The Triple Crown trail winds its way through northern Kentucky and New Mexico this weekend while Dubai prepares for World Cup night, now just a week away.
Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park both have 1 1/2-mile turf races to whet your appetite for this November's Breeders' Cup Turf. Kentucky Oaks preps support both the Triple Crown preliminaries.
Internationally, the second leg of the Global Sprint Challenge runs Sunday in Japan.
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The Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park is on the all-weather surface. But ignore it at your risk. Last year, trainer Graham Motion entered a rising star with only a maiden win -- Animal Kingdom, who won both the Spiral and the Kentucky Derby.
Motion is back as part of Saturday's 12-horse field for the $500,000, Grade III event with European import Went the Day Well. He finished fourth in his U.S. debut Feb. 4, going the Spiral distance of 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream Park, and then came back to break his maiden March 3 at Gulfstream, going 1 1/16 miles.
"We've always liked him a lot," Motion said of Went the Day Well, who, like Animal Kingdom, is owned by Team Valor International. "And he seems like a horse who wants to go long on dirt. We'd kick ourselves in June if we were to find out then that he is that kind of horse."
Motion also trains State of Play, who won the local prep for the Spiral, the John F. Battaglia Memorial. That runner, however, is headed to a turf career, starting with the Transylvania at Keeneland, the trainer said.
The size of the purse offers a practically guaranteed spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate for the winner -- a situation that attracts horses who might be good enough but are short on graded stakes earnings.
Thus comes Todd Pletcher, who will saddle two Saturday. Despite his lack of stakes experience, Heavy Breathing was installed as the favorite for Saturday's race. Pletcher also has Holiday Promise.
Heavy Breathing, a Giant's Causeway colt out of a Gone West mare, made his first start Feb. 8 at Gulfstream Park and won by 7 3/4 lengths, ridden out. The 7 1/2-furlong race was taken off the turf and Pletcher liked the result as he ran Heavy Breathing right back on the main track four weeks later and he won by 4 1/4 lengths, getting the 9 furlongs in 1:51.23. In both races he waited behind horses before making his move.
Pletcher said Heavy Breathing seemed to be training better on turf before his first start.
"That's part of the reason why we're trying the synthetic, because we've seen a lot of horses cross over from the turf to the synthetic well," the conditioner said. "We've also seen a lot of horses by Giant's Causeway do well on the synthetic."
Also seeking some graded earnings is Handsome Mike from California. He finished third in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate behind Daddy Nose Best and Lucky Chappy. Oddsmaker Mike Battaglia posted him at 4-1, the second choice along with Went the Day Well.
"We were happy with it," trainer Doug O'Neill said of Handsome Mike's El Camino effort, noting he since has matured. "I think he'll put in a big effort. His top effort should be pretty competitive Saturday."
Also entered for the Spiral is Russian Greek, a Jerry Hollendorfer trainee who was fifth in the El Camino Real after winning the Gold Rush Stakes and the California Derby.
D. Wayne Lukas provides Red Jack, who comes off a maiden win at Oaklawn and would be a surprise but Lukas has had success at Turfway.
Mr. Prankster, who won the first two legs of Turfway's 3-year-old series, will try to improve on his fourth-place finish in his last outing, the Battaglia Memorial.
In New Mexico, Sunday's $800,000, Grade III Sunland Derby also provides a potential ticket to the Churchill Downs starting gate and the venue is close enough to the California circuit to make it doubly appealing.
Castaway, winner of a division of the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park for trainer Bob Baffert, should be among the favorites in an eight-horse field, replete with invaders from around the country. After taking his time getting going, Castaway, a Street Sense colt, now has back-to-back wins.
Also making the trip are Daddy Nose Best, Santa Anita maiden winner Stirred Up and Isn't He Clever, who was fourth in the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita, and then shipped in to win the Borderland Derby at Sunland in his last start.
Also in for the spin are No Spin, who ships from Oaklawn after starting his career at Arlington Park and Hawthorne Race Course in the Chicago area, and Ender Knevil, coming in with a maiden win last time out at Gulfstream Park. Tequila Factor has more frequent traveler points than earnings after racing in Illinois, Louisiana, Texas, Kentucky and Arizona, where he won the Tempe Stakes in his last start. He was fifth in the Borderland Derby. The only true stay-at-home is Justanoldsong, who won at first asking at Sunland Park, then finished sixth in the Borderland Derby.
