Empire Maker vaulted to the top of the Kentucky Derby list with a dominating victory in Saturday's Florida Derby. But that victory was so impressive that the efforts of some other promising colts -- from New York to California -- may have been underappreciated.
Empire Maker, in fact, blew away six rivals in the Gulfstream Park setpiece. The local favorite, Trust N Luck, was pressed on the lead and had nothing left when Jerry Bailey let Empire Maker run turning for home. The Unbridled colt responded with a vengeance, opening up to win by a Florida Derby-record margin of 9 3/4 lengths. Trust N Luck held second.
Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, who is 0-for-4 in the Kentucky Derby, was already worrying on Sunday morning about scheduling.
"He might have peaked too soon," Frankel said. "I'm not going to be like every other trainer and say it's alright. But he has so much ability that he still may not have run his best race."
Frankel said after Saturday's race he might train Empire Maker from there to the Kentucky Derby. By Sunday, he had reconsidered and said Empire Maker will make his next start in the April 12 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. But he still had reservations.
"If he's too fresh for the Kentucky Derby, he may not run well in the rest of the Triple Crown races," Frankel said. "I like having the four weeks between each race -- it's kind of a rhythm thing that works for him."
The Triple Crown provides but two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness, then three between the Preakness and the Belmont.
A good performance that was largely overlooked in the Florida Derby was Indy Dancer's. Indy Dancer was pinched back badly at the start and for a time appeared to be running in the ninth race, rather than the eighth. He closed from there to finish third, just 1/2 length behind Trust N Luck. "We would like to see him a little bit closer to the pace to have a better chance," trainer Todd Pletcher said Sunday. "We may try to fine tune him a little bit more to see if we can get him to do that."
And trainer Ralph Ziadie said he still has faith in Fountain of Youth winner Trust N Luck and plans to train him up to the Kentucky Derby.
In other weekend Derby prep action:
--At Santa Anita, Buddy Gil came from mid-pack on the turn in Sunday's $250,000 San Felipe Stakes only to find a wall of horses in front of him. When jockey Gary Stevens finally got him running room, the Eastern Echo colt responded and was just up in time to beat Atswhatimtalknabout by a nose. One of the longest shots in the race, Brancusi, held a brief lead at the top of the stretch and held on well to finish third in an effort worth noting for the Santa Anita Derby and beyond. The favorite, Domestic Dispute, finished fifth with a belated run. Buddy Gil finished the 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.64. The trainers of all three top finishers said they were happy with the results and all are likely to continue on the Kentucky Derby trail. "The Santa Anita Derby is the next logical step," said Buddy Gil's trainer, Jeff Mullins. "You've got to give a horse a chance to prove himself." Buddy Gil now has won half of his eight starts, including the Baldwin Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on the turf in his last start.
--Alysweep went right to the lead in Sunday's $200,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, seized a big lead and eased home first, 4 1/4 lengths ahead of Grey Comet. Spite the Devil was third and the favorite, Colita, was fourth. Alysweep, a Florida-bred son of End Sweep, ran the 1 mile and 70 yards over the inner track in 1:40.60 for jockey Richard Migliore. "This is a step in the right direction," said trainer Patrick Reynolds. "I don't want to be a 'rabbit' or pace-setter in any Grade I race. But as easy as he did this, we'll have to really think about the Wood Memorial." He said the Blue Grass at Keeneland would be an alternate possibility.
--On Florida's Gulf Coast, Region of Merit stalked the early pace in Sunday's $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby, moved to the lead at the top of the stretch and held off Aristocat at the wire by 3/4 length. Hear No Evil, the pace-setter, settled for third. Region of Merit, stepping into stakes company the first time for trainer Christophe Clement and owner Calumet Farm, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.61. The Kentucky-bred colt is by Touch Gold. Jockey Eibar Coa said Region of Merit "is still learning and will improve. I don't think he ran as well as he can today but we still won. When he runs 100 percent, he's going to improve over today." Asked about the Kentucky Derby, Clement said, "I'm not ruling anything out. But I'm not there yet. One step at a time." Calumet Farm manager Tony Cissel said "everyone at the farm is very excited about Region of Merit at this point." Calumet has won the Kentucky Derby eight times -- twice as many as any other owner -- starting with Whirlaway in 1941.
