There were some surprises but no real shockers as the march to the Kentucky Derby continued from coast to coast in the United States.
And it might be a good time to keep an eye on the Global Sprint Challenge, which this year might have a little more to say about where the stars will be racing -- if not aligned.
Here's what happened and what might happen as a result:
Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom returned to the races in a hastily arranged allowed on Saturday' Gulfstream Park card and could not have been more impressive or professional. It was his first race since being injured in last year's Belmont Stakes last June.
Jockey John Velazquez kept the Leroidesanimaux colt outside and out of trouble until the stretch turn, gave him his cue and Animal Kingdom quickly surged to the front. Without much encouragement, he drew off to win by 2 lengths that easily could have been more. The 1 1/16 miles on firm turf went in 1:41.72 and Animal Kingdom's road now points directly to the March 31 Dubai World Cup.
"This horse has come a long way since October," said winning trainer Graham Motion. "Nothing was more heartbreaking than to see this horse stuck in a stall a week after the Belmont. He went from being the fittest horse in the country to not being able to get out of his stall. That was tough," said Motion, whose Derby winner underwent surgery to repair a fracture in his left hind leg. "To see him today, back to himself, obviously I'm elated."
The victory for Animal Kingdom was his first since the Derby. He was second in the Preakness and then sixth in the Belmont, suffering the injury that had sidelined him since.
"Obviously, I would have been disappointed if he hadn't won today, when you've have a race that's set up for you," Motion said. "But this was the best thing for us. He still had to go out there and do it," Motion said. "He needed a race and still has six weeks to regroup to get him to Dubai in the right way."
"He's a very special horse," Motion said, "and I really wanted him to come back and prove it."
In Black Caviar's case, there was less doubt about whether she would win Saturday and more about whether she actually will travel to Dubai for the Golden Shaheen on the World Cup undercard.
The 6-year-old mare won her 19th straight race on Saturday but had to work a little bit to turn the trick in the Group 1 Coolmore Lightning Stakes at Flemington. She sprinted brilliantly to the lead halfway through the 5-furlong race but then found another top Aussie sprinter, Hay List, coming back for more with a furlong to run. Under some urging from jockey Luke Nolan, Black Caviar hit another gear and again pulled away to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Hay List held second and Buffering was third.
Black Caviar finished in 55.53 seconds over turf rated "good."
The win came just a week after her easy victory in the Group 1 C.F. Orr Stakes at Caulfield, going 7 furlongs.
Trainer Peter Moody said he decided to wheel Black Caviar back on short rest because she had to do so little in the Orr. However, the Lightning Stakes also was the first event in the 10-race Global Sprint Challenge, which offers $1 million (U.S.) for the owner and trainer of any horse who can win series races in three countries.
With this race in the bank, Black Caviar has a big leg up on the rest of the world's top sprinters, especially considering a change in the rules for this year's Challenge. Previously, a horse had to win three times outside its home jurisdiction. For 2012, any three races will do, including a home-court win like the Lightning.
Moody said he knew he was putting some added pressure on both his horse and the rider by running on one week's rest and a shorter distance in the Lightning but added the stiffening will come in handy whether Black Caviar's next stop is the Golden Shaheen in Dubai on World Cup night or at Royal Ascot in June. In either case, there will be much tougher competition than Black Caviar has found at home.
"It's the first serious task I've set her," Moody said after the Lightning, "and I said to Luke, 'I feel a bit sorry for her and you because it's the first time I've ever placed either of you under pressure.'"
"She has been a bit of a protected species, especially the way she goes about winning her races, and it was great to see that when the chips were down, how much courage she had … It was her toughest assignment."
Is Black Caviar going to Dubai or will she continue to beat up on local opponents while awaiting Royal Ascot?
Moody could opt to race March 10 in the Newmarket Handicap at Flemington or the March 23 William Reid Stakes at Moonee Valley. Either race likely would rule out a World Cup day run.
The trainer may visit Meydan this week to examine the facilities. The $2 million, 1,200-meter Group 1 Golden Shaheen is run on all-weather Tapeta. Black Caviar has never run on Tapeta and would face world-class runners including the past two winners, Rocket Man and Kinsale King.
The Golden Shaheen and both sprints at Royal Ascot also are included in the Global Sprint Challenge.
In Japan, the outlook was not so rosy for last year's World Cup runner-up, Transcend.
Testa Matta, an American-bred, 6-year-old son of Tapit whose career has been compromised by illness, broke through with a 2-lengths victory in Sunday's $1.2 million, Group 1 February Stakes at Tokyo Race Course.
Transcend, the favorite, struggled and finished seventh in his seasonal debut in what was to have been his only prep for another try in the big race.
