While the Kentucky Derby candidates are just beginning to sort themselves out, the older horses are starting their own and longer journey leading to the Breeders' Cup Classic next fall at Churchill Downs.
Brass Hat grabbed the first brass ring of the handicap year by winning Saturday's $400,000 New Orleans Handicap at the temporary Fair Grounds Race Course site at Louisiana Downs.
Brass Hat, a Kentucky-bred son of Prized, showed great promise two years ago, winning the Ohio Derby and the Indiana Derby. But in the Lone Star Derby, he suffered a broken ankle and didn't return to the races for more than a year. After a tune-up in a Churchill Downs allowance event last November, Brass Hat won the Prairie Bayou at Turfway Park last month.
Saturday, with regular rider Willie Martinez up, the 5-year-old gelding saved ground through the early stages, circled foes on the second turn and drew clear in the final furlong to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Dixie Meister. Alumni Hall, the favorite, was third.
Brass Hat ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.35. He has five wins and four seconds from 12 lifetime starts.
"He had a little problem in the healing process," said owner Fred Bradley. "It delayed us a little bit. But everything worked out just beautifully."
William "Buff" Bradley, who trains the gelding for his father, said plans for Brass Hat are not yet set. "We'll just see how he comes back and then make some plans," he said. "Maybe Oaklawn. We really don't try to get too far ahead of ourselves."
-- At Gulfstream Park in Florida, On Thin Ice had no trouble beating eight rivals in Saturday's $100,000 Hal's Hope Stakes. The 5-year-old Tactical Cat gelding sat right behind the early leader, took over with a quarter mile to go and ran off to win by 5 3/4 lengths. Network was second, Seek Gold third and Philanthropist, the favorite, finished seventh. On Thin Ice, with Shaun Bridgmohan in the irons, ran 1 1/8 mile on a fast track in 1:48.05. Winning trainer Joe Orseno said the gelding's foot problems cleared up while he worked on the Keeneland all-weather track this fall. He then finished second to Alumni Hall in the Fayette before heading south. "We said that if he ran good in this race -- he didn't necessarily have to win -- that we would go on to the Donn Handicap," Orseno added.
-- High Limit and Buckland Manor dueled for the lead in Saturday's $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap at Santa Anita. In the stretch run, High Limit got the advantage and drew clear, then just held on to turn back a second effort by Buckland Manor, winning by a nose. Spellbinder was third, 1/2 length farther back. High Limit, a 4-year-old son of Maria's Mon, ran 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:43.64 with Patrick Valenzuela in the irons. Trainer Bobby Frankel, asked about the Santa Anita Handicap, said his colt may have distance limits. "It's a question of how far he wants to go," Frankel said. "Probably seven-eighths is a great distance for him."
-- Funny Cide, winner of the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, finished seventh in Saturday's $100,000 Mr. Prospector Handicap at Gulfstream. Gaff rallied from a pace-stalking-trip to win by a neck over War Front, with Friendly Island third. Gaff, a 4-year-old Maria's Mon colt, ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.50 under Bridgmohan. Funny Cide's trainer, Barclay Tagg, said the race "wasn't what I was expecting. But I wanted to get a race into him. ... He's not going to run a 1:08 after two years of running mile and a quarter. I don't know what's next. We'll play it by ear," Tagg said. Funny Cide's jockey, Edgar Prado, added, "I still feel confident in him."
In other weekend racing:
Speaking of the Kentucky Derby trail:
-- Achilles of Troy showed his heels to nine rivals in Saturday's $65,000 Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct in New York. After rating off the rail early, the Kentucky-bred son of Notebook went to the lead midway on the second turn and ran away, winning by 14 lengths. Extra Bend was second and Platinum Couple third. The favorite, Trailing Twelve, ran fourth. Achilles of Troy ran 1 mile and 70 yards in stakes-record time of 1:39.61 with jockey Alan Garcia calling the shots for trainer Jennifer Pederson. "I haven't made plans on where he is going next," said winning owner Ernie Paragallo. "I know he will run as far as he wants to run. I know that he will run a mile and a quarter." The Count Fleet in recent years has produced the likes of Prairie Bayou, Smarty Jones and Scrappy T. (Literary note: Achilles was not "of" Troy, but rather fought with valor against the Trojans. But winning by 14 justifies some artistic license).
