The "quarterfinals" of Kentucky Derby preps get under way this weekend, with challenging races in Florida and Louisiana.
Three-year-fillies still eyeing the Kentucky Oaks also get their chance in the same venues. Santa Anita hosts a 7-furlong event that could sort out some well-matched West Coast Sprinters.
Black Caviar isn't in action in Australia this weekend. But her younger half-brother is. In Hong Kong, California Dreaming will try to return to his winning ways -- and perhaps take a step toward April's Group 1 Audemars Piguet QE II.
With just over a month until World Cup night, things are progressing nicely in Dubai.
By your leave, the details:
All those races we've been paying attention to for the past few months? Fuggedaboutit. Under the new Churchill Downs system, each of them earned the winner only 10 points toward getting into the Kentucky Derby. Starting with Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and $400,000 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, the winner gets 50 points. Second gets 20 points; third, 10; fourth, 5.
Later, for the really big races, the points offerings inflate even more.
No one knows how many points will be enough. But, for now, it's a fair assumption that winning one of the 50-point races, and maybe even finishing second, is likely to be good enough to make the 20-horse field for the Run for the Roses.
The Risen Star and the Fountain of Youth, both run at 1 1/16 miles on the main track, have deep fields with lots of potential. But the latter has the more proven favorite in Violence, one of trainer Todd Pletcher's current "six or seven" admitted Triple Crown candidates. The Medaglia d'Oro colt is undefeated in three starts -- a maiden event at Saratoga, the Grade II Nashua Stakes in November at Aqueduct and the Grade I Cash Call Futurity on the Hollywood Park all-weather surface in December. He has been training at Palm Meadows.
"We're excited about getting him started again," Pletcher told a media conference call this week. "We feel like he's a colt that's already proven that he's very good. He's adaptable to different pace scenarios. He's now won around two turns. He's even won on a synthetic track. So he seems very versatile, very professional, great mind, and we're just looking forward to getting him going."
He's Had Enough is entered in both the Fountain and in the Risen Star but trainer Doug O'Neill said he's more likely for the Florida race. The Tapit colt was fifth in the Cash Call Futurity and then third in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita three weeks ago.
There's plenty of other dangerous competition, too, including some like the Shug McGaughey-trained Orb, coming off an excellent allowance win over the course. Falling Sky won the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and has won at Gulfstream. Majestic Hussar defeated Palace Malice in a Gulfstream allowance race, prompting Pletcher to send the latter to New Orleans for the Risen Star. Sheik Hamdan bin Rasheed al Maktoum was smiling as his Shadwell Stable's homebred Street Cry colt Elmutahid got his act together winning at 9 furlongs in his last start. Cerro also comes off an impressive allowance victory.
Eleven are entered for the Fountain of Youth.
In the Big Easy, 15 are entered for the Risen Star, though only 14 will start. Even if He's Had Enough defects to Florida, there will be no shortage of talent -- or story lines -- in the Fair Grounds field.
It's hard to look very far past Oxbow, the D. Wayne Lukas trainee who romped to an 11 1/2-lengths win over the course in his last start, the Grade III Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 19. The Awesome Again colt earlier finished fourth in the Cash Call Futurity.
There's plenty more here, though. Normandy Invasion returns after missing by just a nose in the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct in November. Circle Unbroken won the Grade III Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs last fall but finished sixth in the Lecomte.
Trainer Bob Baffert sends Code West, who has been knocking on the door in California. Look out a duo from the barn of trainer Al Stall Jr. -- Departing, a War Front colt who is 2-for-2 over the Fair Grounds strip, and Sunbean, a Brahms colt who has won his last two.
There's some jockey interest, too. Gary Stevens, who returned last month from a seven-year absence from the saddle, will ride Proud Strike for trainer Steve Asmussen. Should he run well, Stevens might have to choose between riding in the Kentucky Derby and analyzing it for NBC-TV. Meanwhile, rising star Rosie Napravnik, who was 17 when Stevens retired, will be up on Palace Malace.
Two other races for 3-year-olds are without points, but since you never know ...
Seven are entered for Saturday's $130,000 Mine That Bird Derby at 1 1/16 miles at Sunland Park in New Mexico. Greeley Awesome has won three straight in California. Dry Summer ran fourth in the Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, then won at Sunland. Show Some Magic won the local Riley Allison Futurity two starts back. The "name of the week" is in here -- Invasive Cocktail. He's by Invasor, out of the Red Ransom mare Champagne Cocktail. So far, none of these look ready for Louisville.
Nine fairly evenly matched steeds are set for Saturday's $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby in Arizona, also at 1 1/16 miles. Trainer Doug O'Neill sends Persuasive Paul from California, where he has been less than persuasive. Glencoe Kid comes off a win in the Lost in the Fog Juvenile Stakes at Turf Paradise and also won a stakes at Hastings. Tiz Fitting comes from Golden Gate where he finally won in his eighth try but might like the feel of real dirt better than the California all-weather.
While the colts jockey for position in the Derby standings, the fillies are eyeing the Kentucky Oaks. The weekend brings a couple major steps in that direction.
Ten are entered for Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds. Unlimited Budget, unraced since winning the Grade II Demoiselle Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 24, is the morning-line favorite. Dancinginthecircle just missed in the Grade III Arlington-Washington Lassie last fall and won the $100,000 By the Light Stakes at Delta Downs in her only previous start this year. Gary Stevens will ride Midnight Ballet.
