Now that the football season is over -- and before pitchers and catchers report to Florida and Arizona -- it's time to take serious stock of the Kentucky Derby picture and start putting together those fantasy stables.
And, apropos of the time, there were some instructive races on Super Bowl weekend:
-- First Samurai, the beaten favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, could do no better than second in Saturday's $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park, chasing Keyed Entry down the stretch without gaining much ground. Express News was third. Keyed Entry, a Kentucky-bred son of Honour and Glory, ran 7 1/2 furlongs in track-record time of 1:27.12 with John Velazquez riding for trainer Todd Pletcher. "I was very pleased," said Pletcher. "This horse has been training exceptionally well since he got down here. Obviously, it's a big step to go from an "other than" to run against a Grade I winner like First Samurai. The plan now is to gradually stretch him out." Frankie Brothers, who trains First Samurai, said his colt "ran well. That was a top-class horse that he was running with....We're going to stretch him out."
-- Trainer Bob Baffert has another hot contender in Bob and John. The Kentucky-bred son of Seeking the Gold rallied from a pace-pressing trip to win Saturday's $100,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita by 4 1/2 lengths over Hawkinsville, with Sacred Light third. Victor Espinoza steered the colt over 1 1/8 mile in 1:49.15. He has three wins from seven starts, is catching on and Baffert said it's time Bob and John gets serious. "This will be the last powder puff race he gets," Baffert said. "From here on out, it's going to be all heavy weights." He said the colt will stay in California, pointing for the Santa Anita Derby. He's liable to run into both Brother Derek and Stevie Wonderboy in his main prep, the March 4 Santa Catalina Stakes.
-- Barbaro sat right behind the early leader in Saturday's $150,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, got to the front midway through the second turn and then held off the late run of Great Point, who had traffic problems on both turns, to win by 3/4 lengths. My Golden Song finished third. Barbaro, a Kentucky-bred son of Dynaformer, ran 9 furlongs under Edgar Prado in 1:49.31. The colt, trained by Michael Matz, picked up all three previous wins on turf. "God willing, he comes out of the race good, and since we're here in Florida, I suppose we'll look at either the Fountain of Youth or the Florida Derby," Matz said. "Or possibly both. We'll let him tell us."
-- Sweetnorthernsaint hustled quickly to the lead after starting a step slowly in Saturday's $75,000 Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel Park in Maryland, then just kept extending the advantage until he found himself 10 lengths in front at the wire. Vegas Play was second and Sierra Quorum was third. Sweetnorthernsaint, a Florida-bred son of -- oh, gee, could it be Sweetsouthernsaint? -- ran 1 mile on a sloppy and sealed track in 1:38.69 for jockey Mario Pino. "I've been training for 20 years and he's the most talented horse I've ever had," said winning trainer Mike Trombetta. "What level he'll take us to, I really don't know. I'm a conservative type of guy, so we'll just put one foot in front of the other and take one step at a time."
-- At Turfway Park in Kentucky, Warrior Within got the jump on seven rivals in Saturday's $50,000 WEBN Stakes and led all the way, drawing clear in the stretch to win by 5 1/4 lengths. Malameeze was second and the favorite, Final Copy, was third. Warrior Within, a Kentucky-bred son of Catienus, got the 1 mile on the all-weather track in 1:38.99 with Dean Sarvis at the controls. "I hoped we wouldn't have to be on the lead," said winning trainer Daniel "Speedy" Smithwick Jr. "But the soft fractions helped us and Dean kept him off the rail." He said Warrior Within will stay at Turfway for the John Battaglia Memorial and then he will decide whether to send him in the Lane's End or the Rushaway on the track's big Derby prep day.
-- Go Bucky Go won a NW1X allowance event at Gulfstream Park impressively Saturday, shaking off a challenge from Breeders' Cup Juvenile contender Superfly before going on to a 3-length victory over that rival. Go Bucky Go, an Elusive Quality colt trained by Vickie Foley, ran 7 furlongs in 1:22.35.
