Upsets added spice to the weekend's racing, including one by crafty veteran trainer D. Wayne Lukas in a big Derby prep.
In California, a potential new star emerged on the turf while yet another invader whipped the locals on the main track. Centre Court continued front and center in Florida. Could Magic Hour be the next big thing to come out of Tampa Bay for trainer Ian Wilkes? He sure hopes so.
In Hong Kong, Sunday's two features went to established star Ambitious Dragon and a promise for the future, Akeed Mofeed.
And be sure to catch what trainer Larry Jones had to say about jockey Rosie Napravnik after she won the Grade I Santa Margarita on Saturday.
With St. Patrick's Day only a blurry memory, let's take a closer look:
Kentucky Derby preps
There were some big names in Saturday's $600,000, Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Among them, Super Ninety Nine was coming back from an 11 1/4-length win in the Grade III Southwest Stakes. The highly regarded Delhomme was making his 3-year-old debut. And Lukas's Oxbow was trying again to find a clean trip after an excellent effort in his last start had been spoiled by traffic woes.
Super Ninety Nine did get to the lead on the turn in the 1 1/16-mile heat. And Delhomme was in the mix down the backstretch. At the top of the lane, Oxbow surged to the lead. But in the end, it was Lukas's "other" horse, Will Take Charge, who charged relentlessly through the final sixteenth and caught Oxbow to win by a head. Den's Legacy, who has been running a little below the radar for trainer Bob Baffert, made a nice late run to finish third. Super Ninety Nine faded to finish fifth after being squeezed in the stretch. Delhomme was last of 11, officially "distanced" and later removed from Derby contention by his trainer.
Jon Court, who was moved off Oxbow in favor of Mike Smith, steered Will Take Charge home in 1:45.18 over a fast track.
Will Take Charge went off at odds of 28-1 despite having won the Smarty Jones Stakes over the same track in January, albeit against lesser competition. He finished sixth behind Super Ninety Nine in the Southwest but that race was run over a sloppy, sealed track that clearly suited that day's winner.
Lukas said both his horses will be moving forward with an eye on the first Saturday in May under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.
"I was feeling pretty good 100 yards from the wire," he said. "The competition was so tough. The hill gets a little steeper from this point."
Lukas said Will Take Charge's owner, Willis Horton of Marshall, Ark., will decide whether or not to run the Unbridled's Song colt back in the $1 million, Grade I Arkansas Derby. After earning 50 points on Saturday, he now has 60 points toward making in the Kentucky Derby field, which should be enough. On Sunday, he indicated Will Take Charge is being considered for the Grade I Blue Grass over Keeneland's all-weather Polytrack surface with Oxbow targeting the local Grade I. Both are April 13.
Lukas has saddled 45 Kentucky Derby starters -- by far the most of any trainer, ever. He has four wins to his credit: the filly Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995, Grindstone in 1996 and Charismatic in 1999. The only trainer with more winners in the Run for the Roses is "Plain Ben" Jones, who had six winners from only 11 starters from 1938 to 1952, among them Whirlaway and Citation.
A couple more to watch, either for the Derby itself or further down the Triple Crown slog:
-- Baffert and jockey Mike Smith are high on War Academy, an impressive winner of an allowance race on March 15. In the third career start for the Giant's Causeway colt and in his first try around two turns, War Academy came from off the pace to win by 3 1/2 lengths, getting 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.42. "He'll hit one of the big preps," Baffert told The Blood-Horse. "I don't know where yet, but it'll be 100 points, wherever it is." The colt is owned by Michael Tabor, John Magnier and Derrick Smith.
-- Way down yonder in New Orleans, Abstraction loved the 1 mile and 70 yards of a Wednesday feature and won easily, by 9 3/4 lengths. Still, "We're not going to jump on the Derby trail with this horse," trainer David Carroll said. "He's a Pulpit [colt] so we're going to give him a chance to develop so we can see just how good he is." Carroll said the Preakness is "a possibility but not a probability. I would think we would probably plan more toward something like the Belmont and work backwards from there."
