But this year, the top U.S. contender, Curlin, is already in Dubai and the big races for older horses in California and Florida looked more like staging grounds for later showdowns on the road to this year's Breeders' Cup -- and perhaps 2009 in Dubai.
Heatseeker upset Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, rallying outside on the turn for home after a well-timed ride by Rafael Bejarano to win by 3/4 length over Go Between. Champs Elysees came from last to be third. Awesome Gem, who might have been a Dubai candidate with a good effort, ran well off the pace and finished seventh.
The race featured a runaway lead by the favorite, Monterey Jazz, who opened up a 12-lengths advantage on the backstretch. But with the rebuilt Santa Anita track now appearing to favor closers, Monterey Jazz coughed up the lead in the stretch and wound up beating only two horses in the 14-horse field.
Heatseeker, a 5-year-old, Irish-bred son of Giant's Causeway, ran the 1 1/4 miles on a fast track in 2:00.42. It was his third win in 12 starts since coming to the United States and his first Grade I victory. He has, however, been in the money in 12 of 15 lifetime starts.
Asked about his plans for the rest of the year, winning trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said, "I don't have a firm plan. But we'll be looking for bigger things now. There are plenty of races left this year. There are a lot of places to run, a lot of things to prove." He said the Breeders' Cup Classic will be the long-range goal.
Across the continent, Sir Whimsey rallied to the lead at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $350,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap and held on at the end to beat the favorite, Fairbanks, by 1/2 length. The early leader, Kiss the Kid, held third. Sir Whimsey, a 4-year-old, Virginia-bred son of Jump Start, ran the 1 3/16 miles on a fast track in 1:56.96 with Edgar Prado in the irons for trainer James Toner.
Sir Whimsey picked up his first graded stakes win and his fourth overall in 13 lifetime starts. He won an "other than" allowance race in his last previous start.
Toner said he turned the horse out for three months last summer "and he's gotten better with each start since coming back … There are several options to consider now."
In Dubai itself, the reigning U.S. Horse of the Year, Curlin, easily dispatched an overmatched field in a Thursday's Jaguar Trophy, a handicap run at the World Cup distance of 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles). With Robby Albarado up, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic winner settled in second, went to the lead with 400 meters to run and galloped home first 2 1/4 lengths better than Familiar Territory.
"That was just what we wanted," said trainer Steve Asmussen. "In racing, you are always cautiously optimistic. But that's what we expected."
He said he planned the race to give Curlin four weeks before the World Cup -- the same interval he enjoyed between the Gold Cup and the Classic last year.
"That's why we came for this race, so everything's gone to plan so far," Asmussen said. "I haven't really looked at what he might face in the Dubai World Cup but we're glad to have him in our corner. He's an amazing athlete and racehorse. It is a real honor to be associated with him and he has shown why tonight."
When he looks at the prospective field for the March 29 World Cup, Asmussen will find the likes of last year's UAE Triple Crown winner Asiatic Boy, Japan's standard-bearer, Vermillion, and Godolphin Stable's Liberato.
"We want the horse's legacy to be proven on the international stage," Asmussen added at a Sunday news conference honoring sponsors of races on World Cup Day. "That's why we're running him in the Dubai World Cup.
"To beat up the same horses repeatedly at home was not going to do him justice. We want to leave the horse's legacy behind for everyone and we thought coming to Dubai was the best way of doing it."
It has, in fact, been that way since Cigar came from the United States to win the first World Cup, confirming the race as the defining event of a career.
Cocoa Beach ran away with Thursday's $250,000 UAE Oaks, finishing a comfortable 6 lengths ahead of Love Of Dubai. The Saeed bin Suroor-trained filly, a former champion in Chile, earlier won the UAE 1,000 Guineas. "They went a little slow for her to begin with," said winning rider Ted Durcan. "But she has a lovely attitude and stride and a lot of class." Suroor said he has no immediate plans for Cocoa Beach, noting there is no shortage of options.
Kentucky Derby preps
-- Colonel John stalked the slow early pace in Saturday's $200,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, dueled for the lead on the backstretch and inched clear in the late going to win by 1/2 length over the late-closing favorite, El Gato Malo. El Gato Malo undefeated in three earlier starts, was caught in traffic behind the dawdling pace and got a late start on his run. Victory Pete led early and held on for third. Colonel John, a Kentucky-bred colt by Tiznow, ran the 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:50.15 under Garrett Gomez. Eoin Harty trains the colt for WinStar Farm. "We figured the race was going to turn out the way it did, like last year's Blue Grass, where everybody walked around there and tried to sprint for home," Harty said. "I didn't want him taken off the pace and get caught in that position that David (Flores, on El Gato Malo) got caught in." Flores, meanwhile, said he was helpless. "I wanted to move a little bit sooner. But I was in a spot where I just had to be patient before making a run and then see if I can catch him. He absolutely leveled when we got out. But he just had too much to do." Both the top two are expected back in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5.
