Two years ago, a horse named Barbaro won the Tropical Park Derby on New Year's Day, setting himself on a course that would lead to victory in the Kentucky Derby four months later.
This year's winner, Cowboy Cal, is being primed for a similar journey by trainer Todd Pletcher.
The Tropical Park Derby, run at Calder Race Course north of Miami, is the first derby of the year. And since all Thoroughbreds officially advance a year in age on Jan. 1, it is the first opportunity for the new 3-year-olds to make their mark.
Cowboy Cal, who like Barbaro won the Laurel Futurity as a 2-year-old, lost no time is seizing the opportunity. After stalking the pace down the backstretch, he surged to the lead turning for home under jockey John Velazquez and won by 2 lengths over stablemate Why Tonto. Canonball rolled home third. The 9-furlong event was clocked in 1:46.95 over firm turf.
Pletcher said he put Cowboy Cal, a son of Giant's Causeway, on the turf before the Laurel Futurity because of a disappointing effort on the main track in his debut. However, he said, "We will definitely try Cowboy Cal back on the dirt, possibly the Fountain of Youth (Feb. 24 at Gulfstream Park), and go from there."
Velazquez said despite drawing away easily in the stretch run, Cowboy Cal "was actually relaxed and doing it pretty easily." He called him "a super horse to ride."
-- As Florida Derby prep action switched to Gulfstream Park, Smooth Air rallied to contend at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes, then edged clear from Silver Edition late to win by 1 length. The favorite, Halo Najib, checked in third. Smooth Air, a Florida-bred colt by Smooth Jazz, won his second straight race and third in five lifetime starts. It was his first stakes victory. He completed the 7 furlongs on the sloppy, sealed main track in 1:23.21 for jockey Manoel Cruz. "There are a couple of options to consider next," said winning trainer Bennie Stutts Jr., "including the Sunshine Millions Dash (at Santa Anita on Jan. 26) and the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs (Feb. 16)." Cruz said he has been telling Stutz "that this horse will get better with longer races. He showed that here."
-- In New York, Giant Moon stalked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Count Fleet Stakes, engaged pace-setter Spanky Fischbein at the top of the stretch and won a long duel to the wire by a neck. Roman Emperor was well back in third. Giant Moon, a New York-bred colt by Giant's Causeway out of the Capote mare Moonlightandbeauty, ran 1 mile and 70 yards of the fast inner track in 1:41.14. Richard Schosberg trains the colt and Ramon Dominguez booted him home. Schosberg said while Giant Moon remains undefeated, he had plenty of trouble getting him motivated for his first three starts. Saturday, he said Dominguez "didn't have to do calisthenics to get his attention. It was a much more professional effort." He said he's now eyeing the Gotham Stakes as the colt's next start. "The next step up, he'll be facing a much tougher group of horses," the trainer said. "But right now, he's a real nice 3-year-old who has done nothing wrong."
-- Turfway Park kicked off the Kentucky lane of the "Road to the Roses" with Saturday's $50,000 Turfway Prevue Stakes, won easily by U.S. Cavalry. The Kentucky-bred Officer gelding stalked the pace, then closed well in the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Mr. Henry. Cape Hatteras finished third. U.S. Cavalry, with Brian Hernandez Jr. up for trainer Michael Maker, got the 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:16.94. "He's very versatile," Maker said of U.S. Cavalry. "At Keeneland, he rated kindly off the lead. Last time (at Churchill Downs), he broke sharp like he did today and just kept going." With his first stakes win in the bag, Maker said he hopes to continue on the Turfway series in the WEBN Stakes on Groundhog Day.
-- And at Golden Gate Fields in northern California, Italian Rules bested a small field in Saturday's $50,000 Stinson Beach Stakes, rallying from a pace-pressing trip to win by 1 length over Pleasure Grounds. Saipan was third, a head farther back, with two others also breathing down his neck. The favorite, Moonlit Master, finished fifth with a late rally inside. Italian Rules, a California-bred son of Tribal Rule, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.56 under Kyle Kaenel.
Kentucky Oaks preps
On the distaff side, Bshaprsonata captured the first Oaks of 2008, beating Alwajeeha to the wire by 1 1/2 lengths in the Tropical Park Oaks at Calder on New Year's Day. Absolute Cindy was third, another length back.
