In one of the first defining weekends of the racing season, Invasor showed why he is the defending Horse of the Year and a couple standouts put in their claim for attention on the Kentucky Derby trail.
While it's still early, with three months and at least another major round of races to go before the Run for the Roses, Kentucky Derby candidates are beginning to shake out.
In Saturday's $150,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida, it was Nobiz Like Shobiz who did the shaking.
Breaking sharply under jockey Cornelio Velasquez, the Kenntucky-bred son of Albert the Great dueled for the lead, got clear and then was under strong handling to hold off longshot challenger Drums of Thunder to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Scat Daddy was third, another 1 1/4 lengths back. The 1 mile took 1:35.47.
The race was the first as a 3-year-old for Nobiz Like Showbiz, who finished his 2-year-old career with a victory in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in November. He skipped the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
"It was exactly what I wanted," said winning trainer Barclay Tagg. "I wanted to get a good race into him without undue stress to win the race. We'll see how he comes out of this race. Maybe the (March 3) Fountain of Youth will be next."
At Santa Anita, Ravel saved ground behind the leaders through the early stages of Saturday's $100,000 Sham Stakes, came three-wide into the stretch when asked by jockey Garrett Gomez and wore down the leader, Liquidity, winning by 1 length. Liquidity, the favorite, held on for second, with Song of Navarone third. Ravel is a Kentucky-bred colt by Fusaichi Pegasus out of the A.P. Indy mare Let, trained by Todd Pletcher and assistant Michael McCarthy. He ran 1 1/8 mile on a fast track in 1:48.91. "I was actually kind of pleased he was able to sit behind horses," McCarthy said. "He got a good education today." He indicated the April 7 Santa Anita Derby might be an interim objective for the colt, who broke his maiden in his second start at Hollywood Park on Dec. 3. The Sham was his first stakes try.
In other 3-year-old events:
-- Saturday's $150,000 Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park was only 6 1/2 furlongs but Adore the Gold won easily and trainer Michael Gorham said he plans to test the colt longer. Despite plans to take him back, Adore the Gold went out to the lead in the Swale, dueled Forefathers into submission and beat that rival to the wire by 3/4 length. Cowtown Cat finished third. The final time was 1:15.86. "The plan was to stay in behind," said winning rider Cornelio Velasquez. "But he wanted the lead today." Gorham said, "We'll look at all the options. We're going to stretch him out. It's just a matter of when and where."
-- Crafty Bear came from last of four to win Saturday's $50,000 Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel Park in Maryland. At the wire, the Kentucky-bred son of Yonaguska was drawing off and won by 3 3/4 lengths over Saratoga Lulaby. It was another 15 lengths back to Place Your Bet and 10 1/2 more to the favorite, Roaring Lion. Crafty Bear ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.55 under Mario Pino.
-- In a race for Louisiana-breds, Tortuga Straits survived a wide trip and some bumping to win Saturday night's $125,000 Louisiana Premier Night Prince Stakes at Delta Downs by 1 1/2 lengths over Forgotton Prince. Timely Sweep was third. Tortuga Straits, a son of Gold Tribute, ran 7 furlongs around two turns in 1:28.02 under Luis Quinonez.
The Handicap Division
-- Horse of the Year and Breeders' Cup Classic champion Invasor tuned up for the expected showdown with Discreet Cat by overcoming adversity to win Saturday's $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. The 5-year-old, Argentine-bred son of Candy Stripes saved ground until the stretch turn, moved up along the rail and found himself blocked. After clipping heels with the pace-setter, jockey Fernando Jara gathered Invasor, got through on the inside and drew off to win by 2 lengths. Hesanoldsalt was second, a head in front of A.P. Arrow. The 9 furlongs went in 1:48.43. "I thought he was stopped," winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said of the traffic woes. "He showed what a superior horse he is. He finds a way to win every time." McLaughlin said he plans to leave for Dubai March 15. "It's going to be exciting," he added. "This horse wants the mile and a quarter and we will be at equal weights with Discreet Cat this year." Discreet Cat handed Invasor his only loss of 2006 in Dubai - in the UAE Derby.
-- In Saturday's $300,000 Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds at Santa Anita, Arson Squad dropped back to last, then burned up the track in the stretch run, catching Spring At Last with a sixteenth of a mile to go and winning off by 1 1/4 lengths. Spring At Last held on for second and Brother Derek, the favorite was just a nose farther back in third. Arson Squad, a Pennsylvania-bred gelding by Brahms, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:48.65 with Garrett Gomez up for trainer Bruce Headley. Headley said he was pointing for the Strub after Arson Squad was victimized by traffic problems in his last two starts. "This time he had a real clean trip and got the job done," he said. Gomez said he thinks in the event he runs in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap March 3, "I think he'll be fine." The colt now has won five of 11 starts.
-- Keyed Entry, last of 20 in the 2006 Kentucky Derby, had been off since last July 4 when he answered the starter in Saturday's $100,000 Deputy Minister at Gulfstream Park. No matter. The Honour and Glory colt stormed right to the lead and kept on going, winning by 5 lengths over the favorite, Sir Greeley. Nar was third. Keyed Entry, with John Velazquez up, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.72. "I would think," said owner Jack Wolf, "that as long as we don't screw it up, this horse has a future as a very good sprinter."
-- Costa Rising rallied impressively around the final turn and drew off to win Saturday night's $200,000 Louisiana Premier Night Championship Stakes for statebreds at Delta Downs by 5 1/4 lengths. Mean Butterbean was second after leading into the turn and Diggy Fresh was third. Costa Rising, a 4-year-old son of Royal Strand, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.09 for jockey Mario Reyes.
