:22.74. Conservation, a Maryland-bred son of Tamayaz, is owned by Bohemia Stable and trained by Barclay Tagg.
In other Triple Crown doings:
--The early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Vindication, remains in training at Santa Anita without a firm game plan on the table. The undefeated son of Seattle Slew (the undefeated winner of the Triple Crown) worked 4 furlongs Sunday in 49 3/5 seconds under Dana Barnes. "He went nice and easy," said trainer Bob Baffert. "He's getting stronger but I don't know where he's going to run yet."
--Also at Santa Anita, Omega Code overhauled pace-setting Only the Best to win Sunday's $100,000 San Miguel Stakes for 3-year-olds by 1 length. Jimmy O was third. Omega Code won for the third time in five starts but trainer Wesley Ward said he is thinking of sending the Florida-bred son of Elusive Quality to Gulfstream Park to compete in the Sunshine Millions Dash on Jan. 25. "I'd like to space him a little bit," Ward said. "But he won pretty easy today."
--Standard Setter was also the pace setter and the winner in Saturday's $100,000 Golden Gate Derby at Golden Gate Fields in northern California. The Cal-bred son of Benchmark, with Roberto Gonzalez up, ran the 1 1/16 mile on a muddy track in 1: 43.76. Winning trainer Jeff Bonde said Standard Setter "chipped a knee....We knew he was a good one and we gave him plenty of time to recover." Ozzie Cat was second and Pine for Java was third.
--Swept in Three, a Florida-bred son of End Sweep, rolled home an easy, 5-lengths winner in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race on Sunday at Aqueduct. With Aaron Gryder up for trainer Richard Dutrow Jr., Swept in Three finished in 1:45.54.
-- On the turf at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Prince Alphie closed sharply in the stretch run to win Saturday's $75,000 Black Gold Handicap for 3-year-olds by 1 ¼ lengths over Canaan Land. Oak Hill was third while the favorite, Zydeco Affair, couldn't keep up in the stretch and finished fourth. Prince Alphie, a son of 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup, finished the "about" 7 furlongs on the turf in 1:36.25 under Shane Sellers. He now has three wins and two seconds to show for five trips to the track. "Today, especially with the slow pace, he showed how professional he is," said winning trainer Josie Carroll.
In other weekend racing:
Pass Rush shook loose from seven rivals in the stretch run in Saturday's $200,000 San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes for 4-year-olds and scored a 3 ½-length victory over Tracemark. The favorite, Tizbud, was ½ length farther back in third after 1 1/16 mile in 1:42.37. Pass Rush, the pride of Indiana's breeding program, was ridden by Corey Nakatani for trainer Patrick Byrne. Byrne's assistant, Kevin Wiley, said Pass Rush shipped in from Florida because his connections felt that after training on the deep Palm Meadows track, the harder surface at Santa Anita would be a bonus. "You can see the way he skipped over it today," Wiley added. "Who knows? Maybe we'll be back" for the Feb. 1 Strub Stakes. Byrne's wife, Jill, also noted that horses training at Palm Meadows "are winning races all over the place, so it was a big win for Palm Meadows today."
Also Saturday, Tate's Creek got the first run at pace-setting Double Cat in the $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap for fillies and mares and made the most of it, beating Megahertz to the wire by ¾ length. Double Cat held on for third. Tates Creek, a 5-year-old Rahy mare, finished the 9 furlongs on firm going in 1:46.91. "With her late kick, she's never out of it," said winning jockey Patrick Valenzuela. "When I asked her, she turned it on." Winning trainer Bobby Frankel said he will back off a bit with Tate's Creek and try to get her a Grade I win this summer at Hollywood Park.
Major Idea rallied from a ground-saving position to win Wednesday's $75,000 Blue Norther Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 2 lengths over Chief Little Dan. Major Idea, a daughter of Cherokee Run, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.89 for jockey Victor Espinoza.
Windsor Castle stormed from well back in the pack to take the lead with a sixteenth of a mile to go in Saturday's $100,000 Hal's Hope Handicap, then drew clear to win by 1 ½ lengths over Saint Verre. Najran was third. Windsor Castle, a 5-year-old son of Lord Carson, got the 1 1/16 mile in 1:42.33 for jockey Eibar Coa. "I think the race came out exactly the way we planned," Coa said. Trainer Frank Alexander said he will look at the Donn Handicap, which this year has been moved back to Feb. 22, as a potential next step for Windsor Castle. "I'll take a look at it and we'll play it by ear," he said.
