Two major Kentucky Derby preps share the spotlight this weekend with Dubai's "Super Saturday" -- the last tune-ups for World Cup night.
Sprinkled into the mix are graded stakes across the United States, from the Florida turf through the daffodils of Hot Springs, Ark., to the inner track at Aqueduct in New York.
Here's what to look for, starting where the biggest money is on offer.
Not all the stars will be shining over the desert on Super Saturday -- but there will be plenty of stardust to kick up the requisite storm for World Cup night on March 31. And how often do you see a "preview night" that itself is worth nearly $1.8 million?
A major clash looms in the 1,600 meters (1 mile) Burj Nahar, sponsored by Emirates Sky Cargo. Set to tangle on the Tapeta all-weather surface are the likes of Gitano Hernando, returning from a long layoff after winning last May's Singapore International Cup following a close sixth-place finish in last year's World Cup and an equally close eighth with a bad trip in the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup at Sha Tin; Musir, riding a three-race winning streak for trainer Mike de Kock after running seventh in last year's World Cup and then third in the BWM Champions Mile at Hong Kong; Godolphin Racing's African Story; and a potentially dangerous Silver Ocean, an American-bred Silver Train gelding who likes the all-weather better than the green course.
The entry list for the Dubai City of Gold, sponsored by Skywards at 2,410 meters (about 1 1/2 miles) includes Campanologist, fifth in December's Group 1 Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Vase in his last outing but a Group 1 winner in Germany and Italy, as well as Joshua Tree, Cavalryman and Vicount Nelson. Watch out for Songcraft, a lightly raced Godolphin 4-year-old by Singspiel, who is stepping up but boasts a career 4-for-4 record.
In the 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles) Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3, sponsored by Emirates, Monterosso is making his first start for Godolphin since running seventh in last year's World Cup; Bold Silvano is entered for de Kock for his second start off a year-long layoff; Richard's Kid will try to reverse his unfortunate recent Middle Eastern form; Mendip comes off a recent win; Fly Down, second in the 2010 Belmont Stakes but next-last in the 2011 World Cup, is looking sharper after a couple earlier races; and Silver Pond makes his first start since a dead-heat third in the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Vase last December. The latter was eighth in last year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
Regally Ready, winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint last fall, finished third behind Caracortado in the Grade III at Santa Anita on Jan. 8 and returns in the 1,000 meters (about 5 furlongs) Meydan Sprint, sponsored by Emirates Sky Cargo, on the grass. The rest of the field looks a little soft but the sprints on World Cup night will be decidedly tougher.
And if you want a really good race, how about the 1,800 meters (about 9 furlongs) Jebel Hatta on the turf course?
Among the stars in the Jebel Hatta is Presvis, who won last year's Dubai Duty Free on World Cup night but then ran poorly in the BMW Champion's Mile in Hong Kong and the Singapore Airlines International Cup at Kranji. He was fifth in a prep for this race behind Musir at Meydan on Jan. 26. Another world traveler, Wigmore Hall, has raced at Sha Tin, Kranji, Arlington Park, Woodbine and Ascot in the past year and makes his first start since October when he was ninth in the Champion Stakes. He's 12-1 on at least one early line, which seems generous for a horse that was a closing fourth through boggy conditions in the Arlington Million and then won the Grade I Northern Dancer at Woodbine.
Dubawi Gold has finished fourth in his last three starts but that's no shame as the winners of those races were Excelebration at Longchamp, Frankel at Ascot and Able One at Sha Tin. Dubawi Gold hasn't raced since that December event in Hong Kong. River Jetez finished third behind Stacelita in her last start in the Beverly D. at Arlington Park and also was second to Gitano Hernando in Singapore in May 2011. Master of Hounds continues to be a mystery of a horse to de Kock but could break through at any time. And there are still others in this field capable of posting the upset.
In California, Saturday's $300,000, Grade II San Felipe lost a potential Derby candidate when Out of Bounds was sidelined with a training injury early in the week. Trainer Bob Baffert suffered a setback, too, when Fed Biz "tied up" and his schedule was set back. "It's nothing serious," Baffert said, but reason for caution. Still, Baffert has the hottest hand with Liaison and Bodemeister running. Liaison, winner of the Cash Call Futurity, was a DNF in the Robert Lewis when he clipped heels and lost his rider. Creative Cause also is entered. He won the Norfolk Stakes last fall, then was third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Empire Way was second in the Robert Lewis and American Act was second in the San Vicente. Eleven were entered for the 1 1/16-mile event.
Prospective drew the rail in a 12-horse field for Saturday's $350,000, Grade II Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs. Battle Hardened, coming off his maiden win -- over Prospective -- in the Sam F. Davis over the same course, drew No. 7. That pair look like the ones to beat in the 1 1/16-mile event, although Todd Pletcher sends the undefeated Spring Hill Farm and Take Charge Indy, who ran a respectable second to El Padrino in a Gulfstream allowance event early this year, also will try to step up. Prospective was drawn wide for the Sam Davis and trainer Mark Casse said he hopes an inside post -- even the rail -- will help with a better trip this time around.
Gulfstream's Saturday card includes the 7-furlong Swale Stakes, a $150,000, Grade III event unlikely to impact the Derby picture. Still, you never know. Among the favorites are Ever So Lucky, an Indian Charlie colt who was second behind Gemologist in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last fall, going 1 1/16 miles, and Motor City, a Street Sense gelding who won the Grade III Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs and finished third in the Grade III Arlington-Washington Fururity. Those are both one-turn mile races.
On Sunday, West Coast 3-year-old grass runners take center stage in the $150,000, Grade III Palm Beach Stakes at Santa Anita.
On Fire Baby, Rocket Twentyone and Amie's Dini are among the prospects for Saturday's $125,000, Grade III Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Rocket Twentyone won the Arlington-Washington Lassie last fall and finished third in the Dixie Belle locally in her 3-year-old debut. An illness kept her out of the Martha Washington last month. She had a good workout during the weekend and trainer Tom Howard sounded optimistic. "We lost about a week of training and anytime you get a setback like that, you probably always wish you had one more workout," he said. "But she got a good 2-minute lick in before this and we are about as happy as we can be."
Gulfstream on Sunday has the $150,000, Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 9 furlongs on the grass.
Gulfstream's feature Saturday is $300,000, Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap at 1 mile on the main track. Mucho Macho Man, who beat Ron the Greek in the Sunshine Millions Classic, is back for this one and will face the likes of Jackson Bend and Tackleberry. Six are slated to go.
Oaklawn Park kicks into high gear on Saturday with the $125,000, Grade III Razorback Handicap. Alternation and Color Me Blue are among the prospects there.
Aqueduct's Saturday card features the $150,000, Grade III Cicado Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 6 furlongs. Five are entered with three -- Alydarla, Agave Kiss and Corderosa -- coming off good efforts in minor stakes.
Tampa Bay Downs has the $150,000, Grade III Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares at 9 furlongs on the grass on the Saturday schedule. A tough field of 10 includes Zagora, Hooh Why, Denomination, Unbridled Humor and Snow Top Mountain.
The Las Flores Stakes headlines Sunday's Santa Anita card. Fillies and mares will go 6 1/2 furlongs in the $100,000, Grade III event.
News and notes
Get a head start on the biggest night on the racing calendar -- the March 31 Dubai World Cup night -- this Saturday as Horse Racing Radio Network fills you in on Super Saturday at Meydan. Super Saturday foreshadows the big races three weeks down the road and will whet your appetite for racing in the desert. The show is available starting at 11 a.m. EST through local HRRN affiliates or streaming live on the web site. Check local listings or www.horseracingradio.net