Too often in recent years, injuries and early retirement have robbed Thoroughbred racing of "name" competition and season-long rivalries. But after the early events in Florida, California and Louisiana, this year could be an exception.
Granted, 2002 Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem is off in Japan making little Emblems. But maturity has created star quality in some of the other performers in last year's Triple Crown events. And other challengers have burst on the scene to add new spice.
Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap is a case in point. Medaglia d'Oro, runner-up in last year's Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic, had been expected to run but was declared from the race with a weight problem - trainer Bobby Frankel didn't like the 124-pound weight he was assigned. Instead, Frankel sent out Milwaukee Brew, the third-place finisher in the 2002 Classic and the defending champ in the Santa Anita Handicap.
Bob Baffert contributed Congaree, the third-place finisher in the 2001 Kentucky Derby, who already had won the San Pasquale and San Antonio handicaps at the same meeting.
The result was a classic. After dueling for the early lead, Congree took the advantage on the second turn and dug in as Milwaukee Brew ranged up on his outside. The two raced down the stretch together, with Milwaukee Brew getting a head in front under the wire. The 1 1/4 mile went in a quick 1:59.80.
Considering how tough it is to win a race like "The Big 'Cap" two year in a row, Frankel said, "We didn't race him hard last year after this race. Mr. Stronach (owner Frank) told me to take it easy and have him ready for the end of the year. We took it easy with him and he didn't have a hard year last year."
Asked if he was appreciative of a five-pound weight advangage over Congaree - 120 pounds to 125 - Frankel said, "Definitely."
Baffert agreed the weight took a toll. "It's heartbreaking that he could run that well and not win. But that's the way to goes sometimes," he said.
On Sunday, Mineshaft stepped up in competition to win the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds. The 4-year-old son of A.P. Indy tracked Bonapaw through the early going, challenged for the lead with a quarter of a mile to go and drew off to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Olmodavor was along for second and Strive got third. Balto Star was ninth in the 11-horse field as the pari-mutuel favorite.
"I new I wanted to be closer than last time," said winning rider Robby Albarado, "because last time I was trying to teach him a lot. I had min in a place I wanted, which was a lot closer to the lead and from there he did everything right."
This weekend's action follows last Saturday's exciting $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park in Florida where Harlan's Holiday overcame a bad post position to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Hero's Tribute. Harlan's Holiday became the first horse ever to win the Florida Derby and Donn in consecutive years.
In other weekend racing:
On the Triple Crown trail:
--Baffert-trained horses ran 1-2 in Saturday's $200,000 San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita. Rojo Toro stayed with the early pace, got the advantage on the second turn and won by 1 length under Jerry Bailey. Spensive trailed early and had to work through traffic to take second and Crowned Dancer was comfortably back in third. Rojo Toro, a son of Mountain Cat, ran 1 mile in 1:35.89. "I don't know where we'll go next. I don't know how much distance he wants," Baffert said of Rojo Toro. "I'll let Jerry tell me where he wants to ride him." He said Spensive is "a good horse but he never seems to get the best trip."
--Put a big circle around Great Notion, who separated himself from the field in Saturday's $75,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, winning by 9 lengths over Alke. The favorite, Comic Truth, was third. Great Notion, a son of Elusive Quality, ran the 1 mile on a "good" track in 1:38.96. "He did everything easy," said winning jockey Terry Thomson, "and when the favorite came to him, he opened up 5 lengths so quickly I just put my whip up."
--Champali posted a dominating, 3 1/4-length victory in Saturday's $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park, the key local prep for the March 22 Lane's End Stakes. Champali, a son of Glitterman, raced close to the lead before taking charge on the second turn. He then beat back a challenge from Chicken Soup Kid at the sixteenth pole and drew clear. The favorite, Grey Comet, also raced close to the lead but couldn't keep up in deep stretch and finished third. Champali, with Jason Lumpkins up, ran 1 1/16 mile on a muddy track in 1:46.23. He now has won six of seven lifetime starts, including the Grade III Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs last November.