-- Doctor Decherd got the lead in the stretch run of Saturday's $125,000 Aventura Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park and held on to win by a nose over Itsallaboutthechase. My Golden Song was third and the favorite, In Summation, faded to finish fifth after leading early. Doctor Dechard, a Kentucky-bred son of Preakness Stakes winner Louis Quatorze, got the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.75 with Shaun Bridgmohan riding picking up one of his three stakes wins for the day. Trainer Steve Asmussen said he was worried about how the colt would do in a big field. "He's a big horse but everything seemed to come together," he said. "We'll go on and get him to his next race around two turns on March 4," he said, referring to the Fountain of Youth.
-- Final Copy rallied four-wide around the turn in Saturday's $50,000 Turfway Prevue at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, got to the lead early in the stretch run and won off by a comfortable 3 1/4 lengths. Warrior Within was second and Rock' N Fire was third as the 6 1/2 furlongs went in 1:19.38 on the all-weather track. Final Copy, a Kentucky-bred son of Souvenir Copy, picked up his third straight win and his fourth in seven career starts. The race is the first in a series of three local preps for the Lane's End Stakes in late March but winning trainer Greg Foley said it's too early to think about Final Copy as a candidate for the Lane's End -- or the subsequent Kentucky Derby. "I don't know whether he will go a mile," Foley said, adding he will talk to the owners "and see what we want to do and how he's doing. The style he ran today, he might."
-- In another sprint effort, Too Much Bling apparently likes the surroundings in California as the roan Rubiano colt rallied nicely through the stretch to win Sunday's $75,000 San Miguel Stakes at Santa Anita by 4 lengths over Cause to Believe. Bound to Be MVP was third. Too Much Bling, with Garret Gomez riding for trainer Bob Baffert, ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.59. "There weren't any First Samurais or Henny Hugheses in here," Baffert said, referencing the kind of competition Too Much Bling faced last summer in New York. "But he's a better horse now. We had to get him back here and put the air back in his body. He was pretty light."
-- NEXT WEEKEND: The $250,000 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds meeting at Louisiana Downs and the $150,000 San Rafael at Santa Anita headline the early Kentucky Derby preps. Also keep an eye on the $125,000 Pepsi Cola Handicap for New Mexico-breds at Sunland Park because you never know.
And among the 3-year-old fillies ...
-- Itty Bitty Pretty derailed heavy favorite Sabatini in Saturday's $100,000 Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita. Itty Bitty Pretty, a Kentucky-bred El Corredor filly, sat prettily a bit off the pace for jockey Patrick Valenzuela, came wide into the stretch and drew clear, winning by a more than itty bit -- 6 lengths. Sabatini was second and Horse B With You was third. The 1 1/16 mile took 1:44.60 on a fast track. "That wasn't the way we wrote it up," said winning trainer Doug O'Neill, who expected a different pace scenario. "But Patrick gave her a perfect, patient ride and when he called on her, she accelerated perfectly. These El Corredors have really been running well." Sweet Catomine won the Santa Ysabel last year.
-- Saturday's $75,000 Marshua Stakes at Laurel Park in Maryland was only 5 1/2 furlongs but Celestial Legend won it so convincingly that trainer Dale Capuano is wondering about the future. Celestial Legend, a Maryland-bred daughter of City Zip, zipped right out of the gate and never looked back, winning by 12 lengths and finishing in 1:04.06. Flirt for Fame was second, 6 lengths ahead of Ten Halos. Hailie's Girl completed the order of finish. "Obviously, at some point, we'd like to get her some graded stakes black type," said Capuano. "In the back of my mind, the Miss Preakness (a Grade III sprint on Preakness weekend) is a race we would look at."
