Gary Stevens said he's getting back "that feeling." And trainer Bill Mott felt just fine after a super weekend in South Florida.
Lucky Nine could be headed to Dubai after winning in Hong Kong and Grape Brandy looks headed for stardom on the dirt in Japan.
In the weather report: Soft Falling Rain continued in Dubai and they were racing on the ice in Switzerland. Really.
Royal Delta, the reigning queen of American racing, is ticketed for the Dubai World Cup after easily winning Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Sabin Stakes in her seasonal debut. With Mike Smith in for the ride, the 5-year-old Empire Maker mare missed the break slightly but then quickly erased all doubt about her dominance. At the end of 1 1/16 miles, she was 5 lengths ahead of her closest rival and was never asked for her best effort. She finished in 1:43.31 in her first start since a convincing win in last fall's Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic at Santa Anita. All For Thee, from the Team Block powerhouse, stayed with Royal Delta until midway around the stretch turn and held on for second, 3 1/2 lengths in front of a disappointing Grace Hall. Trainer Bill Mott, who swept all before him during the Gulfstream weekend, said Royal Delta's win was "a relief. I'm glad it's over." He said the plan is for Royal Delta to ship to Dubai in about a month for the March 30 World Cup. She finished ninth in that race last year after running second in the Sabine. Mott says Royal Delta is better now but admitted she will be at a disadvantage in making a late appearance in the Mideast.
"We'll be racing against horses that have been training there since October," he said. "Some of them (are) already acclimated."
But he said if Royal Delta gets a good trip, "she can make a good show of it."
Starformer went to the front on the stretch turn in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III The Very One Stakes for fillies and mares and kicked on, winning by 3 1/4 lengths over Angegreen. Beijoca finished third. Starformer, a 5-year-old Dynaformer mare, ran 1 3/8 miles on good turf in 2:18.03 with Edgar Prado up. She was making her first start since winning the Grade III Long Island Handicap at Aqueduct Nov. 10. She has five wins from 14 starts in a career that began in France.
"We knew she was one of three horses in the race with speed and she fell into a good position third," said Mott, who trains Starformer. "She got a great trip. She came to us as a 3-year-old and was a little disappointing running in her first few races for us at a mile or a little more, and seemed to get in trouble. After we stretched her out to 11 furlongs or more she seems to like that a lot better."
He said he will consider the Grade III Orchid Handicap March 30.
Amira's Prince blew by pacesetting Teaks North turning for home in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Mac Diarmida Stakes and went on to win by 3 3/4 lengths over that rival. Ioya Bigtime, another from Team Block, ran evenly to finish third. Amira's Prince, a 4-year-old, Irish-bred colt by Teofilo, ran 1 3/8 miles on good going in 2:17.14 for jockey John Velzaquez. He raced in Ireland last year and now has won all three of his U.S. starts. Mott also trains this one.
"We had no idea (about his ability)," Mott said. "They sent him over for the Jamaica (in New York) last fall. We didn't run him. He looked like he needed more time, so we brought him down here and freshened him up, and this is the result."
He said he will consider the Pan American on March 23, adding, "It would be a shame to keep the horse in the barn, as well as he's doing."
You can throw Dice Flavor into the Kentucky Derby mix. The Scat Daddy colt rolled from well back in the field to win Saturday's $200,000, Grade III El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields by 3 3/4 lengths. Nina's Dragon and Counting Days completed an all-long shot trifecta. The favorite, Manando, led early but stopped badly and finished last. Carving and Zeewat both tired and finished fourth and fifth. Dice Flavor, with Jose Valdivia Jr. in the irons, ran the 1 1/8 miles on the all-weather track in 1:51.45.
"He was moving easily all the way," Valdivia said. "He made up a lot of ground and made the lead easily. I've felt that he had the physical talent, but mentally he's not all there. But today he impressed me because if he didn't accelerate right when that hole opened, he would have been stuck."
Winning trainer Paddy Gallagher said he will discuss with the owners where next to run Dice Flavor -- and whether to make him a late Triple Crown nominee. It was his second win in five tries.
Shakin It Up waited behind the pace in Sunday's $150,000, Grade II San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita, got through between rivals at mid-stretch and went on to win by 1 length over Treasury Bill. Caballo Del Cielo finished third and the favorite, Belvin, faded to finish last of six after setting a brisk early clip. Shakin It Up and Belvin are both trained by Bob Baffert. Shakin It Up, a Midnight Lute colt, got 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.48.
"He put me in the race right away," said winning rider David Flores, "so I just had to be patient and wait for the pocket to open. That's pretty much what happened. When I asked him to go, he accelerated -- a tremendous acceleration."
Asked if Shakin It Up can go as far as 1 1/16 miles, he replied, "I say a mile and a quarter (the Kentucky Derby trip). That will be Baffert's job. All I have to do is do the right thing on the horse when I get on him."
