It's a good thing the "Super Saturday" races in Dubai were preps for World Cup night because it looked like many of the purported stars needed the run. The American races were a mixed bag and provided even more intrigue on the road to the Derby -- including the potential for a filly contender.
In addition, there were some very promising performances in the handicap, mile, turf and sprint divisions.
What happened and how? Read on.
(By RICHARD GROSS)
A stellar field of runners entered the gates at Meydan for the first-ever Group 1 Thoroughbred race in the UAE outside of the Dubai World Cup, as the newly elevated $400,000 Maktoum Challenge III aligned Monterosso, Bold Silvano, Fly Down, Mendip, Richard's Kid, and a host of others prepping for their night on the big stage in three weeks.
But it was Ireland's Capponi who stole the show from all that equine firepower, as the fast-improving 5-year-old carried the silks of Sheik Hamdan to a surprising 4-lengths victory for trainer Mahmoud al-Zarooni, with Emerati camel-racer-turned-world-class-jockey Ahmed Ajtebi handling the reins. France's Silver Pond and Godolphin's Prince Bishop completed an unlikely top three.
Zarooni placed the stable's hope on Monterosso prior to the race, saying his "target has always been the Dubai World Cup and this is the obvious prep for him." Capponi was entered almost as an afterthought because, he added, "there are no other options for him. I wanted to take a chance with him in a Group race and see how he gets on."
The new Dubai World Cup hopeful got on just fine, thank you, over the same 2,000-meter distance and all-weather Tapeta surface he likely will face on Dubai World Cup night. Ajtebi sounded almost casual about the huge win.
"I was more than happy to chase the early pace and then commit him for home at the top of the stretch," the rider said. "He just galloped all the way to the finish line."
Only three horses won this race en route to a Dubai World Cup win -- the aptly named Dubai Millennium in 2000, Street Cry in 2002 and Electrocutionist in 2006. All were trained by Saeed bin Suroor, making this the first chance for another trainer to win both races and at the Group 1 level.
Highly regarded Master of Hounds lived up to expectations by taking only his second lifetime win in the also-elevated $300,000, Group 1 Jebal Hatta to conclude the card. Winning over the turf and same 1,800-meter distance as the Dubai Duty Free will pose a choice for Mike de Kock, who saddles last year's Duty Free runner-up and World Cup possible: The better chance or a bigger prize? No decision yet.
De Kock considers his choice on a night when another of his charges, Mickdaam, punched his UAE Derby entry card with a 2 1/4-lengths victory over Surfer in the $250,000 all-weather Al Bastakiya.
"He's a horse who will improve with distance and time," said de Kock. "Obviously, the Derby is next."
Krypton Factor captured the $200,000 Group 3 al-Shimaal by 2 1/2 lengths over 1,200 meters on the all-weather, besting Hitchens, and Invincible Ash was only a short head better than Sole Power in the 1,000-meter turf Meydan Sprint conditions race. African Story took an easy 4-lengths win over 1,600 meters on the all-weather, besting Snaafy and favored Musir in the $200,000 Group 3 Burj Nahaar. Mikhail Glinka was a length better than Cavalryman over 2,410 meters on turf to take the crown in the $250,000 Dubai City of Gold. The winners all are likely to find placement on the Dubai World Cup card March 31.
Creative Cause won a spirited stretch battle with Bodemeister to take Saturday's $300,000, Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita by 3/4 length. Midnight Transfer was third and Liaison finished fourth. With Joel Rosario up, Creative Cause waited until the stretch turn to make his bid, came five-wide around rivals and got to the eager Bodemeister at mid-stretch. Bodemeister battled back but Creative Cause edged clear in the final yards. The 1 1/16 miles on a fast track took 1:41.84.
Bodemeister is named for trainer Bob Baffert's young son and had been in his second string until he was thrown into Saturday's fray.
"The race set up perfect today," Rosario said. "There were a couple horses with speed up front and, when I saw that, I just let him find his stride and go from there. My horse was a little green at the top of the lane but I wanted to make sure that he didn't wait for another horse to come beat him. He galloped out good after the wire which helps to show he may be the right horse for the (1 1/4-miles Kentucky) Derby. That means a lot to me."