In races with potential Kentucky Oaks implications:
-- Wait a While shot out to a big lead at the top of the lane in Saturday's $150,000 Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park and splashed off to win by 14 lengths over the mutual favorite, Teammate. Wonder Lady Anne L was third, a head farther back. Wait a While, a Kentucky-bred Maria's Mon filly, got the 9 furlongs in 1:50.27 under John Velazquez. She is trained by Todd Pletcher. Pletcher has tried the filly on both dirt and grass but after the Davona Dale knockout, he opined, "I guess I have to keep her on the dirt now. We'll probably think about the (March 5) Bonnie Miss."
-- In the 6 1/2-furlong Old Hat Stakes Saturday at Gulfstream, Misty Rosette drew off in the stretch drive to win by 4 lengths over Swap Fliparoo with Smart N Pretty third. Misty Rosette finished in 1:16.03 with Sebastian Madrid up, remaining undefeated in three career starts. "Our goal with her is to make the Kentucky Oaks," said winning trainer James Chapman. "We'll sit down and see the schedule and see where we go from here."
The older horses were out for some early-season tests Saturday on both coasts. As usual, some of the stars were absent -- either resting or getting ready for a trip to Dubai. But at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita, there were some potential previews of next fall's Breeders' Cup Classic.
-- The Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park is a traditional early barometer of the Handicap Division and Brass Hat stepped up to grab the brass ring in this edition. After running near the back of the field down the backstretch, jockey Willie Martinez sent his mount four-wide on the turn, got the advantage and cruised home first, 4 3/4 lengths to the good of Pies Prospect. Andromedea's Hero was third and the favorite, Suave, was sixth after contending early. Brass Hat, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Prized, ran the 9 furlongs in 1:47.79. It was his third straight win, following the Prairie Bayou at Turfway Park December and the New Orleans Handicap at Louisiana Downs last month. "The rain did not concern me at all," said winning trainer William "Buff" Bradley. "This horse will run over anything. He could run up I-95 or go run in the snow." Bradley said he's not sure where Brass Hat will go next. "He's nominated to the Dubai World Cup. Or maybe go to a race at Oaklawn."
-- At Santa Anita, High Limit tracked the leaders in Saturday's $300,000 Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds, went to the fore on the turn for home and easily drew clear to win by 4 1/2 lengths. Top This and That was a long-shot second and last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Giacomo, continued his run of also-ran finishes with show money. He was third in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont and had been idle since. The favorite in the Strub, Canteen, pulled jockey Garrett Gomez early and then ran out of steam, finishing next-last of 11. High Limit, a Maria's Mon colt trained by Bobby Frankel, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.14 for Patrick Valenzuela. High Limit won last year's Louisiana Derby and was second to Bandini in the Blue Grass, then finished 20th in the Kentucky
Derby and fifth in the Preakness. He won this year's debut, the San Pasqual, by a nose over Buckland Manor. "The only question I had was the distance," said Frankel. "But now we know. He's a bigger horse, a stronger horse. It looked like he could get a mile and a quarter, the way he ran today." Giacomo's trainer, John Shirreffs, said he was "really happy with him. The Big 'Cap would be next if everything went right. That's why we had to show up here -- for the timing."
-- On Sunday at Santa Anita, Spellbinder posted a mild upset in the $250,000 San Antonio Handicap, hooking With Distinction in a prolonged pace duel before edging clear in the stretch to win by 3/4 length. Wilko, still winless since his upset victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile 15 months or so ago, finished third and the favorite, Buckland Manor, was last of eight. Spellbinder, a 5-year-old son of Tale of the Cat, ran 9 furlongs in 1:48.84 under Martin Pedroza. "He showed a lot of courage through the lane," said winning trainer Richard Mandella. "He's turned into a real racehorse." Trainer Craig Dollase said traffic problems hampered Wilco, adding, "At least, he showed he's back and that he's legit."
