A fascinating weekend of racing found Kentucky Derby contenders in two states and Dubai and the Dubai World Cup won by Animal Kingdom.
Trainer Todd Pletcher had a remarkably good day despite not winning the Florida Derby. And a super performance by a super filly at Gulfstream Park turned many a head, including Pletcher's.
Back in Dubai, the remainder of the World Cup card spread Sheik Mohammed's generous purse money far and wide around the globe.
Read on. There's more to come.
Kentucky Derby preps
After this weekend's races, horses are being booked to Louisville from as far away as Dubai. Winners and some almost-winners from Saturday's UAE Derby, Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby are locked and loaded for the May 4 Run for the Roses.
At Gulfstream Park in Florida, it appeared early in the stretch run that the favorite, Itsmyluckyday, was on his way to winning the $1 million, Grade I Besilu Stables Florida Derby. But Orb, the late-developing hope of trainer Shug McGaughey, was having none of that. He came right by Itsmyluckyday and kicked clear to win by a decisive 2 3/4 lengths. The early leader, Merit Man, finished third and last year's 2-year-old champ, Shanghai Bobby, proved he's unlikely to get the Derby distance, finishing fifth behind 105-1 longshot Narvaez. The 9 furlongs went in 1:50.87 over a fast track.
Orb took four tries to win his first race at New York, finally getting the job done in November at Aqueduct. He hasn't lost since, winning three straight in Florida, including the Grade II Fountain of Youth before the Florida Derby triumph.
Orb is a Malibu Moon colt out of the Unbridled mare Lady Liberty and a homebred by Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable -- a combination that doesn't go to the Derby because of wishful thinking. McGaughey's sparkling resume does not yet include a winner in the Run for the Roses with only six tries in his long career.
"The Derby is my dream but we've never tried to overdo it," McGaughey said. "Hopefully, this is the one that can take us there."
Itsmyluckday also could move forward to Louisville. "I expected him to win and he didn't," said trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. "Am I disappointed? Yes. But I'm also proud of him, too. He's done everything we asked."
Merit Man will not pursue the Kentucky Derby, his trainer said, and Pletcher said he will regroup to decide what to do with Shanghai Bobby.
Pletcher had better luck at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where his Revolutionary survived a tardy start and a wide trip to win the $1 million, Grade II Louisiana Derby by a neck over stubborn longshot Mylute. Departing finished third.
Revolutionary, a War Pass colt out of the A.P. Indy mare Runup the Colors, ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.28. Like Orb, he took four tries to break his maiden in New York. And, like Orb, Revolutionary has not lost since, taking the Grade III Withers Stakes at Aqueduct in his only other start of 2013. He also had a traffic-plagued trip in that race and won it by a neck.
"It was a really beautiful trip," said jockey Javier Castellano of Saturday's win. "That's the kind of horse we would like to take to the Kentucky Derby. He can do everything. He passed the test today and last time and way before."
Elliott Walden, racing manager for WinStar Farm, which owns the colt, agreed the experience of the last two races will stand Revolutionary in good stead in Louisville.
"I think he's got all the experience he needs and it's nice he got the points so we are on to Kentucky," Walden said. "I saw him in the paddock. He doesn't turn a hair. He goes around there like a puppy dog. When you get to Louisville, those kinds of things matter."
In Dubai, wily Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien got the better of two American trainers hoping to use Saturday's $2 million, Group II UAE Derby as a stepping stone to the Kentucky Derby -- and to a little extra cash. Doug O'Neill brought He's Had Enough from Southern California and Patrick Gallagher imported Dice Flavor from Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco. Both had seen modest success at home but Dice Flavor finished eighth in the desert and He's Had Enough lived up to his name, getting home next-last of 12.
Meanwhile, Lines of Battle was surging to the lead in the lane over the Meydan Racecourse all-weather track and held off Elleval to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Godolphin runner Secret Number missed the break and had traffic trouble but still finished third, losing for the first time in three starts. If Sheik Mohammed bin Rasheed al Maktoum had any hope of sending Secret Number to the Kentucky Derby, that hope probably was dashed as he earned only 20 points toward a Derby start.
The 100 points Lines of Battle garnered will be plenty to get him into the Churchill Downs starting gate and that's just where O'Brien plans to send the American-bred War Front colt, who finished seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita last fall.
Saturday's race was run so slowly that jockey Ryan Moore called it "a farce," although none of the races over Meydan's all-weather Tapeta course went very swiftly on World Cup night. "They only cantered to halfway and my horse was only doing what he needed to," Moore said. "I think he was just the best horse in the race."