In other weekend racing:
Scintillation bested Absolute Champion by 3/4 length Sunday in the Centenary Sprint Cup at Sha Tin in Hong Kong. But the focus of the race was on Silent Witness, who was running his last race after a record-smashing career. Unfortunately, the two-time winner of the Centenary Sprint Cup this time couldn't find his stride and finished next-last of 10. But the 7-year-old bay gelding went out with a slew of honors, not the least of them the record 17 consecutive wins capped with victory in the Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup in April 2005. His career record includes 18 wins from 29 starts and total earnings of HK$62,496,396 -- slightly more than $8 million in U.S. currency at the current exchange rate. But while the fans may have been looking back at Silent Witness's career, the owners and trainers of Scintillation and Absolute Champion are looking at the next leg of the Champion Sprint Series -- the Chairman's Sprint Trophy. Trainer Danny Shum claimed he isn't certain Scintillation will go on to that 1,200-meter (6-furlong) event. "The 1,000 meters (5-furlong) is definitely his best distance and, after that, the 1,400 meter (7-furlong) trip is second-best," Shum said. "I will have to think about it. I also have Lucky Baby for that race."
Molengao swerved in and out a bit during the stretch run of Sunday's $250,000 San Antonio Handicap but still managed to get up just in time to nip pace-setter Ball Four and win by a head. El Roblar was third and the favorite, Preachinatthebar, finished fourth with no rally. Molengao is a 6-year-old, Brazilian-bred horse by Royal Academy. He ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:48.67 under Garrett Gomez, who picked up the mount when Victor Espinoza was injured earlier in the card. Winning trainer Paulo Lobo said he put out the emergency call for Gomez because, "He has all the stars from heaven on him." Gomez said he had seen Molengao run, adding, "I know what kind of a kick he has. I got a little concerned going to the half-mile pole because he kind of came out of the bridle and wouldn't switch leads for me."
Naissance Royale saved ground until the final turn of Saturday's $100,000 Suwannee River Handicap, then found herself without running room as the field neared the stretch. Finally working clear on the outside, the 5-year-old, Irish-bred daughter of Giant's Causeway got up just in time to win by a neck over J'ray. Porta Clasica finished third. Naissance Royale, with Edgar Prado in the irons, ran the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.58. The win snapped a streak of two second-place finishes as the favorite for Naissance Royale. "When they are special," said winning trainer Christophe Clement, "they can overcome bad trips, us and any other problems that come their way. She's due to be bred. We'll see."
Giant Wrecker led virtually all the way to a 16-1 upset victory in Saturday's $100,000 Canadian Turf Handicap, holding on at the end to beat Host by a head. Jambalaya finished third and the odds-on favorite, Miesque's Approval, finished fifth, with no late kick. Giant Wrecker, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Giant's Causeway, ran the 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:39.70 under Javier Castellano. "He's been a little slow developing but he's been coming around," said winning trainer Mark Hennig."
Mykindasaint, a 25-1 longshot, stalked the early pace in Saturday's $75,000 Pan Zareta Breeders' Cup Stakes for fillies and mares, was sent to the lead on the turn and opened up in the stretch to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Vote Early. Annika Lass was third as the favorite. Mykindasaint, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Saint Ballado, finished the 6 furlongs in 1:10.83 with Gerard Melancon up.
Sweet Return led all the way in Saturday's $75,000 Thunder Road Handicap and then just lasted, winning by a nose over Bayeux. Boule d'Or was third. Sweet Return, a 7-year-old, British-bred son of Elmaamul, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.47 with Alex Solis up for trainer Ron McAnally.
Tampa Bay Downs
Summer Cruise stayed close to the leaders in a tightly bunched field early in Saturday's $60,000 Manatee Stakes, came out to challenge for the lead on the turn and then edged off, winning by 1 3/4 lengths over Gadolinium. Zooming By was home third. Summer Cruise, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Vicar, ran 7 furlongs on a "good" main track in 1:25.43 under Carlos Montalvo.
Snowbound Halo got quickly to the front in Saturday's $45,000 Malleah Handicap, set a pressured pace and then drew off in the stretch to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Diligent Prospect. Prorunner finished third. Snowbound Halo, a 4-year-old, Washington-bred gelding by Snowbound, got the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.06 with Jocelyne Kenny up.
Golden Gate Fields
Vaderator set the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Fairfax Stakes and had just enough left at the end to hold on by a nose over the onrushing Britt's Jules. Trickey Trevor was 4 lengths farther back in third. Vaderator, a 4-year-old, California-bred gelding by Cee's Tizzy, ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.71 with Frank Alvarado up.
In other races on the Saturday Louisana Premier Night card:
Raspberry Wine stalked and pounced in the $150,000 Distaff, beating Carl's Frosty Girl to the wire by 1/2 length with Calista Ridge third. Raspberry Wine, a 5-year-old mare by Change Takes Time, ran 1 mile in 1:41.71.
My Friend Bele was in front halfway home in the $125,000 Starlet Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and held on well to win by 3/4 length over Tensas Yucatan. Huckie was third. My Friend Bele, a daughter of My Friend Max, got the 7 furlongs in 1:27.74.
Brother Bean jumped to the early lead in the $100,000 Sprint and coasted home first, 5 1/2 lengths to the good of Kim's Gem with Cort's P.B. finishing third. Brother Bean, a 4-year-old gelding by My Friend Max, ran the 5 furlongs in 58.44 seconds.
Indigo Girl pushed the early pace in the $100,000 Matron for fillies and mares, took the lead turning for home and drew clear, winning by 1 1/2 lengths over the late closing Sammie Sam. The early leader, My American Lady, held third. Indigo Girl is a 5-year-old mare by Leestown. She ran 5 furlongs in 59.59 seconds.