So it is with Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The winner, I've Struck a Nerve, made a stout run along the outside in the long stretch and wound up the winner by a nose at odds of 135-1.
The Risen Star was one of two major stepping stones to the Kentucky Derby contested Saturday. The other, the $400,000, Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, was run more formfully, although the favorite, Violence, not only met defeat for the first time in his career but sustained an injury that will, at a minimum, knock him off the Derby trail.
Elsewhere, the 3-year-old fillies continued their march toward to the Kentucky Oaks, there was significant action on the turf and in the handicap division and Hong Kong's weekend feature may have stirred up two more contenders for World Cup night in Dubai.
And in Australia, Black Caviar's little brother is getting good enough to emerge from the shadow of his still-undefeated older sister.
There's a lot going on so let's get started:
Kentucky Derby preps
Back to that Fair Grounds shocker by I've Struck a Nerve: It was only his second career win and was eerily reminiscent of last year's Louisiana Derby, won by 121-1 chance Hero of Order -- who has not visited the winner's circle since and finished fourth in Saturday's Mineshaft Handicap over the same course.
That's not to say I've Struck a Nerve, a colt by Yankee Gentleman out of a Cryptoclearance mare, could not go on to bigger and better things. He has run well in the past, with excuses, and should not have been let go Saturday at anything close to 135-1.
I've Struck a Nerve was parked at the back of the field down the backstretch, got going on the far outside as the early leaders went on with it and was just up in the last couple jumps to beat pacesetting Code West by a nose. Palace Malice ran well late to get show money and Oxbow, the runaway winner of the LeComte Stakes in his last start, finished fourth.
I've Struck a Nerve ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.52 with James Graham up for trainer Keith Desormeaux. The victory followed a fourth in the LeComte and a second-place showing in the Sugar Bowl Stakes early in the Fair Grounds meeting. Overall, he now has two wins, a second and two thirds from nine starts and leads the Kentucky Derby point standings with 51 points -- certainly enough to make the field for the Run for the Roses no matter what intervenes.
"Every time this horse has gone a distance (before), he's had some kind of trouble," Desormeaux said. "We have talked about it several times, [owner] Matt Bryan and I, and we just wanted a clean trip at a distance and if he got beat 14 lengths again, we'd quit trying ... . James rode him perfectly and obviously he proved what Matt and I knew -- that he is a nice horse."
Added Bryan: "I called my wife and told her to get fitted for a Derby hat."
But what subplots were masked by the $17,787.60 trifecta payoff?
How about Code West, a Bob Baffert trainee who shipped in from California with more promise than results to show from his five earlier starts? He was making his stakes debut and slugged it out on the front end with another shipper, Palace Malice. The latter, also running in his first stakes race, came in from Florida for trainer Todd Pletcher after being whupped at Gulfstream Park in an allowance race by Majestic Hussar, who faded from the lead in Saturday's Fountain of Youth.
An interesting thing about Fair Grounds is the length of its stretch -- one of the longest in North America and a preview of the seemingly infinite distance the 3-year-olds face when they turn into the stretch run of the Run for the Roses. Holding well for that distance, as Code West and Palace Malice did, bodes well for Churchill Downs. And, while I've Struck a Nerve got a clean run on the outside Saturday, making up ground steadily on the outside of rivals, he might not find such an easy path in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.
Two other points: Saturday's favorite, Normandy Invasion, bobbled at the start and got away last, then showed some late interest to finish fifth while going wide into the lane. And Oxbow ran credibly, leading briefly in the stretch despite being forced wide around the first turn. Neither of them should be dismissed from the picture for the Louisiana Derby.
Meanwhile, back in steamy South Florida:
Violence was near the top of most Derby "Top 10" lists entering Saturday's Fountain of Youth and looked to be justifying that reputation -- until he was caught late in the stretch run by Orb, who went on to win by a half length. It was a long way back to the rest of the field as Orb got the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.24, benefiting from a hot early pace by Majestic Hussar, who faded to finish fourth.
Orb, a Malibu Moon colt out of the Unbridled mare Lady Liberty, is a Phipps Stable and Stuart Janney homebred, trained patiently by Shug McGaughey. He took four tries to break his maiden in New York last year, then jumped right up to win a 9-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream in his first start as a 3-year-old.
