In an eventful weekend for Kentucky Derby prospects: Like Now did some things he's never done before; Lawyer Ron survived some adversity; A.P. Warrior finally lived up to his pedigree; and Bluegrass Cat was upset by Deputy Glitters.
Meanwhile, top contenders Brother Derek and First Samurai were on the sidelines, awaiting their next stop on the "Road to the Roses."
In Saturday's $200,000 Gotham at Aqueduct in New York, Like Now was making his first start past 6 furlongs. But the gelded son of Jules unexpectedly got an uncontested lead, set a reasonable pace and made the best of things. At the wire, Like Now held off the late rush of Keyed Entry to win by a neck. Sweetnorthernsaint, a Maryland shipper, finished third after a wide trip. Like Now, a Florida-bred, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.17 under Fernando Jaro. "We will definitely keep taking the steps toward the Kentucky Derby and run in the Wood Memorial (April 8)," said winning trainer Kiraan McLaughlin. "He's a sound horse. He's never missed a day of training. And Jules is not a sprint sire." Keyed Entry also is likely to return in the Wood. "It's always nicer to come back with a win," said Seth Benzel, assistant to Keyed Entry's trainer, Todd Pletcher. "But leading up to a race like the Kentucky Derby, a win isn't always the most important thing." The favorite in the Gotham, Achilles of Troy, came into the race riding a three-race winning streak but was vanned off after finishing a well-beaten fifth with soreness in his right front leg.
Lawyer Ron, undefeated since turning to the main track four races back, was asked to try something new in Saturday's $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Leading at every call in his past victories, the Langfuhr colt this time broke in the middle of the pack and raced behind horses until he straightened out into the backstretch. Then, jockey Jon McKee got the chestnut colt to the outside, where he made steady progress to the leaders. Coming five-wide around the leaders into the stretch, Lawyer Ron drew clear and won by 3 convincing lengths over Red Raymond. Steppenwolfer was third. The 1 1/16 mile went in 1:44.09. "Lawyer Ron looked a little uncomfortable down in there behind horses," said winning trainer Bob Holthus. "But once Jon got him outside, he settled just fine." Next stop for Lawyer Ron likely will be the April 15 Arkansas Derby, which lately has been the "test of champions" for Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
A.P. Warrior sold for $1.3 million as a yearling at Keeneland but hadn't run to either his price or his regal pedigree -- until Saturday's $250,000 San Felipe at Santa Anita. Well beaten in his last two starts, the colt was handed over from Eoin Harty to a new trainer -- John Shirreffs. Shirreffs turned to a new rider -- Corey Nakatani. Whether it was the changes in personnel, added maturity or whatever, A.P. Warrior ran like a new horse in his first start since late January. After racing well off the pace early, Nakatani brought the A.P. Indy colt up four-wide on the turn, took the lead and held on to beat a determined effort by Point Determined by 1/2 length. Bob and John was third, another 2 lengths back. A.P. Warrior ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:42.40. "He's a classy horse," said Shirreffs. "He is a very, very classy horse. We just didn't want to interfere with him, just let him run his race." Shirreffs said the colt will make his next start in the April 8 Santa Anita Derby. "We're not looking to go on the road. We'll stay home," he said. Bob Baffert, who trains both Point Determined and Bob and John, said, "I just want to stay in the game right now. We're in the game. ... If they can run one, two, three, you're in the game." A.P. Warrior's owner, Stan Fulton, lives in Las Vegas but owns Sunland Park in New Mexico.
Deputy Glitters was runner-up to the well-bred Bluegrass Cat last month in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. When the two returned to Tampa Bay Downs Saturday for the $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby, it was Deputy Glitters' turn to visit the winner's circle. The bay son of Deputy Commander sat right behind the early pace set by extreme long shot Winnies Tigger Too, took command at the top of the stretch and Bluegrass Cat's rally fell 2 lengths short. Bluegrass Cat wasn't making up any ground in the late going, either. Deputy Glitters ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.26 with Jose Lezcano in the irons. "We just had an ideal trip again," said winning trainer Tom Albertrani. "We want to see this horse go all the way to the Derby. But we have another race to go first." He said the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Blue Grass at Keeneland are under consideration. Bluegrass Cat's trainer, Todd Pletcher, said his colt lost his footing on the second turn. But he said he hasn't lost faith in his Storm Cat colt as a Derby contender.
On the Kentucky Oaks trail...
-- Bushfire pulled off a mild upset in Saturday's $200,000 Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs. The Florida-bred daughter of Louis Quatorze overcame a bout of early rankness. When jockey John Velazquez got control, Bushfire got to the lead on the backstretch, opened a clear lead and held on to beat Saratoga Drive by 3/4 length. Crystal Current was third. Bushfire ran the 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:46.25. "She handled it perfect," said Velazquez. "A little on the aggressive side in the first part of the race but finally she got to relax on the backside. From then on, it was all her." Trainer Eddie Kenneally said he Ashland Stakes at Keeneland or the Fantasy at Oaklawn might be Bushfire's next start.
-- Wild Gams rallied in the stretch run to win Saturday's $100,000 Cicada Stakes at Aqueduct by 3 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Celestial Legend. Oprah Winney was third. Wild Gams, a New Jersey-bred filly by Forest Wildcat, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.66 under Eibar Coa.