Creative Cause, a Giant's Causeway colt, won the Norfolk Stakes last fall but then was third in both the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and his seasonal debut, the Feb. 19 San Felipe. Winning trainer Mike Harrington was already looking ahead after the San Felipe.
"I said all along it's a progression and the only thing I hope is he doesn't peak in the Santa Anita Derby instead of the Kentucky Derby," the conditioner said. "That's my job -- to kind of keep that from happening."
Prospective got to the lead turning for home in Saturday's $350,000, Grade II Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs, and was headed by Golden Ticket a furlong out but found another gear and came back to win by 3/4 length over that rival. It was 3 lengths farther back to Cozzetti in third. The favorite, Spring Hill Farm, was a fading fourth and Battle Hardened got home sixth. Prospective, a Malibu Moon colt, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.35 with Luis Contreras up for trainer Mark Casse. Prospective started his career at Woodbine, finished 13th in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and then was second to Battle Hardened in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay last month. He now is 4-for-7 lifetime.
"He moved a little earlier than I expected," Contreras said. "But I just tried to keep him quiet and save as much horse as I could for the stretch. The inside post really helped me a lot because I saved ground into the first turn."
Casse said Prospective "is doing very well and I'm sure he's very happy and he'll be fine for the next one." He indicated that might by the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct April 7.
A couple more serious Derby contenders surfaced in Sunday's $150,000, Grade IIII Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park, even though the event was run on the grass. Howe Great, a Hat Trick colt handled by the Animal Kingdom team, stalked the pace, jumped to the lead in the lane and held off Dullahan in the late going to win by 1 length. Csaba finished third. Howe Great, with John Velazquez up, ran the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.56. It was his fourth straight win.
"We talked about it before the race," said winning trainer Graham Motion, "and decided the logical spot for him, if he did well today, would be to go to the Blue Grass and see where we go from there."
The Blue Grass, April 14 on the Keeneland all-weather track, could be a rematch with Dullahan, who made his 3-year-old debut in the Palm Beach.
"I'm very pleased," said trainer Dale Romans. "I thought that was a perfect race for him in his comeback. He finished good. We just wanted to see him finish good at the end … . This sets us up good, so we'll go from here to the Blue Grass."
If there is a filly in this year's Kentucky Derby, it might well be On Fire Baby, the willing winner of Saturday's $125,000, Grade III Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park. On Fire Baby, a Smoke Glacken filly, waited patiently behind the pace set by Amie's Dini, came around into the stretch and kicked clear late to win by 2 lengths. Colonial Empress finished third. On Fire Baby, with Joe Johnson riding, got the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.64 over a fast track amid the blooming daffodils. On Fire Baby, who was making her second start of the year after finishing third against colts in the Jan. 16 Smarty Jones Stakes, improved her record to 4 wins from six starts. Trainer Gary "Red Dog" Hartlage said the effort in the Smarty Jones was a tipoff to his plans for the filly but added her next race will be at the Arkansas oval regardless.
"We have options now," he said. "We have enough earnings to get into the Kentucky Derby at this point and she's undefeated at Churchill. I've been training horses around here for 25 years and the last horses I've seen that trained like her were Curlin and Rachel (Alexandra). I know that's saying something, but she's just so flashy, so professional."
Trinniberg led all the way to an upset win in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Swale Stakes at 7 furlongs over the Gulfstream Park main track. With Willie Martinez riding, the Teuflesberg colt set a good clip without a lot of pressure, and then easily showed his heels to nine rivals in the lane, winning by 6 lengths over 45-1 shot Hello Prince. The favorite, Ever So Lucky, was lucky to save third, 1/2 length better than Silver Menace. Trinniberg finished in 1:21.68.
"This horse was a speedball last year which is why they took the blinkers off," Martinez said. "He's going to be a horse to watch this year. He'll definitely be able to stretch out. I don't know how far he'll be able to go, but he'll get there quickly."
