Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park traditionally is an early indicator of leadership in the East Coast handicap ranks. This year, it is overshadowed by the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, a crackerjack race which is expected to be Animal Kingdom's springboard to next month's Dubai World Cup. Those two races are supported by important event for sprinters on the dirt and grass.
Santa Anita has a grassy weekend in store as well, with older horses tackling the $150,000, Grade II San Marcos on Saturday and turf sprinters in the $75,000 Wishing Well on Sunday.
The 3-year-old division features mainly fillies, with races for that crowd at Aqueduct (Snowpocalypse permitting), Golden Gate Fields, and Oaklawn Park. The $75,000 Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel Park on Saturday is an open 1-mile event which could turn up a prospect or two for the Preakness Stakes if nothing else.
In Australia, the C.F. Orr Stakes on Saturday at Caulfield kicks off a fall frenzy of racing that could see Black Caviar returning to action to defend her 22-0 record. And we're one week closer to Dubai World Cup night.
Let's take a closer look.
Last year, 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom was prepped for the Dubai World Cup in a turf allowance race at Gulfstream, only to miss that big race, injured for the second time since his Churchill Downs triumph. After a long absence, he came back off workouts to run a stellar second to eventual Horse of the Year Wise Dan in last fall's Breeders' Cup Mile. Now the 5-year-old son of Leroidesanimaux is set to make his final pre-Dubai run again on the Gulfstream lawn -- for a $300,000 purse in Saturday's Grade II Kitten's Joy Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. After that, he is slated to travel to the UAE and, should he run well there, onward to Royal Ascot before entering stud duty in Australia. Trainer H. Graham Motion cautions, though, that Saturday's race is another stepping stone for his superstar. "The big picture is getting him to Dubai. This race is an important stepping stone. Believe me, he's going to be ready to run, and it's not going to be easy," Motion said. "But the big picture is getting him to Dubai. It's always been our goal to get there." There's plenty of tough competition Saturday. Point of Entry won five straight, including the Grade II Elkhorn, Grade 1 Man o' War, Grade I Sword Dancer and Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational before finishing second to by 1/2 length to Little Mike in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Unbridled Command is 15-1 on the morning line despite riding a five-race win streak capped by victory in the Grade I Hollywood Derby.
This year's edition of the Donn lacks superstar power but makes up for that with a nicely balanced field of 10. The lukewarm favorite at 3-1 on the morning line is Flat Out, last seen finishing third in the Breeders's Cup Classic. He came into that race off a win in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. He finished fifth in the Donn last year. Csaba, since returning to Florida last October from up north, has won four straight races, including a pair of Group III events. Last year's Florida Derby winner, Take Charge Indy, is in this field, too. He has been idle since finishing second behind Shackleford in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs in November. Bourbon Courage was third in the Clark and makes his return here. A sparkling performance here by any of the starters could be a springboard to stardom but Take Charge Indy's trainer, Patrick Byrne, nailed the issues involved. "Obviously, he's got to step up off his 3-year-old form," Byrne said. "One never knows how much they've developed until they start racing. The Donn's a good start ... Hopefully, he'll have a good trip and no excuses, so we get a true evaluation where he's going to fit down the road."
A field of eight, plus one main-track-only entrant, is set for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Suwannee River Stakes for fillies and mares at 9 furlongs on the grass. The morning-line favorites are Channel Lady and Hard Not to Like. Hard Not to Like was off for eight months after finishing sixth in last year's Kentucky Oaks and won right off the bench, taking the Grade III Marshua's River Stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 5. Channel Lady was second in that heat and has been first or second in each of her last five starts. Also worth a look are Romacaca and the Illinois-bred Leading Astray, the latter from Team Block.
Eight are entered, too for the $150,000, Grade III Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship at 7 furlongs on the dirt. Travelin Man, Fort Loudon and Bahamian Squall are the early picks. Travelin Man makes his first start since July at Monmouth. Fort Loudon shortens up from a third-place showing in the 9-furlongs Florida Sunshine Millions Classic in his last outing but is a proven, top-level sprinter. Bahamian Squall has been in the exacta in his last six starts.