In other weekend racing:
Silver Cup came from well back to upset Sunday's $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap for fillies and mares, beating Ticker Tape to the wire by 1/2 length. Royal Copenhagen was third and the favored entry of Flip Flop and Barancella finished seventh and fifth, respectively. Silver Cup, with Victor Espinosa handling the reins, covered the 9 furlongs of firm turf in 1:47.46. The 4-year-old, Irish-bred filly, picked up her first win outside Italy while coming back in just 11 days from her last race. "It was like a public gallop last time," said winning trainer Patrick Biancone. "But today, she ran very good. I'm very happy."
Honor in War battled down the stretch to win Sunday's $75,000 Ft. Lauderdale Stakes by a neck over Hotstuffanthensome and another neck over Old Dodge. Honor in War, a 7-year-old son of Lord at War, zigged and zagged some during the running of the race and had to alter course in the stretch to find room. He finished the 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:40.13 under Shaun Bridgmohan.
Equestrian Girls rallied down the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Red Camelia Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares, caught pace-setting favorite Our Love and went on to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Our Love held second and Nicks Nights was third. Equestrian Girls, with Jose Riquelme up, completed the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.46.
Sunday, Spritely Walker got to the lead at the top of the stretch in the $75,000 Dixie Poker Ace Stakes for Louisiana-breds, opened a clear margin and held off Mr. Sulu to win by a neck. Spruce's Prince was home third, just another neck back. Spritely Walker, a 6-year-old son of Skywalker, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.06 with Corey Lanerie up.
Tampa Bay Downs
Platinum Perfect sat in second position early in Saturday's $60,000 Minaret Stakes for fillies and mares, got to the front entering the stretch and held well to win by 1 length over Beautiful Bets. Louve Sauvage was home third. Platinum Perfect, a 5-year-old daughter of Jules, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.68 with Jose Lezcano up. Winning trainer Lynne Scace said she figured Platinum Perfect would have no trouble coming off a 3-month layoff and now may stretch out to the 7-furlong Manatee Stakes here on Feb. 4. "She may be able to carry her speed that far," Scace said.
Drill Hall went to the leaders with a quarter-mile left in Saturday's $75,000 Peninsula Gaming's Lucky Dog Stakes, then won a long drive to the wire, finishing 1/2 length to the good of Governor of Spain. High Strike Zone -- seldom called in baseball -- was in front at the first several calls of this race but finished third, another nose back. Drill Hall, a 7-year-old Saint Ballado gelding, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.77 for jockey Steve Bourque.
Wild Jam came from well back in the field to win Sunday's $60,000 Brutally Frank Stakes, beating Spooky Mulder by 1 1/4 lengths. Exciting Metro was third and the favorite, Golden Man, finished fourth. Wild Jam, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Forest Wildcat, ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:09.86.
Heavenly Humor pressed the pace set by Fire Bolt in Saturday's $60,000 Soviet Problem Handicap for fillies and mares, then just got up in the final strides to win by a head. Aclevershadeofjade also got into the mix early in the stretch run but couldn't sustain her bid, finishing third. Heavenly Humor, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Distorted Humor, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.27 with -- who else? -- Russell Baze riding.
Broke Sharply broke sharply in Saturday's $50,000 Winsham Lad Handicap but Don't Strike Out didn't -- rallying to catch the leader in the final 16th and hanging on to win by a neck despite stumbling in the final strides. Song Dancer finished third. Broke Sharply, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Smart Strike, ran 1 mile in 1:36.28 under Mark Villa.
Western Act rallied four-wide through the final sixteenth to win Saturday's $40,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile by 2 3/4 lengths. Pace-setting Raging Wind dead-heated with closer Aza for the place and show with Modern Era fourth. Western Act, a 4-year-old, California-bred gelding by Western Fame, finished the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.14 with Carl Williams up.