With only a week to go until World Cup night in Dubai, the American team is assembled at the plush Meydan facility. If they're not apprehensive after last year's poor showing, they could be intimidated by the global scope and talent of the competition.
There also are two Kentucky Oaks preps, a former Belmont Stakes winner returning and a nice, long turf race amid the warm ocean breezes of Gulfstream Park.
Let's run down the action:
This weekend's two Derby preps are the last in "Leg 1" of the "Championship Series" part of the new Churchill Downs scheme to determine who qualifies for the May 4 Run for the Roses. Each will offer 50 points to the winner, 20 for second place, 10 for third and 5 for fourth. After that, the points on offer double for the Florida Derby, the UAE Derby in Dubai, the Louisiana Derby, the Wood Memorial in New York, the Arkansas Derby, the Santa Anita Derby and the Blue Grass at Keeneland in Kentucky. If someone is "on the bubble" after that, the Lexington at Keeneland and the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs a week before the Derby each offer 20, 8, 4 and 2 points.
Saturday's $550,000 Horseshoe Casino Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky will have a full starting gate -- with some of the starters looking to answer serious questions. The race is almost like an NCAA play-in game, with anyone running well enough likely to move up a notch into Derby contention. Among them is Uncaptured, who won a pair of 2-year-old stakes at Churchill Downs last fall before developing abscesses in both front feet, causing trainer Mark Casse to stop on him.
"We had hoped to have a race by now," said Casse, who has had Uncaptured training on Polytrack at Palm Meadows.
That's the surface he will tackle Saturday.
"He's already won twice at Churchill on the dirt, so we know he likes it," Casse added.
The colt is the 3-1 morning-line favorite among 12 entrants.
Balance the Books also returns to action after a lengthy layoff following a good 2-year-old campaign. The Lemon Drop Kid colt won the Grade II With Anticipation at Saratoga and the Grade III Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland before a third-place showing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. He's listed at 7-2 in Mike Battaglia's early evaluation. Todd Pletcher sends Capo Bastone, who was third in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and won a slowly run allowance race in the Gulfstream Park slop in his only previous 3-year-old effort and is an estimated 9-2 shot. Mac the Man won the first two legs of Turfway's 3-year-old series, sat out the third and now is back for another try. Black Onyx makes the turf-to-synthetic switch after winning a grassy allowance race at Gulfstream for trainer Kelly Breen.
Sunday's $800,000, Grade III Sunland Derby in New Mexico is replete with California invaders. Bob Baffert sends two: Grade II San Vicente winner Shakin It Up and recent Santa Anita maiden winner Governor Charlie. Both are by Midnight Lute. John Velazquez is named to ride for Pletcher on Abraham, who won at second asking in a 9-furlongs maiden race in the slop at Gulfstream Park last month. Other recent Santa Anita maiden winners: Just Win Baby, trained by Oscar Garcia, and Jeff Bonde trainee Saint Prado. Dry Summer has won two straight at the New Mexico oval, including the Mine That Bird Derby, since moving from Southern California.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Pure Fun is a heavy favorite among 12 entered in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Fathead Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway Park. She won the Grade I Hollywood Starlet in her last outing on Dec. 8 and has been working sharply at Gulfstream Park for trainer Kenny McPeek. Others to consider, perhaps for the exotic bets, are Pletcher's Silsita, D. Wayne Lukas's Broken Spell and Le Fascinator from Graham Motion's barn. Broken Spell finished second in the Grade I Alcibiadies at Keeneland in her only previous start over an all-weather surface.
Countess Curlin has captured three straight at Sunland Park and comes back for more in Sunday's $300,000 Sunland Park Oaks. The Steve Asmussen trainee got home first in the local Island Fashion Stakes in her last outing a month ago. Shesatopattraction, Fraudulent Footnote and Challenging -- second through fourth in the Island Fashion -- also return. Invaders include Unusual Way, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Filly Preview Stakes on the Breeders' Cup undercard, then second in stakes races at Hollywood Park and back at Santa Anita. She also won at Santa Rosa last fall. Canticle is in from Oaklawn Park. Baffert and Lukas hope to get lucky with maiden winners from their California ranks.
Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Excelsior Stakes at 9 furlongs drew the 2011 Belmont winner, Ruler on Ice. But he's only the second favorite on the morning line, behind Last Gunfighter, who rides a four-race winning streak into this event. Among those four straight victories are two lesser stakes.
"He feels great. He's bottled up with energy," said Cherie DeVaux, assistant to trainer Chad Brown. "Obviously, it's a step up from where he's been running."
Ruler On Ice, meanwhile, had not won in nine tries since the '11 Belmont until he took an optional claimer over just three rivals over the Big A's inner track on Jan. 30. Colizeo has figured in some big races and also won an optional claimer at Aqueduct in his last outing. Pletcher will saddle Hart Butte and Mordi's Miracle.
They're going long on the turf Saturday in the $150,000, Grade III Pan American. Mucho Mas Macho has been improving by leaps and bounds, finishing second in the Grade II W.L. McKnight Handicap at Calder to wrap up last season, then winning the Grade II Fort Lauderdale at Gulfstream to kick off 2013. Twilight Eclipse was the victor in the McKnight but finished fourth in his seasonal debut. Ioya Bigtime, a Dynaformer gelding from the Team Block barn, usually gets into the mix. The 10-horse field is inflated by some seeming pretenders. Total Reward, a 5-year-old Victory Gallop gelding, shows but a single win from 35 career starts, all but two of those events for a claiming tag. He was 110-1 in his last race, an allowance event over the same course. Gossip Column has one win from 14 starts.