"She's a good filly and we're hoping she'll be as good back on dirt as she is on turf," said John Salzman, Tim's father, who saddled Bsharpsonata. "There really isn't anything for her on turf at Gulfstream, so we're going to point her for the Forward Gal (7 furlongs on the main track on Feb. 9) and then the Davona Dale (March 2)."
Dill Or No Dill ran away with Sunday's $75,000 Ruthless Stakes at Aqueduct, winning by 5 1/2 lengths over Carolyn's Cat with Home Crowd third under the wire. Dill or No Dill, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Evansville Slew, covered the 6 furlongs in 1:10.91. Ramon Dominguez Jr. rode for trainer Gary Contessa.
Saturday's card was canceled at Santa Anita, scrubbing the first race of the Southern California Oaks preps, the Santa Ysabel. Heavy rains made the new CushionTrack surface unsafe for racing.
In other racing:
Noonmark rallied along the inside through the stretch to upset Saturday's $100,000 Mr. Prospector Handicap, winning by 2 lengths over the favorite, Mach Ride. Finallymadeit led briefly, then held on for third. Noonmark, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Unbridled's Song, ran the 6 furlongs on a sloppy, sealed track in 1:09.72. Rene Douglas had the mount for trainer Steve Asmussen. Noonmark came into the race off an allowance victory at Churchill Downs and now has four wins from 13 lifetime starts. "He exploded down the stretch," Douglas said. "I looked for any opening and he took it." Co-owner George Bolton said he hopes for consideration for the Dubai Golden Shaheen on March 29.
Host rallied from far back to win Friday's $100,000 Canadian Turf Handicap by 1/2 length over Yate's Black Cat, with National Captain a neck farther back in third. Host, an 8-year-old, Chilean-bred, was angled out for the stretch run by jockey John Velazquez and came with a rush, passing most of the field in the final furlong. "I had a feeling there was going to be a fast pace and they were going pretty quick," Velazquez said. "I told (trainer Tom Albertrani) that if they set a fast pace we were going to win it. I know this horse pretty well and I knew that if he showed up, he would win." Albertrani, who took over Host's conditioning late last year from Todd Pletcher, said he will consult owner Eugene Melnyk about his next start."
Quite a Bride led from gate to wire in Thursday's $75,000 South Beach Stakes for Florida-bred fillies and mares, winning by 4 3/4 lengths. The 5-year-old Stormy Atlantic mare, under Kent Desormeaux, set a moderate pace and was never challenged. Snow Cone was second and Mama I'm Home got home third. The 1 1/16 miles on firm turf took 1:40.52.
In Sunday's $100,000 Hal's Hope Handicap, Chatain reprised his 2007 season-opening victory, rallying four-wide and drawing clear easily in the final sixteenth to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Miner's Lamp and Actin Good -- a pair of longshots -- finished second and third after the favorite, completing a $2 trifecta worth $1,893.80. Chatain, with Cornelio Velasquez in the irons, covered the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.39. Trainer Angel Pena she Chatain is "a very good horse, but frustrating, too" because of recurring problems with his feet and accidents. He said he hopes to have a chance in the one-mile event on the Dubai World Cup card but, if not that, might bring Chatain back at Gulfstream in the Richter Scale March 8.
Also Sunday, Lady Marlboro and Golden Velvet dead-heated for the win in the $100,000 Sabin Handicap for fillies and mares. Both came from off the pace, overhauling Mini Sermon in the late going before hitting the wire together in 1:37.21. Mini Sermon held on for third. Javier Castellano rode Lady Marlboro, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Smoke Glacken. Eibar Coa was up on Golden Velvet, a 5-year-old Kentucky-bred.
Some Ghost rated in mid-pack until the stretch turn in Sunday's $100,000 Albert Dominguez Memorial Handicap for New Mexico-breds, then kicked in the afterburners and jetted off to win by 4 lengths over Z Z Dome. Romeos Wilson finished third. Some Ghost, a 7-year-old gelding by Ghostly Moves, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.46. Casey Lambert rode for trainer Jess Alley.
Throng got the jump on a small throng of rivals in Saturday's $80,000 Native Dancer Stakes, opened the advantage to daylight at the top of the lane and cruised home first, 4 lengths to the good of Judiths Wild Rush. Barracuda Boy finished third while the favorite, Digger, was eased in the stretch and finished last of nine. Throng, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Silver Deputy, got the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:34.8 for Carlos Marquez Jr. "He just went to the front and rated himself and when I called on him at the eighth pole, I had a lot of horse."