"The strides he has made this winter were just absolutely incredible," McGaughey said of Orb, who earned 50 points toward a start in the Kentucky Derby, ensuring himself a place in that starting gate. With that settled, McGaughey wasn't ready to commit to running Orb back in the Grade I Florida Derby on March 30.
"I don't know what the next outing will be," the trainer said. "We'll see and talk to the Phippses and Stuart Janney and see what they want to do and go from there."
Violence was found after the race to have sustained a fracture to his right front sesamoid. He was resting at Gulfstream Park and scheduled to ship back to Kentucky for evaluation. He is expected to recover, trainer Todd Pletcher said, but his racing career is in doubt.
"It's such a disappointment to see such a promising colt sustain an injury," Pletcher said Sunday. "He's been training beautifully and made such an impressive effort in his second-place finish yesterday."
Violence won three straight last year but had been away from the races since taking the Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park Dec. 15.
There were two other races for 3-year-olds this weekend and, while neither offers Kentucky Derby points, you never know, so:
-- Dry Summer sat just behind a slow pace in Saturday's $120,000 Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico, went to the lead when asked by jockey Carlos Madeira and won by 1 1/2 lengths. Show Some Magic finished second by a neck over Stormdriver. Dry Summer, a ridgling by Any Given Saturday, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.32. He has moved right along since finishing 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last fall, getting home fourth in the Grade III Sham Stakes at the mile on the main track at Santa Anita on Jan. 5, then easily winning an allowance event at Sunland in his last previous start. "I could not believe how slow they were going," winning trainer Joel Marr said. "No one could close with that pace. He was in a good spot throughout. When he came to New Mexico, he was ready to run. We plan on keeping him happy and running" in the Grade III Sunland Park Derby next month.
-- Persuasive Paul took charge in the stretch to win Saturday's $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby in Arizona by 3 3/4 lengths over Brokered. Tiz Fitting got show money as the top three all shipped in from California. Persuasive Paul, a son of Olmodavor, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.16 with Joseph Steiner up for trainer Doug O'Neill. It was his second win in six starts.
Unlimited Budget, another from the Pletcher herd, lived up to expectations in Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds despite getting a wide trip. After racing in the middle of the pack, the Street Sense filly swept around rivals early in the stretch run and went on about her business, winning by 3 3/4 lengths. Promise Me More was second and Blue Violet finished third. Unlimited Budget got 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.38. "She was much the best," winning rider Rosie Napravik said. "It ended up being a crazy pace up front so we were a little further back but it set up well for her and she just galloped away with it." Pletcher assistant Whit Beckman said Unlimited Budget had "preferred the race to be on the lead but with that hot pace in front of her it set up well and showed some versatility, so we were happy." She is undefeated in three starts, including the Grade II Demoiselle Stakes at Aqueduct in November.
Live Lively posted a minor upset in Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park, leading all the way and holding off the favorite, Dreaming of Julia, to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Private Ensign was third. Live Lively, a Medaglia d'Oro filly, raced 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in a very good time of 1:42.30. She now has won three straight races but was making her stakes debut and first try around two turns. Dreaming of Julia won her first three starts in New York last year, then finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile fillies. "I figured she'd fall out of there," winning trainer Mark Hennig said. "It was just a matter if somebody was going to go with her ... . She couldn't have prepared any better for this and I was expecting a big race out of her." Pletcher said of Dreaming of Julia's effort, "I was very happy with it. For her first start since the Breeders' Cup and spotting six pounds to some quality fillies, I thought it was a very good effort."
Countess Curlin kicked clear in the final sixteenth to win Sunday's $50,000 Island Fashion Stakes at Sunland Park in New Mexico by 4 lengths. Shesatopattraction made all the going and held second. Infinitely was third. Countess Curlin, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Curlin, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.68 with Luis Contreras up.