It was Testa Matta's first Group 1 win in two and a half years. With Akira Murayama up, Testa Matta raced well off the rail and well behind the leaders until the field turned for home. With a quick burst, he hit the front 200 meters from the line and drew clear to win by 2 lengths. Silk Fortune finished second, Wonder Acute third and Espoir City fourth. The 1,600 meters took 1:35.4 over the left-handed dirt course.
Transcend's connections were eager before the February Stakes to return to the World Cup and gave no immediate indication of plans either way after Sunday's setback.
"I know the 1,600 meters may not be his best distance," Kyodo news service quoted jockey Shinji Fujita. "But we need to come up with something before Dubai. It may be mental, but he wasn't up for it at all today."
The experts may not be shaking up their Derby prospect lists too much after weekend upsets in California -- even after Drill was reborn with a victory in Sunday's $150,000, Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita. The San Vicente was expected to be a good 3-year-old start for Creative Cause, who finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after a victory in the Grade I Norfolk at Santa Anita. However, it was Drill, the loser of five straight, who finally turned a corner, tracking the pace set by American Act, then just barely winning the battle to the wire by a nose. Creative Cause did show promise in coming off the layoff, rallying from last of just four starters to make up some ground and finish third, 1 length farther back and looking like he wanted more distance. Drill, a Kentucky-bred son of Lawyer Ron, finished the 7 furlongs in 1:21.28 with Martin Garcia up for Bob Baffert. It was his third win from nine starts and first victory since the Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 7. But if Creative Cause is likely to thrive with more ground, Drill is just the opposite. "I wouldn't run out and buy a future book on him," Baffert said. "He'd have to prove something to me going long. He's one-turn right now. In time, he might be able to do it because he's learned to relax." Drill's co-owner and long-time Baffert supporter, Mike Pegram, agreed Drill is not a likely Derby candidate. "This is a Breeders' Cup horse," Pegram said. "I don't know which Breeders' Cup race. We'll just let him sort himself out." Creative Cause's trainer, Mike Harrington, said he "got what we wanted out of the race. He's a route horse, not a 7-furlong horse. We hope he moves forward off this."
Daddy Nose Best rallied to a narrow victory in Saturday's $200,000, Grade III El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, holding off the late-running Irish-bred Lucky Chappy by a nose. The favorite, Handsome Mike, dueled for the early lead and held on for third. Daddy Nose Best, a Kentucky-bred Scat Daddy colt, finished the 1 1/8 miles on the all-weather track in 1:50.46, less than 1 second off the course record. Daddy Nose Best was coming off six straight turf starts, including a sixth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. "We came here because of the added distance and his experience on turf which carries over to synthetic," said Darren Fleming, assistant to winning trainer Steve Asmussen. "He's been getting better with time, and he's trained with a different mindset since his last race (fifth in the Eddie Logan at Santa Anita on New Year's Eve. He's been showing us he wanted more ground, so we've had to wait for the races to catch up to him." Owner Bob Zollars said he will leave Asmussen to decide Daddy Nose Best's next start.
Monday's Grade III Southwest Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park has been divided into two divisions, each worth $250,000. The first division drew 11 starters, the second, 10. Oaklawn's 3-year-old races have turned out two Kentucky Derby winners, three Preakness Stakes winners and two Belmont Stakes winners since 2004.
(By RICHARD GROSS)
One week after Godolphin completed a near-sweep of the week's Carnival races, South African trainer Mike de Kock and his team stormed back to capture the Fort and dance to victory in the Balanchine, the two featured races over the two-day Carnival meeting Thursday and Friday at Meydan.
De Kock saddled Viscount Nelson and teamed with rider Kevin Shea to take the $250,000, Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort over 1,600 meters on turf for the trainer's third win in this event. Shea has been aboard the winner five of the seven runs of the race.
"Viscount Nelson has not been the easiest to train," de Kock said wryly of the 5-year-old son of Giant's Causeway. "Super Saturday (March 10) is likely next with a view to getting him in the Dubai Duty Free on World Cup night." The trainer's Master of Hounds finished third behind runner-up Albaasil.
De Kock got his fifth win in seven tries in the $200,000 Group 2 Balanchine Stakes, Friday's 1,800-meter turf feature for fillies and mares as Christophe Soumillon guided Mahbooba to victory by 2 1/2 lengths over First City, who finished a head in front of last year's winner, de Kock's Reem.
The trainer said he will try the winner in the 2,400-meter turf Dubai City of Gold on Super Saturday, then "aim her at the Dubai Sheema Classic on Dubai World Cup night."
South Africa's Zanzamar gave de Kock three wins over the two-day meet by taking the 2,000-meter Range Rover turf handicap Thursday evening.
The remaining winners over two days were spread among local and international horses, trainers and jockeys as connections begin shipping and prepping their charges for Dubai World Cup day.