-- Gattopardo took command in the stretch run of Saturday's $70,000 Miracle Wood Stakes and won off by 2 3/4 lengths over Apple Special. Cave's Valley finished third. Gattopardo, a Kentucky-bred colt by Johannesburg, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.16. Julian Pimentel rode for trainer Timothy Tullock Jr. Tullock said Gattopardo will point toward the Bay Shore at Aqueduct on April 5 and then to the Preakness, not the Derby. "He is a wonderful horse but needs more time," Tullock said. "He has not yet won the route of ground. He has run well but all three of his wins are sprinting." Gattopardo now is 3-for-6 lifetime. In his lone try at 1 mile, he finished second by 3/4 length, unable to hold the lead.
-- Classy Deelites led from gate to wire in Saturday's $60,000 Gentilly Stakes for Louisiana-breds at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, scoring by 1 1/4 lengths over Peteadoris. The favorite, Snug, got home third with entrymate Cubera fourth. Classy Deelites, a gelded son of Afternoon Deelites, ran the "about" 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:46.01 with Jamie Theriot up.
-- Crook's Bodgit pressed the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Sportsman's Paradise Stakes at Delta Downs, went by the leaders around the final turn and drew clear to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Gangbuster, the favorite, made a late run to take second, 3/4 lengths ahead of Heresyasign. Crook's Bodgit, a Texas-bred gelding by Byars out of the Captain Bodgit mare Baby Bodgit, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:41.84.
-- Real Appeal was forced into an outside trip in Saturday night's $50,000 Texas Heritage Stakes at Sam Houston Race Park. After racing outside and mid-pack down the backstretch, jockey James Graham urged the Kentucky-bred Successful Appeal colt to the front and he won off by 2 1/2 lengths. Yes He's Best was second-best and C E P A's Forum finished third. Real Appeal ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.71. The favorite, Devereux, finished seventh after experiencing traffic problems at the top of the stretch.
Kentucky Oaks preps
-- Normally, the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park in Kentucky is a prep for that track's Lane's End Stakes, then the Kentucky Derby. But when Absolutely Cindy came from the clouds to win Saturday's edition of the $100,000 event, things changed a little. With Orlando Mojica up, Absolutely Cindy ran last of 11 until the turn, came six wide into the stretch and won going away, by 1 3/4 lengths over Your Round. Dixie Decision finished third and the favorite, Briarwood Circle, faded to get home last. Absolutely Cindy, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Arch, finished the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.69. Owner/trainer Keith Kinmon said when Absolutely Cindy ran against undefeated Indian Blessing at Fair Grounds in her last race, the rider kept her too close to the pace and she stopped, finishing sixth. "I told Orlando, 'Do not change her running style. This filly wants to come from the clouds," he said. Mojica complied, adding, "I went really wide because I didn't want to (trap) her in traffic and I knew I had plenty of horse." Kinmon said Absolutely Cindy, who trains at Turfway, will make her next start in the Ashland at Keeneland.
-- Bsharpsonata hit all the right notes in the stretch run of Sunday's $150,000 Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park, easing out of a traffic jam and thundering by the leaders in a crescendo to win by 2 lengths. Game Face, the mutuel favorite, was second and Robbie's Gal, the longest shot in the field at 17-1, held third after showing the way. Bsharpsonata, a Florida-bred miss by Pulpit, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.97, picking up her fourth straight stakes win. Eric Camacho rode for trainer Timothy Salzman. "I was really worried all the way down the backside," Salzman said. "She was shut off down inside behind horses, but the jock was so patient and rode just a tremendous race on her to wait until he got clear. He rides her with total confidence. Distance is no problem for her. Her mama (Apasionata Sonata) won at a mile-and-a-half. We'll see how she comes out of it, but if she's OK, we'll take her on to Keeneland for the Ashland" on April 5.
-- Sweeter Still stalked the pace in Saturday's $90,000 China Doll Stakes at Santa Anita, came alongside the early leader at the top of the stretch and inched clear to win by 1 length. Carnival Queen rallied from last to finish second and the favorite, Gorgeous Goose, flapped home third. Sweeter Still, an Irish-bred daughter of Rock of Gibraltar, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.57. Martin Garcia rode for trainer Ral Ayers.
-- Hisse rallied through the lane to win Saturday's $60,000 Sarah Lane's Oates Stakes for Louisiana-bred fillies at Fair Grounds, finishing first, 4 lengths to the good of Clouds in the Sky. Runaway From Itall finished third. Hisse, a chestnut daughter of Buddha, ran the "about" 1 mile on firm turf in 1:39.34 under Shaun Bridgmohan.
