Somebody has to win this year's Kentucky Derby. And, since the early favorites show little sign of stepping up to the plate, maybe it will be one of the late-blooming winners from the past weekend who wears the roses at Churchill Downs on May 1.
Pollard's vision won Saturday's $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course as the favorite, leading all the way. But the Santa Anita Derby and the Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream Park both produced upsets.
Pollard's Vision, a Kentucky-bred son of Carson City, entered the wide-open Illinois Derby off a third-place finish behind Wimbledon and Borrego in the Louisiana Derby. But the colt wasn't behind anyone Saturday.
With Eibar Coa in the irons, Pollard's Vision quickly grabbed the lead into the first turn, battled a stiff wind down the backstretch and still had plenty left to hold off previously undefeated Song of the Sword by 2 3/4 lengths. Suave was third.
"He definitely has matured in the last couple of months," said Ginny DePasquale, assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher. "He's developing now. It's just the right time." But she said she doesn't know whether Pletcher sees Pollard's Vision as a Kentucky Derby horse.
The Illinois Derby served as a stepping stone to Kentucky Derby victory for War Emblem two years ago. Last year's winner, Ten Most Wanted, went on to finish second in the Belmont Stakes.
-- The $750,000 Santa Anita Derby was a chance for Louisiana Derby winner Wimbledon or Santa Catalina winner St Averil to take charge as a solid pick for the Run for the Roses. But it was Casteldale, an Irish-bred colt sent off at 30-1 odds, who rallied through the stretch to win by a head over Rock Hard Ten. Imperialism finished third but he stewards reversed the second- and third-place finish because of some traffic issues in the stretch run. Wimbledon showed little, finishing fifth. St Averil showed even less, finishing seventh as the favorite. Castledale ran 9 furlongs in 1:49.24 with Jose Valdivia Jr. aboard. It was on the second main-track start, and first dirt victory, for Castledale, who ran in Ireland last year. Trainer Jeff Mullins said he will wait to see about the Kentucky Derby. "Nothing's etched in stone right now so we'll see how the horse comes out of this race and let him tell us whether he's ready to go," Mullins said.
-- At Gulfstream, Kaufy Mate rallied nicely from a pace-stalking position to draw clear in the stretch and win the $250,000 Aventura Stakes by 4 1/2 lenghts over Humorously. Baronage was third and the favorite, Forest Grove, finished seventh of eight. Kaufy Mate, a Florida-bred son of Diligence, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.67. Kaufy Mate won the Sam Davis at Tampa Bay Downs two starts back but then finished up the track against tougher competition in the Tampa Bay Derby last month.
Kentucky Oaks preps:
-- Halfbridled was scratched from Saturday's $500,000 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland with muscle spasms, leaving undefeated Madcap Escapade as the odds-on favorite in a four-filly field. She didn't disappoint, leading virtually all the way, but only won by 1/2 length over Ashado. Last Song and La Reina completed the order of finish. Madcap Escapade, a daughter of Hennessy, ran 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:44.55. Rene Douglas provided the encouragement. "It couldn't have gone any better," Douglas said. "We had a very easy opening quarter (24.03 seconds) and she just cruised right along." Added trainer Frankie Brothers: "There is not a question that she is a special filly. ... She's the best filly I've trained." Madcap Escapade now has won all four of her starts, including two graded stakes. The Ashland was her first start outside Florida.
While the 3-year-olds were trying to sort out their division, the older horses were much in evidence during the weekend, too:
-- Last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, Funny Cide, won his first stakes race since ... well, since last year's Preakness... in Saturday's $200,000 Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap at Aqueduct in New York. After sitting just behind the pace-setter, Host, Funny Cide went to the lead when asked by jockey Jose Santos, then held on to beat Evening Attire by 1/2 length. Host held third. The 9 furlongs took 1:49.57 on a muddy track. In six previous races since the Preakness, Funny Cide's only win was in an optional claimer opening his 4-year-old season in January. "The winner's circle is the only thing that makes you feel good in this game," said Funny Cide's trainer, Barclay Tagg. Funny Cide and Evening Attire may meet again in the Pimlico Special on May 14.
-- Peace Rules, third in the 2003 Kentucky Derby, dueled for the lead in Saturday's $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, then shook clear and won easily by 2 lengths over Ole Faunty. Saint Liam, who provided the early challenge, faded but held on for third. Peace Rules, a Florida-bred son of Jules, finished the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:48.26, with Jerry Bailey riding. Peace Rules was coming off a victory in the New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds Feb. 29.
-- Jackpot, at 17-1 odds, provided a jackpot for his supporters in Saturday's $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap in Florida. After tracking the leaders, the 6-year-old son of Seeking the Gold reached contention at the sixteenth pole and drew clear to win by 2 lengths over Newfoundland. The Lady's Groom was second and the favorite, Seattle Fitz, faded badly through the stretch to finish last of six. Joe Bravo guided Jackpot over 10 furlongs in 2:02.80. Jackpot had not won since last May 3 and was making his stakes debut in the Grade II event.
