The Dubai World Cup Carnival, Opening Day at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and the California Derby share the marquee in weekend racing.
In addition, there are stakes hither and yon for Kentucky Derby and Oaks hopefuls and graded stakes on turf and dirt on both coasts.
Looking first to the "hither":
The influx of revenue from "instant racing" gaming has Hot Springs looking a little like Dubai in terms of purses -- and interest from horsemen. A record $20 million in purse money is on offer for the 56-day meeting. The stakes program offers a record $5.7 million and $2 million of that in the four-race series for 3-year-olds that culminates in the $1 million, Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 13. The largess has attracted a dozen new trainers and an equal number of new jockeys to the scenic Arkansas oval.
Friday's Opening Day program includes the $75,000 Fifth Season Stakes for 4-year-olds and up, with Win Willy, It Happened Again, Eye of the Leopard and Endorsement among the expected starters. Action quickly swings to the 3-year-old filly set in Saturday's $60,000, 6-furlong Dixie Belle Stakes. Seven young hopefuls are on tap for that early Oaks test.
On the "yon" side of the world at the plush Meydan track in Dubai, 9-year-old Barbecue Eddie captured the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 on Thursday evening as the "Carnival" got under way. The Carnival is a buildup to World Cup night on March 30.
With Dan O'Neill up, Barbecue Eddie was always close to the pace, struck the lead inside 300 meters and galloped home. Early leader Out of Bounds held gamely to finish second, 1 1/2 lengths back, and Rutland Boy was third. One mile on the all-weather surface went in 1:37.24.
Winning trainer Doug Watson said his goal for the veteran Stormy Atlantic campaigner is the Godolphin Mile on World Cup night.
"We will space his races out with World Cup night in mind," the trainer said. "He may be 9 now but he retains his ability and has proved 1,600 meters to be ideal on an all-weather surface he just loves."
Barbecue Eddie picked up his fourth Dubai World Cup Carnival victory and scored his third "course and distance" win of the season.
Sharestan, making his first start for Godolphin and trainer Saeed bin Suroor, won a conditions race on Thursday evening's card that could be a step toward the Dubai Duty Free on World Cup night. Sharestan, a 5-year-old son of Shamardal, won as he pleased under Silvestre de Sousa, with So Beautiful 4 lengths in arrears at the wire. "I think he will be all right in bigger races," said bin Suroor, who took the horse over from trainer John Oxx and owner the Aga Khan.
Elsewhere this weekend:
It's really time to start paying attention now as a couple of these races are important, albeit early, steps along the major Roads to the Roses.
At Golden Gate Fields on Saturday, the $100,000 California Derby is 1 1/16 miles and attracted a field of seven. Zeewat, Condiment and My Best Bet -- the top three finishers in the local Gold Rush Stakes, are back to try again. Tree of Life was fifth in the Grade III Generous Stakes at Hollywood Park. Will True Up comes north off a third-place finish behind Avare and Gabriel Charles in the Eddie Logan Stakes at Santa Anita. Wildcat Moon finished second in each of his first four starts, then third and now has won two in a row over the local strip. Butterfly Soul, the only filly in the field, was second in the Pike Place Dancer Stakes at the San Francisco Bay oval. The Pike Place Dancer Stakes is named for the filly who won the 1996 California Derby, then went on to win the Kentucky Oaks. The California Derby is a prep for the $200,000, Grade III El Camino Real Derby on Feb. 16.
At Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, 10 are entered for the $50,000 Pasco Stakes at 7 furlongs. Among them are Dynamic Sky, a Sky Mesa colt who was second in the Dixiana Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, then sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Purple Egg, undefeated in three earlier starts, including the local Inaugural Stakes. The race is a prep for the $250,000, Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes on Groundhog Day. That, in turn, is the final local preview of the $350,000, Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 9.
Saturday's card at Tampa Bay also includes the $50,000 Gasparilla Stakes, with 11 fillies facing 7 furlongs. Likely favorites are Martha's Moon, winner of the Catcharisingstar Stakes at Calder and Blue Hen Stakes at Delaware, and Vitameta, who finished second in the Dec. 1 Sandpiper Stakes at Tampa. This race is a prep for the $150,000, Grade III Florida Oaks, which is run Feb. 2 on the turf, or the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes on March 9.
The 75,000, 6-furlong Ruthless Stakes on Saturday at Aqueduct could be more of a refuge for sprinters than a test for fillies hoping to stretch out in distance. Little Rocket has won both her starts against fellow New York-breds for trainer Mike Hushion, who said she can compete against open company but perhaps not over a distance of ground. "That's not to say she won't get a mile," he added. Also cutting back after fading in longer stakes tries are Kimono and Kiss the Lady.
And don't forget the Dixie Bell Saturday at Oaklawn.
Saturday's $150,000, Grade II San Fernando Stakes features 11 somewhat questionable 4-year-olds tackling 1 1/16 miles on the main track. Battle Force comes to the race off a second-place finish in the Grade II Sir Beaufort. But that was at 1 mile on the turf on Boxing Day last month. Handsome Mike won the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby back in September but then finished ninth in the Breeders' Cup Classic and 10th in the Grade I Hollywood Derby. Despite earning more than $750,000, he is still eligible for a second-conditions allowance event. Fly Lexis Fly was second in the Grade II Super Derby at Louisiana Downs after shipping up from South America. None of trainer Bob Baffert's starters -- Fed Biz, Sky Kingdom, Mile High Magic and Guilt Trip -- has particularly impressed lately. The race is the middle leg of the Strub Series.
Action moves to the green course on Sunday for the 9-furlong San Gabriel Stakes, a Group II event with $150,000 in the purse. Slim Shadey drew smack in the middle of a seven-horse field as he tries to return to the form that found the winner's circle after the Grade II John Henry Turf Championship in September. He subsequently ran eighth in the Breeders' Cup Turf and fourth in the Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup. Out-of-retirement jockey Gary Stevens will try to breathe some life into Tale of a Champion. Jeranimo, who has had some success at a mile, will try to stretch out.
Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Fort Lauderdale Stakes, at 1 1/16 miles on the grass, drew a well-matched field of 11 with Pants on Fire an intriguing "main-track-only" entry. Dominus, Hollinger, Nikki's Sandcastle, Big Blue Kitten and Fifty Proof are all among the morning-line favorites. Nikki's Sandcastle has won two straight over the Gulfstream weeds and finished second in three straight before that. Hollinger comes off a second-place showing in the Grade III Tropical Turf Handicap at Calder and finished second in this race last year. He hasn't won since October of 2011. Fifty Proof won the Sir Barton Stakes at Woodbine in his last start, off a 14-month layoff. If he truly is back to form, he could be tough against these. Ditto Big Blue Kitten, who came off a long vacation to win an optional claimer early in the Gulfstream meeting. If the race does come off the turf, do not ignore Pants On Fire, who has been working like a fire engine for trainer Kelly Breen at Palm Meadows Training Center.
On Sunday, older milers are featured in the $100,000, Grade III Hal's Hope Stakes. Pants On Fire is set to go here if the Saturday race stays on the green. Pool Play won the Grade II Hawthorne Gold Cup last fall, then ran an undistinguished eighth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Soldat won the Fountain of Youth on this track two years ago, followed that with a fifth-place showing in the Florida Derby and 11th in the Kentucky Derby, then raced only twice last year. Delegation got home third in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita and finished second in the local Harlan's Holiday Stakes last month. Csaba won the Harlan's Holiday -- his third straight triumph in South Florida. Cool Blue Red Hot was third in this race last year but hasn't run since.