-- Alina ran her own race in Saturday's $75,000 Green Oaks at Delta Downs, winning by 18 3/4 lengths over Seal Jane. The favorite, Miss Missile, led for the first half mile before Alina took over the race, then held on for third. Alina, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Came Home, got the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.41.
In other weekend racing:
Ever a Friend upset Saturday's $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile, stalking the pace before taking charge in the stretch and working clear to a 3 3/4-lengths victory over Artiste Royal. War Monger, the favorite, finished a neck farther back in third. Ever a Friend, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Crafty Friend out of the Capote mare Never is a Promise, got the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.37. Tyler Baze had the ride for trainer Mike Mitchell, who claimed him two starts back for $62,500. Ever a Friend came back from that claim to win a small stake sprinting on the green course. "The more I trained him, the more I knew he could do two turns," Mitchell said. "I said before the race I thought this was the best claim I ever made." He said he will look at the Shoemaker Mile on May 26 at Hollywood Park with the Breeders' Cup Mile back at Santa Anita in October as the longer-range goal.
In Sunday's $100,000 Baldwin Stakes for 3-year-olds on the hillside turf course, Ten Meropa, making his U.S. debut after an undistinguished early career in Britain, rallied smartly from well back to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Sky Cape, the favorite, was second and D. Double You finished third. Ten Meropa, a son of Johannesburg, got the "about" 6 1/2 furlongs on firm going in 1:13.09 under Tyler Baze. Ral Ayers trains. "He's been working unbelievable since he got to this country," Baze said. "He broke slow, but I actually expected that because a lot of times that's what they do first time out here. He's got an awesome kick and the fast pace helped us." Ayers said he hasn't planned a next race for the colt.
And in Saturday's first race, a $66,000 maiden special weight, Meetingwithdestiny finally met with the winner's circle in his sixth try -- but his first go as a gelding. After stalking the pace down the backstretch under Jose Valdivia Jr., the 3-year-old son of Belong to Me swung into contention outside the leaders at the top of the lane and won a tough, three-way battle home, prevailing by a nose over Screen to Screen. The favorite, Tiz West, was just another 1/2 length back in third. Meetingwithdestiny ran the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in a modest but effective 1:43.94 after tracking a pace a few ticks faster than that run in the Sham Stakes for Kentucky Derby prospects later in the afternoon.
Malibu Moonshine sat off the early pace in Saturday's $75,000 Stymie Handicap, moved up along the rail on the turn and then came wide into the stretch to win by 4 1/2 lengths over Temporary Saint. Daaher, the odds-on favorite, led the way early through quick fractions, then faded to finish third. Evening Attire completed the order of finish. Malibu Moonshine, a 6-year-old, Florida-bred son of Malibu Moon, ran the 9 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:50.19. Mario Pino rode for trainer Gary Contessa.
In Sunday's $75,000 Broadway Handicap for New York-bred fillies and mares, Karakorum Starlet set the pace, turned back a pair of challenges and held on to win by 1/2 length over Wishing Wishes. Scatkey finished third. Karakorum Starlet, a 5-year-old Skip Away mare, ran the 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:11.87 under Stewart Elliott.
Bai and Bai stalked the early pace set by Somethingaboutlaura in Saturday's $65,000 Foster City Handicap, then went on by and won by 1 length. Somethingaboutlaura held second and Swiss Currant ran third. Bai and Bai, a 5-year-old, California-bred mare by Falstaff, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.94. Roberto Gonzalez was up for trainer Craig Dollase.
Tampa Bay Downs
Cash's Girl fanned out five-wide entering the stretch in Saturday's $65,000 Wayward Lass Stakes for fillies and mares and was just up in time to win by a neck over Lil's Lassie. Colony Queen was third. Cash's Girl, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred filly by Northern Afleet, ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.93 under Pablo Morales. Timothy Ritchey trains the filly. "She did a good job of stretching out," said Ritchey. "Her pedigree said to me that she should stretch out." He said he hopes to move Cash's Girl up to the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn.
Some Ghost, the odds-on favorite, fought through traffic at the top of the lane in Saturday's $125,000 New Mexico State University Handicap for state-breds and then went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Fullofenergy was second and Captain Cooper got home third. Some Ghost, a 7-year-old Ghostly Moves gelding, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.75 under Casey Lambert.
Ginger Bay and Classify dead-heated for the win in Saturday's $50,000 Spring Fever Stakes for fillies and mares. Ginger Bay won a pace duel to get a 1-length advantage at the top of the stretch, then just held on to share the victory. Fast deal finished third and the favorite, Akronism, got home third. Ginger Bay is a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Golden Missile. Classify is a daughter of Unbridled's Song. The 5 1/2 furlongs went in 1:03.64.