-- In Saturday's $100,000 San Bernardino Handicap at Santa Anita in California, 2003 Breeders' Cup Classic third-place finisher Dynever took charge in the stretch run, dusting off six rivals to win by 4 1/2 handy lengths. Total Impact was second and Even the Score finished third. Dynever, a 4-year-old by Dynaformer, ran 9 furlongs in 1:48.07. Corey Nakatani rode for trainer Christophe Clement. "I don't know where we're going next," said Clement. "Maybe the Pimlico Special." Nakatani said the race "was a nice effort....He did it well within himself. The farther he goes, the better he gets."
-- On the Distaff side, Azeri returned from her brief retirement to win Saturday's $500,000 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. It was the third straight year the daughter of Jade Hunter has won the Arkansas fixture. In her first start for trainer D. Wayne Lukas, Azeri toted Mike Smith right to the lead and cruised home 1 1/2 lengths ahead of the favorite, Wild Spirit. Star Parade was third. Azeri ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:41.24. Azeri's last previous race was a second-place finish in the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita last Sept. 28. "I thought going into the first turn that we were in good shape," Smith said. "The only thing I didn't know was how fit she was." Azeri, a 6-year-old, now has won 15 of her 17 career starts.
In other weekend action:
Bwana Charlie rallied to the lead on the turn in Sunday's $100,000 Lafayette Stakes for 3-year-olds, was headed by Quick Action but recovered to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Quick Action held on for second and the early leader, Tales of Glory, finished third. Bwana Charlie, a son of Indian Charlie, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.73 with Shane Sellers up. "I wasn't surprised with his race today," Sellers said. "He's a big, strong horse with a good turn of foot."
Hawthorne Race Course
Wildcat Shoes tracked Danieltown into the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 Lost Code Breeders' Cup Stakes for 3-year-olds, then took charge and won off by 3 1/2 lengths. Danieltown held second and Wild Adventure completed the trifecta. Wildcat Shoes, a son of Forest Wildcat, ran 6 furlongs in 1:11.00 with Eibar Coa in the irons. "He hit his head very hard in the gate right before the break," Coa said. "I was concerned that he was going to be a little dizzy but even after that he went on to win the race." Trainer William Fires said he doesn't yet know where Wildcat Shoes will race next.
Etoile Montante held the inside position down the hillside turf course in Sunday's $100,000 Las Cienegas Handicap, got to the front with a furlong to go and went on to win by 1/2 length over Dedication. Any for Love was third. Etoile Montante, a Kentucky-bred, 4-year-old daughter of Miswaki, ran the about 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:13.32.
Nonsuch Bay drew clear in the stretch to win Sunday's $75,000 Banshee Breeze Handicap by 3 1/2 lengths. D'Wildcat Speed was second and Pampered Princess third. Nonsuch Bay, a 5-year-old Mr. Greeley mare, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.62 under Eibar Coa.
Academic Angel opened up a big lead in the stretch in Sunday's $100,000 Harry W. Henson Handicap, then coasted home a 2 1/4-lengths winner over Sideways. Blue Guru raced evenly to finish third. Adademic Angel, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred mare by Royal Academy, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.83.
It was Florida Cup Day at Tampa Bay Downs on Sunday: Six races, each worth $75,000.
Weigelia dueled for the lead the Padua Stables Sophomore, then beat Avid Skier by a head, finishing in 1:24.45. Weigelia was fifth in the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park in February. In the Stonehedge Farm Sophomore Fillies, Chenia rallied from 11 in a field of 13 to win by a neck over Bird Chatter, with Runaway Rizzi third. Keystone Point was close early in the Dayton Andrews Dodge Sophomore Turf, then took over late to win by 1 1/4 length over Indigo Flyer. Soldier of Fame was third.
Scrubbs was 6 1/2 lengths the best in the Holiday Inn Express Sprint, running away from the field in the stretch and finishing 6 furlongs in 1:10.70. Rock County was second and Built Up was third.
Restage had to turn back multiple challenges before winning the Cherokee River Stables Turf Classic by a nose over Final Prophecy, with Drink a Toast third. And, in the Ogle and Company Turf Distaff, Improvised finished first but was disqualified and placed fourth for interference. Skip to Savannah inherited the victory, with Formal Miss placed second and Mrs. M moved up to third.
La Reason came between horses with a furlong to go in Sunday's $75,000 Bayakoa Stakes for fillies and mares, then held the advantage to the wire, winning by 3/4 length over Pampered. Sue's Good News led much of the way and held on to finish third. La Reason, a 4-year-old daughter of Labeeb, got the 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.68.
Spirited Game rallied from seventh to win Sunday's $50,000 Smart Halo Stakes by 3/4 length over But Mommy. Dreamadreamforme was a nose farther back in third. Winning for the third time in four starts, Spirited Game ran 6 furlongs in 1:12.67 with Abdel Castellano in the irons.