In other weekend racing:
Sunny Sing rallied to the lead in the final yards to win Sunday's HK$8 million Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Classic Mile by a neck over Hail The Storm. Jockey Eric Saint-Martin kept Sunny Sing near the rear of the nine-horse field at Sha Tin until the race was half run. Then, he timed the move perfectly to just get up before the wire. "I am just so thrilled with my first Group 1 of the season," said winning trainer John Moore. "And what a great ride by the jockey. Eric was cool as a cucumber there." Asked if Sunny Sing might try the 2000-meter Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby next month, Moore drew a question mark in the air with his finger.
Saturday's $100,000 Suwannee River Handicap was shifted from the soggy turf to the sloppy main track, with more than half the field scratching out. Eyes on Eddie kept her eyes on the prize, getting off to a daylight lead in the stretch and holding on to win by 1/2 length over Taittinger Rose. Marchonin was third. Eyes on Eddie, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Touch Gold, ran the 9 furlongs in 1:49.56 under Rafael Bejarano. "In some regards, we feel lucky," said winning trainer Paul McGee. "We hate for it to rain on a big day like this. But it worked out great for this filly in this stakes."
In Sunday's $100,000 Deputy Minister Handicap, Universal Form came through a tight hole at the top of the lane and went on to win by 1 length over odds-on favorite War Front. Judiths Wild Rush was third. Universal Form, whose not-so-great form resulted in 53-1 odds, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.48 on a "good" track, jingling the cash register to the tune of $109 for a $2 win ducat. The 5-year-old son of Formal Dinner was bred in Florida. "He runs from far behind," said winning rider Manoel Cruz. "I think the other horses got a little tired and I took advantage."
Somethinaboutlaura, the odds-on favorite, performed according to expectations in Saturday's $75,000 Foster City Handicap for fillies and mares. Quickly in front, the 4-year-old Dance Floor filly shook off the challengers after a half mile, then extended her advantage to score by 6 lengths over Marla Bay, with Vencedora Amiga third. Somethinaboutalaura ran 1 mile on a "good" track in 1:34.85. Martin Garcia rode.
Magnolia Jackson sat right behind the appropriately named Speed Bag until the stretch run of Saturday's $65,000 Correction Handicap, then challenged for the lead and got home first, 3/4 lengths in front. Great Intentions was third, 3 lengths farther back. Magnolia Jackson, a 4-year-old, New York-bred filly by Cape Canaveral, ran 6 furlongs on a "good" track in 1:10.24 with Norberto Arroyo Jr. up.
Tampa Bay Downs
Ebony Breeze tracked the leaders into the stretch in Saturday's $60,000 Manatee Stakes for fillies and mares, then prevailed by a neck after a long stretch battle. Toll Taker was second and Beautiful Bets third, just another neck back. The 7 furlongs took 1:25.03 over a wet-fast track. Ebony Breeze is a 6-year-old daughter of Belong to Me. She has $877,000 in career earnings, prompting trainer Edward Sexton to note, "After a win like that, she won't be retiring until she wins $1 million. She has won five of her six starts at Tampa Bay, including the Florida Oaks.
Beau's Town, the favorite, looked like the winner at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $50,000 King Cotton Stakes. But, nearing the wire, the result wasn't so clear-cut. Only in the final strides did Beau's Town, an 8-year-old gelding by Beau Genius, hang on to win by a head over the onrushing Stolen Time. Joe Six Pack was well back in third. Beau's Town, with Calvin Borel in the irons, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.64.
Don't Strike Out dueled for the lead early in Saturday's $50,000 Curribot Handicap, got it and then held on to win by a neck over Broke Sharply, who didn't. Go Kitty Go was third. Don't Strike Out, a Kentucky-bred, 6-year-old son of Smart Strike, ran 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:43.68 with Mark Villa up.
Watchem Smokey upset Saturday's $50,000 Delta Mile, rallying from a pace-stalking position to win by 2 1/2 lengths over High Strike Zone. Drill Hall was third as the favorite. Watchem Smokey, a 6-year-old, Oklahoma-bred gelding by Alphabet Soup, ran the mile in 138.35 with Kerwin Clark riding.