In the semifinal round of Derby preps in California, Kentucky and Illinois, the favorites went down to defeat, clouding rather than clarifying the picture for the Run for the Roses, now just four weeks down the road.
As the dust cleared, however, it was apparent Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John was the best Derby prospect on the West Coast. And Tale of Ekati re-emerged as an East Coast contender with an upset win in the Wood Memorial. Florida Derby winner Big Brown and Louisiana Derby winner Pyro -- both idle during the weekend -- remain the favorites for the May 3 Kentucky Derby.
In Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York, one-time overwhelming Derby favorite War Pass was the odds-on favorite as he tried to atone for a last-place finish in his last outing, the Tampa Bay Derby, which ended his undefeated string at six. Indeed, War Pass ran very well and led most of the way in the Wood, only to lose by a 1/2 length in the final strides to Tale of Ekati, who himself was rebounding from a poor effort in his last start.
War Pass may have been compromised by pace pressure from Inner Light, entered as a "rabbit" for stablemate Court Vision.
Under jockey Edgar Prado, Tale of Ekati, a Kentucky-bred son of Tale of the Cat, stalked the pace set by War Pass and Inner Light, then slipped through inside War Pass to steal the victory, running 1 1/8 miles in 1:52.35. Court Vision nipped Giant Moon for third while Inner Light faded to finish last.
Tale of Ekati, trained by Barclay Tagg, won the Futurity at Belmont Park last fall before turning in a dismal performance in the Monmouth Park slop in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile -- won by War Pass. In his first start this year, the colt finished a well-beaten sixth in the Louisiana Derby -- a race he obviously needed.
"We always thought he was a good horse," Tagg said, adding Tale of Ekati had some issues getting out of the gate in his last race. "We still felt good about him and we worked out some of those issues in the gate. He showed up today big time."
All of the top three likely would have enough graded stakes earnings to get into the Kentucky Derby field. Nick Zito, who trains War Pass, said the Derby still is in the picture. "If War Pass has a good month," Zito said, "we'll see if he can make it to the Derby."
In Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, Colonel John came along in the final sixteenth to pass the tiring leaders and win by 1/2 length over Bob Black Jack, with Coast Guard Third. The favorite, El Gato Malo, who finished second to Colonel John in their last start, finished fifth Saturday. Another Derby hopeful, Yankee Bravo, got home fourth.
Colonel John, ridden by Corey Nakatani and trained by Eoin Harty, raced well back in the early going while Coast Guard and Bob Black Jack led the way. Despite running a bit erratically in the stretch, he was moving best of all in the late going and finished the 9 furlongs in 1:48.16 on the speedy all-weather track.
The outcome leaves Colonel John as the most likely West Coast hope for the Kentucky Derby, with El Gato Malo a question mark.
"It's huge," said Harty, a long-time assistant to three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. "Historically, any horse that's run well here and comes out of this race in one piece usually shows up and runs a very good race on Derby Day. That's what we're hoping for."
El Gato Malo's jockey, David Flores, said he doesn't know why his horse didn't fire. "Some days, they don't have it and this was one of those days," he said.
In Saturday's $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course outside Chicago, Denis of Cork was expected to stamp his ticket for Louisville against a half-dozen lesser-regarded foes. Instead, the field left 16-1 longshot Recapturetheglory alone on a pedestrian pace under rider E.T. Baird. In the stretch, Recapturetheglory, rather than folding, drew off and won by 4 lengths over Golden Spikes. Z Humor was third, Atoned fourth and Denis of Cork, never in the mix, finished fifth.
Recapturetheglory, a Kentucky-bred colt by Cherokee Run out of a Dehere mare, is trained by Louie Roussel III and owned by Roussel and Ronnie Lamarque. His $300,000 winner's share from the Grade II event would be enough to win him a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate.
The owner-trainer duo campaigned Risen Star to victories in the 1988 Preakness and Belmont Stakes after finishing third behind the filly Winning Colors in the Kentucky Derby. Lamarque said Roussel "named this wonderful racehorse Recapturetheglory because the Kentucky Derby got away from us."
This time, he hopes for better. "I told Louie to pack his bags. We're going to the Kentucky Derby," Lemarque said.
