Plenty of top racing, much of it on the grass, is on tap this weekend to fill the void while the clock ticks down to the Kentucky Derby.
The stakes races are worth millions of dollars, at distances from 1 mile to 2 miles, from Hong Kong to Paris, with stops in between all across the United States.
Here's how things look while the Derby contenders settle in at Churchill Downs:
Hong Kong, Japan and France all host Group 1 events Sunday. Black Caviar is at it again Down Under and Rocket Man returns to action in Singapore.
At Sha Tin in Hong Kong, 13 are slated to go in the $1.8 million Audemars Piguet QE II Cup at 1 1/4 miles on the grass. The $1.7 million Tenno Sho Spring is 2 miles on the grass at Kyoto. And at Longchamp in Paris, Sunday's feature is the $400,000 Prix Ganay for 4-year-olds and up at 10 1/2 furlongs, also on the grass.
The QE II Cup features raiders from Ireland, Japan, France and South Africa, matched against a strong lineup of local talent. The Irish hope, Treasure Beach, has not won since taking down the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park last summer but was a good fourth behind Cirrus des Aigles in the Dubai Sheema Classic last time out. Rulership, representing Japan, hangs his hat on a close fourth-place in back of Orfevre in the Arima Kinen last December and won a Group 2 event at Nakayama in January. South African trainer Mike de Kock brings Viscount Nelson, who chased African Story home in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile on World Cup night. And Chinchon visits from France after winning the Group 3 Prix Exbury at Saint Cloud last month. With Ambitious Dragon opting for the BMI Champions Mile a week later, 2011 Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Cup winner California Memory heads the home team. Rising 4-year-olds Fay Fay and Sweet Orange also are prominent among the locals and perennial powerhouse trainer John Moore warned against dismissing his duo of outsiders, Zaidan and Irian. Zaidan, he said, "is really in a purple patch of form" in his past few races.
The Prix Ganay at Longchamp promises a star-studded field, including the well-traveled Cirrus Des Aigles, who will try to replicate his defeat of So You Think in last year's Champion Stakes. The course condition is expected to be testing at the Paris course but trainer Corine Barande-Barbe said Cirrus Des Aigles "will love the ground as he won the Grand Prix at Deauville by 10 lengths on it." Aidan O'Brien is slated to bring So You Think, Windsor Palace and Robin Hood while Alain de Royer-Dupree plans to saddle Reliable Man and Giofra. Wigmore Hall, fourth in the recent Dubai Duty Free, is to represent trainer Michael Bell. Last year, Bell sent Wigmore Hall to Hong Kong and Singapore. This year, he said, after the Prix Ganay, Wigmore Hall will stay at home to prepare for the Arlington Million in August. "We are hoping he will enjoy it better in Paris" than in the East, the trainer said.
Japan's top long-distance runners take to the turf at Kyoto Racecourse in the Tenno Sho Spring, among them six Group 1 winners, including last year's Triple Crown and Arima Kinen winner Orfevre. Orfevre comes back from a strange run in his last start, which saw him get away with jockey Kenichi Ikezoe and bolt toward the outside rail before falling back into control and getting up for second. He subsequently passed a conduct test ordered by the Japan Racing Association. "Maybe Orfevre has matured a little -- I hope," said trainer Yasutoshi Ikee. Also set for the 3,200-meter event is Hiruno d'Amour, who won the race last year before getting home 10th in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Win Variation and Rose Kingdom also are interesting prospects.
Rocket Man will try to bounce back from his second-place finish to Krypton Factor in the Dubai Golden Shaheen when he starts in Sunday's Group 1 Lion City Cup at Kranji in Singapore. Rocket Man's Dubai effort was compromised by the inside post and constant pressure from U.S. entrant Giant Ryan. After finally disposing of the latter at mid-stretch, Rocket Man could not hold off the winner. Sunday's group should be easier and jockey Felix Coetzee, who rode in Dubai, will be in from South Africa for the Lion City Cup ride.
There will be big doings in Australia Saturday as Black Caviar shoots for a record 20th straight win in the Group 1 Sportingbet Classic at Morphettville. The super mare is expected to find little in her way in the 6-furlong weight-for-age test, restricted to fillies and mares. Should all go well, Black Caviar then would be pointed to the Group 1 Goodwood on May 12, then ship to England for the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 23.