Next weekend's action on the Road to the Roses includes the $800,000, Grade III Sunland Derby on Sunday and the $550,000, Grade III Horseshoe Casino Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on Saturday. Each offers 50 Kentucky Derby points to the winner and 20, 10 and five to the next three finishers.
Centre Court came three-wide past the leaders in the stretch run of Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Honey Fox Stakes for fillies and mares and edged clear to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Samitar was second with a late move and early leader Frontside held on for third at a big price and Channel Lady ran evenly to finish fourth. Centre Court, a 4-year-old Smart Strike filly, ran the mile on firm turf in 1:33.18 for jockey Julien Leparoux. She now has figured in the exacta in nine straight races -- the last six of them graded stakes -- after finishing fifth in her first career start. It was her first start since winning the Grade II Mrs. Revere at Churchill Downs in November. "We pointed for this all year," winning trainer Rusty Arnold said. "We were confident she would run well but you don't know until they do it. It was her first try against 4-year-olds and older fillies ... She's pretty special, I think." He said Centre Court is headed for the Grade I Jenny Wiley at Keeneland April 13. "She hasn't won a Grade I yet. We've got to get that done," he added.
Aubby K contributed a minor upset to the weekend's festivities in Sunday's $150,000, Grade II Inside Information Stakes for fillies and mares. After pressing the pace set by Spectacular Sky, the 4-year-old Street Sense filly went by that one in the lane and quickly cleared to score a 3-length win. Spectacular Sky held second by 3/4 of a length over Emma's Encore. The favorite, Golden Mystery, finished last of 10. Aubby K, with Edgar Prado riding, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.85.
Joyful Victory, with her New Orleans entourage in tow, had no difficulty whipping the locals in Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Santa Margarita Stakes for fillies and mares. Confidently handled by jockey Rosie Napravnik, the light gray Tapit mare quickly took the lead, set a nicely measured pace and then powered off in the stretch to win by 4 lengths. More Chocolate chased futilely, settling for second, and Brushed by a Star finished third. Joyful Victory, trained by Larry Jones, got 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.53. "She broke sharp," Napravnik said. "She likes to run freely and doesn't like being restrained, so it was nice that we had plenty of room on the rail to take the lead into the first turn. She was just relaxed and ran a great race." Jones said he hasn't decided on Joyful Victory's next race. "We know we want to be back here for the Breeders' Cup," he said. "We definitely will not turn her out but we may go light with her early for the rest of the summer and get serious in the fall and start trying to point to get back out here." Jones also went out of his way to laud Napravnik, who has teamed with him for great success in Louisiana. "It's a gift from God, what she's got. She doesn't realize it yet but she's been anointed with this talent. She is one of the brightest young stars in this game, I can assure you."
Bright Thought shadowed pacesetting Slim Shadey in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II San LuisRey Stakes, found another gear in the lane when the others couldn't and won off by 3 1/4 lengths. All Squared Away and Fire With Fire chugged up for second and third with the favorite, Interaction, a dull fourth. Slim Shadey was fifth, followed by Tiz Gianni, Bourbon Bay and Huntsville. Bright Thought, a 4-year-old Hat Trick colt, got 1 1/2 miles of firm turf in 2:22.72. As the older and better-known horses floundered, Bright Thought looked like a bright spot in the thinning California handicap ranks. He now has won three in a row, moving up quickly from the allowance ranks. "He's an unbelievable horse, an unbelievable talent. After winning an allowance, he comes in here and wins the stake," winning rider Victor Espinoza said. "It's unbelievable." Trainer Jorge Gutierrez wasn't arguing but injected a note of caution. "He's a nice horse but he's had three tough races here back to back, so he needs a little breather between this," Gutierrez said.