The most interesting finish was Friday's 1,400-meter, all-weather Logistics Handicap when Capital Attraction got a nose up at the wire on Sweden's Tertio Bloom to force a dead heat.
Zaidan just held on by the narrowest of noses to win Sunday's Group 1 Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Classic Cup over Sweet Orange. The race was a final test for the March 18 Hong Kong Derby. With Olivier Doleuze up, Zaidan rated behind the leaders, took up the chase outside early in the stretch run and seemed an easy winner. But Sweet Orange, who raced last from a wide draw, closed with a blinding flash of speed in the final 100 meters and only a flared nostril decided the outcome. Dominant was third and the favorite, Fay Fay, settled for fourth. John Moore trains both Zaidan and Dominant and would seem to have a dominant hand for the Derby. "He kicked hard and the only thing the jockey said was that when he hit the front he pricked his ears and half wanted to pull up," Moore said. "So Olivier will have to be careful of that when he rides him in the Derby, which I think he will do." For Sweet Orange, "The draw was a nightmare," said jockey Weichong Marwing. Marwing said trainer David Ferraris told him "not to force the horse, just to leave him at the back. He has run enormous, there's no question about it."
Force Freeze kicked off his 7-year-old campaign in style with an easy win in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship, drawing off in the stretch by score by 3 3/4 lengths. In his first run since finishing second to Eclipse Award champion Amazombie in the Breeders' Cup, Force Freeze ran the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:20.71 with Paco Lopez up. He missed the course record by just over 0.26 second. Troilus finished second and Capt. Candyman Can got home third. Force Freeze is a Kentucky-bred son of Forest Camp. Force Freeze raced in Dubai earlier in his career but trainer Peter Walder said avenging the Breeders' Cup loss is his target this year. "It means a lot to win a race here at Gulfstream Park," Walder said. "But the Breeders' Cup is the Breeders' Cup. There's only one way to erase that and that's by winning it. This is the first step." Walder said he told Lopez, "'When you make your move … don't hesitate. Just put them away. You're the heavyweight champ and just knock them out." He said he will give Force Freez another break before the 7-furlong Churchill Downs Handicap on Derby Day.
The fillies and mares were sprinting in Sunday's $150,000, Grade III Hurricane Bertie Stakes but here it was R Holiday Mood springing the upset with a hard-fought, front-running win. At the wire, R Holiday Mood held on to win by a neck over a persistent Funny Sunny. The odds-on favorite, Her Smile, rallied with too little, too late and finished third, as she did in her last previous start in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. R Holiday Mood, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred Trippi filly, got the 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast main track in 1:15.85 with John Velazquez riding. It was her first graded stakes win and trainer Todd Pletcher said R Holiday Mood is likely to return March 17 in the $150,000, Grade II Inside Information Stakes. "The seven-eighths is just right for her," Pletcher said.
Ellafitz went out to the lead in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Maria Stakes and wouldn't let anyone past her. At the end, the 5-year-old Tiznow mare just kept on going and won by 1 1/4 lengths. Miss Mittagong and Vision in Gold dead-heated for second and third. Ellafitz, with Martin Garcia up for trainer Bob Baffert, finished the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.48. "They tried to go with her, but she's so tough, the way she held everybody off," Baffert said. "I thought maybe she'd cave in at the end. She's just showing that she's getting better and better. Once she gets in her groove, she's got a lot of Game On Dude in her. She really fought." He said he will target the Grade I, $300,000 Santa Margarita Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on March 17 as Ellafitz's next start.
Magical Feeling ran down odds-on favorite Nicole H in the stretch run of Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Barbara Fritchie Handicap for fillies and mares, winning by a neck in the final jumps. C C's Pal was just another nose back in third. Magical Feeling, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred Empire Maker mare, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:22.36 with Roberto Alvarado Jr. riding. "She's an unbelievable mare," said winning trainer Allen Iwinski. "She has a winning attitude. (Owner) Peter Blum couldn't have named her any better. She has tried as hard as she can run every time we send her out. The best word to describe her is phenomenal." Belying her 27-odds in the Fritchie, Magical Feeling has won 11 of her last 14 starts, including the Regret Stakes at Monmouth Park last summer.
In Saturday's $75,000 John B. Campbell Handicap, Jiminator dueled for the lead, then got clear in the stretch to win by 4 lengths. Thunder Lord came from last of five to finish second and the odds-on choice, Heart Butte, finished third. Jiminator, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred Broken Vow gelding, ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.95 with Junior Alvarado in the irons.
Absinthe Minded stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Bayakoa Stakes for fillies and mares, got to the front in the lane and moved out to a 4-lengths win over the favorite, Tiz Miz Sue. She's All In was third all the way. Absinthe Minded, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred Quiet American mare, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.14 with Terry Thompson riding. "This is significant because this wasn't just some waltz out there today," said winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "They hooked her every step of the way, and to pull away like that after that kind of pressure really says something about how good she is. I really believe this was the best race of her career … We know the hill is going to get a little bit steeper, but she's been running with the best horses in the country and a race like that, I think it shows she's really turned a corner."