In fact, Black Caviar was the featured attraction as international entries for Royal Ascot were announced this week. The list also includes Cirrus Des Aigles, a deep and powerful Hong Kong contingent including Xtension, Master of Hounds from South Africa, U.S. Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Stephanie's Kitten, a Japanese squad anchored by sprint champion Curren Chan and the Bahrain-based Dubai Golden Shaheen winner Krypton Factor. Undefeated superstar Frankel will headline the local team after an injury scare that prompted unfounded rumors of his retirement.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
Churchill Downs kicks off its spring stakes season Saturday with the $200,000, Grade III The Cliff's Edge Derby Trial at 1 mile on the main track. Undefeated Bourbon Courage and Bob Baffert-trained Paynter are the early favorites in a field of 11. The 1-mile event on the main track long has lost its role as a prep for the following week's Kentucky Derby and, instead, has become more of a Preakness Trial. Paynter won his racing debut Feb. 18 by 4 1/4 lengths, then got home fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, 3 3/4 lengths behind Kentucky Derby prospect I'll Have Another. Bourbon Courage, trained by Kellyn Gorder, won his first two starts by a combined 11 lengths at Fair Grounds. The field boasts two other stakes winners in Motor City, winner of the Grade III Iroquois at Churchill Downs last fall, and Tarpy's Goal, winner of the Sophomore Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in his most recent start.
Keeneland closes its all-too-short meeting with a pair of 12-furlong turf marathons: Thursday's $150,000, Grade III Grey Goose Bewitch Stakes for fillies and mares and Friday's $150,000, Grade II Elkhorn Stakes.
German-bred Musketier will try to win the Elkhorn for the third straight year and his trainer, Roger Attfield, will try to pick up the trophy for the fifth time. He also won with Spice Route in 2009 and Pellegrino in 2006. Should Musketier falter, Attfield also has Simmard in the nine-horse field, which also features Newsdad, who was sandwiched by Simmard and Musketier in the trifecta of the Grade II Mac Diarmida at Gulfstream. Newsdad then defeated Simmard in the Pan American at the same oval. Center Divider and Wilkinson also figure in the mix.
One mile on the grass:
Turf milers are on display in Saturday $150,000, Grade III San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate Fields and Sunday in the $100,000, Grade II Wiltshire Handicap for fillies and mares at Hollywood Park.
A field of 11 was entered for the San Francisco Mile and Jeranimo drew the rail. The 6-year-old son of Congaree finished fourth in the Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita last time out but won the Grade II Oak Tree Mile last October.
A little longer on the green course:
Middle-distance grass runners go in Friday's $100,000, Grade III Inglewood Handicap at 9 furlongs on the Hollywood Park turf. Calder on Saturday hosts the $100,000 Calder Oaks at 1 1/16 miles on the lawn.
A field of five was drawn for the Inglewood, with Acclamation having not only five straight graded stakes wins to his credit but also the riding services of yet again rebounding Pat Valenzuela. While Haimish Hy has run credibly in graded stakes, the others appear overmatched if Acclamation is on his game after a six-month layoff and if Valenzuela is back in form.
Fourteen signed on for the Calder Oaks.
One mile on the main track:
Dirt milers race Saturday is the $200,000, Grade III Texas Mile at Lone Star Park and the $150,000, Grade III Westchester Stakes on the Belmont Park dirt.
The Westchester, a traditional prep for the Met Mile on Memorial Day, attracted Grade I winners To Honor and Serve, Jersey Town and Boys at Tosconova among its seven prospective starters. To Honor and Serve, winner of last year's Cigar Mile, was installed as the early 7-5 favorite although trainer Bill Mott warned, "He definitely needs a race to get going, I am sure. Our early goal for this part of the season would be the Met Mile. You always have to have something to shoot for, and that's what we're shooting for at first." Jersey Town won the Cigar Mile in 2010.
Canonize is the morning-line favorite in a field of 10 in the Texas race after a win in the Santana Mile at Santa Anita with endorsement, Coyote Legend and Hurricane Ike also fancied. Endorsement, winner of last year's Sunland Park Derby, has been first or second in each of his last six races. Local legend in the making Coyote Legend has hit the board in 17 of his last 18 starts on the Texas-Oklahoma circuit. Hurricane Ike won the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs two years ago.
Hollywood Park's Saturday card features a quartet of stakes for California-breds with the Snow Chief for 3-year-olds and the Melair for 3-year-old fillies each worth $300,000 for 9 furlongs of work.
Hawthorne Race Course winds down with six state-bred stakes, each worth $125,000. And Fonner Park takes its annual place in the sun with Saturday's $75,000 Bosselman/Gus Fonner Stakes for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles.
News and Notes:
Havre de Grace, the reigning American Horse of the Year, has been retired due to a ligament injury to her right front ankle suffered during a workout at Churchill Downs April 22. "She was a wonderful, wonderful racehorse and I feel confident she'll be an equally wonderful broodmare," said owner Rick Porter.
Jockey Eusebio (Eddie) Razo Jr. died this week in an explosion in the garage of his Chicago-area home. Razo piloted more than 2,600 winners. His marquee mounts included Black Tie Affair when he was getting started. He also was the first to ride eventual Grade 1 winner Giant Oak.