It was one upset after another on the Kentucky Derby trail during the weekend, with trainer Nick Zito taking the worst of it.
Ranked for months with top prospects for the 130th Run for the Roses, Zito has had trouble getting his horses into the winner's circle in the early prep races. Saturday at Turfway Park in Kentucky, his troubles continued.
Birdstone went to the post as the odds-on favorite in the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park off his victory last year in the Champagne and an easy allowance race victory early this year.
Nothing went right, though, as jockey Jerry Bailey had to steady the Florida-bred son of Matty G twice in the first few furlongs. Although he got into contention, Birdstone then faded badly to finish fifth, more than 10 lengths behind upset winner Sinister G.
Sinister G, not nominated to the Triple Crown races, had lost both his previous stakes starts by double-digit lengths. In the Lane's End, he surged right to the front, turned back a challenge and won by 1 1/2 lengths over Tricky Taboo. Little Matth Man was third. The 9 furlongs on a fast track took 1:50.71.
"When he broke on top, it was kind of a surprise," said winning jockey Paul Toscano. "I just kept waiting and waiting for the other horses and when they came to me, he just took off."
Trainer John Toscano Jr. said the Sinister G may get a chance to run his way into the Kentucky Derby field in either the Wood Memorial or the Arkansas Derby.
Zito had things even worse in the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes on Saturday at Turfway. Extreme longshot Brass Hat came from a pace-stalking position to win the 1 1/16-mile event for 3-year-olds by 3 3/4 lengths over Tales of Glory. Zito's two hopefuls, El Prado Rob and Pies Prospect, finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
In other Derby preps:
-- In the final local prep for the Arkansas Derby, Smarty Jones came from behind a nice pace, caught pari-mutuel favorite Purge turning for home and drew off rather easily to win Saturday's $200,000 Rebel by 3 1/4 lengths in a mild upset. Pro Prado was third, another 3 3/4 lengths back. Smarty Jones, a Pennsylvania-bred son of Elusive Quality, finished the 1 1/16 mile under Stewart Elliott in 1:42.07. The Oaklawn Park track was rated fast.
"Our colt is really starting to put it all together at the right time," said winning trainer John Servis. "So far with the colt it has been a textbook plan and is working." Smarty Jones remains undefeated in five starts, including victories in the Count Fleet at Aqueduct in January and the Southwest at Oaklawn last month.
Barry Berkelhammer, who saddled Purge for trainer Todd Pletcher, said despite the loss the stable was "elated with the way our colt ran, as inexperienced as he is."
-- At Aqueduct in New York, Saratoga County rallied from off the pace to upset Saturday's $200,000 Gotham Stakes, final local prep for the Wood Memorial. Pomeroy, who fought for the lead and got it at the top of the stretch, held on for second, 2 1/4 lengths back of the winner. The favorite, Eddington, was bumped at the start and got a wide trip, finishing third.
Saratoga County, a Kentucky-bred colt by Valid Expectations, ran the 1 mile on an Aqueduct strip rated "good" in 1:35.53 under Javier Castellano. Last month, the colt ran a good third in the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park despite a terrible start. However, the Gotham was only his second win in five career starts.
Winning trainer George Weaver said he "pretty much just put the bridle on him and let him go. We knew there would be a good pace in there and all we wanted was a clean break and a chance to stalk the leaders." He said he likely will send Eddington in the Coolmore Lexington at Keeneland on April 17, skipping the Wood and the Toyota Blue Grass because "his pedigree doesn't exactly scream 'mile and a quarter.'
In other weekend racing:
Mystery Giver split horses in the stretch run of Sunday's $500,000 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap and outfinished Herculated for the victory. Skate Away, who led into deep stretch, held on for third. Mystery Giver, a 6-year-old, Illinois-bred son of Dynaformer, pushed his career earnings past the $1 million mark with the winner's share. "It's always been a questions whether he could compete with these horses," said winning rider Robby Albarado. "He was at his best today and he showed it." Mystery Giver negotiated the 9 furlongs on the grass in a quick time of 1:48.29. Earlier in this meeting, Mystery Giver won the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap for the third straight year.
Saturday, Walk This Way sat behind a quick pace in the $100,000 Gentilly Handicap for state-bred 3-year-olds, then rallied through the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Old Lee. Peggy's Promise finished third. The running time was 1:37.39 for "about" 1 mile on the turf.
Quest Star parked behind pace-setting Man From Wicklow through the first mile of Sunday's $200,000 Pan American Handicap. Then, with a bit of urging from jockey Pat Day, the 5-year-old-son of Broad Brush moved by on the inside, opened up a daylight lead and held off Request for Parole to win by 1/2 length. Megantic was third under the wire. Quest Star, the defending champion in the Pan American finished the 1 1/2 mile on firm turf in 2:26.46.
