At the center of the action: I'll Have Another won the 2012 Robert B. Lewis Stakes en route to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Saturday, He's Had Enough starts down the same path.
The $200,000, Grade II Lewis at Santa Anita is one of a quintet of Kentucky Derby preps around the country. Also on tap are Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs; the $150,000, Grade II Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park; the $200,000, Grade III Withers at Aqueduct; and the $50,000 96ROCK Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky.
The weekend also has turf sprints at Gulfstream and Fair Grounds, the $200,000, Grade II Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds at Santa Anita, graded events for turf-running fillies and mares at Tampa Bay and Santa Anita and Louisiana Premier Night at Delta Downs.
In Dubai, trainer Mike De Kock fought off the Godolphin machine Thursday to capture the featured UAE Group 2 Al Rashidiya at 1,800 meters on the turf -- a prep for the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free on World Cup night.
And ... we're off.
He's Had Enough is owned and trained by the same team that sent out I'll Have Another to victory in the 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, only to have a career-ending injury thwart his Triple Crown bid. He's Had Enough, a grey Tapit colt, was second to Shanghai Bobby in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He subsequently was a troubled fifth behind Violence in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity over the Hollywood Park all-weather surface and is seeking only his second win. Only three others signed on for the Lewis and all are trained by Bob Baffert. Of those, Den's Legacy has the best credentials, with five straight in-the-money finishes, including a win in the Grade III Generous Stakes at Hollywood. Flashback, another gray Tapit colt, won at first asking at Hollywood Park on Dec. 8. Little Jerry, eighth in the Cash Call Futurity, rounds out the field.
The Withers drew eight, including Revolutionary, a War Pass colt coming off a maiden win with high expectations for trainer Todd Pletcher. But there's plenty of competition in this heat. Siete de Oros, Amerigo Vespucci and Long River finished second, third and fourth in the Grade II Jerome Stakes four weeks back. And Smooth Bert comes off a victory in December's Damon Runyon Stakes.
Dynamic Sky is the favorite in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. The Sky Mesa colt won the local Pasco Stakes in his last start and also shows a second-place finish in the Grade I Dixiana Futurity at Keeneland last fall. He was sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Speak Logistics won the In Reality Division of the Florida Stallion Stakes at Calder last fall, and then bombed in the Breeders' Cup but has been working well at his Calder base. My Name Is Michael finished second behind Avie's Quality in the Display Stakes at Woodbine last month. Ten are set to face the starter.
The 7-furlong Hutcheson was left off the Kentucky Derby points list so it is even less likely than before to include candidates for the Run for the Roses. Still, there's time yet for a late-bloomer. Most likely to fit that description is Pataky Kid, who won the Grade III Arlington-Washington Futurity going 1 mile on the all-weather and ran a good fourth in the Grade I Dixiana Futurity going 1 1/16 miles on the Keeneland all-weather. Really Sharp ran creditably around two turns last year at Keeneland, Aqueduct and Woodbine. Weekend Hideaway won a minor stakes at Saratoga last summer, finished second in the Grade II Futurity at Belmont and then won the Bertram Bongard, also at Belmont, in his last start for trainer Phil Serpe. Merit Man was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint, then won the Spectacular Bid at Gulfstream on New Year's Day. Undrafted was third in the Gulfstream Park Derby. Honorable Dillon marshaled a second-place finish in his seasonal debut.
The 96ROCK Stakes formerly was known as the WEBN Frog Stakes as Turfway partnered with local radio stations to add "buzz" to its racing product. The race leads to the John Battaglia Memorial and the Spiral Stakes, one of the top Kentucky Derby points races. A field of 12 is entered, including Mac the Man, who won the Turfway Prevue Stakes in his last outing. The others mostly are looking for a breakthrough though I Do Believe has won two straight at Turfway and Shane Sellers takes the return call.
Cindy's Casino finished a 30-1 second in the Gasparilla Stakes in her last outing at Tampa Bay Downs and comes right back against a crowded field in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Florida Oaks. There are no real standouts although Bill Mott has a potential rising star in Tapicat, by Tapit out of a Storm Cat mare, who has won two straight at Gulfstream Park. Wave Theory got home second in the Ginger Brew Stakes at Gulfsteam on New Year's Day. The "name of the week," Kitten's Dumplings, finished second in the La Senorita Stakes at Retama Park two starts back. Toasting was third in the Grade I Frizette at Belmont last fall but comes off a short layoff. So why is Cindy's Casino 20-1 on the morning line?
Other 3-year-old filly races Saturday: The $100,000 Busher Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the Aqueduct inner track, the $75,000 Wide Country Stakes at 7 furlongs at Laurel Park and the $50,000 Cincinnati Trophy at Turfway Park, run at 6 1/2 furlongs.
Three-year-old fillies will go 5 1/2 furlongs on the Fair Grounds turf in Saturday's Battle of New Orleans Stakes. Eight are entered with Cor Cor the morning-line favorite. The Smoke Glacken filly broke her maiden at first asking at Keeneland in the fall, stepped right up to win the Sandpiper Stakes at Tampa Bay, and then ran second in Grade III Old Hat at Gulfstream Park in her third career start. She drew the rail and gets Rosie Napravnik in the irons. Truly Marie ran well in California but finished fifth in her Fair Grounds debut in mid-December.
