This weekend: Four big graded stakes at Gulfstream Park and Black Caviar stretching out to 7 furlongs in Australia in quest of her 18th straight win.
With Dubai World Cup night fast approaching, those far-flung venues easily -- or maybe, stay tuned -- could help determine fields for the big night on March 31.
As of Saturday, it's seven weeks until the World Cup and 12 weeks until the Kentucky Derby.
At the top of the weekend list is the $500,000, Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream -- recently, the first big East Coast handicap of the year and often a scenesetter for what's to come. In 2007, for example, Invasor won the Donn en route to victory the following month in the Dubai World Cup. Six years earlier, Captain Steve completed the same double and, of course, Cigar won the inaugural running of the World Cup in 1996 off a win in the Donn.
Cigar won the Donn twice, in 1995 as well as 1996, following in the hoofprints of the immortal Pistols and Roses, who won it in 1993 and 1994. Other winners include Saint Liam, Medaglia d'Oro, Captain Steve and Jade Hunter.
Bob Baffert, who trained Captain Steve and also won the World Cup in 1998 with Silver Charm, noted last week at Santa Anita it's not as easy for American horses to compete in Dubai now after the shift from real dirt at the old Nad al-Sheba track to the Tapeta artificial surface at the plush new Meydan track.
Nonetheless, that isn't going to deter many U.S. owners and trainers from chasing the winner's share of the $10 million World Cup purse if they have a horse that looks capable.
Saturday's renewal of the Donn also features what some are calling the "rubber match" from last year's Triple Crown. While Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom is not in the field, Preakness winner Shackleford and Belmont winner Ruler On Ice will be in the starting gate.
So will Trickmeister, who is undefeated in five starts but stepping into graded stakes company for the first time. The Triple Crown veterans and Trickmeister all like to run on or near the lead so it could be an interesting tactical race.
"Everybody's knocking this (2011's) crop of 3-year-olds," Dale Romans, Shackleford's trainer, said Wednesday at Gulfstream. "But I think by the end of this year, we'll realize we were watching a good crop last year. You could go five deep that could show up and be this year's top handicap horse."
Also in the field are Flat Out, fifth in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic; Where's Sterling, who won the Iselin at Monmouth last year before finishing second in the Hawthorne Gold Cup; Mission Impazible, second in last year's Clark Handicap; Redeemed, never off the board in eight starts; Soaring Empire, who finished second in the Gulfstream Park Handicap last year, beating the likes of Tizway and Rule; and Hymn Book, second in the Cigar Mile last time out.
On the same card are the $300,000, Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, the $150,000, Grade II Hutcheson for 3-year-olds going 7 furlongs and the $150,000, Grade III Suwannee River Stakes for fillies and mares at 9 furlongs on turf.
In the GP Turf, Silver Medallion comes in with two straight wins in Florida. Big Blue Kitten won last year's National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes at Saratoga and could be channeling the Kentucky basketball team. Boisterous had two straight graded wins in New York to wrap up 2001. Get Stormy won last year's Maker's Mark Mile and Woodford Reserve. A few others could be dangerous as well in another tough one to handicap. Yummy With Butter is usually in the mix and has a cool name.
Six entries were found for the Hutcheson, which could be a stepping stone toward the Florida Derby if one of them really shows something special. Il Villano, who finished third after showing the way for Alpha in the 1 mile, 70-yards Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct in November, is a prime contender. Another is Ever So Lucky, who was the favorite on Nov. 26 when he finished second to Gemologist in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs going 1 1/16 miles. So it's not hopeless.
The Suwanee River got a field of 10 plus to "main track only" hopefuls.
In California, The Usual Q.T. is a headliner in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II San Marcos Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on the grass.
The Usual Q.T., a 6-year-old California-bred, was third in the Grade II San Gabriel Stakes on Jan. 16 but that was his first race in nearly eight months and trainer Jim Cassidy said the multiple Grade I winner might not have been fully cranked.
"His schedule was a bit advanced to make the San Gabriel and we've had more time to prepare for this race," Cassidy said.
The Usual Q.T. has not been off the board in nine starts since his trip to Dubai nearly two years ago. But the gelded son of Unusual Heat also has not won since the Grade I Eddie Read Stakes in July of 2010.
Also in the eight-horse field are Sanagas and Bourbon Bay, who finished first and second in the Grade I Hollywood Turf Cup in their last outing Nov. 19; Norvsky, who won the San Gabriel; and Slim Shadey, a British import who oddly enough is not trained by Baffert but, rather, by Simon Callaghan.
Setting sail across the South Pacific, we get to Caulfield in Australia, where Black Caviar continues to face local rivals while her handlers decide which overseas targets will eventually provide a real test for her ability.
After 17 straight wins against overmatched opponents, Black Caviar faces a furlong more than her normal 6 in Saturday's C.F. Orr Stakes and butts heads with Caulfield Cup winner Southern Speed and well-regarded Playing God and Midas Touch.
A steady bag of mixed signals has had the 6-year-old mare staying home to try to win 20 straight for the locals; continuing to run at home until Royal Ascot in June; detouring to Dubai for one of the sprints on World Cup night; or plotting a "grand tour" that also could include Japan and/or Hong Kong late in the year with very lucrative bonus money on offer.
First things first. And the first thing is Saturday.
Trainer Peter Moody seems confident.
"The only worry is the 1,400-meter start is 20 meters from where she sleeps every night, so we'll have to keep her awake," Moody told The Daily Telegraph.
"She goes out and makes her own luck in her races. She can race forward or back. She can sit off them or be the speed. I don't harbour any fears there ... She'll be as effective, if not more, at 1,400 meters. I can't see any reason why anybody should be worried about her doing it."
-- Aqueduct has the $75,000 Dearly Precious for 3-year-old fillies at 6 furlongs on the Saturday card with three other state-bred stakes during the weekend.
-- At Fair Grounds, Saturday's headliner is the $75,000 Tiffany Lass Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the main track.
-- Laurel Park in Maryland cards the $75,000 Maryland Racing Media Stakes on Saturday for distaffers at 9 furlongs.
-- In Arkansas, Oaklawn Park, which as enjoyed excellent weather and a big boost in attendance early this season, boosted daily purses this week and Saturday offers the 1-mile Martha Washington Stakes for 3-year-old fillies -- a potential Oaks prep.
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