Julien Leparous, who rode Denis of Cork, said he "had a good trip and when I asked him at the three-eighths pole, I thought he was ready to go. He kept going but there was no kick to get there."
Kentucky Oaks preps
Little Belle posted a big upset in Saturday's $500,000 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, leading most of the way and winning by a neck.
Bsharpsonata headed the winner at the top of the stretch but gave the lead back. Proud Spell was third and the even-money favorite, Country Star, finished fifth, never threatening. Little Belle, a Kentucky-bred daughter of A.P. Indy, finished the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:43.69 under Rajiv Maragh. Little Belle, owned by Darley Stable, earlier won the Busher Stakes at Aqueduct. "We felt like she deserved a chance to really step up and see how good she could be. This was the spot we picked," said Neal McLaughlin, brother and assistant to winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "It was a tough one. But we wanted to know if we had a Kentucky Oaks filly on our hands or not." Country Star, making her first start as a 3-year-old, had "no excuses," said rider Robby Albarado. "There's just no rhyme or reason for it."
Eight Belles hopped at the start of Sunday's $250,000 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and started last of four fillies. She then had to make two runs at pace-setting Alina before she was able to get past in the final furlong to win by 3/4 length. Pure Clan was third and French Kiss completed the order of finish. Eight Belles, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Unbridled's Song, completed the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.06 under Ramon Dominguez.
The weekend also provided an early look at the divisions that will climax in Breeders' Cup Championship showdowns this fall at Santa Anita. In some of those events:
Tiago came from well back in the field in Saturday's $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, engaged in a tight stretch duel with the favorite, Heatseeker, and just did get home first, a head in front. Reporting for Duty was third, well up the track. Tiago, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred colt by Pleasant Tap, ran the 9 furlongs in 1:50.34 under Mike Smith. John Sherreffs trains Tiago.
Temporary Saint upset Saturday's $200,000 Excelsior Handicap at Aqueduct in New York, leading from the early going, setting a slow pace and coasting home first, 1 1/2 lengths ahead of the favorite, Nite Lite. Angliana finished third. Temporary Saint, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Awesome Again, got the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.13 under Charles Lopez. "I knew he was going to get the lead because there was no speed in the race," said winning trainer Bruce Levine. "I knew the fractions were slow but the track has been slow all day. This was a big race for him." Temporary Saint was second behind Malibu Moonshine last time out in the Stymie Handicap.
Bustin Stones was pressured on the lead all the way by Executive Fleet in Saturday's $300,000 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct in New York, but dug in gamely and prevailed by 1/2 length. Premium Wire finished third and the favorite, Spring At Last, winner of the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, never got in the mix, finishing eighth of nine. Bustin Stones, a 4-year-old, New York-bred colt by City Zip, ran 7 furlongs in 1:22.91. Edgar Prado rode for trainer Bruce Levine. "My schedule was to run him here and in the Met Mile (May 26 at Belmont)," said Levine. "I think he can stetch out."
Greg's Gold rallied through the stretch to beat favorite Surf Cat by 1 3/4 lengths in Saturday's $200,000 Potrero Grande Handicap at Santa Anita. El Roblar finished third. Greg's Gold, a 7-year-old, California-bred gelding by Lake George, raced near the back of the field early, came four-wide into the stretch and was clearly best at the end. Under jockey Victor Espinoza, he finished the 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:14.62. Greg's Gold, who ran eighth in last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint, is trained by David Hofmans. "He was behind Surf Cat today and that gave him something to run at," Hofmans said. "He likes to run at a horse."
J Be K provided a rare victory for a favorite in Saturday's $150,000 Bay Shore Stakes for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct, taking charge at the top of the lane and winning by 5 lengths over Gattopardo. Jockey Ridge finished third. J Be K, a Kentucky-bred colt by Silver Deputy, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.67, toting Garrett Gomez. Trainer Steve Asmussen cut J Be K back to sprinting after he finished 17 lengths behind Pyro in the Louisiana Derby. "It looks like he is a sprinter -- or maybe a one-turn miler," Asmussen said after Saturday's win.
Among the distaff sprinters, Tiz Elemental won a three-horse charge to the wire in Sunday's $150,000 Las Flores Handicap at Santa Anita, beating Glorified by a neck, with Intangaroo another neck back in third. Tiz Elemental, a 4-year-old, California-bred daughter of Cee's Tizzy, got the 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:14.12 with Victor Espinoza up for trainer Carla Gaines.