O'Brien concurred with both thoughts. "We wanted the race to be a true test but it wasn't because of the slow pace, which made it a good win in the circumstances. We are very pleased with him and we'll go to the Kentucky Derby with him," the trainer said.
Next weekend finds the $1 million, Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the $750,000, Grade I Santa Anita Derby on the Road to the Roses. After that, it's the April 13 Blue Grass, a $750,000, Grade I event at Keeneland, and the $1 million, Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oakland. By the time those races are in the books, the Kentucky Derby field should be pretty well determined. A couple more events are available, though, should a horse or two need a point or two to make the field.
In other Dubai races:
It looked like another bust of a night for Americans at the Dubai World Cup -- until Animal Kingdom stepped up in the big race.
U.S. 3-year-olds He's Had Enough and Dice Flavor failed -- frankly, failed miserably -- in the UAE Derby. Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Trinniberg was done halfway through the Dubai Golden Shaheen. And Breeders' Cup Turf winner Little Mike was no better in the Dubai Duty Free.
But then Animal Kingdom, the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner, took center stage for the night's final and biggest race, the $10 million, Group 1 Dubai Gold Cup and beat the best the rest of the world had to offer. After chasing fellow American Royal Delta down the backstretch and into the turn, jockey Joel Rosario gave Animal Kingdom the cue, he switched leads and suddenly was out in front by daylight.
Red Cadeaux came through traffic with a late run but wasn't about to catch Animal Kingdom, who won by 2 lengths. And Godolphin's main hope, Hunter's Light, missed the start and had a wide trip to finish an unlucky third.
Team Valor, which bred and campaigned Animal Kingdom, has sold a controlling interest to Australian breeders Arrowfield Stud. He is due to start stud duty in Australia in Southern Hemisphere spring and Team Valor's Barry Irwin said he will shuttle back to North America for the spring breeding season.
Irwin was mum after the race about whether Animal Kingdom might have one final start at Royal Ascot in June. Earlier in the week he promised a major announcement about the 5-year-old son of Leroidesanimaux but would not give a clue as to what will be announced.
The rest of the Dubai card provided plenty of thrills, too, as well as a truly international distribution of the evening's riches.
Soft Falling Rain got the Thoroughbred part of the card off to a rousing start in the $1 million, Group 2 Godolphin Mile, beating Haatheq by 3/4 length to remain undefeated in seven starts. Trainer Mike De Kock said the South African-bred will head to Royal Ascot.
The Godolphin team got on the board in the $1 million, Group 3 Dubai Gold Cup, a 2-mile marathon on the grass. Cavalryman put in a sudden burst of speed in the final few hundred meters to run off with the race, leaving stablemate Ahzeemah well back in second.
Lines of Battle won the $2 million, Group 2 UAE Derby, as noted above, and is headed for the Kentucky Derby.
De Kock and South Africa struck again in the $1 million, Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint as Shea Shea, a quickly developing grass sprint specialist, was along just in time to win by 3/4 length over Hong Kong runners Joy and Fun and Eagle Regiment. The race is part of the Global Sprint Challenge, which now moves -- probably with Shea Shea -- to Royal Ascot. It would be nice at some point -- but probably unlikely -- to see him meet Japanese champ Lord Kanaloa and undefeated Australian mare Black Caviar.
Reynaldothewizard eked out a neck win over Irish runner Balmont Mast in the $2 million, Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen at 1,200 meters on the all-weather course. Last year's winner, Krypton Factor, finished third.
Godolphin struck again in the $5 million, Group 1 Dubai Duty Free as Sajjhaa bettered her own course record for 1,800 meters on the turf and beat De Kock's The Apache by 1 3/4 lengths. French runner Giofra was third.
St Nicholas Abbey got the jump on Japanese champion filly Gentildonna at the top of the stretch in the $5 million, Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic and the filly couldn't catch the Irish-based runner, who scored by 2 1/4 lengths to the dismay of a sizeable Japanese contingent in the Meydan crowd. Very Nice Name, a longshot from nearby Doha, was along for third.
Meydan officials took the occasion of World Cup week to announce plans for an international race meeting in October in Chengdu, in southwest China. Few details were made available and earlier plans to introduce racing to the Chinese mainland have fizzled. However, Sheik Mohammed bin Rasheed al-Maktoum, the prime minister of the UAE, ruler of Dubai and head of Godolphin, gave his personal approval to the project, giving the announcement some added authority.