Also on the Triple Crown trail:
Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Eclipse Award winner Hansen will not journey back from his Turfway base to New York for the Wood Memorial. Instead, said owner Dr. Kendall Hansen, he will have his final Kentucky Derby prep in the $750,000, Grade I Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 14.
Hansen cited several reasons: "Foremost is that the horse will have to travel less and we think that is safer for him. If we win, Hansen will have Grade I victories on both all-weather and dirt surfaces. It also allows us to stay home and in familiar surroundings."
While he handled the Churchill Downs and Aqueduct dirt surfaces just fine, Hansen started his career with two dominating wins on Turfway Park's all-weather surface.
The Spiral is the marquee event of a four-stakes Saturday card at Turfway Park that also includes the $100,000 Bourbonette Oaks, the $75,000, 1 1/16-miles Rushaway and the $50,000, 6-furlong Hansel. The latter two also are for 3-year-olds. John Terranova will saddle More Than Love in the Bourbonette off a win in the Grade III Miesque Stakes in California last November and a second-place finish in the Florida Oaks last month. Dixie Jackpot was second in the local Valdale Stakes in her last outing. Venetian Sonata has competed in six straight stakes events at five different tracks without hitting the board. But how about a hunch trifecta including Bourbonesque, Bourbonstreetgirl and In Lingerie?
At Sunland Park, the Sunday card has seven stakes, none worth less than $100,000. The $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks at 1 1/16 miles drew seven starters. Baffert imports Princess Arabella, an Any Given Saturday filly who is undefeated in two California starts with Martin Garcia taking the mount. Take Me Away Today won the local El Paso Times Stakes in January. Steve Asmussen -- or an assistant -- will give Julien Leparoux a leg up Glinda the Good, a Hard Spun filly who was sixth in the Golden Rod last fall at Churchill Downs, then won the Island Fashion Stakes at Sunland in her last outing. Regal Betty won the Arizona Oaks in her last start.
Santa Anita has a pair of grassy stakes on Sunday -- the $150,000, Grade II Santa Ana for fillies and mares going 9 furlongs and the $150,000, Grade II San Luis Rey at 1 1/2 miles, postponed from last week.
On Saturday, Santa Anita's feature is the $100,000, Grade III Tokyo City Cup at 12 furlongs on the main track.
Gulfstream Park also has a 1 1/2-mile turf race, Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Pan American Stakes. Six are entered, including Newsdad as the 9/5 favorite off a narrow loss to Simmard in the Mac Diarmida in his last outing. Simmard is back, the second choice on the morning line at 2-1.
Internationally, Dubai is in final preparations for next weekend's World Cup races but this weekend's card is highlighted by Sunday's Group 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen at Chuyko, the second leg of the Global Sprint Challenge.
Curren Chan, who won the Group 1 Sprinters Stakes last year, will try to reverse a two-race losing streak in the Chuyko race. She finished fifth in the Hong Kong Sprint last December and then fourth in a Grade III event in her first 2012 start.
The first leg of the GSC, the Coolmore Lightning Stakes at Flemington in Australia, went to Black Caviar on Feb. 18. After Saturday's race, the series moves to Dubai for the Group 1 Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen, sponsored by Gulf News.
In World Cup news, Gitano Hernando has been withdrawn from the $10 million feature, moving Planteur into the field.
"We're aware things will be tough as he has not run since September," trainer Marco Botti told the Racing Post. "But he is a proven Group 1 horse and is in good order. He will do his final piece of work on Saturday and then head out to Dubai."
The field for the World Cup is shaping up to be tough, indeed. Among those currently set to compete are So You Think; a Japanese trio of Transcend, Smart Falcon and Eishin Flash; Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up Game On Dude; local interests Capponi, Monterosso, Mendip and Prince Bishop; and Royal Delta, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic.
And that might not be the deepest race as the Golden Shaheen, Al Quoz Sprint and Dubai Duty Free have drawn incredibly tough fields from around the world. While the Godolphin Mile would benefit from Frankel's presence and the Golden Shaheen will miss Black Caviar, there's plenty to like from start to finish on the card.