Handicap horses, including the defending Breeders' Cup Classic champ, get going in Arkansas and Florida. Kentucky Oaks hopefuls will be on display in those very same states while last year's Oaks winner is in action in Louisiana. Tampa Bay Downs has an internationally flavored grass race. And Santa Anita has ladies sprinting.
Among the current Derby favorites, Goldencents and Flashback are in action in California; Verrazano in Florida.
There's plenty of action everywhere. But the stars are really shining over the desert, so let's start there:
It's Super Saturday at the plush Meydan facility that, just three weeks down the road, will host Dubai World Cup night. Super Saturday is a preview and, in some ways, a retrospective as several top contenders from the 2012 World Cup program are preparing to go again, including the defending World Cup champion.
The program is capped by the UAE-Group 1 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3. That field includes none other than Monterosso, who won last year's World Cup so convincingly that jockey Mickael Barzalona was celebrating well before the wire. Ahmad Ajtebi rides Saturday for Godolphin while Barzalona will ride Saint Baudolino. Monterosso blotted his copybook with a dismal showing in his final 2012 race, the Group 1 Coral Eclipse at Sandown but had the excuses of 133 pounds and soft going. Little Mike headlines an American contingent on this program, making his seasonal debut off last fall's win in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita. He will be going the same 1 1/4-mile distance but on the all-weather surface, rather than the grass. "He's proven himself on the turf," said jockey Kieren Fallon, who will ride Little Mike for the first time. "These American horses pretty much go on either surface. If he was to take to it like he has the turf, he will be the horse they all have to beat." Japanese traveler Trailblazer, who finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup, is in this field. Godolphin also has Hunter's Light, who finished second to Cirrus des Aigles in the Group 2 Prix Dollar in Paris, then won a Group 1 in Rome before vacationing. He returned with a victory in Round 2 of the Challenge. Daddy Long Legs, who seems to run well everywhere other than the United States, will be an outside chance, as will be Treasure Beach, the 2011 Grade I Secretariat Stakes winner at Arlington. Several others are in the picture in this top heat.
Dullahan loved the all-weather surfaces at Keeneland and Del Mar last year, winning the Grade I Pacific Classic and the Grade I Blue Grass. Overall, he's 3-for-3 on the Polytrack all-weather surfaces. If he likes Meydan's Tapeta equally well in Saturday's 1-mile, UAE-Group 3 Burj Nahaar, sponsored by Emirates Holidays, last year's Kentucky Derby third-place finisher could be on to the World Cup. "He's kind of a quirky horse," trainer Dale Romans told HRTV. "But so far, he's liked every artificial course he's been on." Godolphin is in here, too, with Moonwalk in Paris, who ran well in France last summer and won his first start locally, and with African Story. The latter won this race last year and went on to win the Group 2 Godolphin Mile on World Cup night. Red Jazz was third in the Godolphin Mile last year and ran well in the fall at Newmarket. Barbecue Eddie is always to be feared.
There's a lot of talent -- and a lot of frequent-flyer miles -- in the UAE-Group II Dubai City of Gold, sponsored by Emirates SkyCargo. The race is 1 1/2 miles on the grass. Among the names that have turned up in various corners of the globe: Godolphin runner Masterstroke, third in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in his last start and never worse than third in seven starts; Jackalberry, winner of the inaugural American St. Leger at Arlington Park last summer, then third in the Group 1 Melbourne Cup; German standard-bearer Silvaner; and Await the Dawn, who was third in the Group 1 Juddmonte International at York last summer. Godolphin's secondary starter, Cavalryman, finished 12th in the Melbourne Cup in his last start but got home second in this race last year.
The UAE-Group 3 Mahab Al Shimaal, sponsored by Emirates Skywards, features Krypton Factor, winner of last year's Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen on World Cup night, a race in which he defeated Singapore star Rocket Man. Krypton Factor was no factor in two subsequent starts in Singapore and at Ascot and finished third in a local prep three weeks ago. Still, he's listed as the heavy favorite by bookmakers operating where, unlike Dubai, wagering is legal. Also look for Reynaldo the Wizard, Balmont Mast and Godolphin Racing's Time Prisoner in the 6-furlong event on the all-weather track.
The only horse Monterosso beat in the Coral Eclipse, City Style, is among the favorites for Saturday's UAE-Group 1 Jebel Hatta, Sponsored by Emirates Airline. The race is 1 1/8 miles on the grass and also features three from trainer Mike De Kock's barn -- South African star Igugu, The Apache and Master of Hounds. "She obviously needed her last run," De Kock said of Igugu. "This has always been the mission with her, the Jebel Hatta and the Duty Free." He added, "All we want to do as a stable is to win the race. And if that doesn't happen, well, so be it and hopefully they'll all come back well for World Cup night." Godolphin is all over this page of the program, too, with Sharestan and Sajjhaa in addition to City Style, who finished third in last year's Dubai Duty Free on World Cup night.
Kentucky Derby preps
Most of the horses running in Dubai have extensive experience, providing punters a fighting chance to figure them out. Here, we have young horses still developing and finding their level -- more of a challenge.
Goldencents and Flashback headline a cast of eight for Saturday's $300,000, Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. This is the final local stepping stone to the Group 1 Santa Anita Derby and is worth 50 points to the winner toward making the Kentucky Derby field. Goldencents, an Into Mischief colt, has won three of his four starts, including the Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot last November and the Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita in January. He worked 6 furlongs on Saturday in 1:11 3/5. Flashback has won both his races for trainer Bob Baffert, a maiden event at Hollywood Park in December and the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on Groundhog Day. He had the fastest 5-furlong workout at Santa Anita on Sunday morning, clocked in 59 seconds flat. "So far, so good," Baffert said. Baffert also saddles Carving, who won three of his first four starts but has struggled against top company. Hear the Ghost comes off a win in the 6-furlong San Pedro Stakes but as a son of Ghostzapper, might enjoy the stretchout to Saturday's 1 1/16 miles. Tiz a Minister and Omega Star finished 1-2 in the California Breeders' Champion Stakes in their last start.
