Saturday's $400,000 Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park is not graded because it's restricted to Florida-breds. But for that quibble, it's a top-notch heat, featuring Mucho Macho Man, who missed winning the Breeders' Cup Classic last fall by 1/2 length, and Ron the Greek.
Mucho Macho Man, a 5-year-old son of Macho Uno, won this race last year, then accounted for the Grade I Gulfstream Park Handicap and the Grade II Suburban at Belmont Park and finished second in the Grade I Woodward en route to the Breeders' Cup.
Ron the Greek had a bit of an up-and-down year, winning the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap and the Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs before tailing off to sixth in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup and fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
The seven-horse field for Saturday's race also includes such potential upsetters as Fort Loudon and Cash Rules.
Seven also are entered for the $300,000 Distaff with Successful Song, Speak Easy Gal and My Pal Chrisy heavily favored. Successful Song shows six straight in-the-money finishes. Speak Easy Gal also is entered in the $150,000 Filly & Mare Turf, where she is among the favorites on the morning line along with Romacaca and Hooh Why. Callmethesqueeze also is in the mix in the grass event.
Doubles Partner and Slews Answer headline the $150,000 Turf. The former hasn't won often in the past few years but has been competitive at the highest levels. The latter was second in this race last year but comes off a seven-month layoff. Duke of Mischief is in here, too, and one of these days he's going to spring a big surprise.
A dozen are lined up for the $150,000 Sprint with Bahamian Squall the morning-line favorite, along with Star Harbour, Little Drama and Bernie the Maestro. Bahamian Squall comes off a win in the Sunshine State Stakes in his last outing.
R Holiday Mood and Golden Mystery are the early picks among seven entered in the $150,000 Filly & Mare Sprint at 6 furlongs on the main track.
Kentucky Derby trail:
The big race this weekend is the $200,000, Grade III Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, at 1 mile and 70 yards on the main track. Nine 3-year-olds are set to face the starter with the morning-line favorite, Avie's Quality, starting No. 6 under Rosie Napravnik. The Elusive Quality colt ran four times at Woodbine last year, finishing third, second, first and first. The last try was in the Display Stakes, where he came from off the pace to win nicely. Josie Carroll trains. Circle Unbroken, a Broken Vow colt, won the Grade III Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs last spring, then finished second in the Mountaineer Juvenile in August before being put away for the year. He worked 5 furlongs from the gate on Sunday in a bullet 59 2/5 seconds. Golden Soul, Malibu High and Illinois-bred Fear the Kitten also can't be disregarded.
There are races for state-bred, 3-year-olds at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas and Sunland Park in New Mexico. And Gulfstream on Sunday cards the $100,000 Kitten's Joy for 3-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles on the grass. All could be watched with interest by Derby fans.
Saturday's $125,000 Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds has a nicely balanced field of 11 3-year-old fillies. The lukewarm morning-line favorite at 3-1 is Gal About Town, a City Zip filly with two wins and two seconds on her resume, including runner-up finishes in a pair of Grade II events at Churchill Downs this past fall. Fans of Rosie Napravnik riding for Larry Jones will like 8-1 morning-line odds on Smitten, a gray Tapit filly coming off a maiden win. But she does break from the outside in the 1-mile, 70yards event.
Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Palos Verde Stakes for 4-year-olds and up lured seven, including two trained by Bob Baffert. Drill comes off a fourth-place finish in the Grade I Malibu Stakes on Boxing Day. Apriority returns to California after mostly struggling in the East and Midwest for the past two years but has been working up a storm. Ron Ellis returns Canonize, who was third in the Grade III Texas Mile in his last start, back last April. Comma to the Top won the Grade III Daytona Stakes last month going 1/2 furlong longer than Saturday's 6-furlongs distance. Private Zone finished second in the Malibu in his last start. Justin Phillip was second in the Grade I Vanderbilt at Saratoga but then sixth in the Grade I Vosburgh and fifth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
On Sunday, six 4-year-old fillies are set to contest the $150,000, Grade II La Canada Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. Lady of Fifty and Open Water are back after finishing 1-2 in their last outing, the Grade II Bayakoa over the Hollywood Park all-weather surface. Book Review won the Grade I La Brea at Santa Anita in her last outing.
Saturday's two grass features, the Grade III Col E.R. Bradley Handicap and the Marie G. Krantz Memorial, were moved back a week because persistent rains have softened the turf at the Big Easy oval. The Saturday card, in addition to the 3-year-old races, retains the $100,000 Louisiana Handicap, which has a nice field of eight, including Mark Valeski, Hurricane Ike and Bretheren.
Sunday's HK G1 Hong Kong Classic Mile is the first of three races for 4-year-olds, culminating in the HK G1Hong Kong Derby. The last four runnings have gone to Sweet Orange, Lucky Nine, Beauty Flash and Thumbs Up -- all of whom proved useful competitors through their careers in the SAR. This year's field looks wide open, with some recent imports looking to make their mark at the highest level of Hong Kong racing. The field shows experience in France, Germany and the UAE, among other locations.
Jumpstarting the weekend:
In Dubai, South Africa's top-rated juvenile romped home a winner in Thursday night's featured Dubai Duty Free Jumeirah Creekside Arab Emirates Two Thousand Guineas Trial. Soft Falling Rain went right to the front and was never threatened. Owned by Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum and trained by Mike De Kock, Soft Falling Rain now is undefeated in five career starts. De Kock said he will be back for the Guineas but after that, distance "would have to be a concern and we may aim towards the Godolphin Mile if all goes well."
Eblouissante, a half-sister to 2012 Horse of the Year Zenyatta, ran her record to a perfect 2-for-2 with a late-running win in a Thursday allowance event at Santa Anita. The 4-year-old filly by Bernardini out of the Kris S. Vertigineux, was off a step slow in the 1 1/16-miles event on the main track, but rallied to the lead three-wide and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths under Corey Nakatani. John Shirreffs trains Eblouissante, who won her first start last November at Hollywood Park. She had been scheduled to run back at Hollywood on Dec. 15 but sustained a minor injury in the receiving barn and was scratched.
Notable deaths of 2014 [PHOTOS]