On the turf
Data Link contributed to a great day for his trainer and owners by sweeping from off the pace to win Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Canadian Turf Stakes at Gulfstream Park by a length. Joe's Blazing Aaron led for much of the way and held second, a half length ahead of late runner Beau Choix. Data Link, a 5-year-old son of War Front, finished the mile on firm going in 1:33.01 under Javier Castellano. It was the first start for Data Link since winning the Grade II Citation Handicap on Nov. 23 at Hollywood Park. "He's just a good horse," winning trainer Shug McGaughey said. "He had to go outside but he's just better than these horses ... . We'll probably go back to Keeneland for the Maker's Mark [Mile] again. Long term, I'd like to have him for the Breeders' Cup Mile."
Optimizer got a wide trip over soft turf in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap but still put in a late burst of speed that got him past the early pace and home first by 2 lengths. Bim Bam was second and Two Months Rent finished third. After seven scratches, the race came down to just five starters. Optimizer, a 4-year-old English Channel colt, ran 9 furlongs in 1:56.06, reflecting the soggy going. Winning rider Jon Court said he moved Optimizer inside and eventually outside "trying to find the firmest spot out there and it's all pretty soft. But he handled it well enough to save some ground and make that move towards the lead down on the inside. That put us in the winner's circle." Trainer D. Wayne Lukas was reported fighting a cold.
Stopshoppingmaria chased longshot Rosa Salvaje into the stretch in Sunday's $60,000 Ladies Turf Sprint Stakes at Gulfstream Park, then went by and on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over that rival. Honey Chile ran evenly to finish third. Stopshoppingmaria, a 4-year-old More Than Ready filly, got 5 furlongs of firm turf in 55.48 seconds with John Velazquez riding.
Mark Valeski is making his mark in the handicap division, including a traffic-troubled, 1-length win in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Mineshaft Handicap. With Rosie Napravnik up, the 4-year-old Proud Citizen colt had to fight his way out of a box entering the stretch and finally kicked into gear when he found daylight at the three-sixteenths pole. He finished the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.82 with Cool Street second and Golden Ticket third. Hero of Order, the long shot 2012 Louisiana Derby winner, finished fourth. "I think everyone had some anxious moments there, including myself," Napravnik said of the traffic issue. "He is such a class horse and just a nice horse to be around." Winning owner Brereton Jones chimed in, "Those jocks are smart. Don't ever underestimate their ability to find ways to beat you in competition. Rosie had no way to go but finally got his head turned and ran out of there." Trainer Larry Jones said Optimizer will contest the upcoming New Orleans Handicap, which is expected to draw some top out-of-town shooters. "We're going to get a shot to really see what they got in their hand here," he said.
Snuggs and Kisses got the better of a long duel with odds-on favorite Daisy Devine in Saturday's $75,000 Bayou Handicap for fillies and mares, winning by a head over that rival. Ausus was third in the 1 1/16-mile race, which was moved off the soft turf course. Snuggs and Kisses, a 6-year-old Soto mare, finished in 1:45.38, with Napravnik up.
Sunbean was scratched from the Risen Star Stakes, where he was drawn on the far outside, in favor of the $60,000 Gentilly Stakes for Louisiana-bred 3-year-olds -- then ran well enough to make his connections wonder what might have been. The Brahms colt rallied smartly into the stretch and drew off to win by 4 3/4 lengths over Hopeful Notion, with Nubin Ridge third. Sunbean, with Colby Hernandez in the irons, ran 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:42.76. Asked if he would have run in the Risen Star from a better draw, owner-breeder Evelyn Benoit said, "Yes. I wasn't scared."
Sahara Sky came wide around the leaders on the stretch turn in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Carlos Stakes and rallied to win by 3/4 length over Capital Account. Comma to the Top led into the stretch and held on for third. The favorite, The Lumber Guy, lumbered home next-last of eight. Sahara Sky, a 5-year-old son of Pleasant Tap, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.28 with Joe Talamo up. "He sure is a nice horse," winning trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said. "I think he'll run a good mile. We'll talk a little bit about the Met Mile," a Grade I at Belmont Park on May 27. But he also said he "wouldn't mind" the Potrero Grande Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita on April 16.
Unbridled's Note dueled with Chips All In throughout Saturday's $75,000 Joe Hernandez Stakes down the hillside turf course, prevailing by just a nose at the end. Tale of a Champion finished third, 3 3/4 lengths farther back. Unbridled's Note, a 4-year-old Unbridled's Song colt, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs on firm going in 1:11.17 with Corey Nakatani up. He ran second in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint last year over the same course and then third in the Grade I Malibu Stakes at 7 furlongs on the main track.
