When all is said and done, one of the earliest Kentucky Derby prep races, the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, may turn out to be a key race in this year's Triple Crown battles.
The first- and third-place finishers in that Feb. 8 battle came back Saturday to win two other major Derby preps -- Pyro, the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds; Visionaire, the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in New York. Both looked like Derby-style colts.
Pyro, who ran second to current Kentucky Derby favorite War Pass in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, was dominant in his return engagement in the Big Easy. The Kentucky-bred son of Pulpit stalked the pace while saving ground down the backstretch, moved into contention at the top of the stretch, came between horses to the lead and won by 3 lengths without a whole lot of urging from jockey Shaun Bridgmohan.
My Pal Charlie pumped up the exotic wager payoffs by holding on for second after leading most of the way. Yankee Bravo rallied bravely to finish third. The 1 1/16 miles took 1:44.44 on a fast track.
"A spot opened for him on the straightaway and he went about his business," Bridgmohan said of the easy win.
Winning trainer Steve Asmussen added, "It looks like he's right on target" for the Kentucky Derby.
While Pyro's victory was clear-cut, Visionaire's was anything but clear. When the field disappeared into dense fog on the Aqueduct backstretch, the Grand Slam colt was running last of nine. The horses didn't reappear until the top of the stretch, with Texas Wildcatter in the lead.
But then, along came Visionaire and Jose Lezcano, gobbling up ground with a well-timed move to win by a nose. Larrys Revenge finished third. The favorite, Saratoga Russell, faded from the lead to beat only the previously undefeated Giant Moon, who hated the sloppy, sealed track and never ran a step.
Visionaire ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.60.
"I knew there was some speed in the race and I was in no hurry to ask my horse," said Lezcano. "My plan was to make one move and come with a strong finish. I felt I had a lot of horse coming off the turn. I think he showed how good a horse he was today. He handled everything."
Both Visionaire and Texas Wildcatter are likely to stick around for the Wood Memorial on April 5.
In Saturday's $150,000 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows in northern California, 62-1 longshot Autism Awareness rallied from a pace-stalking trip to take the lead at mid stretch and win off by 1 1/2 lengths. Nikki'sgoldensteed was second and Tres Borrachos was third. The favorite, Coast Guard, was never in the mix and finished next-last of nine. Autism Awareness, a California-bred colt by Tannersmyman, ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.17 under Luis Contreras. Owner Johnny Taboada bought the colt as a yearling for $1,000 and earned $90,000 for Saturday's win. "About three years ago, I started buying yearlings so we could name them," he said. "We named him this because our youngest son was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 …We realized it was a great opportunity to make people aware of autism. What a Cinderella story." The colt had been winless in 12 starts before scoring in a maiden race last time out.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Weekend events featured a shocker at Fair Grounds and a mild upset at Santa Anita.
-- In Saturday's $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaksin New Orleans, previously undefeated Indian Blessing jumped out to a comfortable lead, set a sensible pace and then couldn't hold onto the advantage. Proud Spell, who ran second behind Indian Blessing in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and in the Silverbulletday in her last start, ran on by Indian Blessing and went on to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Acacia finished third, 11 1/2 lengths behind Indian Blessing. Wisconsin Lady ran fourth all the way in the four-filly field. "The last time was the first time she had run in four months," said winning rider Gabriel Saez, explaining the results of the Silverbulletday. And Garrett Gomez, regular rider of Indian Blessing, said his filly "finished really well. She just got beat. Even champions get beat."
-- Ariege came from well back in Saturday's $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks to take the lead at mid-stretch, then survived a late bid by the favorite, Golden Doc A, to win by 1/2 length. Final Fling, who led briefly at the top of the lane, held on for third. With Corey Nakatani up for trainer Bobby Frankel, Ariege finished the 1 1/16 mile in 1:42.73 on the all-weather track. Noting Ariege had never gone beyond a mile and never raced on anything but grass, Frankel said, "We wanted to try her on this track. Grass horses are running good on it. She's a nice filly. I just told Corey to let her settle and come with one run." Golden Doc A's trainer, Barry Abrams, said his filly "ran great. It was the best race of her career. Any time you can go five wide and come the last quarter like she did with those fractions (:23.58, :47.89 and 1:12.14), you have to be proud of her."
-- Armonk stalked the early pace in Saturday's $70,000 Wide Country Stakes at Laurel Park in Maryland, dueled for the lead from the quarter pole to the eighth pole, then drew off to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Hartigan. Kosmo's Buddy finished third. Armonk, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Mizzen Mast, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:26.83. Julian Pimentel rode the winner for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The New York shipper won her first stakes and third race overall from eight starts.
