A couple of new Kentucky Derby contenders, a world record in Florida and dueling international sprint stars all enlivened weekend racing.
A potential new handicap sensation ran his record to five straight wins in New York. A budding Hong Kong runner appears to have made the right choice in bypassing Dubai for an upcoming local prize.
Check the Fair Grounds report and add a duck to the annals of unwanted livestock interfering with a race.
And, of course, this Saturday is the biggest day of the year in international racing as the stars shine over the Dubai desert on World Cup night. Here are some tidbits to digest while you change planes -- but, with luck, not terminals! -- at Heathrow en route to the UAE:
Kentucky Derby preps
The Run for the Roses is only five weeks from Saturday and there's still a lot of uncertainty about who will be in the, presumably, 20-horse field.
There were a bunch of pretenders in Saturday's $550,000 Horseshoe Casino Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, all hoping to run their way into a Kentucky Derby shot. The winner, and new Derby contender, is Black Onyx, a 15-1 shot who rallied five-wide from the middle of the pack to steal way with a 1 1/2-lengths win. Uncaptured, a star last year but starting late this year, finished second and likely will need more points from another prep if he is to make the Run for the Roses. The favorite, My Name Is Michael, showed little and finished eighth. Balance the Books, another good 2-year-old, finished next-last in his 3-year-old debut. And Mac the Man, who won two of Turfway's earlier 3-year-old races, was eased in the stretch and walked off with a sore foot.
Black Onyx, a Rock Hard Ten colt, got 9 furlongs on the all-weather course in 1:51.98 under Joe Bravo. The Kelly Breen trainee was coming off a turf win at Gulfstream Park in Florida but showed versatility by winning an off-the-turf allowance event on the Aqueduct main track in November. He was not an early nominee to the Triple Crown but Breen said that oversight was about to be addressed.
"That was the plan," he said. "If he won the Spiral, his next start would be the Derby. He's not nominated now, but he will be, in about 15 minutes."
The 50 points he earned in Saturday's race will be enough to advance him to the Derby starting gate. Trainer Mark Casse said Uncaptured likely will move on to the Blue Grass at Keeneland in an effort to capture enough points to make the Derby starting field.
Governor Charlie, from deep down trainer Bob Baffert's bench, ran away with Sunday's $800,000, Grade III Sunland Derby in New Mexico, clocking a course-record time and earning an enticing 50 points toward a Kentucky Derby start. The Midnight Lute colt, with Martin Garcia up, tracked the pace and then simply kicked away from his eight rivals in the stretch to win by 5 lengths over Show Some Magic. Abraham, well down on Todd Pletcher's depth chart, finished third. Governor Charlie ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:47.54. It was only his third career start, following a second- and first-place finish in maiden events at Santa Anita. Governor Charlie is out of the Storm Cat mare Silverbulletway, who is a daughter of Silverbulletday -- a multiple Grade I winner trained by Baffert. Owner Mike Pegram, who also owned Silverbulletday, said he will leave it to Baffert to say whether Governor Charlie will try to make it to the Run for the Roses.
Crop Report was bumped at the start of Saturday's $75,000 Team Valor Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park, settled last of six and then came with a wide run to get home first. Pacesetter Divine Ambition held second and Red Wings was third. Crop Report, owned by the sponsoring Team Valor, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:45.66 with Joel Rosario on the irons. Crop Report is by Medaglia d'Oro.
"It's pretty weird," said Team Valor honcho Barry Irwin of finding himself on both sides of the winner's circle presentation. "This is the first time I've ever sponsored a race and it was fun. I think we'll do it again."
He said Crop Report is a May 31 foal and still growing into his ability. But he added, "When he's in motion, he's as good as Animal Kingdom," the winner of the 2011 Spiral and Kentucky Derby.
"He's not going to make the Derby, but I think he's an exciting prospect for a race like the Belmont," Irwin said.