Precious Passion, at 20-1 odds, jumped out to a 12-lengths lead early in Saturday's $150,000 Pan American Handicap at Gulfstream Park, was nursed along carefully by jockey Ariel Smith, and held on at the end to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Drilling for Oil. Interpretation finished third and the even-money favorite, Fracas, faltered at the end, finishing seventh of eight, and was vanned off the track. Precious Passion, a 5-year-old, Florida-bred gelding by Royal Anthem, ran the 11/2 miles on firm turf in 2:26.15.
Boss Lafitte rallied from a pace-stalking trip to win Friday's $150,000 Central Bank Transylvania Stakes for 3-year-olds at Keeneland by 1/2 length over Riley Tucker. Budge Man finished third. Boss Lafitte, a Kentucky-bred son of Dynaformer, ran the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.43 under Robby Albarado. Winning trainer Tom Amoss said the Crown Royal American Turf on Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill Downs "is a big possibility for us … We've always felt this horse likes grass."
Daytona led from gate to wire in Saturday's $150,000 Arcadia Handicap at Santa Anita, hanging on in the final yards to win by a neck over Hyperbaric. Golden Balls finished third. Daytona, a 4-year-old, Irish-bred gelding by Indian Ridge, finished the 1 mile in 1:33.13 on a firm course. Alex Solis rode for trainer Dan Hendricks. Noting Daytona has raced well at distances up to 10 furlongs, Hendricks said, "He set fast fractions, ran a great final time and backed up to a mile with no problem at all. He solidified his position, I think, as one of the top grass horses in the country."
In Saturday's $150,000 Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita, Missit struggled early just behind the pace, finally settled for jockey Victor Espinoza and was just up in time to win by a nose over Sweeter Still. Bel Air Sizzle ran third. Missit, an Irish-bred daughter of Orpen, finished in 1:34.91. Ben Cecil trains the filly for Three Chimneys Farm. Cecil said Espinoza "probably got a little too aggressive early on. I think she's a pretty nice filly. I'm not saying she ran bad today but I think she's better than she ran today and there's room for improvement."
Tiz a Blend took charge in the final furlong in Sunday's $100,000 Valentine Dancer Handicap for California-bred fillies and mares at Santa Anita, drawing clear to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Lightmyfirebaby. It was another 2 1/2 lengths back to the favorite, Rockella. Tiz a Blend, a 5-year-old daughter of Cee's Tizzy, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.83 with Victor Espinoza in the irons for trainer Carla Gaines.
Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award winner Ginger Punch faded badly in the final furlong of Saturday's $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, finishing third behind Zenyatta and Brownie Points. Zenyatta, after dawdling near the back of the six-horse field, started to pick up ground on the final turn under Mike Smith and won going away, by 4 1/2 lengths. Brownie Points, also making a late run, crossed the wire 3 1/2 lengths ahead of the odds-on favorite. Zenyatta, second-choice in the field, covered the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.64. John Shirreffs trains the winner.
In other weekend racing:
Keep Laughing, making just his third career start, came from off the pace in Sunday's $100,000 Lafayette Stakes, caught pace-setting Eaton's Gift midway down the stretch and then held on to win by a nose over Hatta Fort. The favorite, Kodiak Kowboy, finished fourth. Keep Laughing, a 3-year-old son of Distorted Humor ran the 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:22.26 with John Velazquez riding. "Keeneland's really been a proving ground for a lot of 3-year-olds," said Neal McLaughlin, brother and assistant to winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "We wanted to bring ours here and see just how good they are. We're finding out they're pretty good."
Canada's premier oval returned to action with Shilla scoring the victory in the opening-day feature, the $95,000 (Canadian) La Voyageuse Handicap for 3-year-old fillies. Shilla, an Ontario-bred daughter of Marquetry, rated behind the pace, made her bid three-wide at the top of the lane when asked by jockey David Clark, and opened up to win by 2 1/4 lengths over her stablemate, Executrix. Kid Sparkle finished third. Shilla ran the 5 furlongs on the all-weather track in 57.55 seconds. "We were very pleased with the way both of them ran," said winning trainer Nicholas Gonzalez.
