Impressive victories in the Toyota Blue Grass and the Arkansas Derby added two more top names to the list of Kentucky Derby prospects. But the Road to the Roses has included detours for both of them and each has something left to prove.
Afleet Alex finished second to Wilco in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Lone Star Park and was a top contender for the Kentucky Derby until he finished last in the Rebel at Oaklawn a month ago. Trainer Tim Ritchey said the bad race was the result of a lung infection, now cleared up.
The Florida-bred son of Northern Afleet proved Ritchey right in the $1 million Arkansas Derby. After racing in mid-pack, the colt came four-wide into the stretch and drew clear easily, winning by 8 lengths. Flower Alley, winner of the Lane's End Stakes last month, was second and Andromeda's Hero finished third. Greater Good, winner of three straight, finished a disappointing fifth.
Afleet Alex got the 9 furlongs in 1:48.80 -- slightly faster than Smarty Jones in last year's running.
"It's very satisfying to silence the doubters," said Ritchey. "Winning solves everything. Now, it's on to Kentucky."
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Bandini was coming back to the races in Saturday's $750,000 Blue Grass after sitting out with a foot injury since finishing second to High Fly in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park back on March 5. A month earlier than that, the colt was breaking his maiden on the third try.
Nonetheless, trainer Todd Pletcher said his biggest concern with the colt was keeping him focused. In the Fountain, he tried to bite a rival in the first turn, then drifted in and out during the stretch run.
Saturday, there was none of that. Instead, when jockey John Velazquez asked him to run on the turn, Bandini easily passed a field that included at least four other likely Derby starters and won by 6 easy lengths. The 9 furlongs took 1:50.16. High Limit was second and Closing Argument third, followed by Sun King and Consolidator.
"I was quietly confident today," said Pletcher. "He had two really good breezes here, so I was only concerned about our post (the outside) and his focus. He has a tendency to be ultra-competitive. It couldn't have gone any better.
Jockey John Velazquez added, "He learns from every race and this experience will teach him even more. He is much more focused now."
Bandini is a son of 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus.
In races for 3-year-old fillies:
-- Round Pound came from just behind the leader to win Friday's $250,000 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn by 4 1/2 lengths over Rugula. R Lady Joy was third and the favorite, Sharp Lisa, was fourth win a dull effort. Round Pound, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Awesome Again, ran 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:43.49. "This filly really impresses me," said winning rider Stewart Elliott. "I had plenty of horse all the way. She got a good stalking trip and she finished up good. If she continues doing what she's doing, she's going to be a nice filly." Trainer John Servis said Round Pound will bypass the Kentucky Oaks and make her next start in the Black Eyed Susan at Pimlico, then point to the Alabama at Saratoga.
On Thursday, In the Gold won the $250,000 Stonerside Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland by 1 1/4 length over Aspen Tree, with Hot Storm third. In the Gold, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Golden Missile, ran the "about" 7 furlongs in 1:26.04 with Rafael Bejarano in the irons for trainer Nick Zito.
-- Saturday at Oaklawn, Diboll Dilly upset the $100,000 Instant Racing Breeders' Cup Stakes, taking the lead on the turn and holding on to win by 3/4 length over a late-charging Maise and Blue. Kota was third. Dilboll Dilly, a daughter of Theatrical, ran the 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:45.87.
-- Acey Deucy rallied from sixth to win Saturday's $150,000 Comely at Aqueduct by 1/2 length over Seeking the Ante. Pleasant Chimes, the favorite, was home third. Acey Deucy, a New York-bred daughter of Abaginone, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.95. Winning rider Diane Nelson said she waited for running room because that's how the filly runs. "She wants to sit and wait." Trainer John Morrison said he may run Acey Deucy back in the restricted Bouwerie at Belmont on May 8.
In other weekend racing:
In another early test of the nation's top sprinters, Clock Stopper upset Saturday's $400,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup Stakes, rallying through the stretch to beat Gators N Bears by 3/4 length. Silver Wagon was third while the favorite, Sir Shackleton, finished fourth. Clock Stopper, a consistent in-the-money finisher, got the 7 furlongs in 1:22.06 under Jerry Bailey. "He broke better today and didn't give himself so much to do," said Bailey, explaining Clock Stopper's breakthrough to the winner's circle. "He does get to loafing a bit. He's never made the lead for very long."
Soaring Free pressed the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Shakertown Stakes, got to the front in the lane and held on to win by a neck over Mighty Beau. Parker Run finished third. Soaring Free, a Canadian-bred gelding by Smart Strike, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:02.22 with Jerry Bailey in the irons. "He is the quintessential warhorse," Bailey said. "He waits for the competition, so when the other horse came to us, he was ready."