--Frankel and Bailey also combined to win Saturday's $150,000 Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park with the lightly raced Midas Eyes. The son of Touch Gold, coming off a long layoff, did almost as well as stablemate Empire Maker, running off to win by 9 1/4 lengths and finishing the 7 furlongs in 1:21.06. Posse was second and the favorite, Whywhywhy, got home third. Frankel said he plans to keep Midas Eyes at shorter distances.
Kentucky Oaks preps
--Ivanavinalot certainly has donealot in the past couple months. After shipping to California for the Sunshine Challenge, returning to Florida to compete in the Davona Dale and taking on top competition everywhere. In Friday's $200,000 Davona Dale at Gulfstream, she put all that aside and rallied past pace-setting My Boston Gal to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Holiday Lady was third. Ivanavinalot, a daughter of West Acre, ran the 9 furlongs in 1:50.72. "It's been a tough month for her," said winning trainer Kathleen O'Connell. "She's been going to the front in her other races, but she will rate and she showed that today."
--When Ivanavinalot scratched from Sunday's $150,000 Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs, Ebony Breeze emerged as the heavy, odds-on favorite. She ran like it, too, dueling for the lead almost from the start and turning back challenges from first Crimson and Roses and then Dakota Light before winning by 1/2 length. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Belong to Me, owned by Kinsman Stable and trained by Bill Mott, finished the 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.20. Mott said he was "a little concerned" about stretching Ebony Breeze out to two turns. "But she's a fit filly and in good form so that makes it easier," he added.
--Midnight Cry took off when Edgar Prado got her to the outside in Friday's $100,000 Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream Park and came home an easy, 2 3/4-length winner over Final Round. Chimichurri was third, another 3/4 length back. The favorite, Fast Cookie, was only fast into the far turn and then faded to finish sixth. Midnight Cry, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Smart Strike, ran 7 furlongs in 1:22.55. "She's a bigger, stronger filly than she was just a few months ago," said Helen Pitts, assistant to winning trainer Ken McPeek. "She's training phenomenally here."
--In Saturday's $75,000 California Oaks At Golden Gate Fields in northern Kentucky, Amber Hills headed for hills at the start and held on to win by a neck over Mavoreen. Quero Quero was third and the favorite, Lucky Sabre, finished fourth. Amber Hills, a daughter of Bold Badget, ran 1 1/16 mile on a fast track for Gary Baze in 1:44.25. "I kept waiting for somebody to blow by us," Baze said. "It was a fast pace but everybody was so close to us that it must have taken the punch out of them."
In other weekend racing:
Bien Nicole posted a mild upset in Saturday's $200,000 Oaklawn Breeders' Cup Stakes for fillies and mares. After tracking the early pace, the 5-year-old daughter of Bien Bien got to the front in the stretch and scored by 1 1/4 length over Red n'Gold. The favorite, Mandy's Gold, had the early lead but apparently jumped a shadow on the backstretch and lost momentum. Bien Nicole, with Don Pettinger in the irons, ran the 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:44.19. She had been running exclusively on turf and hadn't raced since last November but winning trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel said he had been "curious to try her again on the dirt...We knew she was capable of running with these fillies, so today we asked the question and she answered it." Gretchen Kieckhefer presented the trophy on behalf of NTRA/Breeders' Cup Ltd.
Sunday, Colorful Tour lead from gate to wire in winning the $100,000 Razorback Handicap. The 4-year-old, Illinois-bred son of Tour d'Or, with Luis Quinonez up, had a daylight lead turning for home but then battled down the lane with Crafty Shaw before prevailing by a neck. Windward Passage was only a head farther back in third. The 1 1/16 mile took 1:43.53. "We knew he would go on the lead if we asked him and he did," said winning trainer P. Noel Hickey. "The Oaklawn Handicap next? Yes."
