With less than two months until the Kentucky Derby, a minor upset in California and a convincing win by Wimbledon in the Louisiana Derby highlighted the weekend's prep races.
At Santa Anita, Imperialism rallied from last in the field of 10 to win the $200,000 San Rafael Stakes by a neck over the pace-setting, even-money favorite, Lion Heart. Consecrate, a longshot from the barn of trainer Bob Baffert, also closed well to finish third.
Imperialism, a Kentucky-bred son of Langfuhr, covered the 1 mile in 1:36.11 with Victor Espinoza aboard for trainer Kristin Mulhall. The gray colt won only three of 11 starts as a 2-year-old but now has back-to-back stakes victories since shipping west.
"There were quite a few speed (horses) in there and it set up perfect for me," Espinoza said.
Mulhall said Imperialism has benefited from the addition of blinkers. "He's started going in a much straighter path. He's grown up a lot. He's filled out a lot," Mulhall said, adding the colt will head for the Santa Anita Derby on April 3 if he comes out of the race well.
Wimbledon, with only one previous win to his name, Sunday exploded through the stretch to post a 2 1/4-length victory over Borrego in the Grade II $600,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.
Pollard's Vision finished third and Breakaway was fourth.
Indian War Dance exploded out of the gate and set the fastest opening fractions in the Louisiana Derby history, covering the first quarter-mile in 22.48 seconds and the half in 45.27 while being closely pursued by Fire Slam.
Wimbledon ran the early race at the rear. , meanwhile, settled toward the rear, saving ground down the backstretch. Javier Santiago took the big gray through a hole at the head of the lane and brought him to the finish line in 1:42.71, just 0.11 off the stakes record.
"I told him (Santiago) to place him where he's comfortable," Baffert said. "I basically left it up to him. I told him the rail is good to save ground here at Fair Grounds. We really got lucky today that every move he made was the right move. It doesn't always happen that way."
This was Baffert's first win at the Louisiana Derby in seven tries.
Baffert said Wimbledon would most likely start in either the Grade I Santa Anita Derby or the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on as his final prep for the Kentucky Derby.
In Kentucky Oaks preps:
-- Ashado moved to the lead at mid-stretch in Saturday's $300,000 Fair Grounds Oaks and easily held on to beat Victory U.S.A. by 3 3/4 lengths. Shadow Cast was third. Ashado, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Saint Ballado, got the 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:43.07. "We'll see how she comes out of the race," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher from Florida. "She'll run once more, either in the Fantasy (at Oaklawn) or in the Ashland (at Keeneland) before the Oaks." Ashado and Victory U.S.A finished 2-3 behind Halfbridled in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
-- Last Song had the last laugh in Saturday's $200,000 Bonnie Miss Stakes at Gulfstream Park. After stalking the early pace set by odds-on favorite Society Selection, Last Song rallied to contention on the turn. After dueling for the lead, the Kentucky-bred daughter of Unbridled's Song pulled away to win by 2 lengths, finishing 9 furlongs in 1:50.60. "I think she's an Oaks filly," said winning trainer Carl Nafzger. "That's the main objective." He said the Ashland at Keeneland's spring meet might be the interim step.
-- It was a short field to begin with in Saturday's $75,000 California Oaks at Golden Gate Fields. But when House of Fortune crossed the wire first, 17 lengths ahead of her closest competition, it looked even smaller. The Cal-bred daughter of Free House wasn't even turned loose by jockey Ron Warren Jr. until the final turn and won handily. She ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:41.71. "They wanted her to get something out of this, so I let her out down the lane," said Warren. "She's quality." House of Fortune is trained by Ron McAnally.
-- Yoursmineours battled for the lead through much of Saturday's $75,000 Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park, then edged clear to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Stephan's Angel was second with a belated bid and Solitary Emerald was third. The favorite, All Electic, never got plugged in and finished last of seven. Yoursmineours, a Kentucky-bred by Belong to Me, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.14.