Bench Glory tracked the pace in Sunday's $100,000 Irish O'Brien Stakes for California-bred fillies and mares down the green hillside course, surged late in the stretch run and got home first by 1 1/4 lengths. Ismene was second and Dancingtothestars finished third. Bench Glory, a 6-year-old Benchmark mare, ran about 6 1/2 furlongs downhill in 1:12.02 with Brice Blanc in the irons.
Tiz Miz Sue added to the weekend's upset totals by outfinishing Don't Tell Sophia to win Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Azeri Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths. The odds-on favorite, My Miss Aurelia, had every chance at the top of the stretch but couldn't find another gear and settled for third, 4 1/4 lengths further in arrears in her first start of the year. Tiz Miz Sue, a 6-year-old Tiznow mare, got 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.26 with Joe Rocco Jr. in the irons. Tiz Miz Sue also won the Azeri last year but had not won in six intervening races. Winning trainer Steve Hobby said the Grade I Apple Blossom April 12 "is a definite target now. She ran against some Grade I fillies today. I was really worried when they went 25 [seconds for the first quarter mile], but she wasn't that far back today. Joe rode her really well today. He knows her." Tiz Miz Sue finished third in the Apple Blossom last year.
Elghayoor outfinished odds-on favorite Highestmaintenance to win Saturday's $100,000 Cicada Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by a half length. The early leader, I'm Mom's Favorite, faded to finish third. Elghayoor, a Ghostzapper filly, ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:09.82 with Eddie Castro up. "Standing here right now, I kind of think that was a step up again," said Art Magnuson, assistant to winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "Good run, huh? She has trained really well between, but you can't tell that until you run." Elghayoor has quickly climbed the class ladder. After taking two tries to break her maiden, she won last month's Dearly Precious Stakes by a half length, but about 3 seconds slower. Magnuson said he and Castro have debated whether Elghayoor could handle more distance, adding the owners will decide what's next for the Shadwell homebred. She collected 50 points toward getting into the Kentucky Oaks if they lean that direction.
Icon Ike skimmed the paint around the turn in Saturday's $75,000 Colonel Power Stakes, advanced between the leaders to the lead in the stretch and drew off to win by 2 3/4 lengths. Billy Two Hats also ran late to take second and Chamberlain Bridge came from last of seven to get show money. The favorite, Sum of the Parts, broke first but retreated steadily and finished last. Icon Ike, a 4-year-old Yes It's True colt, ran about 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:03.86 under James Graham. "They went really quick in front of me and I was hoping they would," Graham said. "He settled perfect and finished off good."
In the companion $75,000 Happy Ticket Stakes for fillies and mares, Extravaganza came to challenge pacesetter Storm's Promise in the long stretch and was just up to win by a nose over that rival. Monono was home third and the favorite, Same Cross, checked in fifth. Extravaganza, a 6-year-old Elusive Quality mare, was clocked in 1:03.96 with Richard Eramia in the irons. There was an inquiry into the tight stretch run and Eramia said, "It was not a big problem. The outside [horse] was coming down a little bit and mine was maybe coming out a little bit but we had to keep our position. That horse in between didn't have any more horse and had to take back a little bit, but thank you Lord, they didn't take me down."
Norman Asbjornson reeled in runaway leader Eightofasttocatch in the late going of Saturday's $75,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over that rival. Javerre was third and the odds-on favorite, Koh I Noor, settled for fourth. Norman Asbjornson, a 5-year-old Real Quiet gelding, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.77. "To be honest, I didn't expect [Eighttofasttocatch] to open up that far," winning rider Jeremy Rose said. "I didn't know if I gave my horse too much ground to make up but he's a nice horse. He overcame me and got the job done."
Tampa Bay Downs
Magic Hour went quickly to the front in Saturday's $50,000 Wayward Lass Stakes for fillies and mares, turned back all challenges and won by a length over Fire Assay. I Like It was third and the favorite, Awesome Belle, faded to finish seventh. Magic Hour, a 4-year-old Awesome Again filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.48 with Ronald Allen Jr. up. "I'll look for some little stakes for her down the road," winning trainer Ian Wilkes said. "Could lightning strike twice? I win a stakes at Tampa and go on. ... ." Wilkes trained Fort Larned to victory in last year's Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay and the horse went on to the top of the handicap ranks, eventually winning last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic.