Kentucky Oaks preps
On paper, Pure Fun looked to be head and shoulders above her competition in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Fathead Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway Park. But they run these races on the track, not on form. And there, Pure Fun could not produce a stretch run in her first start as a 3-year-old and settled for a third-place finish behind the embattled pair of Silsita and Marathon Lady. After a tight stretch battle, the former prevailed by a nose. It was 3 lengths back to Pure Fun. Silsita, a gray, Florida-bred Macho Uno filly trained by Pletcher, ran 1 mile on the all-weather track in 1:38.27 with John Velazquez aboard. The winner is related on her female side to Wild Rush, who dead-heated with Silver Charm for the win in the 1998 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park. She won at first asking at Calder in November, and then finished third and fourth in a pair of allowance events at Gulfstream Park before shipping north.
"It's very exciting to see this filly jump up and win like this," said Pletcher assistant Ginny DePasquale. "It seemed like a good spot and Todd felt she was improving over a period of time in Florida. So we thought we'd take a shot and obviously it worked out quite well."
Silsita earned 50 points toward a Kentucky Oaks start. De Pasquale said Pletcher and the owners will make a decision about that. Pure Fun's trainer, Ken McPeek, said he was not discouraged.
"It's her first start of the year and we thought she had a chance to get beat today," he said. "But she's a good filly and it's a step in the right direction."
Baffert warmed up for his Sunland Derby win with an even easier conquest in Sunday's $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks, as Midnight Lucky seized the lead on the turn and drew off to score by 8 lengths. Unusual Way was second and Countess Curlin finished third. Midnight Lucky toured the 1 1/16 miles on the lightning fast New Mexico strip in track-record time of 1:41.06 with Rafael Bejarano in the irons. It was only her second career start, following an equally dominating win at Santa Anita on Feb. 16. It also was her first try around two turns. Asked about the Kentucky Oaks, Baffert said, "It's a big step. But she's got that brilliance."
Pegram also owns Midnight Lucky.
The world record for 1 1/2 miles on any surface fell in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Pan American Stakes as Twilight Eclipse came from behind a nice pace to win by 4 lengths in 2:22.63. The old record was 2:22.72, established this month at Santa Anita. Previous to that, the mark was 2:22.80, set by Hawkster in 1989. By comparison, Secretariat's winning time in the 1973 Belmont Stakes was 2:24. Realistically, conditions differ so radically at tracks around the globe that comparing them to determine a world record can be misleading. Still, it was an impressive performance by Twilight Eclipse, a 4-year-old Purim gelding who is a grandson of Dynaformer on the top side of his pedigree and Twilight Agenda on the bottom. He picked up his fourth win in eight starts and it's noteworthy that he sold at Keeneland in January 2011 for $1,000. In the Pan American, Ioya Bigtime took the point and held second after being passed easily by the winner at the top of the lane. The favorite, Newsdad, rallied late in his first start of the year but hung and finished third.
"I handicapped the race knowing a few horses had speed," said winning rider Javier Castellano, "and this was a perfect dream trip right where I wanted to be. I'm very fortunate my horse took me into the right spot and I'm very lucky we saved the ground as best we could because it was 1 1/2 miles, which is a long way to go."
Trainer Tom Albertrani said he is eyeing the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on Derby Day but will be looking for longer races during the summer.
Who's better, undefeated Australian star mare Black Caviar or Japan's top speedster, Lord Kanaloa? They both won easily this weekend and some chatter commenced about their relative merits. Perhaps they can resolve the issue in person -- if not at Royal Ascot this June, then in Hong Kong in December?
Lord Kanaloa won Sunday's Jpn-Group 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen at Chukyo by 1 1/2 lengths in course-record time of 1:08.1. He won convincingly with a late spurt between horses at mid-stretch after appearing to be caught in traffic after the field turned for home.
The race was the second leg of the Global Sprint Challenge, which offers a $1 million bonus for any horse winning three legs in three different countries. Black Caviar won the first leg in Australia.
Sunday's win certainly puts Lord Kanaloa at the top level of international sprinting -- if not the very top. He won the Group 1 Sprinters Stakes last year in his homeland and journeyed to Hong Kong last December to pick up the top prize in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin.
"I think he is the strongest sprinter in the world," said victorious jockey Yasunari Iwata.