Only five signed on for Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park and the field is headed by Dreaming of Julia. The A.P. Indy filly won three straight last year, including the Grade I Frizette at Belmont Park, before settling for third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Trained by Pletcher, she has been away from the races since then. Among the others, Lady Banks won the 6-furlongs Ruthless Stakes at Aqueduct. If Dreaming of Julia is on her game, the race appears hers to lose.
Four other stakes, two of them graded, support the Risen Star and Rachel Alexandra.
The $150,000, Grade III Mineshaft Handicap is 1 1/16 miles on the main track and attracted a dozen turf runners. Infrattini and Mark Valeski ran 1-2 in last month's Louisiana Handicap and are the morning-line choices for Saturday's race. Golden Ticket, dead-heat winner of last year's Grade I Travers Stakes, ships in from South Florida. And remember Hero of Order? He won last year's Louisiana Derby at odds of 101-1. He has not won since but will try again here.
The $150,000, Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap goes 9 furlongs on the grass with a dozen entered. Optimizer returns for trainer D. Wayne Lukas after winning the Grade III Col. E.R. Bradley over the local lawn in his last start. Wilcox Inn has shown great ability at times. Bim Bam hardly ever wins but hardly ever runs badly. Two Months Rent won the Grade III Hawthorne Derby in Chicago last fall. Quality Control makes his first start for trainer Tom Amoss after shipping up from South America. Hyper was good last year -- before an unproductive summer trip to England. Macho Bull will make his ninth start in a three-month span, so he's warmed up.
Saturday's third graded event is the $150,000, Grade III Canadian Turf Stakes at 1 mile on the lawn. Data Link heads a cast of nine, returning from a layoff after winning the Grade II Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park on Nov. 23. The 5-year-old son of War Front used a third-place finish in this race last year as a springboard to winning the Grade I Maker's Mark Mile at Keenland. Joes Blazing Aaron and Za Approval also are in the mix. Howe Great showed some promise last year, tailed off and seeks a rebound.
Several familiar names are among the eight entered for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Carlos Stakes at 7 furlongs on the dirt course. Capital Account finished second in the Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship last fall, then flopped in the Breeders' Cup. He joins Drill in representing the Baffert barn. Sahara Sky won the Grade II Palos Verdes last month while stepping up in class. The Lumber Guy finished second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint but then was seventh in the Grade I Malibu Stakes on Boxing Day. Comma to the Top and Justin Phillip usually are in the mix. Should be a good race.
The steady progression to World Cup night, March 30, continues with the Carnival races starting to provide some meaningful clues.
On Thursday, Godolphin's home team was in fine fettle, with Sajjhaa sweeping to the lead in the late stages of the UAE-Group 2 Balanchine Stakes for fillies and mares and clearing to win by 1 length over stablemate Prussian. South African star Igugu, making her first start in some 13 months, was one-paced in the final few hundred yards and settled for third. Silvestre De Sousa rode the winner for trainer Saeed bin Suroor. It was the second straight win at Meydan for Sajjhaa, a 6-year-old King's Best mare. "She has really thrived in the Dubai weather and has won both races in good style," bin Suroor said. "We will have to sit down and plan where to go with her but Super Saturday would be a possibility."
The UAE-Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort at 1 mile on the grass boasted some familiar names. Finishing first and second were the Mike De Kock duo of Mushreq and Master of Hounds. Iguazu Falls finished third and Musir was fourth. Mushreq, a 5-year-old, Australian-bred gelding by Flying Spur, got home in 1:36.60 with Paul Hanagan in the irons. The win was a pleasant surprise after a sixth-place showing in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 in his previous outing. "That was a second win on his fifth 2013 start for Mushreq who has been a revelation and keeps improving," De Kock said. "We will have to think about the Dubai Duty Free after that effort."
The Aus-Group 1 Cathay Pacific Futurity, a weight-for-age event at 1,400 meters, drew as tough a field as you'd like except for Black Caviar. All Too Hard, Black Caviar's 3-year-old half brother, is the early favorite, along with Melbourne Cup winner Green Moon and King Mufhasa. Shanghai Warrior has won two in a row.
After scratches, 14 are left to go in Saturday's Aus-Group 1 Patinack Farms Blue Diamond Stakes at Caulfield. The 1,200-meters fixture is for 2-year-olds. The filly Miracles of Life, undefeated in three tries, is the heavy favorite.
The Aus-Group 1 Oakleigh Plate, at 1100 meters, includes two unbeaten horses in Barakey and Shamal Wind along with globetrotting mare Ortensia. The latter won the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint going 1,000 meters in Dubai last year and also took down two major sprints in England.
California Memory, winner of back-to-back editions of the Group 1 Hong Kong Cup, Sunday goes after his second win in the HK-Group 1 Citibank Hong Kong Gold Cup. He comes off a third-place finish in the HK-Group 1 Stewards' Cup, a 1,600-meters event that was just a tuneup for the 2,000-meters specialist. Pure Champion, Xtension, Irian, Zaidan and Fay Fay also figure in the 11-horse field. "Everything went very smoothly in his trial and this is his race back at his favourite distance," said California Memory's trainer, Tony Cruz. "If all goes well, he'll be heading to the (Group 1) Audemars Piguet QEII Cup and then on to the (HK-Group 1) Champions & Chater Cup later in the season." And then, perhaps, to attempt a third straight win in the December classic.