-- Littlemiss Allison stalked the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Sam Houston Oaks at Same Houston Race Park in Texas, surged to the lead at the top of the lane and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Timely Reflection. G.T. Ridge was third and the odds-on favorite, Twisted Tale, ran fifth after showing the way through the early furlongs. Littlemiss Allison, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Jump Start, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.19 under Paul Nolan.
Jalil, a nearly $10 million yearling purchase for Godolphin Racing three years ago, began to show promise of returning his price with a dominating victory in the Maktoum Challenge Round Three on "Super Thursday" in Dubai. The victory, his third straight on the dirt in Dubai, puts the Storm Cat colt squarely in the picture for what promises to be a highly competitive renewal of the $6 million Dubai World Cup in three weeks' time.
"He's learning to be a really good horse," said Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford. "He clearly loves the sand and the farther he goes, the better he is. We gave him a chance as he needed time last year and it's paid huge dividends now. He'll go straight to the Dubai World Cup and we'll see Curlin there. He needs to improve again but he hasn't stopped yet."
Winning jockey Frankie Dettori said of Jalil, "He's got to raise the bar again. But he's done nothing wrong so far and fits into the Dubai World Cup without any problems."
Another potential runner on the World Cup card, Shadwell Stable's Daaher, is out of the picture, retired as a result of torn ligaments in his right front ankle. The 4-year-old son of Awesome Again had disappointed in two U.S. starts this year after a sparkling campaign during 2007.
Stock also dropped in last year's UAE Triple Crown winner, Asiatic Boy, who finished third in Thursday's $200,000 Burj Nahaar at Nad Al Sheeba, a race won by Elusive Warning. "In hindsight, we've left him short, which has caught us out a little," trainer Michael De Kock said of Asiatic Boy. "But he haven't lost heart and we're expecting massive improvement in the Dubai World Cup." Crisford said the win by Elusive Warning was "a surprise," especially since it was stablemate Blackat Blackitten who posed the challenge at the end, not Asiatic Boy.
A British mare, Gower Song, upset the $200,000 Dubai City of Gold, running best at the end to beat Mourilyan with Oracle West third. Winning trainer David Elsworth said he would like to run Gower Song in the Dubai Sheema Classic.
The second leg of this year's UAE Triple Crown, the Al Bastikiya, was dominated by De Kock, who saddled the top two, with Royal Vintage staving off the late run of Honour Devil. The pair finished in the reverse order in the first leg and De Kock said he "wouldn't be surprised if the placings were reversed again in the UAE Derby."
In other weekend racing:
Proudinsky raced behind the pace in Saturday's $500,000 Mervin Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap, was sent to the lead by jockey Garrett Gomez with a sixteenth to run and got home first, 1 length to the good of late-running longshot French Beret. The favorite, Daytona, coughed up the lead in the late going but held on for third. Proudinsky, a 5-year-old, German-bred son of Silvano, ran the "about" 9 furlongs on yielding turf in 1:50.44. Proudinsky had been idle since finishing a close second to Daytona in the San Gabriel Handicap at Santa Anita three months ago. Saturday's result snapped Daytona's four-race winning streak.
Circular Quay returned to the winner's circle for the first time since last year's Louisiana Derby with a hard-fought victory in Saturday's $500,000 New Orleans Handicap. After stalking the pace early, the Kentucky-bred Thunder Gulch colt got to the lead turning for home, then won a long stretch battle with the favorite, Grasshopper, scoring by a neck. Reporting for Duty reported home third, 4 1/4 lengths farther back. Circular Quay, with Garrett Gomez aboard, ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.80. Since his last win, Circular Quay had been sixth in the Kentucky Derby, fifth in the Preakness, sixth in the Virginia Derby and fifth in the San Carlos in his first start as a 4-year-old.
Euroears didn't hear any footsteps tracking him in the final stages of Saturday's $200,000 Duncan F. Kenner Stakes as the 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Langfuhr colt drew off in the stretch to win by 3 1/4 lengths over early leader Semaphore Man. Noonmark got home third and King of the Roxy was fourth. Euroears, with Ramsey Zimmerman up, ran the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.27. Euroears is undefeated in six career starts, including four straight at Fair Grounds. Two of his last four outings were on the grass, providing trainer William Calhoun a variety of options for the colt's future.