Australian punters have a strong case against that assessment -- stronger than ever after Black Caviar easily remained undefeated in her 24th career start Friday, winning the Aus-Group 1 William Reid Stakes by 4 lengths.
"It's scary how good she's going," said trainer Peter Moody.
With regular rider Luke Nolen up, Black Caviar sat just behind the pace into the turn, then in the blink of an eye was out in front by daylight. Nolen hardly moved his hands as the super mare cruised home effortlessly, finishing the 1,200 meters at the Moonee Valley course in 1:11.08.
Karuta Queen, the early leader, finished second and Fawkner was a late-closing third.
Moody said Black Caviar's next race likely will be the Aus-Group 1 T J Smith Stakes April 13 at Randwick.
"The only thing that could stop her is a wet track," he said.
Moody has said Black Caviar is doing so well he may keep her in training through the year. While he might be reluctant to take her back to England, where she barely escaped defeat at last year's Royal Ascot, Hong Kong is not so far away or so arduous a journey.
Sunday's 9-furlong Premier Plate over the Sha Tin turf was only a HK-Group 3 event, yet it boasted some of the better-known names in Hong Kong racing -- Zaidan, Pure Champion, Fay Fay, Irian and Packing OK among them. Those runners, however, all ran for minor prizes behind Military Attack, who backed up his victory in last month's HK-Group 1 Citibank Hong Kong Gold Cup and set up a credible bid for next month's Group 1 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup. With Zac Purton up for the second time, the 5-year-old Oratorio gelding led the way through easy fractions and won by 1/2 length. The local schedule was in preference to a trip to Meydan for next week's Group 1 Dubai Duty Free.
Last Gunfighter sat behind a contentious pace in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Excelsior Stakes, found a hole along the rail in the stretch and went through for a 2-lengths win. Mordai's Miracle led and then held on for second. Isn't He Perfect was up for third. Ruler On Ice, the 2011 Belmont Stakes winner, continued to struggle, finishing fifth. Last Gunfighter, a 4-year-old First Samurai colt, scored his fifth straight win, running 9 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:50.78 with Rajiv Maragh in the irons. He has never been out of the money in nine starts.
"He fell in where he belonged and picked it up in the end," said Cherie De Vaux, assistant to winning trainer Chad Brown. "Rajiv did a very good job at keeping cool, finding a good place to go, and not panicking or going someplace he didn't belong."
Freud's Notebook had 'em all the way in Wednesday's $75,000 Sonia's Scamp Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares. Leading from the early jumps, the 6-year-old Freud mare went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Shesabronxbomber. The odds-on favorite, Harbor Mist, settled for third. Freud's Notebook, with Jose Ortiz riding, negotiated 1 mile on the fast inner track in 1:38.47.
It was too close to call at the end of Thursday's $75,000 Compelling Word Stakes for state-breds. After looking at the pixels, the stewards declared a dead heat between the pacesetting favorite, Saginaw, and Awesome Vision, who arrived from last at the final instant. The pair completed 1 mile on the fast inner track in 1:36.46. Junior Alvarado rode Saginaw, a 7-year-old Peruvian gelding. Ortiz was up on Awesome Vision, a 4-year-old Awesome Again colt. Johannesburg Smile completed the trifecta.
Sky Kingdom shadowed the early pace in Saturday's $100,000, Grade II Tokyo City Cup, took over late and won by 3/4 length over Oilisblackgold. It was another 4 1/4 lengths back to Richard's Kid in third while the favorite, Calidoscopio, got home fifth in his first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Marathon last fall. Sky Kingdom, a 4-year-old Empire Maker colt, ran 1 1/2 miles on a fast track in 2:30.56 with Martin Garcia aboard. Trained by Baffert, Sky Kingdom showed some promise a year ago but was shut down for 11 months after finishing fifth in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. He has won two of three since his comeback in January.
"The only spot to run him was a mile and a half," Baffert said. "I didn't know if he could do it ... It's pretty exciting. You're not sure how you're going to do going in, but the horse ran so well. He really stepped it up today so we're pretty excited about it."