Champion Lodge dominated the stretch run in Saturday's $250,000 San Luis Rey Handicap, blowing by pace-setting Special Matter and drawing off to win by 6 lengths. Special Matter held second and Adminniestrator was third. The favorite, Delta Form, never reached contention and finished sixth of seven. Champion Lodge, a 6-year-old, Irish-bred gelding, ran 1 1/2 mile over yielding turf in 2:33.48. In their last start, jockey Alex Solis had Champion Lodge further off the pace and he couldn't make up the distance in the stretch. "I learned from that race so this time I kept him in the race and he was very game to the wire," Solis said. Trainer Sandy Shulman said Champion Lodge may return for the San Juan Capistrano on April 30. Santa Anita was hit with some 2.5 inches of rain during the day on Saturday, resulting in a deep, tiring surface. Mike Smith, aboard Delta Form, said the off going contributed to his mount's poor showing.
Jetinto Houston did all the running in the stretch in Sunday's $100,000 Irish O'Brien Stakes for Cal-bred fillies and mares. Under urging from Mike Smith, the Jenine Sahadi trainee won by 5 lengths over Broke in Blairsden, finishing 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:17.40. The race was originally carded for the turf.
Beau's Town ran a bit erratically in Sunday's $150,000 Pelleteri Breeders' Cup Handicap, took the wide route into the stretch and had his jockey drop the whip a furlong out. Still, the 5-year-old son of Beau Genius was good enough to take charge in the stretch and draw off to win by 2 3/4 lengths over Mountain General. Bonapaw, who held the early lead, held on for third. Beau's Town finished the 6 furlongs in 1:08.83. He now has won eight of 11 starts and owners' representative Robert Beck said he will make his next start in the Count Fleet Handicap at Oaklawn.
Distinctive Code upset Saturday's $100,000 Victoria Lass Handicap, holding off favorite Miss Lodi to win by 1 1/4 lengths. The 4-year-old Lost Code filly, beaten as the favorite in the Pan Zaretta Handicap last month, finished Saturday's 6 furlongs in 1:10.14 under Shane Sellers. Fuse It was third. Trainer Larry Robideaux Jr. said he made a mistake by changing Distinctive Code's shoes before the Pan Zaretta but corrected the mistake for the Victoria Lass. "This morning, the blacksmith put plain, ol' shoes on her," he said. The filly now has six wins from 16 starts.
Golden Gate Fields
Ninebanks tracked right behind Surprise Halo through most of Sunday's $150,000 Golden Gate Breeders' Cup Handicap, dueled through the stretch and had a nose in front as the pair crossed the wire. Royal Gem was well back in third and Capt. Fly Hook completed the order of finish. Ninebanks, a 5-year-old son of Smokester, ran 9 furlongs on yielding turf in 1:50.07. "I just tried to make it a two-horse race from the outset," said winning rider Ron Warren Jr. "I didn't want to put too much pressure on Surprise Halo and set it up for the other two horses."
Affirmed Success continues to give hope to us old guys. The 9-year-old Affirmed gelding rallied to the lead a furlong from home in Saturday's $100,000 Toboggan Handicap and scored by 1 length over Peeping Tom. Captain Red was third after showing the way. Affirmed Success, winning for the 17th time in his 41st start, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.09. He also won the Toboggan last year, then came back to win the Grade I Carter Handicap. "I think he takes 10 years off my life every time I send him over there," said winning trainer Richard Schosberg. "The days he runs, I fret all day." Schosberg said another assault on the Carter is next. NYRA publicity says the Toboggan is named for a slightly downhill course that ran diagonally across the infield of the old, 11-furlong Morris Park track -- nicknamed the "Toboggan Slide."
Also Saturday, Shawklit Mint used a pace-stalking trip to win the $75,000 Broadway Handicap for state-bred fillies and mares. Boundanddetermined held second after setting the pressured lead and She's Got the Bear finished third, rallying from last of seven. Shawklit Mint, a 4-year-old daughter of Air Forbes Won, got the 6 furlongs in 1:10.45.