--Cherokee's Boy shook clear at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Deputed Testamony Stakes at Laurel Park and roared home first, 7 1/2 lengths to the good of Foufa's Warrior. Brush Ahead was third after leading early. The 1 1/6-mile event, restricted to Maryland-breds, took 1:46.35. Cherokee's Boy is a son of Citidancer. "I honestly didn't think he would open up like that and win by that much," said winning jockey Ryan Fogelsonger."
--Last year's Kentucky Derby winner prepped at Sportsman's Park so why couldn't this year's come through New Mexico? Mr. Decatur rallied from a stalking position to win Sunday's $100,000 Borderland Derby at Sunland Park by a neck over Excessivepleasure. Flarion's Flame was third. Mr. Decatur, a Kentucky-bred son of Banker's Gold, is trained by Steve Asmussen, who knows how to find Churchill Downs. The colt ran 1 mile in 1:36.23.
On the Kentucky Oaks trail:
--Unbridled Femme upset Saturday's $50,000 Valdale Stakes at Turfway Park in style - running away from six rivals to win by 13 1/2 lengths. Slammin' Lil was second and Candy Cane CC was third while the favorite, Austin's Mom, stopped badly and struggled home last. Unbridled Femme, a daughter of Unbridled from a Deputy Minister mare, ran 1 mile on a muddy track in 1:38.38 under Brian Peck. The filly scored only her second victory in her seventh try. In her last outing, she wa a poor seventh in a conditioned allowance event over the same track.
--Elegant Dancer rallied in the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Busher Stakes at Aqueduct, outfinishing Xtra Heart to win by a head. Virgin Voyage was third. Elegant Dancer, a Florida-bred daughter of Suave Prospect, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.33 but trainer Anthony Dutrow said he is "still wondering if she is a better come-from-behind sprinter. I don't really have a plan for her."
Redattore battled for the lead with Cayoke through the first seven furlongs of Saturday's $400,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap, then managed to hold off a late bid by Good Journey to win by 1 length. Decarchy was third with a late run. Redattore, a 7-year-old Brazilian-bred, was clocked in 1:34.94 over "good" turf. "He really ran a great race and I couldn't be happier with him," said winning trainer Richard Mandella. "I think he'll probably run next at Fair Grounds in the Explosive Bid." Jockey Alex Solis inherited the mount when scheduled rider Laffit Pincay Jr. suffered minor injuries in a spill earlier on the Saturday card.
Sunday, Aldebaran took over in the final furlong of the $200,000 San Carlos Handicap, shaking loose to win by 5 lengths over Crafty C.T. Grey Memo was third in the 7-furlong event timed in 1:21.53. Aldebaran is a 5-year-old son of Mr. Prospector. "As soon as I took him outside, he took off," said winning rider Jose Valdivia Jr. Trainer Bobby Frankel said he hasn't figured our Aldebaran's next race yet.
On Friday, Luvah Girl was up to win the $100,000 La Habra Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by a head over Katdogawn. Luvah Girl, a British-bred daughter of Alzao, ran the "about" 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course in 1:14.03.
Allamerican Bertie, a prohibitive favorite on the tote board before Saturday's $200,000 Rampart Handicap, lived up to expectations on the track, leading all the way to a 7 3/4-length victory. Smok'n Frolic was second and Softly was third. Allamerican Bertie, a 4-year-old daughter of Quiet American, ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:47.92 for John Velazquez. "The pressure is off now," said winning trainer Steve Flint. "I think I"ve saddled three horses at 1-5 and they've all gotten beaten." He said he will point Allamerican Bertie for the Lousiville Breeders' Cup Handicap on the first day of the Churchill Downs meeting.
Sunday, Amonita sat right behind the pace in the $100,000 Suwannee River Handicap, rallied to the lead a furlong out and cruised home 2 1/2 lengths ahead of What a Price. Calista was third as the favorite. Amonita, a British-bred, 5-year-old daughter of Anabas, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:47.90. "She is a very good horse," said winning trainer Christophe Clement. "I will have to talk to the owner tonight. I don't know whether we will run her one more time or send her straight to Kentucky to be bred to Kingmambo."