Tiz Flirtatious, Lady of Shamrock and Quiet Oasis hooked up in a stretch battle in Sunday's $150,000, Grade II Santa Ana Stakes for fillies and mares, with Tiz Flirtatious coming out on top by 1 length. Lady of Shamrock, rallying from last, nipped pacesetting Quiet Oasis by a head for second. Tiz Flirtatious, a 5-year-old Tizbud mare, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.62 under Julien Leparoux.
"Julien rode a great race," said winning trainer Marty Jones. "She looked like she wanted to get a little keen and Julien's just got a great way of getting a horse to relax. I think he fit her real well." Jones said he will look at the Grade I Gamely on May 27 at Hollywood Park.
Laurie's Rocket stalked the early pace in Saturday's $75,000 Hot Springs Stakes, took over when asked by jockey Victor Lebron and held off Flashpoint at the end to win by 1 length. Shrill was third and the favorite, Apprehender, faded from the point to finish last of five. Laurie's Rocket, a 4-year-old Bluegrass Cat colt, ran 6 furlongs on a sloppy, sealed track in 1:11.14.
"He broke well and put me in a good position," Lebron said. "I just played along from there." Trainer D. Wayne Lukas continued his very good season at the Arkansas spa track.
Bold Affair was an easy winner in Saturday's $100,000 Conniver Stakes for Maryland-bred fillies and mares. The odds-on favorite led from the start and edged clear late to win by 2 lengths. More Than a Cruise was second and Access to Charlie finished third. Bold Affair, a 5-year-old Two Punch mare, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.14.
"She did this very easy," said winning Jockey Abel Castellano. "She shows up every time and is very consistent."
Bold Affair is ticketed for stakes at Pimlico, her owners said.
Kaminari outfinished fellow longshot Pretty Not to win Friday's $70,000Gold Coast Stakes for fillies and mares by 3/4 length. Minesave was third and the favorite, Little Ms Protocol, ran evenly to finish fourth. Kaminari, a 4-year-old First Samurai filly, got 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.77 with Kirk LeBlanc in the irons.
Agent Di Nozzo rallied dramatically from last to first to win Saturday's $70,000 Borgata Stakes by 3 1/4 lengths over early pacesetter Redhotrush. Hit the Road Lee finished third and the favorite, Brethren, checked in next-last of eight. Agent Di Nozzo, a 4-year-old Ghostzapper gelding, finished 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.41, also with LeBlanc riding.
Divine Lorretta rallied four-wide in the stretch in Saturday's $60,000 Red Camelia Stakes for Louisiana-bred fillies and mares and was up in time to win by 1 length over Little Polka Dot. Burning Creole rallied from well back to finish third. Divine Lorretta, a 5-year-old Mutakddim mare, ran about 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:44.60 for jockey James Graham. The favorite, Ladyzarbridge, faded to get home sixth -- after hitting a duck inside the half-mile pole, according to the Equibase chart. This adds to the history of unwanted animals mixing it up with horses on the track. Those annals include the likes of Z Bengal Tiger hitting a goose at Hawthorne, causing him to "lose action," according to the Daily Racing Form chart, and Hans II, who "ran over an alligator" on the first turn at old Tropical Park in Florida in 1969, again according to DRF. "My mount jumped clear over him and all I could think of was, if I fall, I better land on my feet and start running," jockey Bob Wholey was quoted after the race. Unlike Ladyzarbridge, Hans II went on to win.
African Rose pressed the pace in Sunday's $75,000 Harry Henson Stakes for fillies and mares, took the lead in the stretch and won by 2 lengths over Pyrite On My Mind despite drifting out late. Tapit Dancer finished third. African Rose, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred Bwana Charlie filly, negotiated 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.97 with Miguel Hernandez aboard.
Isn't He Clever rallied around the leaders into the stretch in Sunday's $75,000 Bill Thomas Memorial and quickly got clear, winning off by 5 3/4 lengths. Warren's Knockout finished second and Dollarwaitinonadime finished third. Isn't He Clever, a 4-year-old Smarty Jones gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:13.45 with Luis Contreras up. Isn't He Clever was on the Derby trail at this time last year, finishing second in the Grade III Sunland Derby but then got home eighth in the Arkansas Derby and has raced with mixed success since.