The road to the Kentucky Derby, at least for this week, seems to be running north from the Big Easy.
While favorites struggled or failed in three other states during the weekend, Friesan Fire's dominating victory in Saturday's Louisiana Derby at Fair Ground in New Orleans stands out as the most definitive Kentucky Derby prep yet.
Papa Clem, who shipped in from California with bright credentials, set the pace in the Louisiana Derby and, at the top of the stretch, appeared to have a shot to lead the field home. But when jockey Gabriel Saez asked Friesan Fire for his run, the race was over.
With a quick burst, the Kentucky-bred son of A.P. Indy surged to the lead and drew off easily to win by 7 1/4 lengths. Papa Clem held second, a head in front of Terrain. The 1 1/16 miles went in 1:43.46 and Friesan Fire appeared willing to go much further.
"He was awesome the way he was going so smooth early," Saez said. "He made me so confident. When I asked him to go, he did it so easy I can't explain it."
Friesan Fire was saddled by trainer Larry Jones's wife and assistant, Cindy, since Jones was handling Old Fashioned, who finished second in Saturday's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn.
"Papa Clem was the horse we were really worried about," Cindy Jones said. "When we pulled away from Papa Clem so easily, I knew we had it won … Maybe people will start paying attention to this horse a little more after the way he ran today."
By telephone from Oaklawn, Jones joked that Friesan Fire "could have run much better if I was there. But seriously, we're very happy with his performance. We're improving every race."
Papa Clem's trainer, Gary Stute, said his horse "just got outrun. No excuse."
Another to watch may be Giant Oak. He ran last during the early furlongs of the Louisiana Derby, then closed to finish fourth despite a wide trip all the way around. The big colt has a history of traffic issues but has demonstrated closing ability, which could translate into an interesting Kentucky Derby trip if he makes the field.
In the other preps:
-- Pioneerof the Nile didn't exactly hurt his Derby appeal in winning Saturday's $200,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. But the Empire Maker colt appeared to be all out in the stretch run to hold safe a pair of longshots -- Feisty Suances and Jeranimo -- who finished 1 1/4 and 1 length behind in second and third. Still, Pioneerof the Nile picked up his third straight stakes win and both jockey Garrett Gomez and trainer Bob Baffert chalked the extra effort in the stretch up to a lack of pace and the six pounds their colt was giving up to his top rivals. "When we turned down the backside, I moved him out, hoping that maybe the others would pick it up, but they didn't," Gomez said. "So I just went on with it. When we got to the eighth pole, he went to waiting on the other horses. We didn't have a target late, but you can see that when I do get into him, he lengthens his stride. He can handle any scenario. But if we had a legitimate pace to sit behind, he's more effective." Baffert said Pioneerof the Nile "was doing great, but I just like that he got through this and he handled it well, no problems, and it wasn't too hard on him … He likes to run at horses, and he'll get plenty to run at from here on out." The win sets up a showdown with the other top West Coast Derby contender, The Pampelmousse, in the Santa Anita Derby next month.
-- Saturday's $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park was expected to be little more than a paid workout for the undefeated Old Fashioned en route to next month's Arkansas Derby. Instead, Old Fashioned opened a big lead at the top of the stretch, then essentially dropped anchor and was overhauled by 57-1 longshot Win Willy, who in fact won by 2 1/4 lengths. Old Fashioned was a comfortable second, 8 lengths ahead of Poletergeist. Part of the scenario of defeat was chasing a quick pace as Old Fashioned tracked early fractions of 22.54 and 46.07 before taking the lead. But by that time, jockey Cliff Berry had Win Willy rolling from last in the field of nine. "I really thought it was great that I might finish third or fourth," Berry said after the race. "But once I got to the stretch, I suddenly realized 'hey, I can win this thing!'" Winning trainer Mac Robertson was less surprised than his rider. "After he won his last race, I thought the distance would be okay," Robertson said. "This race came at the right time frame. I was fairly impressed with his last race and he did act that the distance would be no problem." This was a home run for us and the horse." Old Fashioned's trainer, Larry Jones, was at a loss to explain his horse's defeat. "It's hard to say what happened," Jones said. "The track was heavy and with those kind of fractions, it was bound to catch up with him. He ran well and we are proud of what he did." Old Fashioned undoubtedly will get another chance in next month's Arkansas Derby. And Jones, of course, took comfort in Friesan Fire's dominance in the Louisiana Derby.