Baffert said he's not sure what path the colt will take.
"I didn't really have him super cranked up for the race," he said. "But we've always thought highly of him, so we'll just find something for him. I don't know."
Monday's Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park winds up the long early phase of the new points system concocted by Churchill Downs to determine eligibility for the Run for the Roses. The two-leg "Kentucky Derby Championship Series" begins Feb. 23 with the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star at Fair Grounds. Points to the first four finishers will increase to 50 for first, 20 for second, 10 for third and 5 for fourth. Shanghai Bobby and Goldencents currently are tied atop the rankings with 24 points each. Oxbow has 11 and several others have 10.
Ten are entered for the Southwest and Baffert trains the 7-5 morning-line favorite, Super Ninety Nine. That Pulpit colt is coming off an allowance win at Santa Anita but also finished second to Really Mr Greely in the Grade III Hollywood Prevue in November. Shakin It Up finished third in that race.
Funnys Approval, a 22-1 long shot, got the lead in Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Barbara Fritchie Handicap for fillies and mares and wouldn't give it up, holding off the favorite, My Wandy's Girl, in the late going to win by 3/4 length. Withgreatpleasure finished third, also at a big price. Funnys Approval, a 4-year-old Outrageouslyfunny filly, ran 7 furlongs on a muddy, sealed track in 1:25.29 with Juan Vargas up. She came into the race off a maiden victory and two allowance wins at Mountaineer -- all on "off" tracks.
"When I saw the forecast, I was happy about it. I was doing the rain dance," said winning trainer Jose Lopez.
Vargas said the run was basically uncontested.
"I was waiting for someone to pressure us but by the half-mile pole I could relax a little," he said. "Turning for home, I did feel the horse to our inside but she had another gear to the wire."
Concealed Identity came from last of five to win Saturday's $75,000 John B. Campbell Handicap, scoring by 3/4 length after a roughly run stretch drive. Service for Ten finished second, 1 3/4 lengths better than Norman Asbjornson, but the stewards reversed that positioning because of bumping in the late going. Concealed Identity, a 5-year-old Smarty Jones gelding, ran 9 furlongs in the mud in 1:52.29 with Trevor McCarthy in the irons.
Gary Stevens, whose riding comeback suddenly is red hot, piloted Great Hot to a front-running victory in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Maria Stakes for fillies and mares. The 5-year-old, Brazilian-bred, Orientate mare finished 1/2 length better than the late-running favorite, Book Review. Lady of Fifty was third. Great Hot finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.08. Great Hot usually is in the mix in her races but had not won since taking the Grade II Lexus Raven Run Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 22, 2011. She finished ninth in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint last fall. Winning trainer A.C. Avila said he had a brief strategy discussion with Stevens, who ended a long retirement earlier in the Santa Anita meeting.
"I said, 'I'm going to do one thing. I'm going to give you a leg up and you are the boss.' How am I going to tell Gary Stevens how to ride?" Stevens said, "It was so sweet. I moved her out about three wide and she just shut it down and was listening to my commands all the way around. I was just being a passenger until the head of the stretch."
Asked about his recent successes after struggling early in his comeback, the jockey said: "It feels good. I've had that feeling before. I guess that's why I came back, I had that feeling, and I wanted it again."
Judy in Disguise ran best late to take Saturday's $75,000 Sweet Life Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 1/2 length over Doinghardtimeagain. Heir Kitty finished third. Judy in Disguise, a British-bred daughter of Elusive Quality, ran 6 1/2 furlongs down the grassy hill in 1:12.25, toting Rafael Bejarano.
Tampa Bay Downs
Swift Warrior rallied four-wide in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes and was just up in time to win by 1/2 length. The favorite, Doubles Partner, dead-heated with Alley Oop Oop for second and third and the early leader, El Commodore, faded to get home fourth. Swift Warrior, a 5-year-old son of First Samurai, ran 1 1/16 miles on good turf in 1:43.14 with Jose Espinoza in the irons. It was his second straight graded stakes win, following the Grade III John B. Connally Turf Cup last month at Sam Houston Race Park.
"This horse is my best friend," Espinoza said. "He is a real professional. If we need speed, he has it. If we decide to wait on the speed like today, he will do that. I was able to wait with him until the final turn and he made a response there that won us the race. All he needed was a clear path, and we had that."
Don't Tell Sophia quickly took command turning for home in Saturday's $100,000 Bayakoa Stakes for fillies and mares and showed her heels to a quartet of rivals, winning by 6 1/2 lengths. She's All In finished second and the favorite, Tiz Miz Sue, settled for third. Don't Tell Sophia, a 5-year-old Congaree mare, got the 1 1/16 miles over a fast track in 1:44.00 with Robby Albarado riding. She has won three straight.