Willist won a wild, four-horse finish in Saturday's $60,000 Dixie Poker Ace Stakes for Louisiana-breds, splitting the leaders in the final yards to win by a neck. Hallway was second, a neck in front of Wildrally, who was a neck to the good of Desert Wheat, who completed the superfecta. Willist, a 5-year-old gelding by Dance Brightly, ran the "about" 1 mile on firm turf in 1:39.23. Robby Albarado had the mount for trainer Kelly Broussard.
Crested moved to the lead with a furlong to run in Saturday's $75,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile, then won the sprint to the wire by 3/4 length over Power Strokin. Billy Allen, who had the lead in the stretch, held on for third. Crested, a 5-year-old, British-bred gelding by Fantastic Light, finished in 1:36.26 with Brice Blanc up for trainer Wallace Dollase.
Trail This didn't trail long in Saturday's $50,000 Swift Stakes, surging to the lead on the turn and winning off by 1 3/4 lengths over Ducky Drake. Bobadieu was third and the favorite, Wind Water, settled for fifth after a bad start. Trail This, a 5-year-old, California-bred gelding by Trail City, ran the 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:02.29 for jockey Ry Eikelberry.
Placid Lake rallied four-wide into the stretch and went on to take Saturday's $50,000 Glendale Handicap for fillies and mares by 3/4 length over Fortunate Event. Star of Whitney was third. Placid Lake, a 6-year-old, Florida-bred mare by Greenwood Lake, ran the 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:42.78 under Clinton Potts.
Tampa Bay Downs
Taylor Madison had 'em all the way in Saturday's $65,000 Minaret Stakes for fillies and mares, drawing off in the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Twiceasbeautiful was second and Rockaway Beach finished third. Taylor Madison, with Carlos Montalvo aboard, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:10.65. She is a 5-year-old, Illinois-bred mare by Kipling. Trainer Michael Dini said he solved a bleeding problem with Taylor Madison by using a hyperbaric chamber. He said hopes to bring her back in the 7-furlong Manatee Stakes next month.
Fass Feat stalked the pace in Saturday night's $60,000 Cypress Stakes for Louisiana-breds, took the lead on the final turn and then held off the late rush of Magic Sunset to win by a 1/2 length. Z Storm, also with a belated effort, took third. The favorite, Tortuga Straits, was last of seven, never threatening. Fass Feat, a 5-year-old Lucky Bayou gelding, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:26.07 with Kerwin Clark up.
In Saturday night's $60,000 Camelia Stakes for state-bred distaffers, Ahead of Her Time was far ahead of her field at the wire, winning by 10 3/4 lengths. Southern Banner was best of the rest, with Zarb's Ballerina third. Ahead of Her Time, a 4-year-old Leestown filly, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:26.62 for jockey Shaun Bridgmohan.
News and notes:
Eclipse Award finalists (alphabetical order):
2-year-old male: Kodiak Kowboy, Pyro, War Pass (My top vote – War Pass)
2-year-old filly: Country Star, Indian Blessing, Proud Spell (Indian Blessing)
3-year-old male: Curlin, Hard Spun, Street Sense (Curlin)
3-year-old filly: Octave, Panty Raid, Rags to Riches (Rags to Riches)
Older male: Corinthian, Invasor, Lawyer Ron (Lawyer Ron)
Older female: Ginger Punch, Hystericalady, Nashoba's Key (Ginger Punch)
Male Sprinter: Fabulous Strike, Idiot Proof, Midnight Lute (Midnight Lute)
Female Sprinter: Dream Rush, Maryfield, River's Prayer (Maryfield)
Male Turf Horse: After Market, English Channel, Kip Deville (English Channel)
Female Turf Horse: Lahudood, Nashoba's Key, Precious Kitten (Lahudood)
Steeplechase Horse: Good Night Shirt, McDynamo, Planets Aligned (Good Night Shirt)
Owner: Maggi Moss, Shadwell Stable, Stronach Stables (Stronach)
Breeder: Adena Springs, William S. Farish, Martin and Pam Wygod (Adena Springs)
Trainer: Steve Asmussen, Kiaran McLaughlin, Todd Pletcher (Pletcher)
Jockey: Robby Albarado, Garrett Gomez, John Velazquez (Gomez)
Apprentice jockey: Tyler Pizarro, Alonso Quinonez, Joe Talamo (Talamo)