Saturday's $75,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint is run at 5 furlongs and lured six speed merchants. Prominent among them is Great Attack, who finished fifth in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint while coming off a six-months layoff, then won the Jan. 5 Turf Dash at Tampa Bay in his last outing. He has finished second in this race in each of the last two years. Off the Jak won the Sunshine Millions Turf Sprint two weeks ago. Something Extra ran competitively in the Woodbine stakes ranks. Silver Cloud, a Rahy gelding, was second in the Turf Dash. Berlino Di Tiger makes his first U.S. start after a South American campaign.
Baffert has the likely favorite in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Strub Stakes in Fed Biz, who showed improvement in winning the Grade II San Fernando in his last start. Competition could come from Tritap, who finished second in the San Fernando after starting from an outside gate. Baffert also will saddle Guilt Trip, who finished a close third in the San Fernando. Mike Smith, who has the return call on Fed Biz, said the colt did the necessary in his last race.
"Early on, he used to be a little stubborn about switching to his right lead," Smith said. "Once I got him over there, he's game, he wouldn't let somebody by him unless they surprised him."
The field of seven 4-year-olds also includes Handsome Mike, who faded to finish fourth in the San Fernando.
Fourteen are entered for Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Arcadia Stakes at 1 mile on the turf. The race looks pretty wide open and includes a couple Europeans making their U.S. debuts -- Strong Suit and Vagabond Shoes. Suggestive Boy, a South American import who has struggled in California in the past few months, also will contest the Arcadia. Other familiar names include Wilkinson, Willyconker and Forest Mouse.
Believe You Can won last year's Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks en route to victory in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks and now returns to New Orleans to contest Saturday's $75,000 Tiffany Lass Stakes. She is the likely choice in her 2013 debut against five other fillies and mares going 1 1/16 miles. After the Churchill Downs victory, Believe You Can raced only once more in 2013, finishing third in the Mother Goose in New York. She has been working nicely for trainer Larry Jones at Fair Grounds. Cheerleader, winner of both her starts over this course already this season, is the primary challenger but Imposing Grace is another imposing rival.
Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Toboggan Stakes got a field of six sprinters, with Johannesburg Smile, Mine Over Matter and Head Heart Hoof favored over the other trio on the morning line. Head Heart Hoof comes off a win in the True and Blue Stakes over the course Jan. 9.
Already in the books: Ruler On Ice made a successful comeback in a Wednesday allowance event. The Roman Ruler gelding won the 2011 Belmont Stakes but had not visited the winner's circle in nine tries since that race. He had been sidelined since finishing 10th in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup last September. He had to come from last of four with a strong stretch move to get the job done. Trainer Kelly Breen did not specify what might be next for the Classic winner.
Saturday's $100,000 Essex Handicap is a virtual rerun of the Jan. 11 Fifth Season Handicap over the same course. In the earlier race, Donoharm outfinished Skyring to win by a neck, followed by Win Willy and Master Rick. All four are back for the return engagement but it would be wise to watch Skyring given the recent run of success enjoyed by trainer D. Wayne Lukas. And entering the fray with a good shot to handle them all is San Pablo, who comes off back-to-back stakes wins at Penn National and Aqueduct for Pletcher. He won the Grade III Iselin Stakes at Monmouth last summer.
In Saturday's ninth race, note the No. 1 horse, Oddjob. His dam is Honey Ryder and that naming sequence could portend an influx of James Bond-related names into the sport, which would be a good thing.
Tampa Bay Downs
An overflow field of 14 is entered for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Endeavour Stakes for fillies and mares going 1 1/16 miles on the grass. The morning-line favorite is Dealbata, an Irish-bred Dubawi filly who ran well last year in France and New York. She has been working at Palm Meadows for trainer Chad Brown. Also fancied is Pianist, coming off back-to-back fourth-place stakes showings at Keeneland and Belmont Park, also for Brown. The ever-dangerous Hooh Why also is in this field.
The Apache, making his first start for De Kock and his first start of any kind in nearly a year, snatched the win in the Meydan feature Thursday. Striking the lead with 200 meters to go under Christophe Soumillon, The Apache outfinished Godolphin's City Style for the win. The winner of this race twice has gone on to take the Dubai Duty Free -- Presvis in 2011 and Right Approach, another De Kock trainee, in a dead heat in 2004. De Kock said the win was a pleasant surprise.
"I actually thought he would need that so it is very pleasing and hopefully he can build on this," he said.
Hatano Vainqueur captured Japan's first Group 1 event of the year, rallying through the stretch to take Wednesday's Kawasaki Kinen by 1/2 length over Wonder Acute. Trainer Hirofumi Shii said, "I think it will be a big year for him." Hatano Vainqueur, a 4-year-old son of King Kamehameha, was second in the Group 1 Tokyo Daishoten to cap last year's campaign.
Jockey Luke Nolen, who has ridden Black Caviar to 19 of her 22 wins, reportedly says the superstar mare is better than ever as trainer Peter Moody prepares her for a potential return in the Feb. 16 Lightning Stakes at Flemington. Black Caviar has not raced since her heart-stopping victory in June in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot. She returned to Australia after that race with muscle problems. She is scheduled to work again Saturday at Caulfield.