Spring is busting out all over this weekend with Kentucky Derby preps in the East and West, and opening days at Keeneland and Pimlico
The Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Santa Anita Derby offer points toward a start in the Run for the Roses. Saturday's $250,000 Calder Derby, like the Illinois Derby later this month, was off the qualifier list but is interesting anyway.
There are some nice sprints and some tough competition on the grass.
In Australia, 2-year-olds will run Saturday for a big pot at Rosehill in Sydney. In Japan, the 3-year-old fillies start their own Triple Crown quest on Sunday.
Dubai was great but now it's time to refocus and recalibrate. So let's get going.
Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct is billed as a battle of undefeated V's, starring Verrazano and Vyjak. But, as usual in these spring tussles, there are some potential upsetters looking for a "V" of their own, representing victory in the 9-furlongs fixture.
Vyjack has the hometown edge, with all four of his wins coming at the "Big A." The last two on that list are the Grade II Jerome and the Grade III Gotham. He's won both ways -- contesting the pace in the Jerome and coming from far back in the Gotham. Verrazano didn't make his first start until New Year's Day at Gulfstream Park, where he won a maiden event by 7 3/4 lengths. The More Than Ready colt then stepped up to a 1-mile allowance and used the extra distance to extend his winning margin to 16 1/4 lengths. He then moved to the Gulf Coast and won the Tampa Bay Derby by 3 lengths.
Verrazano "has been a rare horse who's been able to go from a maiden on Jan. 1 to the Derby favorite on the first of April, which you don't see very often," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "He's been able to handle everything we've thrown at him so far and now we have another step to go." Verrazano has never been worse than third at any call in any of his races.
Gustavo Rodriguez, who has been handling Vyjack, said the off-the-pace win in his last race was calculated. "We changed the training. We put him behind horses, and it seems like everything is good with him," Rodriguez said. "We think the horse is getting better as time goes by ... I think, obviously, Verrazano is the best horse that we've faced. But I think Vyjack is also the best horse that Verrazano has faced to date."
Looking for an upsetter? Check out Normandy Invasion. He was going great guns at Aqueduct but had a nightmare trip after a slow start in the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds in his last start, then still got up to finish fifth. He was beaten less than 2 lengths for it all -- although it's hard to make much sense of a race won by a 135-1 long shot like Ive Struck a Nerve. "He probably needed that race for the last bit of fitness after the freshening," said Normandy Invasion's trainer, Chad Brown. "He's very fit right now."
Then there's Quinzieme Monarque, who has run six times -- with one win and five fourth-place results. He comes off a turf start in Florida, which often is a good angle, and is very well bred. Elnaawi was third in the Gotham. Mr. Palmer won the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park for trainer Bill Mott and the Pulpit colt "could do" if the favorites fail.
After counting your Aqueduct winnings, turn your gaze west and find the $750,000, Grade I Santa Anita Derby, another 9-furlongs event. This one was to have featured the top four finishers from last month's Grade II San Felipe -- 6-1 upset winner Hear the Ghost, beaten favorite Flashback, Tiz a Minister and Goldencents. However, Hear the Ghost Thursday was removed from the Triple Crown trail after suffering a minor injury and won't run Saturday.
The Santa Anita Derby does feature Super Ninety Nine, who ran away with the Grade III Southwest Stakes over an off track at Oaklawn Park, then was done early when he returned for the Grade II Southwest Stakes, getting home a tired fifth.
Bob Baffert trains Super Ninety Nine, Flashback and Power Broker -- the latter making his first start since a fifth-place showing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He earlier won the Grade I FrontRunner at Santa Anita. Flashback won the Grade II Robert B. Lewis before losing to "the Ghost" last time out after being used up in a speed duel through the early fractions. This race will determine the strength of Baffert's hand in the Run for the Roses.
Baffert skipped the Dubai World Cup bustle this year after suffering a heart attack there last year. He watched Power Broker work on Sunday and said his chances shouldn't be dismissed because of the spacing between races. "He hasn't lost any of his conditioning, because he really hasn't been away. He's just been away from the action. But he has a really good foundation on him," Baffert said.