Sunday's feature is the $150,000, Grade III Hurricane Bertie Stakes with fillies and mares traveling 6 1/2 furlongs on the main track. Eleven are set to go.
You'll need a program and a Daily Racing Form -- and maybe a card index -- to sort out Saturday's $150,000, Grade II San Marcos. Fourteen grass runners are entered. All but a few are graded stakes-placed. Note that Richard's Kid is back among this herd.
Sunday, it's the $150,000, Grade III Wishing Well Stakes for fillies and mares going 6 1/2 furlongs down the grassy hill. Thirteen signed up for this sprint, including Dancingtothestarts, who finished second behind Tiz Flirtatious in the Valentine Dancer Stakes two weeks ago going 1 mile. Others looking for a Valentine's Day theme might ogle Unkept Rendez Vouz, a French-bred Arch mare making her first U.S. start after an undistinguished earlier campaign in France. Candrea is in for Bob Baffert. Rumor finished fifth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Byrama has some credentials.
Hunter's Light may have earned a berth in the Dubai World Cup with a victory in Thursday's featured Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round II at Meydan. The Saeed bin Suroor trainee tracked the leaders, was set down with just over 2 furlongs to run and made the lead at the furlong marker. That was the race, as the 5-year-old son of Dubawi drew off to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Surfer. Prince Bishop finished third. Hunter's Light, a Godolphin runner bred by Darley, has been a road warrior, featuring in England, Turkey, France and Italy in his four starts previous to the Meydan fixture. He finished second behind Cirrus Des Aigles -- albeit 9 lengths in arrears -- in the Group 1 Prix Dollar at Longchamp last October. "He is a bit of a character and takes a bit of knowing," said winning jockey Silvestre De Sousa, who has won with the horse all three times he has ridden him. Bin Suroor said the World Cup is a possibility for Hunter's Light but no firm decision has been taken.
Saturday's C.F. Orr Stakes at 1,400 meters at Caulfield could be a showdown between All Too Hard and King Mufhasa among the nine entered. Wall Street and Pinwheel also are in the mix. Black Caviar won this race last year.
Speaking of Black Caviar, the superstar mare appears recovered from her nearly disastrous trip to England last June. She turned in a quick and apparently effortless tuneup gallop this past Saturday at Caulfield and is pointing for the 1,000-meters Lightning Stakes a week from this Saturday at Flemington. The opposition could include Ortensia, who also hasn't raced since last spring in England. Ortensia won last year's Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai and her folks are trying to find the surest way to prepare her for a title defense at Meydan.
The weekend's main U.S. stakes race for 3-year-old colts and geldings is Saturday's $75,000 Miracle Wood at Laurel Park in Maryland. Eight signed up with Vegas No Show and Alpha Mike Foxtrot among the ones to watch. Vegas No Show finished a well-beaten fifth in the Jerome at Aqueduct last month in his 3-year-old debut. Alpha Mike Foxtrot won the Maryland Juvenile over the course last December and came back to run second in a minor stakes in his seasonal start.
Sunday's $75,000 Java Gold Stakes at Aqueduct is run at 6 furlongs.
Saturday's $75,000 Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park attracted nine young female equines, many hoping to climb the ladder to the $400,000, Grade III Fantasy Stakes on April 10. That, in turn, is a major prep for the Kentucky Oaks on May 3. Liberty Girl comes off a 4 1/2-lengths win in her 3-year-old debut on Opening Day at the Hot Spring oval on Jan. 11 and trainer Eoin Harty says, "She's doing really well." Rose to Gold won the Delta Downs Princess in her final start as a 2-year-old and earlier won two stakes at Calder before hating the all-weather surface at Keeneland. American Sugar won the Dixie Belle over the Oaklawn track in her 2013 start. D. Wayne Lukas looks to resume his run of luck with Broken Spell.
At Golden Gate Fields on Saturday, 11fillies are entered for the $50,000 California Oaks at 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track. Four of the 11 are trained by Jerry Hollendorfer. Butterfly Soul has been running consistently in good company at both ends of the California circuit but hasn't won since taking down the first two races of her career.
Saturday's $75,000 Dearly Precious at Aqueduct is run at 6 furlongs.