Everything went according to plan for trainer Bobby Frankel as his colts won two vital Kentucky Derby prep races on Saturday. Frankel knows, however, it's frequently not so easy on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
"I didn't eat lunch today but I felt pretty comfortable," Frankel said after Derby favorite Empire Maker won the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and Peace Rules made it a sweep by capturing the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
"I'm sure I'll be plenty nervous when they load into the gate at Churchill," added Frankel, who has never won America's most famous race.
If he doesn't win now, Frankel may be in trouble. He has been high on Empire Maker since the Unbridled colt was a yearling. And after a dominating win in the Florida Derby and a workmanlike effort over a muddy strip in the Wood, the colt couldn't be in a better spot for the Run for the Roses.
Jockey Jerry Bailey kept Empire Maker right behind the pace, went to the lead turning for home and did just enough to get the colt home ½ length ahead of a persistent Funny Cide without fully extending him. Kissin Saint was third and New York Hero fourth.
"I didn't want him to draw off by 9 (lengths) today and tried not to hit him when we were going by Funny Cide," Bailey said. "I didn't want to be sorry three weeks from now in the Derby. I just tapped him here. He put that horse away on his own."
Frankel said he has confidence in Empire Maker's ability to win the Derby. "But we're coming up to a big race and you don't want to be overconfident. You can talk all you want, but until they do it on the race track – you know," he added.
A short time later, Peace Rules led almost all the way to a 3 1/2-length victory over Brancusi in the Blue Grass, giving Frankel more options. No one made up any ground on the leader and those who tried to stay with him faded. Offlee Wild was third. To make matters worse for the competition, winning rider Edgar Prado said his saddle slipped on the first turn, limiting his options with Peace Rules.
Owner Edmund Gann deferred to Frankel about Derby plans for Peace Rules, a Florida-bred son of Jules. "It's up to Bobby Frankel. He's the trainer," Gann said. "He lives with the horse. It's his decision."
Frankel, speaking from New York, left no doubt. "We will definitely be running him in the Derby," he said.
Badge of Silver, who would have been among the favorites in the Blue Grass, was scratched with a leg injury apparently suffered during a Friday morning gallop.
Two other weekend Derby preps may or may not have much impact on the big race.
--Sir Cherokee scrambled the picture with a 55-1 upset victory in the $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. The son of Cherokee Run, who had been knocking on the door in earlier efforts, came from dead last in the field of 12 after a half mile to win by 1 ¾ lengths over Eugene's Third Son, who contested the early lead with Cat Genius. Christine's Outlaw finished third while Cat Genius faded to finish last. Man Among Men, the favorite, never ran a lick and finished 10th.
--At Bay Meadows, Mr. Technique upset Saturday's $100,000 California Derby, racing from last in the field of six to win by 1 length over Apalachian Thunder. Tribe was third. Mr. Technique, a son of Smart Strike, completed the 9 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:47.65. Trainer Jeff Bonde said he plans to keep Mr. Technique in northern California. "We might try him on the turf," he said.
(Reporting from Keeneland by Gretchen Kieckhefer)
In other weekend racing:
Bob Baffert may be struggling to find his Kentucky Derby horse but he's all set for middle distance handicaps. Congaree, a 5-year-old son of Arazi, easily won Saturday's $350,000 Carter Handicap, battling Affirmed Success into submission and then drawing clear in the lane. Aldebaran closed to finish second, 3 1/2 lengths back, and Peeping Tom was third. Affirmed Success, taken out of his normal stalking tactics because of a speed-favoring, muddy track, finished last of five. Congaree ran 7 furlongs in 1:21.48. "He was more impressive than Empire Maker," Baffert said. He said he will let the horse determine his schedule but added, "A race like the Met Mile could certainly be on his dance card." Jerry Bailey, who rode Aldebaran, said, "I just can't beat that horse. I've ridden him a few times and know how good he really is."