Goldencents faded from the pace in the San Felipe along with Flashback and the Into Mischief colt also needs to show he can go on in a more "centsible" scenario.
If you can't make it to the track and your cable package doesn't include the NBC Sports Network or the racing channels, don't despair. Both the Santa Anita Derby and the Wood Memorial will be available on Horse Racing Radio Network, Sirius channel 93, and streamed live on www.horseracingradio.net.
Back east, Calder resumes operations Saturday with the $250,000 Calder Derby, run at 9 furlongs on the dirt. Like the Illinois Derby, this race was left off the qualifying list Churchill Downs drew up for the Kentucky Derby. So it attracts 3-year-olds who showed promise earlier in the year -- but not quite enough to move along the Road to the Roses -- and late bloomers who might be candidates to be "new shooters" come Preakness time. Eight of those types are entered and it looks like a good betting opportunity. Speak Logistics, a distant third behind Orb and Violence in the Grade II Fountain of Youth, is one to look at closely.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Speaking of good betting opportunities, take a look at Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland -- 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track with 14 starters and a pair of also-eligibles. The morning-line favorite, at 4-1, is Tuttipaesi, a Graham Motion trainee who started her career in Italy, then showed a win, then a third in the Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes at Gulfstream earlier this year. Kitten's Point, who won the Herecomesthebride, is 5-1 on the early offering along with Spring Venture, a winner at Ocala last time out. Kitten's Point -- not to be confused with Kitten's Dumplings, who is also in this race -- shows a second-place finish over the Keeneland artificial track in last fall's Group II JPMorgan Chase Jessamine Stakes. Spring in the Air came from Woodbine last fall to win the Grade I Darley Alcibiades at Keeneland so watch out for her. Nipissing was 4-for-4 over the Woodbine all-weather last year and makes her seasonal debut.
Six are set to go in Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct. Pletcher saddles Princess of Sylmar, who has won four straight, including two lesser stakes at the "Big A." Let Me Entertain U, a daughter of Nobiz Like Shobiz and our "name of the week," chased the Princess in one of those wins. Walkwithapurpose has run with a purpose at Laurel Park, where she has posted five straight wins.
The strongest of the weekend's Oaks preps, though, is the $300,000, Grade I Santa Anita Oaks, if only because it includes the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, Beholder, who also won the Grade I Las Virgenes in her last outing. Fiftyshadesofhay, second in the Las Virgenes, is back for more. She won Grade III Santa Ysabel by 5 3/4 lengths over a sloppy track two starts back. The other four are stepping up in class. If Beholder runs to her notices, she could go to Kentucky as the favorite to wear the lilies.
Saturday's card at Aqueduct includes the $400,000, Grade I Carter for older sprinters and the $250,000, Grade III Bay Shore, for 3-year-olds who likely will be nipping at the heels of their elders come Breeders' Cup time. Both are at 7 furlongs on the main track.
The Carter gets Fort Loudon, who won the Grade III Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship before taking third in the 1-mile, Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap while fading from the lead. Discrete Dancer won the Gulfstream Park Handicap and Swagger Jack finished second in both those Gulfstream races. Sahara Sky visits from California with wins in his last two starts, the Grade II Palos Verdes and the Grade II San Carlos. Saturday's Charm comes off a second in the local Grade III Tom Fool behind Comma to the Top. Brigand was second in last year's Jerome at Aqueduct.
Honorable Dillon has some claims in the Bay Shore after winning the Grade II Hutcheson at 7 furlongs at Gulfstream before a seventh-place finish going 1 1/16 miles in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby. Clearly Now, the morning-line favorite, won the Grade III Swale at Gulfstream going 7 furlongs. Maleeh is undefeated in two starts, including the Fred "Cappy" Capposela. Other recognizable names include Clawback, California import Salutos Amigos, and Declan's Warrior.
Out west, Santa Anita has the $150,000, Grade II Potrero Grande at 6 1/2 furlongs on the Derby undercard. Comma to the Top returns to California to contest this, along with seven others. Unbridled's Note finished second in last fall's Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, then third in the Grade I Malibu Stakes back on the main track. Jimmy Creed jumped up to win the Malibu at a price and is back. The rest of the field looks aspirational.