-- He Loves Me came from well back in the field to upset heavily favored pace-setter Pawyne Princess in Saturday's $40,000 Wide Country Stakes at Laurel Park in Maryland. Pawyne Princess, a huge winner in her debut on Valentine's Day, stopped badly at mid-stretch and finished third, with Via Sacra taking second at the wire. He Love's Me ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:47.07.
In other weekend racing:
Southern Image won his second straight $1 million race Saturday as he captured the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap by 1 1/4 lengths over the filly Island Fashion. Saint Buddy was third. The morning-line favorite, Pleasantly Perfect, was scratched after running a fever. Southern Image, a 4-year-old son of Halo's Image, won the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic in his last start. Saturday, he sat just behind the pace, got the lead on the second turn when asked by jockey Victor Espinoza and held on gamely in the stretch. He covered the 10 furlongs in 2:01.64. "He had it all the hard way today," said winning trainer Mike Machowsky. "Victor had to get out of there and he got tested today. I know the time wasn't the best time in the world but he never had a breather." Machowsky said he does not have a schedule for the colt's next start.
Sweet Return came from well back to win a wide-open edition of Saturday's $350,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile. With Gary Stevens in the irons, the 4-year-old, British-bred son of Elmaamul started from the outside post position, saved ground, then swung five-wide into the stretch. He got the lead midway to the wire and held on to win by 1/2 length over Singletary. Inesperado was third and Serafan fourth. Sweet Return ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.87. "It was unbelievable, just a great trip," said Stevens. Winning trainer Ron McAnally said the No. 14 post "was a concern but Gary's the greatest."
Lion Tamer got the lead with a furlong to go in Saturday's $200,000 Richter Scale Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship, then was all out to hold off Coach Jimi Lee by 3/4 length at the line. Wacky for Love was third. Lion Tamer, a 4-year-old son of Will's Way, got the 7 furlongs in 1:21.52 with John Velazquez riding for trainer Todd Pletcher. Lion Tamer was making only his second start since finishing a well-beaten sixth in last year's Blue Grass at Keeneland. He won an allowance tuneup here on Jan. 28. Pletcher said he will try to space out the colt's races, possibly waiting for a sprint on Derby Day at Churchill Downs. And, he said, "He always looked like a horse that could stretch out."
Ground Storm drew off to a clear lead in the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Stymie Handicap, then held off Big Sid's Party to win by 1 1/4 length. Nothing Flat was third. Ground Storm, an 8-year-old chestnut son of Summer Squall, ran 9 furlongs in 1:50.92 for jockey Javier Castellano. Arthur Tsiamis, assistant to winning trainer Bill Mott, said the plan had been to put Ground Storm in an optional claimer but that race didn't fill. "It worked out real good," he added.
Tampa Bay Downs
Attack the Books rallied through the stretch to snatch a head victory from front-running Native Hawk in Saturday's $75,000 Budweiser Challenge Stakes. Burning Roma was third. Attack the Books, a 5-year-old son of Notebook, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.46.
Bang took off with a bang in Saturday's $50,000 Bill Thomas Memorial Handicap, exploding through the stretch to win by 7 lengths over Haitian Hit. Steak of Royalty was third. Bang, a 4-year-old, California-bred son of Ballistic Billy, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.29.
Victory Moon moved into a favorite's role for the upcoming $6 million Dubai World Cup with a 2 3/4-lengths win -- despite some late traffic trouble -- in Saturday's $300,000 final round of the HH Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum Challenge. Victory Moon, a South African-bred, was boxed on the rail at mid-stretch, then swung three-wide and quickly made up the difference to the leaders. Also Saturday, French-trained Fair Mix won the $200,000 BurJuman Dubai City of Gold, a prep for the $2 million Dubai Sheema Classic, and Petit Paris, trained in Saudi Arabia, led all the way to win the $150,000 BurJuman Al Bastakiya, a prep for the $2 million UAE Derby.