In Saturday's $150,000 Bay Shore Stakes for 3-year-olds at 7 furlongs, Halo Homewrecker collared Don Six in the stretch run, winning by 1 length. Stanislavsky was a longshot third. Halo Homewrecker, a Virginia-bred son of Southern Halo, finished in 1:23.19 under John Velazquez. Trainer Mark Hennig said he will "look at" the Withers on May 3.
No Jacket Required could see all nine rivals entering the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 Shakertown Stakes. Then, the 6-year-old Jolie's Halo gelding split horses and relentlessly closed on the leaders. At the wire, he outfinished another late runner, Testify, by a neck. The favorite, Abderian, was third. No Jacket Required, with Brice Blanc up, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:03.25. "I was confident when he went through the hole because I had plenty of horse," Blanc said. "He has a great turn of foot."
Royal Spy prompted the pace in Friday's $200,000 Maker's Mark Mile, charged to the lead and held off Miesque's Approval to win by 1 1/2 length. With Robby Albarado up, the 5-year-old son of Peteski ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.82. "He likes to have a target the first quarter mile and then he takes himself to the lead," Albarado said. "I don't discourage him."
Sunday, Smooth Jazz led all the way to a 3-length victory over heavily favored Crafty C.T. in the $250,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup. Jockey Edgar Prado took the 4-year-old son of Storm Boot right to the front and Smooth Jazz had no trouble repelling Crafty C.T.'s late bid. He finished the 7 furlongs in 1:21.73. "That was a piece of cake," said Prado. "When you have the ammunition, you can do anything."
Also Sunday, Sea of Showers came from well back in the field on the turn for home to win the $100,000 Jenny Wiley Stakes by 1 ¼ length over Magic Mission. With Jerry Bailey in the irons, the 4-year-old Seattle Slew filly ran the 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:41.89. Bailey said he had traffic problems and did his best for the filly. "I just got her into a position to angle out, hoping she was good enough and she certainly was."
Bop got a good break in Saturday's $75,000 Yankee Affair Stakes, dueled for the lead, got clear in the stretch and won by 3/4 length over Take Achance On Me. Jeb's Wild was third. Bop, a 6-year-old son of Rahy, finished the 5 furlongs over the turf in a course-record 55 seconds (55.10), besting by 3/5 of a second the mark set last year by Texas Glitter. "We're going to step him up to graded stakes if we can find a graded stakes," said owner Jonas Cash. "It's tough to find a graded stakes going 5 furlongs on the turf."
Sunday, Petrina Above came from behind a hot pace to win the $75,000 Bob Slater Stakes by 5 ¼ lengths over Quick Blue. The favorite, Flying Birdie, who beat Petrina Above less than three weeks ago, tired to finish fifth Sunday after dueling for the lead. Petrina Above ran the 5 furlongs just one tick slower than Bop. "She had a very good trip, was very relaxed," said winning rider Omar Camejo. "When the hole opened up, she made her run. That was all there was to it."
Lone Star Park
Cherylville Slew found a hole along the rail in the stretch run of Saturday's $75,000 Irving Distaff, shot through it and caught pace-setting Distinctive Pro to win by 1/2 length. Golden Rhythm was third. The winner, a 4-year-old Evansville Slew filly, ran 7 1/2 furlongs on the grass in 1:32.62. She won for the fourth time from 11 starts. "It was a little tougher than I wanted," said winning jockey E.J. Perrodin, referencing some traffic woes.
Steelaninch won a tight stretch battle with pari-mutuel favorite Singletary in Saturday's $150,000 La Puente Stakes for 3-year-olds, then survived a claim of foul resulting from some bumping before the prices were posted. Urban King closed well to finish third. Steelaninch, by Inchinor, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.79. Winning jockey Victor Espinoza said he and Singletary "were in real tight but we never touched. I didn't think I would come down." Trainer Jim Cassidy said Steelaninch may visit Arlington Park this summer "for all the good races there" for 3-year-old turf runners.
On Sunday, Star Vega found room on the rail in the stretch run of the $150,000 Providencia Stakes, went to the fore and outran Makeup Artist to the wire by a neck. With Mike Smith up, Star Vega finished the 9 furlongs over firm turf in 1:47.89. Star Vega is a British-bred by Blue Ocean. Cassidy also trains Star Vega and both the weekend winners are owned by Deron Pearson, Jim Ford and John Cuchna.