Fillies and mares
My Wandy's Girl is the morning-line pick in Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Ruffian at Aqueduct and no wonder. All the 4-year-old Flower Alley filly has accomplished so far in her career is 14 wins, three seconds and two thirds from 20 starts. However, all but three of those starts came in Puerto Rico. In the U.S., she won a minor stakes at Aqueduct, then got home third in the Grade I Gazelle and second in the Grade II Barbara Fritchie at Laurel. Also to consider in the six-horse field: Funny's Approval, riding a four-race victory skein at Mountaineer that culminated in a huge upset win in the Barbara Fritchie; and Withgreatpleasure.
On the grass
Keeneland's Opening Day feature on Friday is the $100,000, Grade III Transylvania for 3-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles on the lawn. Brown Almighty is a longshot on the morning line but it should be noted the last time he ran on the bluegrass he finished third (placed second) in the Grade III Bourbon Stakes behind Balance the Books. The favorite, however, is Up With the Birds, riding a three-race winning streak. In this bunch you'll find Amen Kitten and Redwood Kitten. And speaking of kittens, the 11-horse field also is graced with Bambazonki, a Chris Block trainee who finished second last time out in the ... wait for it ... Kitten's Joy Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Ten 3-year-old fillies are entered to tackle 9 grassy furlongs at Santa Anita Saturday in the $150,000, Grade III Providencia Stakes. Birdlover has run well in good company in both England and California and won the China Doll stakes in her last outing, beating many of these. Scarlet Strike has been consistently in the money in stakes races without any of them. Magnificent Shirl has shown promise before and after finishing 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.
The home of the Preakness kicks off with three stakes races on Saturday, including the $75,000 Dahlia for fillies and mares on the grass.
Tampa Bay Downs
Saturday's card features six stakes races restricted to Florida-breds, on both the grass and the main course.
Friday's program includes the $60,000 Gulfstream Park Aftercare Stallion Stakes, restricted to progeny of stallions whose fees are donated to an on-line auction to benefit retired Thoroughbred horses, which seems like a wonderful idea.
The Aus-Group 1 Golden Slipper for 2-year-olds Saturday at Rosehill Gardens in Sydney. A field of 16 is drawn with the favorite set as Overreach, a filly trained by Gai Waterhouse. She drew the inside barrier for the 1,200-meters event. The daughter of Exceed and Excel has two wins and a second from three starts.
Sunday finds the Group 1 Oka Sho at Hanshin -- the Japanese 1,000 Guineas. The first leg of the filly Triple Crown is a 1,600-meters test for 3-year-old distaffers. There is no standout in the large field but the winner will become a favorite for the remainder of the series.
Ten supplementary entries, including several from the Dubai World Cup program, have been added to the nomination list for the Singapore Airlines International Cup and the KrisFlyer International Sprint on May 19. Among the supplements are Meandre, Igugu and Wigmore Hall. Hong Kong sprinters Eagle Regiment and Frederick Engels also are on the list for the races at Kranji.
News and notes:
Graham Motion, asked by "America's Best Racing" after Animal Kingdom won the Dubai World Cup, "What would you like to see more of in Thoroughbred racing?" replied, "Having just been to Dubai, it's amazing to see the crowd like that when there's no betting. I'd like to see more events like that. In Dubai, it's about the horses and the show. The betting is what makes the world go 'round, but we can make this sport a spectacle and interesting for everybody. There were 50,000 people there that night just to see the horses and the show."
And more good news for American racing: Darley has acquired a 29 percent stake in Animal Kingdom and plans call for him to shuttle between Jonabell Farm in Kentucky and Arrowfield Stud in Australia for dual-hemisphere breeding. Animal Kingdom's welcome infusion of unusual bloodlines, along with the presence in Kentucky of Frankel's three-quarters brother, Bullet Train, is bound to help American breeders cope with the challenges of a changing world and a more international racing environment.