Elsewhere in racing:
Kentucky Oaks preps
It was a one-filly race in Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Gulfstream Oaks. Dreaming of Julia tracked the early leader, took over on the turn and won by 21 3/4 lengths in a hand ride. Live Lively set the early pace and held second, followed by Cue the Moon. Dreaming of Julia, an A.P. Indy filly out of the Wild Rush mare Dream Rush, got 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:48.97 with John Velazquez up for trainer Pletcher. That time was nearly 2 full seconds faster than Orb's winning time in the Florida Derby even though Dreaming of Julia was not asked for her best. The filly won her first three races last year, including the Grade I Frizette at Belmont Park. But she finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile fillies and second, behind Live Lively, in her 2013 debut, the Grade II Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream. "We felt she was training as well as ever," Pletcher said, "and coming up to it in good order. But, honestly, I can't say I was expecting that kind of victory." He said the Kentucky Oaks is in the plans for Dreaming of Julia. Under the new Churchill Downs points system, it would be nearly impossible to get a filly into the Kentucky Derby unless that course were planned from her 2-year-old year.
In New Orleans, Pletcher also accounted for the $500,000, Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks as Unlimited Budget rallied from a pace-stalking trip to outfinish Flashy Gray and win by 1 3/4 lengths. Seaneen Girl finished third. Unlimited Budget, a Street Sense filly, ran 1 1/16 miles in a quick 1:43.22 -- a little more than a second shy of the track record. She now is undefeated in four starts, three of those graded stakes. "A beautiful trip," said winning rider Javier Castellano. "That's what I was looking for today. I mean, phenomenal. I really like this horse. A wonderful filly." Unlimited Budget earned more than enough points to ensure a gate in the Kentucky Oaks starting gate. Junior Alvarado, who rode Flashy Gray, said he was impressed, too, with his filly's perseverance. "When Castellano went by me, I thought we might finish second but far back," he said. "But she kept fighting and stayed on to the end."
Graydar tracked the pace in Saturday's $400,000, Grade II New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds, went wide on the turn and then outfinished Mark Valeski to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Bourbon Courage, compromised by an inside post position, still got up for third. Flat Out flattened out late and finished fifth. Graydar, a 4-year-old colt by Unbridled's Song, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.16 with Edgar Prado in the irons for trainer Pletcher. Gradar is owned by a team including Steve Davidson and former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw. "It was kind of Plan B," Davidson said. "We thought we would be on the lead but [wound up] coming off the pace and getting the wide trip."
Cigar Street went to the lead turning for home in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Skip Away Stakes at Gulfstream Park, then drew clear to win by 2 lengths over Take Charge Indy. Pants On Fire finished third. Cigar Street, a 4-year-old Street Sense colt, ran 1 3/16 miles on a fast track in 1:56.84 under John Velazquez. It was his third straight win for trainer Bill Mott but his first stakes score. Assistant trainer Ken McCarthy said Velazquez "let him run a little bit out of the gate to get position for the first turn and then he went on from there to beat some very nice, more seasoned horses. I think he'll go to Kentucky from here."
Fillies and mares
Ciao Bella led from the early jumps in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Rampart Stakes at Gulfstream Park and got home first by 4 1/2 lengths. Authenticity was second and it was another 11 1/2 lengths back to Successful Song in third. Ciao Bella, a 4-year-old Giant's Causeway filly, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.06 with John Velazquez riding. Todd Pletcher trains the top two finishers. "With the slow fractions, Johnny was able to dictate the race," Pletcher said. "The other mare ran a great race to be second after being bottled up behind the slow pace. I haven't got any specific plans for them right now."
On the grass
Amira's Prince, in from Florida, led most of the way to win Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap at Fair Grounds by 1/2 length over Wilcox Inn. String King finished third, Doubles Partner fourth and Optimizer fifth. Amira's Prince, a 4-year-old, Irish-bred colt by Teofilo, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:49.76. Junior Alvarado had the mount for trainer Bill Mott. "We were trying to figure out what to do because his first time running a little bit shorter than before," Alvarado said. "He just broke good and I mean he did everything pretty much easy. You know, I didn't want to fight with him at all so I just let him do his own thing. When it was time to run, I asked him and he gave me everything he had." Trainer Michael Stidham was happy with Wilcox Inn's performance, too, and said he will move on to Keeneland or Arlington Park for his next race.
Za Approval came from well back in the pack to win Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Appleton Stakes at Gulfstream Park by 1 length over a fast-closing Beau Choice. King Kreesa finished third. Za Approval, a 5-year-old Ghostzapper gelding, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:32.07 with Jose Lezcano in the irons.
Regalo Mia pulled the upset in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Orchid Stakes for fillies and mares at Gulfstream, rallying around the leaders in the stretch to score by 2 lengths over Angegreen. Irish Mission finished third while the favorite, Aigue Marine, was never involved and finished seventh. Regalo Mia, a 4-year-old Sligo Bay filly, ran 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:23.48 with Luis Contreras aboard.