Quick Tip unleashed a strong rally through the stretch in Saturday's $150,000 Bayou Breeders' Cup to catch Histoire Sainte and win by a neck. The favorite, Snow Dance, was third. The 5-year-old Unaccounted For mare finished the 9 furlongs over a yielding turf course in 1:54.61. "She gets over a yielding turf course better than most of them, plus the distance didn't hurt," said winning jockey Robby Albarado. "I rode her with a lot of confidence. I had Histoire Sainte in my scope early in the race and I never let her out of my sight."
Prince Slew outfinished heavy favorite Oak Hall to win Sunday's $150,000 Gold Cup Handicap by a head. Zarb's Luck was another neck back in third at the end of the 1-mile event, restricted to Louisiana-breds. The rest of the field was playing one hole back on the course. Prince Slew, a 5-year-old son of Far Out Wadleigh, finished in 1:39.27.
Fuse It drew clear in the stretch to win Saturday's $100,000 Magnolia Handicap for fillies and mares by 2 1/2 lengths over Prized Amberpro. Light Fling was third. Fuse It, a 5-year-old daughter of Lite the Fuse, ran 7 furlongs in 1:26.59 for jockey Gerard Melancon.
Papua raced from off the pace to win Sunday's $75,000 Hollie Hughes Handicap for New York-breds by 3/4 length over Impeachthepro. Conman Cunningham was third. Say Florida Sandy was a late scratch when the track came up sloppy. Papua, a 4-year-old son of Louis Quatorze, finished the 6 furlongs in 1:10.68. "I think I can get him even better than he is right now," said winning trainer Mike Hushion. "I wouldn't rule out the Carter" - the 7-furlong, Grade I event scheduled for April 12.
Golden Gate Fields
Halo Cat said goodby to pace-setting I'madrifter on the second turn in Saturday's $60,000 San Carlos Stakes, then turned back a challenge from Fleetstreet Dancer to win by 1 1/4 lengths. I'madrifter held third. Halo Cat, a 5-year-old son of Southern Halo, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:34.91. "The race came down to getting by I'madrifter and holding off the others," said winning rider Russell Baze. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said the 1 mile is "as far as he wants to go," adding the 1-mile Berkeley Handicap on March 29 might be Halo Cat's next test.
Tampa Bay Downs
Win's Fair Lady shot to the lead in Saturday's $50,000 Wayward Lass Stakes, never slowed down and never looked back. At the wire, the 4-year-old Dehere filly was 10 lengths in front of her closest rival, La Nina Dancer. It was another 7 3/4 lengths back to the show horse, Four Plus Four. Win's Fair Lady finished the 1 1/16-mile event in stakes-record time of 1:43.95. "I was a little concerned with the fast pace," said winning jockey Joe Judice. "But she was just loping along, doing it easily." Win's Fair Lady is a full sister to Graeme Hall and a half-sister to Harmony Lodge. Trainer Steve Standridge said after Saturday's effort, "We'll be a little more aggressive now," in picking races for the filly.
Hawthorne Race Course
Classic Appeal got a classic trip in the $50,000 Hula Chief Stakes on Saturday's opening day of Chicago area racing. After sitting behind the early speed, jockey Carlos Silva moved Classic Appeal out for running room entering the lane, took charge at the sixteenth pole and won by a comfortable 2 1/4 lengths. "He was able to follow the leaders early and angled out in the turn," Silva said. "He finished very fast. He's a great horse." Magic Doe, who helped set the early pace, then faded but rallied in the stretch to take second. The favorite, Gold Taker, was third. The 6 furlongs took 1:10.37.
News and Notes
Hong Kong Jockey Club Chief Executive Lawrence Wong, long a leading figure in international racing, on Saturday was elected Chairman of the Asian Racing Federation. Accepting the position, Wong urged member bodies to act quickly and decisively against "unlimited, unregulated and uncontrolled" off-shore betting operations. Wong called them "parasitical and illegal pirates that threaten racing's integrity." The Asian Racing Federation has 20 members, including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. Member nations account for about two-thirds of annual global wagering on horse racing.