Danceroftherealm rallied from the outside post position and a mid-pack trip to win Saturday's $100,000 Bienville Stakes for fillies and mares by 1 3/4 lengths over the favorite, Jazzy. Kindling was third. Danceroftherealm, a 5-year-old, British-bred daughter of King of Kings, ran the "about" 5 1/2 furlongs on yielding turf in 1:04.74.
Jonesboro, the odds-on favorite, led from gate to wire in Saturday's $150,000 Razorback Handicap, winning by 2 1/4 lengths over Gouldings Green. Going Ballistic finished third. Jonesboro, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Sefapiano, ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.21 under Calvin Borel. Spotsgone and Zanjero were late scratches. Jonesboro now is likely for the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 5, opening day of the Racing Festival of the South.
In Sunday's $170,000 Azeri Stakes for fillies and mares, Hystericalady stalked the early pace, took over the lead on the second turn and coasted home a 3 1/2-lengths winner. Brownie Points was second and Clever Strike, who set the early pace, held on for third. Hystericalady, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred mare by Distorted Humor, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.86. Robby Albarado took the mount for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Hystericalady finished second to Ginger Punch in the Breeder's Cup Distaff last fall but faded to finish fourth in her seasonal debut, the Santa Monica Handicap on Feb. 2 at Santa Anita.
Commentator, the odds-on favorite, ran away from five rivals in Saturday's $200,000 Richter Scale Handicap, winning by 13 3/4 lengths, ridden out. Rexson's Rose, at 61-1, finished second and Elite Squadron got home third. Commentator, a 7-year-old, New York-bred gelding by Distorted Humor, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:23.23. John Velazquez rode for trainer Nick Zito.
Mauralakana came around the leaders in the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 The Very One Handicap and was just up in time to win by a neck over Tejida. Herboriste was third, just another head back, and the favorite, J'ray, finished fourth, another head in arrears. Mauralakana, a 5-year-old, French-bred mare by Muhtathir, got the 9 furlongs on yielding turf in 1:49.94 with Rene Douglas up for Christophe Clement.
Spring Waltz, the even-money favorite, surged to the lead with a furlong to run in Sunday's $200,000 Rampart Handicap for fillies and mares and easily drew clear to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Tessa Blue. Golden Velvet was third. Spring Waltz, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Silver Charm, ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.73. Javier Castellano rode for trainer Brian Lynch. Lynch said Spring Waltz had a series of problems that kept her from the track until last year. "I was concerned today that she was back off the pace and behind horses for so long," he said. "Then she had to split horses but she came through and ran a great race." He said he will point Spring Waltz for one of the undercard races on Derby Day at Churchill Downs.
Sir Greeley rallied past pace-setting Man of Danger in the late stages of Saturday's $100,000 Toboggan Handicap to win by 3/4 length. Man of Danger held second and Ravalo finished third. Sir Greeley, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Mr. Greeley, ran the 6 furlongs on the sloppy, sealed inner track in 1:10.22 under Eibar Coa.
Nashoba's Key returned to winning form with a pace-stalking, 4 1/2-lengths victory in Sunday's $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational. After tracking Dawn After Dawn, jockey Garrett Gomez sent his 5-year-old, California-bred mare to the lead turning for home and the race was over. Dawn After Dawn held on for second with Double Trouble completing the trifecta. Zenyatta, second-choice in the morning line, was a late scratch. Nashoba's Key, a daughter of Silver Hawk, ran the 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:48.82. Carla Gaines trains her. "The pace was slow," Gaines said. "But she was sitting right where she should be. When Garrett pushed the button, she exploded." Nashoba's Key came into the race off a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf and a second in the Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf. Gaines said she still believes her mare is adept at either surface. "That makes it easy to pick races for her," the trainer added. Yet, she said, she hasn't yet picked out Nashoba's Key's next race.
Monzante came from last to win Saturday's $75,000 Santana Mile by 3 lengths. Neko Bay, after leading briefly, held second, 5 3/4 lengths better than Smooth and Savvy. Monzante, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Maria's Mon gelding, ran the 1 mile on the all-weather track in 1:34.35 under Rafael Bejarano. The victory was Monzante's second in four starts since shipping in from England. He ran third in the Strub Stakes last time out.
Tampa Bay Downs
Wayzata Bay caught pace-setting Riversrunrylee a furlong out in Saturday's $65,000 Challenger Stakes and got clear, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over that rival. Imawildandcrazyguy closed well to take third and the favorite, Birdbirdistheword, also made a late run to finish fourth. Wayzata Bay, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Roar, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.82 under Luis Gonzalez. "We're looking at some races at Prairie Meadows. That's his track, where he's won most of his stakes," said winning trainer Judi Hicklin.