Wait Til Dawn had to wait until her rivals quit getting in her way in the stretch run of Saturday's $50,000 Stonewall Farm Ocala Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, and then still found enough to get up at the wire to win by 1/2 length over Ciguaraya. Melrose Woods finished third. Wait Til Dawn, with Javier Castellano up, ran the 1 mile and 40 yards on a fast track in 1:40.58.
Mucho Macho Man tracked the pace in Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap, moved to the lead when asked by jockey Ramon Dominguez and accelerated away to win by 2 lengths over Tackleberry. Jackson Bend was 1/2 length farther back in third while Cajun Breeze and Clean Shot completed the order of finish. Much Macho Man, a 4-year-old Macho Uno colt who is quickly becoming a leader in the handicap division, ran the 1 mile in 1:35.50.
"He's so powerful coming down the stretch," said owner Dean Reeves. "This is what horse racing is all about. Big days, you come and it's so exciting. We're blessed to have such a great horse."
Mucho Macho Man, third in last year's Kentucky Derby, won the Sunshine Million Classic over Ron the Greek in his last previous start and now boasts three straight victories. Dominguez said Mucho Macho Man also has proved his versatility.
"He's run so well going both one turn and two turns," the rider said. "I can't really tell if he's better on one than the other. He's just on a roll right now."
Trainer Kathy Ritvo said she has not set a target for Mucho Macho Man's next start.
"I love my horse and I'm going to take care of him the best we can," Ritvo said."I want to do exactly what's right for him. He'll tell us where to go."
Dayatthespa pressed the pace in Sunday's $150,000, Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes over the Gulfstream Park turf course, then outfinished Regalo Mia to win by a neck. Almusafa finished third but was set down, promoting Dixie Strike to show money. Dayatthespa, a City Zip filly who finished ninth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last fall, ran the 1 1/16 mile on firm going in 1:47.30.
"The plan was to sit second or third early in the race and it set up perfect for her," said co-owner Steve Laymon. "The big thing with her is she needs hard turf like it was today. She didn't get that in the Breeders' Cup. It was too soft for her …We don't have any plans to try her on dirt, but you might see her on Polytrack at Keeneland."
Izzy Rules was quickly out front in Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Las Flores Stakes for fillies and mares, shook clear and went on to win by 4 1/4 lengths. Spectacular Sky was the best of the rest with She's Cheeky checking in third. Izzy Rules, a 5-year-old Peace Rules mare, covered the 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:14.59 with Edwin Maldonado aboard. She was posting her fourth straight win in a streak stretching back to a $20,000 claiming event last December.
"My main concern during the race," Maldonado said, "was to try and get to the quarter pole alone because I knew she would do the rest of the work for me."
Lady of Shamrock rallied from the back of the pack to win Saturday's $70,000 China Doll Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 1/2 length over Vionnet. The favorite, Indigo River, finished third. Lady of Shamrock, a Scat Daddy filly, covered 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.73 with Mike Smith up for trainer John Sadler. She was returning to turf following a third-place finish in the Grade III Santa Ysabel Stakes.
Tampa Bay Downs
Zagora surged to the lead in the stretch run of Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares and won by 1 3/4 lengths over Federation. Unbridled Humor was a head farther back in third. Zagora, a 5-year-old, French-bred Green Tune mare, covered the 1 1/8 miles on firm turf in 1:46.97 with Javier Castellano riding.
"It's likely she'll be nominated to the Breeders' Cup if she is healthy and doing well," winning trainer Chad Brown said. "I normally like my turf horses to save ground. But I think Javier rode a smart race to stay out of trouble and keep her in the clear, knowing he was on the best horse."
Alternation got to the lead in Saturday's $125,000, Grade III Razorback Handicap, set a measured pace and had plenty left at the end to hold off the favorite, Tapizar, for a 1 1/2-lengths win. Tapizar, starting outside, tracked the pace the whole way but was unable to put any threat to the leader. Color Me Blue finished third, 5 3/4 lengths farther back. Alternation, a 4-year-old Distorted Humor colt out of the Seattle Slew mare Alternate, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track amid the budding dogwoods in 1:43.50 with Luis Quinonez up. Winning trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel said he was doubly happy that Alternation showed the versatility to win on the lead.