-- Saturday's $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby was rated to be pretty wide open, with several contenders eligible to jump into the Kentucky Derby mix with a good performance. Seizing the opportunity was Musket Man, who had finished third in his last previous race behind two of Saturday's rivals. The Kentucky-bred Yonaguska colt was forced back in the pack when caught in traffic early. But when jockey Daniel Centeno swung him to the outside, he closed quickly and went by 35-1 longshot pace-setter Join in the Dance to win by a neck. Justdontcallmejeri was third at 43-1 odds. The favorites, Hello Broadway and General Quarters, ran seventh and fifth, respectively. "He's nominated for the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne," winning trainer Derek Ryan said. "But the owners are all from New York, so we might have to look at the Wood (Memorial), too." Centeno said Musket Man "still had a lot to do getting into the stretch and I thought, 'You better not get lazy now.' I went after him and let him know I wanted his run and he changed leads in mid stretch and just sort of took off for me. He sure wasn't lazy at the end."
Kentucky Oaks preps
Don't Forget Gil stalked the pace in Saturday's $200,000 Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs, then took command in the stretch run and won by 4 lengths over Ameribelle. Rock Candy was home third. Don't Forget Gil, a New York-bred daughter of Kafwain, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.65. Rajiv Maragh had the mount for trainer Mark Hennig. Don't Forget Gil ran third behind Rock Candy and Ameribelle in her last start, the Suncoast Stakes. She now has three wins from six starts. Owner Alan Brodsky said Don't Forget Gil's connections remain ambitious for her. "We're going to look around and do what's best for her. Certainly the Kentucky Oaks is a possibility. You know, from the Florida Oaks to the Kentucky Oaks -- we'll go state by state."
Rachel Alexandra went right to the lead in Saturday's $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks and never looked back, winning by 1 3/4 length. Jockey Calvin Borel wasn't asking her for the final sixteenth. Flying Spur was second and Our Dahlia finished third. Rachel Alexandra, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Medaglia d'Oro, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a sloppy track in 1:43.55. Hal Wiggins trains the filly. She now has five wins from eight lifetime starts and three stakes victories in a row. "Calvin said she was just picking her ears and doing it so easy," said Wiggins, "just like she did it when she took the lead when she won the Golden Rod last fall at Churchill. She kind of surprised us when she took the lead that day. But today we kind of wanted her out there so she didn't get mud in her face on her first time over that kind of surface. But I really think she can be anywhere we want her to be."
Just Jenda rallied smartly through the stretch to win Sunday's $100,000 Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park by 3 lengths over Afleet Deceit. The favorite, Bon Jovi Girl, led to the stretch turn, then faded to finish third. Just Jenda, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Menifee, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.95. Gabriel Saez rode for trainer Larry Jones. The filly is owned by Jones's wife, Cindy.
Heart Ashley got out front in Saturday's $100,000 Cicada Stakes at Aqueduct, set a brisk pace and held on well to win by 2 1/2 lengths over odds-on favorite Deam Play. One Smokin' Lady finished third. Heart Ashley, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Lion Heart, ran the 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:09.68 under Charles Lopez. "When my horse hopped out the way she did and I didn't see Dream Play in front of me right away" Lopez said, "I meant to get in front of them and make it difficult. She was ticking right off without me even asking and she just danced away from them."
In other weekend racing:
Egyptian Ra, with Felix Coetzee in the irons, led all the way to upset Sunday's Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup at Sha Tin in Hong Kong. Turning for home, Egyptian Ra had a 2-lengths advantage on the field and at the wire, the 7-year-old son of Woodborough held on by 3/4 length over Good Ba Ba. Fellowship finished third. Trainer Tony Cruz credited Cotezee, who left Hong Kong in December after 16 years in the former colony. "When Felix said he would be able to make the trip from South Africa, I became confident that the horse would turn in a big show as he rides him so well," Cruz said. "We were mostly worried about Good Ba Ba beforehand. But now that we have beaten him, I'm hoping we will be invited to race in Japan at the Yasuda Kinen in June." But, he added, the Champions Mile next month at Sha Tin will be the intermediate target. That race also could include the likes of Good Ba Ba, who won last year, Creachadoir and Vodka.
Proudinsky raced close to the lead throughout Saturday's $500,000 Mervyn Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap, then was just up at the wire to win by a nose -- his second straight victory in the event. Nownownow was third, another nose back. Proudinsky, a 6-year-old, German-bred son of Silvano, ran the "about" 1 1/8 miles on "good" going in 1:50.94. Victor Espinoza rode for trainer Bobby Frankel. "I thought I had a great shot," Espinoza said. "I was a little concerned with the post position, but I thought if I could save ground, I would have the best horse." The victory, sixth in 18 lifetime starts for Proudinsky, pushed his lifetime earnings past the $1 million mark. More than half of that total came in the two Muniz wins.