Friday, Artie Schiller had the best late kick and got home first by 2 1/4 lengths in the $250,000 Makers' Mark Mile. Gulch Approval, who set a pressured pace, held on for second and Good Reward made a late run to take third. Artie Schiller, a 4-year-old son of El Prado, finished the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.09 under Edgar Prado (no relation). "We just sat there nice and easy and when I pressed the pedal, he flew," Prado said of Artie Schiller. "I love riding horses with that much class."
On Wednesday, Madcap Escapade shrugged off a muddy track and an awkward start to beat a half-dozen rivals in the $200,000 Vinery Madison Stakes by 4 3/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. My Trusty Cat was second and Molto Vita third. Madcap Escapade, with Jerry Bailey aboard, finished the 7 furlongs in 1:23.33. Madcap Escapade is a 4-year-old daughter of Hennessey, trained by Frankie Brothers.
T.H. Approval raced behind the early leader in Saturday's $250,000 San Juan Capistrano Invitational, wrested the lead away and got home first, 1 1/2 lengths better than the favorite, Exterior. Fitz Flag was third. T.H. Approval, a 4-year-old son of With Approval, ran 1 3/4 mile on the turf in 2:45.02, toting Rene Douglas. "We knew he would like the distance," said winning trainer Eduardo India. "It's no problem." He said T.H. Approval likely will go in the 1 1/2-mile Jim Murray on May 14 at Hollywood Park.
Also Saturday, Chinese Dragon rallied in the lane to beat Eastern Sand by 1 length in the $100,000 La Puente Stakes for 3-year-olds. Shamoan was third after leading. Chinese Dragon, a Kentucky-bred colt by Stravinsky, got 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:48.02 under Kent Desormeaux. Added trainer Bob Hess Jr., "He earned it. But it was a little harder than I would have liked."
Ministers Wild Cat stalked the pace in Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Jacques Cartier Stakes, got through between rivals and won a desperate stretch duel by a nose over Judiths Wild Rush. Wando was third and the favorite, Chris's Bad Boy, finished fourth. Ministers Wild Cat, a 5-year-old son of Deputy Minister, ran the 6 furlongs under Todd Kabel in 1:09.67.
Jonesboro stalked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Northern Spur Breeders' Cup Stakes for 3-year-olds, got the lead on the turn and won off by 3 lengths over Prince T. Jazzy Gallop was third. Jonesboro, a Kentucky-bred son of Sefapiano, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.91 with Pat Valenzuela up. Jonesboro broke his maiden in January and had been idle since while training under Randy Morse.
On Thursday, reformed claimer Top Commander led from gate to wire in winning the $150,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap by 1 1/2 lengths over Forest Grove. That Tat was third. Top Commander, with Carlos Gonzales up, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:08 3/5.
Lone Star Park
Queena Corrina rallied from a pace-stalking trip to win Saturday's $75,000 Irving Distaff Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths over Janeian, with My Misty Princess third. The favorite, Paz Ciudadana, endured what the Equibase chart called a "brutal trip," finishing last of 10. Queena Corrina, a 6-year-old, Kansas-bred mare by Here We Come, ran 7 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:31.08. "I had a lot of horse when I sat down on her at the top of the stretch," said winning rider Don Pettinger. "She really accelerated."
Thrilling Victory lived up to her name in Saturday's $55,000 Bay Meadows Oaks, rallying through the stretch to catch odds-on favorite Jill's Sky in the final strides and win by a neck. Laguna Pointe finished third. Thrilling Victory, a California-bred daughter of Event of the Year, ran 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in1:44.68 with Russell Baze in the irons.
Miss Victory took the lead with a furlong to run in Saturday's $50,000 Bob Slater Stakes for fillies and mares and won by 1 1/2 lengths over Adreality. Platinum Perfect was third after showing the way. Miss Victory is a 6-year-old, Argentine-bred mare by Numerous. She finished 5 furlongs on firm turf in 55.04 seconds.
Forest Music led from gate to wire in winning Saturday's $50,000 Primonetta Stakes for fillies and mares. The gray filly, a daughter of Unbridled's Song, set a quick pace but then drew clear to win by 8 1/2 lengths. Spirited Game was second and Gelli third. The 6 furlongs took 1:10.59. "There was no speed to run with her," said winning trainer Mark Shuman. "But even if there was, she's about the fastest half-mile horse in the country. We just wanted to get her a little confidence."