"She's a monster right now," said winning trainer Phil Sims. "Having a race over the track didn't hurt. It was a definite advantage. She's such a big filly. She always just kind of falls out of the gate. I just told Robby to not get in trouble in the small field."
He said the Grade III Azeri Stakes on March 16 "is a definite."
Seeking Ms Shelley shadowed the pace in Sunday's $60,000 Spring Fever Stakes for fillies and mares, then dueled down the stretch with Lulu Wong before prevailing by 1/2 length. The favorite, Lady Diva Ga Ga, finished third and her rider lost a claim of foul against the winner. Seeking Ms Shelley, a 7-year-old Cactus Ridge mare, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:04.62 with Albarado winning another one.
Ante Up Annie engaged front-running favorite Mucho Mans Gold with a furlong and a half to run in Saturday's $60,000 Sarah Lane's Oates Stakes for state-bred 3-year-old fillies, eventually prevailing by 1/2 length. Dreamglider finished third. Ante Up Annie, a daughter of Majestic Warrior, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:45.34 with Brian Hernandez Jr. riding. The race was moved off the turf.
Good Deed went right to the lead in the $75,000 Mardi Gras Handicap for fillies and mares on Fat Tuesday and held on late to win by 1 length over Beat the Blues. Ire finished third. The favorite, My My My Maria, did not fire and finished fifth. Good Deed, a 4-year-old Broken Vow filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.12 with Shaun Bridgmohan up.
Elghayoor sat behind a speed duel through the first few furlongs in Sunday's $75,000 Dearly Precious Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, advanced in the lane and went on to win by 1/2 length over another closer, Railtown Girl. The early leader, Kiss the Lady, held third, 5 3/4 lengths farther back. Elghayoor, a Ghostzapper filly, ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:13.17 with Eddie Castro aboard.
Joan's Choice led from the start in Saturday's $75,000 Moro Stakes an extended the advantage through the stretch to post a 4-lengths win. The favorite, Isn't He Perfect, got home second and Ea finished third. Joan's Choice, a 6-year-old Alphabet Soup gelding, ran 9 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:51.12 with Jose Ortiz riding.
L.A. Weekend battled to the lead in Saturday's $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup and then had his way, winning by 1 length over Absolutely Cool. Memo to Mya was third and the favorite, Safe Trip, faded late to get home fourth. L.A. Weekend, a 5-year-old Tribal Rule gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.35 under Geovanni Franco.
Hennesey Smash led from the start in Saturday's $85,000 Peppers Pride Stakes for New Mexico-bred fillies and mares and won by 1 1/4 lengths over the favorite, Rose's Desert. Iplaytricks finished third. Hennesey Smash, a 4-year-old daughter of Roll Hennessey Roll, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.59 with Alfredo Juarez Jr. in the irons.
Sam Houston Race Park
Saturday's stakes, each worth $75,000, were restricted to 3-year-old steeds nominated to the Texas Stallion Stakes series.
In the Jim's Orbit Stakes, for colts and geldings, Worldventurer pressured the pace, took charge in the lane and got clear to win by 1 length over Meme Jo. Breathethefire finished third. Worldventurer, a Wimbledon gelding, got the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.44 with Cliff Berry up.
Makeshift stalked the pace in the Two Altazano Stakes for fillies, slipped through on the rail turning for home and quickly went on to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Tastefullyxcessive. The favorite, Platinum Song, finished third. Makeshift, a daughter of Too Much Bling, finished in 1:40.04 with Roman Chapa up.
Around the world:
(By RICHARD GROSS)
South African Juvenile Champion Soft Falling Rain is 6-for-6 after giving countryman trainer Mike de Kock a record fifth win in the featured 1,600-meter Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas on the all-weather Tapeta at Meydan Thursday.
The son of National Assembly tracked the early leaders, then stormed to the front in the final 400 meters for a comfortable 2 1/4-lengths win over Snowboarder. It was a first UAE colt classic win for owner Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum and retained rider Paul Hanagan.
"We were a bit concerned about his stamina but he has seen it out well," said de Kock about his concerns following the colt's win in the 1,400-meters 2,000 Guineas Trial Jan. 17.
The trainer suggested he might stretch his charge yet another 300 meters in the 1,900-meters, all-weather UAE Derby on Dubai World Cup Day, March 30. But he noted the colt "has a lot of speed," so the Godolphin Mile is also under consideration.
"This is the birthday present I wanted," the trainer posted on his personal website.
His four other winners, Musir in 2010, Honour Devil in 2008, Asiatic Boy in 2007 and Victory Moon in 2003, all similarly gifted the 49-year-old trainer and went on to win the UAE Derby in those years.
De Kock is already thinking ahead to a June meet for his new talented charge.
"Wherever he runs here next, England and Royal Ascot would be a possibility for him," he said.