Macho Again rallied from next-last to win Saturdays' $500,000 New Orleans Handicap by 1 length over Secret Getaway. It's a Bird was third and the favorite, Honest Man, finished eighth. Macho Again, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred colt by Macho Uno, ran the 9 furlongs on a sloppy, sealed track in 1:50.21 under Robby Albarado. Macho Uno, second in the Super Derby last fall, had put in two sub-par finishes since then, including a seventh-place finish in the Sunshine Millions Classic in his last outing.
Sok Sok took charge in the stretch run of Saturday's $125,000 Duncan F. Kenner Stakes, drawing off to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Kodiak Kowboy. Garifine finished third. Sok Sok, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred colt by Trippi, ran the 6 furlongs on the sloppy main track in 1:09.79. Shaun Bridgmohan rode for trainer Steve Asmussen. Sok Sok came into the race off a sixth-place finish in the Sunshine Millions Sprint. He now has five wins from nine lifetime starts.
Life Is Sweet rallied from last of six to win Saturday's $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational for fillies and mares by 2 1/2 lengths over Santa Teresita. Model was third, another 1 3/4 lengths back. Life Is Sweet, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Storm Cat filly, ran the 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:48.71 with Garrett Gomez up for trainer John Shirreffs. It was her third straight win. "She's been running well here," Sherreffs said. "Garrett said he could have gone at any time. He felt very comfortable on her. It was nice that there was a little bit of pace and she was up a little bit closer." He said he will discuss the filly's next race with owner Marty Wygod.
Dawn After Dawn took the inside route in Friday's $65,000 Moscow Burning Stakes for fillies and mares, had to swing out at the sixteenth pole for running room and was up in time to catch odds-on favorite Modern Look and win by 3/4 length. Ransom Captive finished third. Dawn After Dawn, a 5-year-old daughter of Successful Appeal, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.33 under Joel Rosario. Modern Look was making her first U.S. start for trainer Bobby Frankel after winning group stakes the last two years in France. She had not raced since June in England. "If she's fit enough, she'll win," Frankel said before the race. "We'll see."
Gallant Son came four-wide into the stretch run in Sunday's $70,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds and overhauled the leaders, winning by 3/4 length. Smokey Lonesome was second and Wall Street Wonder finished third. Gallant Son, a Kentucky-bred colt by Malabar Gold, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.97 for jockey Alex Solis.
Christiana's Heat rallied in the final yards to win Sunday's $125,000 Irish O'Brien Stakes for California-bred fillies and mares by a nose over Waveline. Bel Air Sizzle, the favorite, was third. Christiana's Heat, a 5-year-old Unusual Heat mare, ran the "about" 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course in 1:13.32 with Michael Baze up.
Smooth Air rallied in the stretch run to win Saturday's $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap by 1 1/4 lengths over Finallymadeit. Formidable led much of the way and held on to finish third. Smooth Air, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred colt by Smooth Jazz, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.49. Paco Lopez rode for trainer Bennie Stutts Jr. Lopez said at the start, Smooth Air was "stumbling around. But I was able to straighten up and turn things around." Owner Brian Burns added: "Once we decided not to go to Dubai, we targeted the race to see if he could be effective at a one-turn mile because the major goal from here is the Met Mile … He'll run once more before the Met Mile. There are several options."
El Crespo stalked the pace in Saturday's $150,000 Palm Beach Stakes for 3-year-olds, got to the lead entering the stretch and then held on at the end to defeat the favorite, Lime Rickey, by 1 length. Stormalory was third. El Crespo, a Kentucky-bred colt by A.P. Indy, ran the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:47.71. Javier Castellano rode for trainer Rusty Arnold. In his last start, El Crespo beat only one rival in the Holy Bull Stakes, testing his main-track affinity. "He's a 3-year-old by A.P. Indy, so we thought we had to try him on dirt in the Holy Bull," Arnold said. "Obviously that didn't work, so we brought him back here on grass." He said he may take El Crespo back north, noting, "He didn't do well in his first start at Keeneland. But that was sprinting."