"People will have to respect him because he can take advantage of a race when it presents itself," the trainer said.
"This race developed like I hoped it would," Quinonez said. "He broke sharp, he put me there and just kept on going."
Alternation finished fifth in last year's Arkansas Derby and now has won all three of his starts as a 4-year-old, all over the Hot Springs oval.
Agave Kiss kissed her four rivals good bye early in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Cicada Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, opening a big early lead, and then coasting home first by 3 lengths. Corderosa was second and Alydarla finished third. Agave Kiss, a Lion Heart filly, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:11.76 with Ryan Curatolo up and trainer Rudy Rodriguez said her future is sprinting.
"We might try to stretch out in the Comely," he said, referring to the 1-mile Grade III on April 7. "We'll see how she comes back, discuss with the owners, and then see what we might do."
The longer-term plan, he said is the 6-furlong Prioress and 7-furlong Test, both at Saratoga.
Hardened Wildcat came from last of six to win Saturday's $100,000 Fred "Cappy" Capossela Stakes for 3-year-olds. With Junior Alvarado up, the Hard Spun gelding made up ground from last while on the turn, and then accelerated by the field through the stretch to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Beggarthyneighbor. The pacesetter, How Do I Win, will have to find another way as he faded to get home third. Hardened Wildcat ran the 6 furlongs in 1:10.89.
"I rode him last time, I was kind of close and he didn't finish that well, even though he won," Alvarado said. "I thought it would be better to take him back and make one run. He responded really good for me."
Seniors Pride was on the lead but under pressure throughout Sunday's $75,000 Bryan G. Stakes but prevailed by a head over Spa City Fever and another 1 length over Goombada Guska. Linebacker completed the order of finish. Seniors Pride, a 6-year-old Sweetsouthernsaint gelding, ran 1 mile on the fast inner track in 1:38.70 with Cornelio Velasquez up.
Icon Ike survived a wide trip to post the upset win in Saturday's $75,000 Black Gold Stakes for 3-year-olds, finishing 3/4 length in front of pacesetting Hero of Order. The latter, however, was disqualified to fourth for stretch interference, promoting Pure Tactics and Hammers Terror to place and show money, respectively. Icon Ike, a Yes It's True colt out of the Straight Man mare Robbie's Gal, ran the "about" 7 1/2 furlongs on yielding turf in 1:32.85 with Rosie Napravnik up.
Miz Ida also took the overland route in winning Saturday's $75,000 Allen LaCombe Memorial Handicap for 3-year-old fillies at the same distance. With Shaun Bridgmohan up, Miz Ida came six-wide to gain the lead near the sixteenth pole and won by 3/4 length over Firehouse Red. Citizen Advocate with third and the favorite, Robi Jo, checked in fifth with a belated move. Miz Ida, a Proud Citizen filly, finished in 1:34.23.
Bold Affair started from the outside post position in Saturday's $75,000 Conniver Stakes for Maryland-bred fillies and mares, gunned to the lead and was never challenged, winning off by 6 1/2 lengths over Baltimore Belle. Music Please finished third. Bold Affair, a 4-year-old Two Punch filly, got the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.74 with Abel Castellano Jr. in the irons.
Sam Houston Race Park
Slamit was along late to win Saturday's $50,000 Spring Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge Stakes for 3-year-olds, scoring by 1/2 length over King Coral. Powerpointer came from last to finish third. Slamit, a Grand Slam colt, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.93 with Chris Landeros riding.
Our Choice was the people's choice and also the winner in Saturday's $110,000 Mt. Cristo Rey Handicap for New Mexico-breds, shaking clear in the final yards to win by 2 3/4 lengths over Doms Flash. Lester's Echo finished third. Our Choice, a 7-year-old Desert God gelding, ran the 4 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 49.54 seconds with Ry Eikleberry up.
News and notes:
Zenyatta produced a colt Thursday at Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky.. The 130-pound Bernardini colt boasted a white star on his forehead, like his mother, and "polka dots" on his left front hoof. Both mother and colt are reported doing fine and updates on them will be available at www.zenyatta.com, on Twitter and on Facebook for anyone not yet sated with news of the 2010 Horse of the Year.