Lantana Mob rallied in the final furlong of Sunday's $50,000 Bachelor Stakes for 3-year-olds, caught pace-setting favorite Force Freeze and went on to win by 1 length over that rival. Maya's Storm finished third. Lantana Mob, a Kentucky-bred Posse colt, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:09.42 with Luis Quinonez riding.
Hungarian Boatbaby, the favorite, rallied from a pace-stalking trip to win Saturday's $60,000 Primonetta Stakes for fillies and mares by 2 1/4 lengths over Circuit Breaker, with What Time Is It third. Hungarian Boatbaby, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Silver Ghost, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.9 under Abel Castellano Jr.
Hawthorne Race Course
La Wildcat led all the way to an upset victory in Saturday's $50,000 Meafara Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, hanging on at the end by a neck over odds-on favorite J Z Warrior. Optimistic Sreva finished third. La Wildcat, a Manitoba-bred daughter of Forest Wildcat, ran the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.11 under Timothy Thornton.
Distorted Groom also led from gate to wire in winning Saturday's $75,000 James M. Levitch Illinois Owners Handicap by 1/2 length over his stablemate, Riverson. The favorite, Mighty Rule, finished third and High Expectations was fourth. Distorted Groom, a 5-year-old, Illinois-bred gelding by Distorted Humor, was clocked in 1:09.91 for the 6 furlongs with Jesse Lantz riding.
Tampa Bay Downs
A Saturday card of six state-bred races, each worth $85,000, found front-runners doing well on the main track and closers, with one exception, handling the turf.
Blue Pepsi Lodge was quickly on the lead in Saturday's $85,000 Hilton Garden Inn Sprint at 6 furlongs and the 6-year-old Pioneering horse held on to win by a neck over Lookinforthesecret in 1:10.65. Repenting sat second early in the Ocala Breeders' Sales Sophomore Stakes at 7 furlongs, then the Repent gelding opened up to win by 10 1/2 lengths over Brother Joey in 1:22.79. And in the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies Stakes, Moonshine Alice led most of the way and won by 3/4 length over Dee's Rose in 1:24.29.
Soldier's Dancer, a 4-year-old Lost Soldier gelding, came from last to win the Cherokee River Stables Turf Classic by 1 1/4 lengths over Silver Tree in 1:49.95. El Sultry Sun, an Eltish colt, rallied from eighth of nine to win the Dayton Andrews Dodge Sophomore Turf by 1/2 length over Gibber's Gold. And Bayou's Lassie, a 5-year-old daughter of Outflanker, after leading most of the way, won the L and D Farm Turf Distaff by 2 lengths over Inhonorofjohnnie.
Sam Houston Race Park
Scrappy Roo won a three-horse duel for the lead in Saturday night's $200,000 John B. Connelley Turf Handicap, then held on at the end to defeat the late run of another competitor, Going Ballistic, by a head.
Eighteenthofmarch, also making a belated bid, was another neck back in third. Scrappy Roo, a 5-year-old, Texas-bred gelding by Roo Art, ran the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:51.65 with Paul Nolan in the irons for trainer John Locke.
In Saturday night's $50,000 Jersey Lilly Stakes for fillies and mares, Barbette closed strongly in the final furlong to win by a neck over pace-setter Pleasantly Blessed. New Edition, the favorite, prompted the pace and then settled for third, 2 1/2 lengths farther back. Barbette, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of High Yield, ran the 1 1/16 miles on the firm green course in 1:45.45 with Quincy Hamilton aboard.
Smitty's Sunshine came from off the pace to win the $50,000 Sam Houston Turf Sprint Cup by 1/2 length over Golden Hare. Super Struggler, a 26-1 chance, pumped up the trifecta by holding on for third. Smitty's Sunshine, a 5-year-old, Louisiana-bred mare, ran 5 furlongs in 58.04 with Eddie Martin Jr. in the irons.
Stonestreet Song, the odds-on favorite, rallied past Vinny V in the final sixteenth of Sunday's $50,000 Daylight Sprint Stakes for 3-year-olds, winning off by 1 1/4 lengths. Chief of Thestreet was third. Stonestreet Song, a Florida-bred son of Songandaprayer, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:09.52 with Casey Lambert up.