Game Face tracked the swift pace set by Any Limit, then took over in the stretch in Sunday's $150,000 Inside Information Stakes for fillies and mares, drawing off nicely to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Any Limit held second and Keep the Peace finished third. The result reversed the finish of the last outing between Game Face and Any Limit. Game Face, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Menifee filly, ran the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.09. John Velazquez had the mount for trainer Todd Pletcher. "The pace was definitely a factor today as opposed to last time out," Velazquez said. "I wanted to stay close and have a shot, that's all. She kept making up ground, and at the quarter (pole) I noticed she got real comfortable. We went to the outside and once I let go and asked her, this time she was ready to fight all the other horses down the lane."
In Sunday's $150,000 Herecomesthebride Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on the turf, Gozzip Girl rallied from last of eight to win by 1/2 length over Obsequious. Bluegrass Princess got home third. Gozzip Girl, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Dynaformer, ran the 1 1/8 miles on firm going in 1:47.25 with Elvis Trujillo up for trainer Tom Albertrani. "Trujillo rode a great race to come up the inside," Albertrani said. "If he goes around the other horse (Obsequious), we're probably second. She'll have plenty of time now until her next start, probably in the Sands Point at Belmont (on May 30)."
Tampa Bay Downs
Backseat Rhythm sat well back of the pace in Saturday's $175,000 Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares, then burst through on the inside at mid-stretch and was just up in time to nip pace-setting Elusive Lady by a nose. Ballymore Lady was another 3/4 length back in third. Backseat Rhythm, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by El Corredor, ran the "about" 1 1/8 mile on firm turf in 1:51.43. Eibar Coa had the mount for trainer Patrick Reynolds. She won for the fifth time in 15 starts. "She showed her class," Reynolds said. "She's a Grade I mare in a Grade III race, and now we'll go from here. I think bigger and better things are on the way. If she had a clean trip, she'd probably dominate. But she had a rough trip, and Eibar hung in there and she's the real deal."
Castles in the Sky fought a protracted stretch duel with Cooper County before nailing down Saturday's $75,000 Turf Dash Stakes by a neck. Our Friend Harvey was third and the favorite, Chamberlain Bridge, finished a fading ninth. Castles in the Sky, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred Sky Classic gelding, ran the 5 furlongs on firm going in 55.75 seconds for jockey Daniel Centeno.
Golden Gate Fields
Lady Railrider sat just behind the pace through the early furlongs in Saturday's $75,000 Work the Crowd Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares, went to the lead when asked turning for home and won under wraps by 3 lengths over You Life Me Up. Film Editor was third and She's a Lucky Wager completed the order of finish. Lady Railrider, a 4-year-old Ride the Rails filly, got the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.17 under Frank Alvarado.
Mor Chances sprinted to the lead in Sunday's $65,000 Kim's Chance Stakes for New York-breds and held the lead to the wire, winning by 1/2 length over Little Wise Guy. Executive Search turned up a third place award. Mor Chances, a 5-year-old son of American Chance, ran the 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:10.1. Richard Migliore had the mount.
Lesson in Deceit raced last of 10 for the first 6 furlongs of Saturday's $50,000 Tempe Handicap for 3-year-olds, then circled the field six-wide turning for home and drew off easily to win by 3 1/2 lengths. Winning Vow was second and One Call finished third. Lesson in Deceit, a New York-bred colt by Roaring Fever, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.82 under Jake Barton.
Woody's Bluff also came from well back to win Saturday's $50,000 Scottsdale Handicap for 3-year-old fillies, advancing between rivals on the turn and edging clear to score by 3/4 length over Sweetwaterwind. Dash Dot Dash was third. Woody's Bluff, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Mutakddim, got the 1 mile on the green course in 1:37.15 with Ry Eikleberry riding.
Shesa Private stalked the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Mesa Handicap for fillies and mares, got to the lead four-wide approaching the stretch and won off by 1 3/4 lengths over Born With Eagles. Stolen Heart finished third and the odds-on favorite, Briecat, got home fourth. Shesa Private, a 7-year-old, Kentucky-bred mare by Unaccounted For, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:15.57 under Jake Barton.
Wind Water stalked the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Bill Thomas Memorial Handicap, got to the lead four-wide at mid-stretch and went on to win by 1 length over Quiet Again. Happy Humor finished third. Wind Water, a 6-year-old, California-bred gelding by Bold Badgett, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.14 under Ken Tohill.
Fancy Diamond got a clear lead in Saturday's $50,000 Conniver Stakes for Maryland-bred fillies and mares and held on at the end to win by a neck over All Giving. The odds-on favorite, Puskita, ran evenly to finish third. Fancy Diamond, a 5-year-old Eastern Echo mare, ran the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.72 under Harry Vega.