In Sunday's $100,000 First Lady Handicap, Harmony Lodge went to the lead at the quarter pole and came home first, 1 ¾ lengths ahead of Fly Me Crazy. Haunted Lass was third and the favorite, Forest Heiress, faded badly to finish fifth. Harmony Lodge, a 4-year-old daughter of Hennessy, got the 6 furlongs in 1:10.31. "I let her settle and get her confidence," said winning jockey John Velazquez. "About the three-eighths pole, I said, 'Let's go,' and she responded." Trainer Todd Pletcher said he brought Harmony Lodge to Florida "with the intention of running her 6 furlongs. So I don't know what's next."
Zonk drew off to an 8-length lead at mid-stretch in Saturday's $100,000 Affectionately Handicap for fillies and mares, then won by 4 lengths, ridden-out, over Wishful Splendor. Kiss a Miss was third. Zonk, a 5-year-old Farma Way mare, covered the 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.58. "I think she is better now than ever," said winning trainer John Servis. "It seems like once fillies hit age 5, their best comes out." He said he might put a bit more speed back into Zonk with the idea of trying the 7-furlong Barbara Fritchie at Laurel Park.
Cojet returned to New Orleans from his Oaklawn base to win Sunday's $75,000 Colonel Power Handicap, coming from off the pace to beat Mountain General by ¾ length. Kazoo was third. Trainer Bob Holthus shipped Cojet, a 4-year-old son of Unbridled's Song, in to finish second in the F.W. Gaudin Memorial Handicap three weeks ago. He had planned to keep the colt in Arkansas but was convinced by Cojet's sharp training that another trip might pay off. "The hot pace allowed me to get him back and settle him," said winning rider Shane Sellers. Bonapaw, the nearly even-money favorite, fought for the early lead, then faded to finish last.
P Day and Full Brush split horses as a team at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Native Dancer Stakes, then battled to the wire with P Day coming out on top by a head. Hay Getoutofmyway, who got out of the way of the top two as they made their run, finished third. "We both went in there (the opening between the leaders) and it got a little tight," said winning rider Ryan Fogelsonger. "But both horses got clear and P Day just dug in and gave it his all. He loves this racetrack." Ramon Dominguez, aboard Full Brush, said, "We were bumping a little but that's what happens in a competitive race."
Honest Deceiver was forced nine-wide into the stretch in Saturday's $50,000 Wishing Well Stakes by traffic problems and still managed to get up to win by ½ length over Timeless Love. Colonial Glitter was third as the favorite with Ballado's Hero fourth. Timeless Love and Ballado's Hero were both knocked off stride at the half-mile pole when Riel broke down and ducked out into them. Honest Deceiver, a 4-year-old daughter of Is It True, finished the 6 furlongs in 1:10.93 under Tony D'Amico.
Premeditation made a well-meditated move in the stretch run of Saturday's $55,000 Winsham Lad Handicap,, winning a tight duel with Leloup by a head. Big Numbers was third. Premeditation, a 4-year-old son of Afternoon Deelites from the Jade Hunter mare Berga, saved ground close to the leaders through much of the 1-mile event before coming three-wide into the turn to challenge. The Kentucky-bred colt finished in 1:35 4/5.
Tampa Bay Downs
Ebony Breeze ended the suspense early in Saturday's $50,000 Sandpiper Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, taking off in the stretch to win by 6 ¾ lengths. "She was much the best," jockey Pedro Rodriguez said of the Belong to Me filly. "I knew I had the race at the half-mile pole." Earlier in the race, Rodriguez had to work his filly through traffic in the full field to find running room. Ebony Breeze, a Kinsman Stable homebred, is trained by Bill Mott. Mott assistant Ken McCarthy said Kinsman owner George Steinbrenner has not yet mapped out a plan for Ebony Breeze.
Sam Houston Race Park
Reason to Talk rallied smartly from near the back of the pack in Saturday night's $50,000 Sam Houston Distaff and went on to win by 1 ¾ length over Asheville. Blue Guru got home third after dueling for the lead in the early going. Reason to Talk, a 4-year-old daughter of Sabona, bred in Kentucky, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.27.
Bet Me Best went to the front quickly in Saturday night's $50,000 Cypress Stakes for Louisiana-breds and just held on win by neck over Itsacryingshame. Prince Slew was third. Bet Me Best, a son of Barbertown, ran the 6 ½ furlongs in 1:19.01.