Meanwhile, back in Florida, nine are entered for Saturday's $350,000, Grade II Tampa Bay Derby. Many will be watching the Todd Pletcher-trained Verrazano, who comes off a 10 1/4-lengths allowance win at Gulfstream Park. The More Than Ready colt is 2-for-2 and won his first start by 7 3/4 lengths, also at Gulfstream. Falling Sky has won two in a row, including the Grade III Sam F. Davis over the local oval in his last start. Dynamic Sky was second in that heat, just a neck in arrears. "If Verrazano breaks clean and can carry his speed two turns, we probably can't beat him," said Mark Casse, who trains Dynamic Sky. But he wasn't conceding anything. "He may be the next Secretariat," Casse said of Verrazano. "But we all know we've seen similar types, and when you go around two turns, it can change things sometimes." Among the others, Honorable Dillon won the Grade II Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream last month. Purple Egg, this week's "name of the week," is 3-for-3 against less formidable foes and won the local Inaugural Stakes in his last outing. Java's War has been working well for trainer Kenny McPeek after a rest. With 50 points on the line toward Louisville, this should be an interesting battle.
At Laurel Park in Maryland, 10 are entered for Saturday's $150,000 Private Terms Stakes at 9 furlongs on the main track. Dynamic Strike, Where's Dominick, Lunar Rock and Yougotthatgoinforu, the 1-2-3-4 finishers in the local Miracle Wood Stakes in their last outing, will battle again. Dynamic Strike has won three straight. "I don't think we've gotten to the bottom of him, which is promising," said regular rider Forrest Boyce.
Clawback and Whiskey Romeo are the morning-line favorites in Saturday's $100,000 Fred "Cappy" Capossela Stakes at Aqueduct. The 6-furlong affair is unlikely to turn up a Derby candidate but either of those could turn into a quality runner at shorter distances later this year. Clawback has won two in a row over the Big A's inner track. Whiskey Romeo went undefeated in three starts last year and makes his sophomore debut.
Nine are entered for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park in scenic Hot Springs, Arkansas. Rose to Gold finished second as the favorite in the local Martha Washington in her last start but before that won the Grade III Delta Downs Princess. Sister Ginger, the upset winner in the Martha Washington, will try to repeat. Broken Spell was third in that race. American Sugar has been good and not so good. The well-bred Awesome Mama is 2-for-2 and taking a step up. Sittin At the Bar has never been worse than third in six starts. Bill Mott sends in Flashy Gray with a chance.
Saturday's $50,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs got 10 entries to try 1 mile and 40 yards. Close Hatches is the morning-line choice but Cindy's Casino might be the one to beat if she gets a rare clean trip.
Fort Larned, winner of last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic, makes his seasonal debut in Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap. The 5-year-old son of E Dubai jumped up from the allowance ranks last year to win four graded stakes, including the Breeders' Cup. He won the Grade III Skip away Stakes at Gulfstream a year ago. Fort Loudon won the Grade III Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship in his last outing for trainer Nick Zito and stretches out to 1 mile. Discreet Dancer was third in last year's Fountain of Youth, then out of action until Feb. 6, when he won an optional claimer at Gulfstream. Swagger Jack is improving.
At Oaklawn, Alternation uses Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Razorback Handicap as a season-opener. He won this race last year, then went on to win the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap and the Grade III Pimlico Special before things went a bit south. He wound up sixth in the Hawthorne Gold Cup in his last outing in October. Atigun has been close in some big races without winning often. Donoharm has won six of his last seven starts and steps up in class. Todd Pletcher has San Pablo, who has been a tough customer out east and finished second in the Essex Handicap in his Arkansas debut last month. Cyber Secret has two allowance wins over the track.
Ladies on the lawn:
A nicely balanced field of 12, with a lot of international background, is set to try 9 furlongs on the grass in the $150,000, Grade III Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday. The morning-line favorites are Old Tune, Mystical Star, Forces of Darkness and Kya One. None is a household name, for sure, but Mystical Star and Forces of Darkness could combine for a "Star Wars theme" exacta. Old Tune came up from Brazil for Pletcher and won the $150,000, Grade III Endeavour Stakes over the course in her first try in North America. Overall, she has won five straight and could have a nice future. Forces of Darkness raced in Ireland and France and makes her first U.S. start. Mystical Star has been close in several graded heats over the past two years, as has Kya One, who earlier raced in France. Absolute Crackers earlier raced in Ireland and could be set to jump up with a cracker of her own.
Eight lady speedsters are entered for Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Las Flores Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on the Santa Anita dirt. Teddy's Promise comes off a pair of local wins, most recently in the Grade II Santa Monica Stakes. Several of these were also-rans in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Shumoos competed in England last summer, was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint, then returned Jan. 25 to win a local optional claimer. Sugarinthemorning has run second in four of her last five starts, including the Santa Monica.
The Big Easy
The Saturday program at Fair Grounds features two $150,000 events -- the Duncan F. Kenner Stakes at 6 furlongs and the New Orleans Ladies for distaffers at 1 1/16 miles. Delaunay, winner of six of his last seven races, is the odds-on favorite among six entered in the Kenner. Believe You Can, winner of last year's Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks and Grade I Kentucky Oaks, is the prohibitive favorite among a half dozen in the Ladies.