In Sunday's $75,000 Stymie Handicap, Snake Mountain just caught Classic Endeavor in the shadow of the wire, winning by a nose. Ground Storm was third. Snake Mountain, a 5-year-old son of A.P. Indy, ran the 9 furlongs in 1:49.70 with Mike Luzzi up. "There was a little more pace in here than I expected," said Luzzi. "He was not taking the dirt as well as I thought he would." Trainer James Jerkens said he will consider running Snake Mountain in the Grade III Excelsior Breeders' Cup on April 5.
Tampa Bay Downs
Strait From Texas led most of the way to a mild upset win in Sunday's $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares. The 4-year-old daughter of Judge T C zipped through quick fractions, ditched rival Wander Mom early in the stretch drive and then held off a late run by Dedication to win by 1/2 length. Stylish was third. Strait From Texas got the 1 1/16 mile over firm turf in 1:41.14.
Gold Mover drew clear of Harmony Lodge in the stretch run of Sunday's $100,000 Hurricane Bertie Handicap, winning off by 3 1/2 lengths. Belterra was third. Gold Mover, with Edgar Prado up, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.83. Prado said he figured Harmony Lodge "was the horse to beat. So I decided to hook her up early. If she was going to beat me, I was going to make her beat me running."
Dancing Capote, despite lugging in and out during the stretch run, was up in time to win Saturday's $79,000 City of Las Cruces Handicap by 1 1/4 lengths over Lord Imajones. Scarzane was third. Dacing Capote, a 5-year-old daughter of Capote's Promise, finished the 1 mile in 1:37.66.
P Day and Lyracist battled down the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Handicap before P Day, on the inside, got a nose in front under the wire. Winning rider Ryan Fogelsonger sat behind the early pace before finding room turning for home. "As soon as I asked him to go, he kicked on with it," Fogelsonger said of the eight-year-old son of Private Terms. "When he gets a chance for the lead like that coming down the stretch, he's hard to pass." P Day finished the 9 furlogns in 1:49 2/5.
Sunday, The Deputy Is Home needed the whole length of the stretch to catch the pace-setters in the $60,000 Endless Surprise Stakes. At the end, the son of French Deputy edged clear by 1/2 length over Sassy Hound. Lethal Weapon and Stormin Oedy dead-heated for third. The Deputy Is Home ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.97.
Mail Call beat Deferred Comp by 1/2 length in Saturday's $50,000 Tejano Run Stakes after a stretch-long battle. Hail to Wild Again was a distant third and the favorite, Horrible Evening, had a horrible day, struggling home fourth. Mail Call, a 5-year-old son of Latin American, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.06.
Kwik Kash provided a bit of the long green for her backers after Saturday's $50,000 Azalea Stakes. Leading most of the way, the 3-year-old Bag filly got home 1 length haed of Doc Knows Best, with Mamaleen third. Kwik Kash ran 5 furlongs on a fast track in 58.85 seconds.
Stylish Sultan went to the lead on the turn in Saturday's $50,000 Ernie Lowe Stakes for Massachusetts-breds and rolled home a 3 1/2-length winner over Dirty Bird. Sunlit Ridge, running as an entry with the winner, was third. Stylish Sultan, a 4-year-old son of Sundance Ridge, got the 6 furlongs in 1:10.58.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club received 95 nominations in the first entry stage for the April 27 Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup -- the second leg of the World Series Racing Championship after this month's Dubai World Cup. Of the 95, 69 nominees are from 14 countries outside Hong Kong, including the Japanese-trained 1-2 finishers in last year's QE II Cup, Eishin Preston and Agnes Digital. Man From Wicklow, winner of the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap, is among the nominees. Godolphin, which has dominated the World Series, nominated four horses -- Califet, Highdown, Naheef and Sights on Gold. Califet was fourth in the Arc de Triomphe last fall.
And, just in case....
A toboggan is a variant of a sled that slides on its flat bottom surface, rather than runners. You knew that, right?