Ain't No Other outfinished Starspangled Heat to win Sunday's $100,000 Sensational Star Stakes for California-breds by 3/4 length. A Toast to You was just another nose back in third. Ain't No Other, a 5-year-old Old Topper gelding, got the 6 1/2 furlongs down the firm hillside turf course in 1:11.53 with Rafael Bejarano in the irons.
Moon Philly tracked the pace in Saturday's $125,000 Maryland Racing Media Stakes for fillies and mares, then exploded down the stretch to win by 9 1/4 lengths as the prohibitive favorite. Access to Charlie was best of the rest and Touch the Birds finished third. Moon Philly, a 4-year-old daughter of Malibu Moon, got the 9 furlongs on a good track in 1:54.57 with Jeremy Rose riding. She won the Nellie Morse Stakes at Laurel in her previous start and has now won four of her last six races. "She's kind of hit another gear since we started running her a mile or further," winning trainer Mike Trombetta said. "She's been ultra consistent. For a young horse that has a lot of time in front of her, we couldn't be any happier."
Tampa Bay Downs
Good Lord answered the prayers of his backers in Saturday's $75,000 Super Stakes, getting by pacesetting favorite Action Andy in the final yards to win by 3/4 of a length. Bellefire was breathing down their necks late, finishing with a rush to get show money, a half length farther back. Good Lord, a 6-year-old Greatness gelding, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.03 with Fernando De La Cruz up.
Humble Smarty led all the way to a 4 1/4-length win in Sunday's $60,000 Nodouble Breeders' Stakes for Arkansas-bred colts and geldings. Star North finished second and Breckenridge got show money. Humble Smarty, a 9-year-old Mutakddim gelding, finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.19 with Alex Birzer in the irons.
All About Allie won Saturday's $60,000 Downthedustyroad Breeders' Stakes for the third year in a row, beating Kathleen to the wire by 2 3/4 lengths. Hatter Nu Nu finished third in the race restricted to Arkansas-bred fillies and mares. All About Allie, a 5-year-old Storm and a Half mare, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:13.32 with Cliff Berry riding. Nor is she a one-trick pony. All About Allie has eight wins, four seconds and two third from 21 career starts.
Sam Houston Race Park
Skip a Smile got home first by 1 length over Doctor Romane in Saturday's $50,000 Jersey Village Stakes for Texas-breds with a late-running Fly the Red Eye only a nose farther back in third. Skip a Smile, a 6-year-old Skip Away gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:44.84 with Glen Murphy up.
(By RICHARD GROSS)
Sajjhaa ran to the lead 400 meters from the wire under jockey Silvestre de Souza to win the 1,800-meter, Group 2 Balanchine Stakes for fillies and mares by a length on the turf over stablemate Prussian with Mickael Barzalona aboard at Meydan Thursday. The 6-year-old, Darley-bred King's Best mare won the 1,600-meter Group 2 Cape Verdi Stakes in her first Carnival turf run Jan. 24.
Trainer Saeed bin Suroor said after her Cape Verdi win Sajjhaa "was thriving" in the Dubai weather and her easy handling of the added 200 meters bears out that comment. "We will have to sit down and plan where to go with her," said bin Suroor after this latest triumph. "But Super Saturday would be a possibility."
The March 9 Super Saturday meet is viewed as the final preview to the March 30 Dubai World Cup racecard. A step up for Sajjhaa to the Group 1 Jebel Hatta run over 1,800 meters on turf would be a natural progression.
Highly touted South African star Igugu was running for trainer Mike de Kock for the first time in 13 months in the Balanchine but could not completely shake off the rust as South Africa's 2011 Horse of the Year finished third, more than 4 lengths behind the winner. The filly had won 10 times and placed twice in 12 previous starts.
It was a good night all around for Godolphin as bin Suroor and de Sousa stole a double when Con Artist reigned over Plantagenet by 3 3/4 lengths in the 1,900-meter handicap on the all-weather Tapeta.