Gleaming rallied four-wide down the lane to capture Sunday's $60,000 Spring Fever Stakes for fillies and mares by 1 length over Bent Missile. The latter's entrymate, Awesome Symmetry, finished third and Hearts on Fire filled out the trifecta. Gleaming, a 5-year-old, Oklahoma-bred Dehere mare, got the 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:04.96 under Cliff Berry.
Marilyn's Guy, making his first start in almost 11 months, broke slowly but still nosed out odds-on favorite San Pablo for the win in Saturday's $75,000 As Indicated Stakes. Linebacker was third. Marilyn's Guy, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred Yonaguska gelding, ran the 1 mile on the fast inner track in 1:37.37. Winning jockey Charles Lopez said he had to scramble after his horse missed the break. "That's what I get the big bucks for and I was able to pull it off," he said.
Sam Houston Race Park
Defiant Flyer defied the odds in Saturday's $100,000 Jim's Orbit Stakes for 3-year-old, state-bred colts and geldings, out-finishing Boca Bay for a 3/4-length victory. The odds-on favorite, Sword Trick, faded from the lead to finish third. Defiant Flyer, an Early Flyer gelding, ran the 1 mile on the "good" main track in 1:39.94 with Jesse Campbell in the irons.
In the companion Two Altazano Stakes for state-bred, 3-year-old fillies, Color Code led from the start and won by 4 1/2 lengths over Nothinbettertodo. Cowgirl N Up finished third. Color Code, a daughter of Too Much Bling, got the 1 mile in 1:39.93 under Roman Chapa.
Iplaytricks played a good one on the heavy favorite, Rose's Desert, in Saturday's $110,000 Sydney Valentini Handicap for New Mexico-bred fillies and mares. Rose's Desert took the lead on cue after tracking the early pace in the 1-mile event. But Iplaytricks, with Ken Tohill in the irons, found more in the lane and got by to win by 3/4 length over the favorite. Soaring Goddess was a long-shot third. Iplaytricks, a 4-year-old Desert God filly, finished in 1:38.46.
Tampa Bay Downs
Great Attack successfully attacked the leaders in the stretch run of Saturday's $75,000 Turf Dash, running by to win by 3/4 length over Western Prospector. The even-money favorite, Private Jet, landed third. Great Attack, a 5-year-old, Florida-bred son of Greatness, ran the 5 furlongs on "good" turf in 55.93 seconds with Jeffrey Sanchez up. Great Attack finished fourth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint and has been competitive at the top level but Saturday's race was his first stakes win. "And this was no easy spot, believe me," said Dennis Ward, speaking for his father, winning trainer Wesley Ward. "This is as tough as any place in the country."
Derive duked it out with Absolutely Cool through just about every yard of Saturday's $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup before putting his nose in front under the wire for the victory. The favorite, Saratoga Boot, settled for third. Derive, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred Cozzene gelding, finished the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.69 with Jorge Carreno up.
Plutonium led from the start in Saturday's $50,000 Dust Commander Stakes and exploded down the lane to win by 8 1/4 lengths -- at odds of 30-1. El Gran Sol, at 49-1, chased in second all the way and finished in that spot, 2 1/2 lengths ahead of the favorite, Proceed Bee. The plungers collected $12,601.60 for a winning $2 trifecta ticket. Plutonium, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred Monarchos gelding, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.51 under Luis Martinez Jr. "I could just tell everything about him was perfect," said winning trainer Ron Brown. "He went into the race perfect. He's a speed horse and that was kind of the plan, to play catch me, and it worked out. The rider got him to relax and it was perfect." Perfectly stated.
News and Notes:
Night School will launch a 40-week lesson plan on Feb. 28. More than 375,000 students attended the first year of the computer-based racing curriculum last year, learning the ropes from some of the top people in the business. The innovative concept, addressing the oft-stated but seldom-addressed need to educate fans about racing, is hosted by Joe Kristufek and Jeremy Plonk. Churchill Downs Inc. has signing on as a sponsor for the new year, joining founding title sponsors the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, American Quarter Horse Association, Keeneland and Daily Racing Form. Check out any of those web sites for "how to" info.
Giant Oak has been named the 2011 Illinois Horse of the year. The homebred son of Giant's Causeway was named in a vote of the state's racing media and racing secretaries for the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation. Local television news anchor Ron Magers bred or co-bred two other state champions -- Banner Bill, the champion 2-year-old male, and Third Chance, who was named champion 3-year-old filly and champion female sprinter.