In other weekend racing:
Latancy came from well off the pace to win Saturday's $150,000 Gran Premio Latnioamericano at Maronas Race Track in Monevideo, Uruguay -- an international, invitational race. Latency, a 4-year-old son of Slew Gin Fizz, caught Necessaire in the final yards to take the winner's share by 1 3/4 lengths. Gal's Honey was home third. "I respect all the participants in an international field such as this," said winning trainer Juan Udaondo. "But our horse came into the race in good form after being a little nervous the first day after his arrival." But he added jockey Julio Mendez "rode a perfect race and the horse showed his true quality."
Splended Blended dueled for the lead into the turn in Saturday's $200,000 Shirley Jones Breeders' Cup Handicap, got to the front and went on to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Beautiful Bets. Injustice, the early leader, held on for third. The favorite, In the Gold, never challenged and finished eighth of 10 fillies and mares. Splended Blended, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred daughter of Unbridled's Song, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:21.62 for jockey Manoel Cruz. Splended Blended had been scheduled for retirement after winning the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park last summer but instead was sent to trainer Bill Mott for a comeback. "I relaxed her good," said Cruz, "and when I asked her to go, she took off again."
Sunday, Aunt Henny tracked the leader in the $100,000 Herecomesthebride Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, took a clear lead as the field turned into the stretch and then held on to win by 1/2 length over Diamond Spirit. Miss Shop was well back in third. Aunt Henny, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Hennessy, ran the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.88. "I talked to my assistant, Peter Brett, and he said it was coming up a little light. So we thought it might be a chance to get a stakes winner," said winning trainer Michael Matz.
Tampa Bay Downs
Ready's Gal sat just off the pace in Saturday's $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares, edged up on the leader on the turn for home and won by 1 1/4 length. Amarama closed well from mid-pack to take second as the mutuel favorite and Marchonin finished third. Ready's Gal, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of More Than Ready, ran the "about" 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:50.50 under John Velazquez.
Western Kind rallied from a pace-pressing trip to upset favorite Whenthedoveflies in Saturday's $75,000 Holiday Inn Express Turf Dash. Western Kind, with Juan Umana riding, dueled inside Whenthedoveflies virtually from gate to wire and just put a neck in front at the line. Around the Cape finished third. Western Kind, a 5-year-old, Florida-bred gelding by west Acre, ran 5 furlongs on firm turf in 56.55 seconds.
Skirt Alert lost some ground when she blew the first turn in Saturday's $200,000 Sydney Valentini Handicap for New Mexico-bred fillies and mares. But the 4-year-old Prospector Jones filly rallied and was just up to win by a head over Bendalee. The favorite, Latenite Special, finished third. Skirt Alert, with Quyet Bui up, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.98.
Only four started in Saturday's $80,000 Flower Girl Handicap for fillies and mares and Maryfield dominated the short field. Racing to the lead on the inside, the 5-year-old, Ontario-bred mare drew clear to win by 5 1/4 lengths over the favorite, Freakin Streakin. Wild Storm and Mazella completed the order of finish. Maryfield, a daughter of Elusive Quality, finished the 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:15.09 with Victor Espinoza riding for trainer Doug O'Neill.
To Sender tracked Tent through most of Saturday's $80,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds, got to the lead on the outside late in the stretch run and won off by 1 1/2 lengths. Tent held second and Genre was third. To Sender is a British-bred son of King's Best. Of the seven starters, only two were bred in the United States and they finished sixth and seventh, both badly beaten.
In Sunday's $100,000 Crystal Water Handicap, for California-breds 4-years-old and up, Super Strut came from far back to win a three-way photo at the wire. After coming five-wide for running room, the 6-year-old Lil Tyler gelding had a nose in front of Mr. Wolverine in the photo, with Uncle Denny, the favorite, just a nose farther back. Super Strut, with Tyler Baze subbing for Corey Nakatani in the irons, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.14. "At the wire, I knew his nose was down," Baze said.
Jungle Prince pushed the early pace in Saturday's $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup, moved to the lead on the turn and easily drew off, winning by 5 1/4 lengths over Brand Name. Court's In Session finished third. Jungle Prince, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Sir Cat, negotiated the 6 furlongs in 1:08.29 under Agapito Delgadillo. The gelding is trained by Juan Garcia.
Reckless Ways was just up in time to win Saturday's $60,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Handicap by a neck over odds-on favorite Your Bluffing. Speed Whiz was third after leading briefly. Reckless Ways, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Level Sands, came three-wide into the stretch to challenge the leaders and completed the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.78 for apprentice jockey Rosie Napravnik. Reckless Ways has won two allowance-level races since trainer Eddie Gaudet claimed him for $18,000. "You look for horses you think you're going to make a good living with," Gaudet said. "He looked sound and he was lightly raced and I just thought he had some talent."
Ball Four was quickly on the lead in Saturday's $50,000 Tejano Run Stakes, set a measured pace and cruised home first, 3/4 length ahead of the late-running Ask the Lord. Doc D was third. Ball Four, the favorite, ran the 9 furlongs over the all-weather track in 1:51.97. He is a 5-year-old Grand Slam gelding. Julien Leparoux had the mount for trainer Patrick Biancone. "The distance is not a problem for him," said Biancone assistant Rodolphe Brissett. "He likes to go to the front alone and nobody put pressure on him." Ball Four finished second in the Kentucky Cup Classic last fall at Turfway.
That Tat tracked the pace and then was just up to win Sunday's $50,000 Hot Springs Stakes for 4-year-olds and up. At the wire, the 8-year-old, Oklahoma-bred gelding was a neck better than Level Playingfield, with Rodeo's Castle third. That Tat, a son of Faltaat, ran 6 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:10.47.