Sam Houston Race Park
Legal Mind stalked the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Spring Chrysler Jeep Dodge Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, found room inside around the turn and down the lane and kicked clear to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Satin Gold was second and the favorite, Bilirubina, finished third. Legal Mind, an Illinois-bred daughter of Bellamy Road, finished the mile on a fast track in 1:39.76 with Gerardo Mora riding. Trainer Jack Bruner said Legal Mind will head back to her native state to spend the summer at Arlington Park.
Attitude E Racer had to fight all the way to get the lead in Sunday's $85,000 New Mexico State University Handicap for state-breds. Once the 5-year-old Desert God gelding secured the front, he was all out to fend off the late run of Mr. Wizard to win by a neck. The even-money favorite, On Down the Road, finished a half length farther back in third. Attitude E Racer, with Ken Tohill up, got 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:42.57.
Akeed Mofeed has been showing promise of becoming a top-rank star in Hong Kong and lived up to the hype in Sunday's HK-Group 1 BMW Hong Kong Derby at Sha Tin. The Irish import, who ran fourth behind Camelot in last year's Group 1 Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby, overcame some traffic issues to grind out a half-length win over Endowing in the 2,000-meters feature. Gold-Fun was third. With Douglas Whyte up for trainer Richard Gibson, Akeed Mofeed broke well and had a nice stalking position before the pace abruptly slowed. Whyte had to tap the brakes and lost position but it was no matter in the end, as he came late to pass Gold-Fun for the win in 2:01.84. "He was the best horse on the day," Whyte said. "I hadn't really got to the bottom of him. He was only just finding the line, so it was a good effort. I think had it been a genuinely run race we would have seen a prettier win at the end." Gibson said he is eager to see Akeed Mofeed's future. "The next stage is to see if he can beat the very best of Hong Kong and that's a massive challenge," the conditioner said. "So we'll see how he takes the race and look at it in a couple of weeks. When they're this good, you can have any plan you want in your mind. It's about forming the right plan at the right time with the owner."
On the same card, one of Hong Kong's very best horses was back to his very best form just in time for the HK-Group 1 Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup, run at 1,400 meters. Ambitious Dragon, two-time Hong Kong Horse of the Year, kicked into gear like a dream when asked by jockey Zac Purton and won easily, by 2 1/2 lengths, over a tough field. Time After Time got a good run to take down second-place money, followed by Glorious Days and Lucky Nine -- also respected names in Hong Kong racing. The race went in 1:20.63. "That was unbelievable," said Purton. "Glorious Days and Lucky Nine are both outstanding horses in their own right. As we've seen today, when Ambitious Dragon is on song and right he's unbeatable. We don't know which one we're going to get until we get to the 200 meters but when he's right, he's unbelievable, he's up there with the best of them." Ambitious Dragon has now won seven Group 1 or HK-Group 1 races and he will will be pointed for the Group 1 Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup at 2,000 -- a race he won in 2011. "He'll definitely go for the QEII," said Millard. "As long as I can keep him fresh and train him as I would like, he'll run a big race in the QEII."
Perhaps that will be the showdown between the veteran star and the upstart.
Farraaj surged to the lead inside the final furlong in Saturday's Group 3 Winter Derby at Lingfield and went on to win by a half length over Robin Hoods Bay. Cai Shen was third. Farraaj finished the 10 furlongs in course-record time of 2:00.99 with Andreas Atzeni up for trainer Roger Varian. Farraaj raced only twice last year, finishing third in a Group 3 turf race in Italy, then winning a listed event at Lingfield off a seven-month layoff. American punters may remember him as the third-place finisher in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs. In that race, he finished behind Wrote and Excaper, beating the likes of Lucky Chappy and Daddy Nose Best.