De Kock's Balanchine disappointment was tempered with a double on the night. Mushreq tracked early then overran the leaders to capture the 1,600-meter Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort by 3 1/4 lengths on the turf over Master of Hounds as jockey Paul Hanagan continued to enjoy great success in his first Carnival season. Iguazu Falls fell a head short in third.
Await the Dawn rose to the occasion for de Kock with a pretty 2 3/4-length victory over So Beautiful in the 2,000-meter turf handicap with Salon Soldier running third for Germany.
Unbridled Ocean navigated a 3/4-length win over Sandagiyr and Rostrum in the all-weather handicap over 1,600 meters and Dux Scholar closed out the card with a 1 1/4-length win over Russian Soul and Medicean Man in the 1,000-meter turf sprint.
Military Attack was along late to win Sunday's HK-Group 1 Citibank Hong Kong Gold Cup by a convincing 2 1/2 lengths over Pure Champion. Xtension was a short head farther back in third. The favorite, two-time Group 1 Hong Kong Cup winner California Memory, beat only one horse and was found after the race to have an irregular heartbeat. But the day at Sha Tin belonged to Military Attack, trainer John Moore and jockey Zac Purton as the trainer and rider combined for their first Group 1 win together. Purton said he won by following instructions. "John asked me to get three back on the fence if I could," the rider said. "He was quite specific about that instruction. I didn't expect him to jump as well as he did. I could have led them up early, so I was taking a bit of a tug on him just asking him to come back." He then switched out in the stretch and easily ran by the leaders, finishing the 2,000 meters in 2:03.01. Owner Steven Lo Kit Sing and Moore will consider Dubai for both Military Attack and Xtension. "I'll look at the [Group 1] Dubai Duty Free for Military Attack and Zac can ride him, if we're invited," Moore said. "Xtension's run today was full of merit. He was not quite at his tops yet today and he could go to Dubai, too, if invited. Douglas [Whyte] would ride him."
Planteur, who finished third in last year's Dubai World Cup, got a warmup for next month's renewal with a hard-fought win Saturday at Lingfield. The son of Danehill Dancer survived by a neck over Miblish while conceding 23 pounds to that rival. He ran the 10 furlongs in 2:01.20. Trainer Marco Botti said Planteur will travel to Dubai about a week before the March 30 race and said the Lingfield test "will do his confidence a world of good."
All Too Hard, Black Caviar's little brother, emerged so well from his victory in Saturday's AUS-Group 1 Futurity Stakes that trainer John Hawkes says he plans to run the colt back this coming Saturday in the Aus-Group 1 Australian Guineas at Flemington. Should he take that fixture, too, it would be his third win at the top rung this season. All To Hard earlier accounted for the Caulfield Guineas and the C. F. Orr Stakes. In Saturday's race at Caulfield, All Too Hard surged to the fore a furlong out and drew off impressively to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Glass Harmonium. King Mufhasa was third and Green Moon finished fourth. The 7 furlongs on good going took 1:23.03.
Miracles of Life ran best late to take Saturday's Aus-Group 1 Patinack Farm Blue Diamond Stakes for 2-year-olds by 1 1/2 lengths over Fast 'N' Rocking. Godiva Rock finished third. Miracles of Life, a filly by Not a Single Doubt, toured the 6 furlongs in 1:09.76.
Lord Kanaloa, returning to the track for the first time since winning the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint last December, had no trouble capturing Sunday's Jpn-Group 3 Hankyu Hai at Hanshin. But he reportedly is bypassing a trip to Dubai for the Golden Shaheen in favor of the local Group 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen. Lord Kanaloa finished 3/4 of a length in front of Majin Prosper with Olivine third. The 1,400 meters over firm turf went in 1:21.0.
The Japan Racing Association reports Trailblazer and Faridat already are in the UAE preparing for World Cup night and that 2012 Japan Horse of the Year Gentildonna has accepted an invitation to run in the Dubai Sheema Classic and Keiai Leone in the Grade II UAE Derby. Trailblazer, fourth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita is scheduled to contest the UAE-Group 1 Maktoum Challenge Round 3 on Super Saturday, March 9, then the World Cup, Sheema Classic or Dubai Duty Free. Feridat will have to run his way to contention with preliminaries set for Thursday and again March 9.