Mauk Four dueled with Pistol Avenue early in Saturday's $75,000 Northern Spur Breeders' Cup Stakes for 3-year-olds, then hit the afterburners in the stretch, jetting off to a 7-length win. Rush Around was second and Witt Ante was third. The 1 mile took 1:37.04. Mauk Four is by Boston Harbor. "I didn't take any prisoners," said winning rider Jon Court. Trainer Jerry Cart said Mauk Four will go to Louisiana Downs.
Rare Friends rebounded from an opening-day upset loss to win Friday's $125,000 Jacques Cartier Stakes convincingly. Running right to the front, the son of Helmsman never faced a serious threat and scored by 3 1/2 lengths over Pop Rocks. "Everybody knows he wants the lead," said winning jockey Patrick Husbands, adding that trainer Robert Tiller "told me to get him out of the gate, get going and if he gets beat, he gets beat." Rare Friends finished 6 furlongs in 1:11.22.
Saturday, Tiller saddled Brass In Pocket to win the $175,000 Whimsical Stakes. The daughter of Domasca Dan was bumped at the break, came seven-wide around the turn and still had enough to win by a neck over Mysterious Affair. "If I keep this up, I might win a Sovereign this year," said Tiller, who won his third straight stakes event of Woodbine's young season.
Love Happy is win happy. Claimed for $30,000 last year, Love Happy now has won five straight races, including Saturday's $75,000 Fire Plug Stakes, by a neck over Pioneer Boy. "We'reb probably going to run him Preakness Day in the Maryland Breeders' Cup," said happy trainer Howard Wolfendale. Love Happy ran 6 furlongs in 1:09 3/5.
Sunday, Home Run Hitter stayed close to undefeated Randaroo down the backstretch in the $75,000 Smart Halo Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Then she closed steadily on the leader through the stretch before getting up to win by a neck. Randaroo, sent off at 1-20 odds, held on for second. Bamba was third. Home Run Hitter finished in 1:11.49, paying $29.80. Said winning trainer Ben Feliciano Jr.: "I did not want to see that filly (Randaroo) in the race and I really didn't think we had a shot. She (Home Run Hitter) showed a lot of heart today and ran really gamely....Second was fine with me but she's a tough filly and I'm glad she got the victory."
Hawthorne Race Course
Six stakes for Illinois-breds, each worth $75,000, provided Saturday's excitement.
Julie's Prize came from off the pace in the Peach Of It Handicap, finding room on the rail and beating Fly by You with Nurse Margurita third. In the 6-furlong Governor's Lady Handicap at 6 furlongs, Seven Brides drew clear in the stretch to win by 2 ½ lengths over Win Won, with Come September third. In the Violet Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, Gumbo Love sat off the pace, then made her move in the stretch to win by 3 ½ lengths over She's Fantastic.
Baker Road and Act Of War battled it out in the stretch in the Milwaukee Avenue Handicap with Baker Road getting clear late to win by 3 ½ lengths. Saquache came on late to take second. In the Land of Lincoln Stakes for 3-year-old males, My Beau Mister closed with a rush to win bhy ¾ length over Pico D J Alex, returning healthy payoffs. And in the Chicagoland Handicap, Classic Appeal outclassed all rivals with an impressive stretch run that netted a 7 ¼-length victory over San Pedro.
Santa Fe Strip came around pace setter Lilias Trotter on the turn in Saturday's $40,000 Oliver Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and went on to win by 2 lengths over Cahill Holly. Almost Dissuaded was third. Santa Fe Strip got the y furlong over the new racing strip east of "Circle City" in 1:12.07.
Tate's Way dueled between horses early in Saturday's $30,000 Dowd Mile Handicap before kicking clear to win by 1/2 lenght over High Dice. Rub got home third. Tate's Way, a 5-year-old, Nebraska-bred son of Bionic Light, ran 1 mile in 1:38 1/5.