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Tokyo City Cup should dispel any doubt the California handicap ranks have been depleted. Dhaamer won twice at Hollywood Park and finished second in the Grade II Del Mar Handicap last summer but hasn't run since and has not won on a real dirt track. Among several allowance runners, admittedly with potential, are the long-struggling Richard's Kid and Argentine import Calidoscopio, who captured last fall's Breeders' Cup Marathon by 4 1/2 lengths in his only previous U.S. start -- at 17-1 odds. The race is 12 furlongs on the main track.
Black Caviar is back at it again Friday, looking for her 24th win without a loss in the William Reid Stakes at Moonee Valley. Six rivals will line up against the seemingly invincible mare, who is reported to be in such good form that trainer Peter Moody now is talking about going on with her past the current fall (in Australia) season. Black Caviar rebounded from her close call at Royal Ascot with a handy win in the Lightning Stakes at Flemington last month. That event, now named for her, also was the first leg of the Global Sprint Challenge, which offers $1 million for any horse which can win three legs in three different countries. Barring any mishap on Friday, Black Caviar might be stretched out to 7 furlongs for the All-Aged Stakes at Randwick next month. That could provide a showdown with her half-brother, All Too Hard, a superior talent in his own right despite toiling in the shadow of one of the all-time greats.
Lord Kanaloa, one of the world's top sprinters, headlines Sunday's 1,200-meters Takamatsunomia Kinen at Chukyo Racecourse. This is the second leg of the Global Sprint Challenge. The first leg, as noted above, was taken by the undefeated Black Caviar on her home turf in Australia. Lord Kanaloa will face 18 rivals, all from Japan. Lord Kanaloa, on form, is head and shoulders above the others on the basis of his victories last fall and winter in the Group 1 Sprinters Stakes in Japan and the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint. He kicked off 2013 with another victory in the 1,400-meters Hankyu Hai at Hanshin.
"To win the Takamatsunomiya Kinen at Chukyo Racecourse, you need both speed and stamina, which is why we had him start off the season with the Hankyu Hai," trainer Takayuki Yasuda said. "I think he'll be in the best shape possible for the race. I'm convinced his performance will be nothing short of outstanding."
Silk Fortune is making only his second start on the grass and could be flying late. San Carlo has come up just short of Lord Kanaloa in past meetings.
Java's War has been rerouted to Keeneland but a planeload of other U.S. runners should be about to join Little Mike and Dullahan to represent their country on World Cup night, March 30. Animal Kingdom and Royal Delta are pointed toward the $10 million World Cup. Trinniberg and Private Zone are headed for the $2 million Golden Shaheen. Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up He's Had Enough is slotted for the $2 million UAE Derby. Great Attack and Varsity are entered for the $1 million Al Quoz Sprint. To keep fresh in mind the kind of worldwide competition they face, last year's winners were: African Story, Opinion Poll, Daddy Long Legs, Ortensia, Krypton Factor, Cityscape, Cirrus Des Aigles and Monterosso. Three of them are Godolphin horses -- the "home team."
This year's World Cup field Monterosso set to face 12 rivals, nine of them Grade I or Group 1 winners. Those winning at the highest level are Americans Royal Delta, Animal Kingdom and Dullahan plus Monterosso, Capponi, Hunter's Light, Meandre, Planteur, Red Cadeaux and Treasure Beach.
Overall, the card includes runners from 13 countries, with 41 starters having won at the highest level. Each of the eight Thoroughbred races has at least one Group 1 winner in its field.
"There wouldn't be many race meetings this year that contain 41 individual Group 1 winners on the same program, which merely emphaszes the quality of horse that the Dubai World Cup meeting attracts from around the world," said Martin Talty, International Manager of the Dubai Racing Club.
Many of the top horses set to race in Dubai also are among the early entries for Hong Kong's two spring International Group 1 races -- the Audemars Piguet QE II on April 28 and the Champions Mile on May 5. Depending on how things shake out, the invaders targeting the QE II could find themselves in the middle of a "civil war" involving two-time Hong Kong Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon and rising star Akeed Mofeed. California Memory, two-time winner of the Group 1 Hong Kong Cup, also is a possibility. Ambitious Dragon is cross-entered in the Champions Mile. Twenty-four International Group 1 winners are among the 107 horses from 10 racing jurisdictions nominated for the two races. "The Audemars Piguet QEII Cup and the Champions Mile are firmly established on the Group 1 world stage and it is always exciting to see how Hong Kong's proven and rising stars match up against many of the world's best horses," said William Nader, executive director of racing for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
As the British Isles gear up for the flat racing season, Ascot officials announced Wednesday purses for the Royal Ascot meeting have been increased to surpass the mark of 5 million pounds sterling. Overall purses at Ascot moved past the 10 million-pounds mark for the first time since the creation of Champions Day scrambled the British racing schedule. Her Majesty the Queen also announced a change in the program.
"We are delighted to be able to announce these prize money increases today and a 5 million-pounds Royal Meeting is a real milestone for the country's flagship flat race meeting," said Johnny Weatherby, Her Majesty's representative at Ascot. "We are also naturally thrilled that Her Majesty The Queen has graciously consented to renaming the Windsor Forest in honor of her grandson, The Duke of Cambridge."