Liaison, making his first start for trainer Bob Baffert since finishing ninth in the Travers Stakes last summer at Saratoga, rallied to the lead three-wide into the stretch in Sunday's $70,000 Santana Mile and held off Midnight Transfer to win by 1/2 length. Tres Borrachos was third. Liaison, a 4-year-old Indian Charlie colt, got home in 1:36.36 over a fast track under Martin Garcia. He won the Cash Call Futurity as a 2-year-old but then never quite lived up to the promise, finishing sixth in both the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Sunday's win was his first since the Dec. 17, 2011, Cash Call.
Omega Star went to the lead in the stretch in Saturday's $200,000 Echo Eddie Stakes for California-bred 3-year-olds and held gamely to win by a nose over Fighting Hussar. Lovemeister was up for third at triple-digit odds. Omega Star, a Candy Ride gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:17.19 with Joe Talamo aboard.
Doinghardtimeagain took command in the stretch in Saturday's $200,000 Evening Jewel Stakes for state-bred 3-year-old fillies and won by 3 1/2 lengths over Hail Mary. Cloudy Moon was up for third with a late rush. Doinghardtimeagain, a daughter of Ministers Wild Cat, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.00 for jockey Rafael Bejarano.
Rosengold held off Procurement in the deep stretch to win Friday's $70,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds by 1/2 length. Counting Days finished third. Rosengold, a Stormello colt, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.20 with Martin Garcia riding.
Johnny Handsome returned a handsome $24.20 win mutuel after taking down Saturday's $75,000 Crescent City Derby for Louisiana-breds. The Zanjero gelding started last of nine from the outside post position, rallied on the rail in the stretch and was up to win by 2 1/4 lengths over the favorite, Hero Force. Skinny finished third. Johnny Handsome ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.68 with C.J. McMahon in the irons.
Sittin At the Bar overtook pacesetter Mischievous Mama in the late going to win Saturday's $75,000 Crescent City Oaks for state-breds by 3/4 length. Hometown Gossip was third. Sittin At the Bar, a daughter of Into Mischief, got 1 1/16 miles on the fast main track in 1:44.02 under Shaun Bridgmohan.
Lee's Spirit put his nose in front at the wire in Saturday's $60,000 Costa Rising Stakes for state-breds, winning at odds of nearly 26-1. Populist Politics was second and Watch My Smoke finished third. The odds-on favorite, Heavy on Themister, faded from the lead to finish last of five. Lee's Spirit, an 8-year-old Leestown gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.20 for jockey Shaun Bridgmohan.
Southtown Dude led from the early stages in Sunday's $60,000 Bayou St. John Stakes for state-breds and held on to win by 3/4 length over Tey's Big Boy. No Rules Now finished third. Southern Dude, a 5-year-old Lion Tamer gelding, ran about 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:03.16 with Rosie Napravnik up.
Travelin Man drew off in the stretch to win Saturday's $75,000 Sir Shackleton Stakes by 4 lengths over Action Andy. Spring Hill Farm was a distant third. Travelin Man, a 5-year-old son of Trippi, tripped the 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.07 with Rosie Napravnik in the irons, giving trainer Pletcher a flying start on what turned out to be an excellent day.
Goods Gone West kicked clear in the stretch to win Saturday's $60,000 Rainbow Stakes for 3-year-old, Arkansas-bred colts and geldings by 5 1/4 lengths over Trace Creek. Rock City Roadhog finished third. Goods Gone West, a Got the Goods colt, covered 6 furlongs on a muddy track in 1:11.71 with Ricardo Santana Jr. up.
Ile St. Molly set a pressured pace early in Friday's $60,000 Rainbow Miss Stakes for state-bred, 3-year-old fillies, worked clear and won by 3 3/4 lengths. Sashabye closed from the rear to take second and Pistolpackinpenny was third. Ile St. Molly, a Ile St. Louis, got the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.51 with Robby Albarado in the irons.
Sunny Desert, an appropriate name on Dubai World Cup day, had no trouble besting four rivals in Saturday's $75,000 Broadway Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares. The 4-year-old Wild Desert filly got home 3 lengths ahead of Clear Pasaj, with Here's Zealicious third. Sunny Desert ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.02 with Cornelio Velasquez up.
Irish Exchange easily went by the early leader, Los Ojitos, and on to win Tuesday's $75,000 Langhorne Stakes for fillies and mares by 5 3/4 lengths over that rival. Promise Me a Cat and Ms. Cruisen' completed the order of finish. Irish Exchange, a 4-year-old Exchange Rate filly, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a muddy track in 1:17.96 with Kendrick Carmouche riding.