Soft Falling Rain cannot be considered for the U.S. Triple Crown. Foaled in the Southern Hemisphere, he is considered a 4-year-old by Northern Hemisphere standards.
While de Kock was jubilant, the race was a disappointing Dubai debut for Fortify. Running for Godolphin, the Darley-bred 3-year-old Triple Crown nominee with Kentucky Derby aspirations was runner up in the Grade II Hopeful at Saratoga and third in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont. But his New York success could only translate to a sixth-place finish in the first Meydan run for the son of Distorted Humor.
That disappointment and the feature score by de Kock's new star overshadowed a shower of card success by Godolphin runners as the Dubai World Cup Carnival passed the halfway mark. German-bred Kassiano, with Silvestre de Sousa aboard, opened the evening with a 1/4-length triumph over stablemate Royal Empire and lead Godolphin jockey Mickael Barzalona in the 2,200-meter Range Rover Evoque Trophy all-weather handicap. It was the sixth win with a second and third in eight starts for the 4-year-old gelding, his second win in the Godolphin colors this Carnival.
Moonwalk In Paris, with Ahmed Ajtebi, up danced to a 2-lengths win on the all-weather in the 1,600-meter Group 3 Firebreak Stakes over stablemate Fulbright. The surprise was the next-to-last, 13th-place finish of Daddy Long Legs, last year's UAE Derby winner, finishing 12 lengths off the winner. Mental, with Barzalona aboard, outwitted de Kock's Kavanagh by a length in the Al Shindagha Sprint. It was a disappointment for third-running Krypton Factor, winner of last year's Golden Shaheen.
Barzalona grabbed a double for himself and completed a triple for trainer Mahmood al Zarooni as Anatolian outclassed Topclas by 1 1/4 lengths to win the Range Rover Sport Trophy and close out the evening.
Black Caviar appeared back to top form Saturday, easily winning the Aus-Group 1 Lightning Stakes at Flemington -- a race now officially named for her. With Luke Nolen up, the super mare was running against competition for the first time since barely surviving a scare in gaining her 22nd win without loss in the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot. She returned to Australia after that race with torn muscles and ligaments. Eight months later, there was no problem. Black Caviar jumped well, led from the early yards and cruised home first by 2 1/2 lengths over stablemates Moment of Change and Golden Archer. Without much encouragement from Nolan, she finished the 1,000 meters in 55.42 seconds, a stakes record.
"She continues to amaze me," said trainer Peter Nolan.
Lucky Nine surged to the front with 300 meters to run in Sunday's HK-Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize and held off fast-closing Frederick Engels to win by 3/4 length. Captain Sweet was another 3/4 length back in third. The 1,200 meters went in 1:09.28. The win in the second leg of the Hong Kong Speed Series was a vindication after Lucky Nine failed to fire in the first leg, the 1,000-meters HK-Group1 Kent & Curwen Centenary Sprint Cup. Lucky Nine, winner of the Group 1 Hong Kong Sprint in 2011, now could be ticketed for Dubai and a repeat try in the Group 1 Golden Shaheen on World Cup night, March 30. He finished third in that race last year from a challenging gate. But trainer Caspar Fownes said he may opt to stay home instead for the final leg of the Hong Kong series, the HK-Group 1 Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup March 17.
"I'll see how he comes out and the horse will tell me," Fownes said.
It was upset time in Sunday's HK-Group 1 Hong Kong Classic Cup. It Has To Be You shot to the lead along the rail and held on to win by 3/4 length over President Lincoln. Ashkiyr was third and the favorite, Gold-Fun, was fourth. The well-fancied Akeed Mofeed got home sixth. The race was the second in the Hong Kong Jockey Club's 4-year-old series. Gold Fun won the first, the HK-Group 1 Hong Kong Classic Mile.
"His form hasn't been too bad and the other day in the Classic Mile he was the last horse standing of the horses up on the speed, going a pretty good gallop," said winning trainer Tim Clark, who scored his first local Group 1 win. "All the horses that passed him came from back in the field. Today, from a good gate, we were able to travel smoother and he showed a really good turn of foot." Clark said he believes It Has To Be You can go longer than Sunday's 1,800 meters but "we just don't have the races to try it."
Grape Brandy is emerging as a star in Japanese dirt racing after his second straight win of the season in Sunday's Jpn-Group 1 February Stakes at Tokyo. After settling in mid-pack early, Grape Brandy let Espoir City take first run to the lead in the straight, then slowly reeled that one in to win by 3/4 length. Wonder Acute was a fast-closing third, just failing to catch Espoir City in the final jumps.
They really do race on the ice in Switzerland. Russian Tango won Sunday's Grosser Preis von St. Moritz narrowly over the aptly named Winterwind. Nightdance Paulo was well back in third in the race over 10 furlongs of frozen lake.