Saturday, Meridiana upset the $200,000 Orchid Handicap, leading all the way to win by 1 1/4 length over Savedbythelight. Miss Hellie completed an all-longshot trifecta while the favorite, Ocean Silk faded to finish eighth after prompting the pace. Meridiana, a 4-year-old, German-bred daughter of Lomitas, ran the 1 1/2 mile on firm turf in 2:26.99 for Edgar Prado. Before shipping to the United States, she won the Italian Oaks last year at San Siro.
At the end of Saturday's 1 1/2-mile, $200,000 San Luis Rey Handicap, it was Meteor Storm with the best finishing kick. The 5-year-old, British-bred son of Bigstone got the lead a sixteenth out and held off Labirinto to win by a neck. Gene de Campeao was third. Toccet, who set the pace, faded to finish seventh and Continental Red stumbled badly at the start and trailed throughout. Meteor Storm, with Jose Valdivia Jr. aboard, finished in 2:26.03 on firm turf. "For a horse that will go a mile and a half, he's got a real turn of foot," Valdivia said. "I knew it would take a very special horse to beat me as we turned for home." Trainer Wally Dollase said Meteor Storm will point for the San Juan Capistrano on April 18.
In Sunday's $75,000 Santa Paula Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, Friendly Michelle came four-wide into the stretch to pass the leaders, then took charge heading for home and won by 1 1/4 lengths over Lyin Goddess. Very Vegas finished third. Friendly Michelle, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Artax, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:17.34 for Tyler Baze.
Lord Imajones prompted the pace in Saturday's $100,000 City of Las Cruces Handicap for fillies and mares, came three wide around the far turn and worked clear to win by 3 3/4 lengths over Scarzane. Ghost Chatter, the early leader, finished third. Lord Imajones, a 5-year-old, New Mexico-bred daughter of Prospector Jones, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.69.
Bohemian Lady had no trouble with five rivals in Saturday's $100,000 Cicada Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. When asked to run, she breezed by the pace-setter and drew clear, winning by 6 1/2 lengths. Whoopi Cat, the favorite, was second ad Baldomera was third. Bohemian Lady, a daughter of Carson City, got the 7 furlongs in 1:23.22 with Edgar Prado up. Said Prado: "She broke fast and stayed fast and won fast. And that's it."
On a day of upsets, Class Above proved that class still tells as she won Saturday's $150,000 Bourbonette Breeders' Cup Stakes easily under Jerry Bailey. The filly also won her only other start at Turfway Park - last fall's Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Trainer Nick Zito salvaged something from a rough day in Kentucky as Glorious Miss upset Ebony Breeze in the $50,000 Queen Stakes. And Marley's Revenge shipped down from Chicago to win the $50,000 Hansel Stakes.
Golden Gate Fields
More Crafty swung wide into the stretch in Saturday's $55,000 Danville Handicap and caught Green Team in the final strides to win by a head. K O Love was third. More Crafty, a 6-year-old son of Crafty Prospector, ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.94. "He felt really good when I asked him to run," said winning rider Pedro Mercado.
Sunday, Christmas Time dueled for the lead in the $55,000 Soviet Problem Handicap for fillies and mares, then got the advantage and held off Annabelly to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Devil Dancing finished third. Christmas Time, a 5-year-old daughter of Gilded Time, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.33 with Russell Baze up.
Friel's For Real showed she was just that in Sunday's $75,000 Gala Lil Stakes. After finishing second last month in the Maryland Racing Media Handicap, Friel's For Real was reserved off the pace until the three-eighths pole, then took flight and won off by 6 lengths over Undercover. City Fire finished third. The 9 furlongs took 1:50.
Saturday, Basketball Court made a late run to win the $60,000 Horatius Stakes by 1/2 length over pace-setting Matsui. Snow Eagle finished third. Basketball Court ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.95.
Skeet rallied from well back to win Sunday's $50,000 Hot Springs Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths over That Tat. Saint Waki and Cowboy Stuff dead-heated for third. Skeet, a 4-year-old son of Dove Hunt, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.22.
Lucky Owners took charge at the top of the stretch in Sunday's $14 million (USD1.8 million) Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby and drew clear to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Tiber. Ain't Here finished third in a strong field. The victory by Lucky Owners sets him up for a shot at next month's Audemars Piguet QEII Cup at Sha Tin and then for a chance at the Hong Kong Cup this December. The New Zealand-bred son of Danehill won the Hong Kong Mile on last year's International Races Day. "He's becoming a better racehorse and the extra trip (2000 meters) was just what he needed," said winning trainer Tony Cruz. "He'll definitely stay in training next year. He's got so much to aim for." In the QEII Cup, Lucky Owners may have to face Elegant Fashion, who won last year's Hong Kong Derby and then captured the Chairman's Trophy on Sunday's card. "She had never won over a mile here before, so I got a real kick out of that," said David Hayes, who trains the filly.