But Goldencents also impressed with a victory in California. And a few of the 3-year-olds who ran behind those two also are gearing up for the Churchill Downs showdown on May 4.
Meanwhile, the May 3 Kentucky Oaks is starting to look like every bit as good a race as the Derby with a couple sparkling performances during the weekend.
There were promising efforts by sprinters and turfers, too.
In Maryland, Ben's Cat won the Mister Diz Stakes for the fourth straight year, a feat which his owner/trainer/breeder correctly noted is "quite rare." And in Hong Kong, Doulas Whyte rode six winners on Sunday's card at Sha Tin -- also an unusual feat.
Action everywhere! Here are the details:
Kentucky Derby preps
Verrazano waited patiently right behind a slow pace through the early furlongs in Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, then went to the lead on the turn and held off Normandy Invasion late, winning by 3/4 of a length to remain undefeated. Vyjack, who had won all four of his previous races, all at the "Big A," rallied to finish third, just another neck behind. Verrazano, a More Than Ready colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.27 after idling for much of the way. All three of the top finishers came out of the race well, their trainers said Sunday, and likely will mix it up again in the Run for the Roses. "He hasn't done anything wrong so far," winning trainer Todd Pletcher said. "There's some more preps to go, but I would say right now he's the legitimate favorite [for the Kentucky Derby]. The key now is to go to Churchill and get over that track well. Churchill can be a very peculiar surface and a lot of horses don't handle it." Verrazano, unraced at 2, won his first two starts at Gulfstream Park this winter, then copped the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 9.
Goldencents, almost a forgotten horse on the Derby trail after one loss, put his name back on the marquee with a pace-stalking win in Saturday's $750,000, Grade I Santa Anita Derby. The Into Mischief colt was positioned right behind pacesetter Super Ninety Nine down the backstretch through quick fractions. He got by and to the lead entering the stretch and held on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Flashback. Super Ninety Nine finished third, but he was 8 1/2 lengths farther back at the end. Goldencents, with Kevin Krigger in the irons, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:48.76. Goldencents won the Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot last year and the Grade III Sham Stakes early in the Santa Anita meeting. But his cause lost some luster when he got home fourth in the Grade II San Felipe after contesting the lead. On Saturday, Krigger said, "He stayed relaxed. And when we went into the far turn I said, 'Let's go!' and he said, 'How far?' and he kept running." Trainer Doug O'Neill said he conditioned Goldencents to relax behind the pace rather than getting used up in another early dogfight. "I was getting caught up into he was just a fast horse," O'Neill said. "It is fun to watch a horse work 1:10 and change, but you do worry it saps some of their energy for the afternoon. So we just tried to stay away from that. Whether that has anything to do with it or not, it worked today." He said he will figure out when to ship Goldencents to Louisville "after the alcohol wears off." Trainer Bob Baffert said he will consider whether to proceed with Flashback but that Super Ninety Nine "doesn't want to go that far."
At Calder Race Course, Sr. Quisqueyano battled with the favorite, Speak Logistics, through the opening furlongs, then drew clear and went on to win the $250,000 Calder Derby by 7 1/2 lengths over that rival. Reporting Star ran evenly to finish third. Sr. Quisqueyano, an Exclusive Quality colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:52.71 with Carlos Olivero up. Because the race is not included in the Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby prep season, Sr. Quisqueyano won't be allowed to consider the Run for the Roses. He earlier finished eighth in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes and seventh in the Grade II Fountain of Youth, missing the chance to pick up Derby points in those races. "My plan going into the race was to stay close to the pace from either second or third," Olivero said. "But early on, it felt like he wanted to run off with me. I didn't want to take hold of him, so I just let him go out there and do his thing."
John Velazquez has been riding both Verrazano and Florida Derby winner Orb. He will have to make a decision which way to go -- provided an injury suffered in a spill in Sunday's seventh race at Aqueduct doesn't render that a moot point. Velazquez was diagnosed with a "slight fracture" of the first rib on his right side and a chipped bone in his wrist, the New York Racing Association said. NYRA quoted Velazquez's valet, Tony Millan, as saying, "The good news is that these appear to be relatively minor injuries." After the Wood, Velazquez said, "I hope the people give me the opportunity to watch the horses work, and then we'll make a decision later on," about whether to stick with Orb or Verrazano. "I'd be very stupid if I made a decision right now."
Next weekend wraps up the major Kentucky Derby preps with the Grade I Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn.
The current Derby point standings find Orb and Verrazano tied with 150 points each, followed by Goldencents with 129, Revolutionary with 110, Lines of Battle with 100, Vyjack and Flashback with 70 each, Will Take Charge with 60, Itsmyluckyday, Governor Charlie and Black Onyx tied with 50, Normandy Invasion with 44, Mylute with 43, Oxbow with 36, Uncaptured and Super Ninety Nine with 30 each, Java's War in 17th position with 22 and seven others tied with 20 points each. If there is a tie at the bottom of the qualifiers' list, the 20-horse Derby field will be filled based on unrestricted stakes earnings.
Beholder did nothing to hurt her Kentucky Oaks chances on Saturday, leading all the way to an easy win in the $300,000, Grade I Santa Anita Oaks. With Garrett Gomez aboard, the Henny Hughes filly went right to the lead, wasn't seriously challenged and won by 2 3/4 lengths in a hand ride. Iotapa was up to take second by a neck over Fiftyshadesofhay. Beholder ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.16. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner now has five wins from eight starts. "You expect it," winning trainer Doug O'Neill said. "But with horse racing, you don't want to expect it too much. It'll break your heart. She just did everything right, handled herself well. She's a very good filly ... The Kentucky Oaks is what we'll look at." Added owner B. Wayne Hughes, "We're looking forward to the Kentucky Oaks. We can't go to the Derby. They won't let us in anymore." Under the new "points" qualifying system, a filly would have to run against males in Derby prep races to get into the Run for the Roses. The old system, based on graded stakes earnings, gave owners and trainers the option of trying the Derby with a filly.
If Beholder looked good out west, Emollient looked great in Kentucky. The Juddmonte Farms homebred started from the No. 13 gate in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, was sent immediately to the lead and the others could only give chase. At the wire, the Empire Maker filly was out front by 9 lengths and ridden out by Mike Smith. Tuttipaesi beat the rest with Kitten's Point third. The favorite, Spring in the Air, finished ninth. It was the third win in six starts for Emollient and followed a fifth-place showing in the Grade II Gulfstream Oaks just a week earlier. She ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.49 in her first start over an artificial surface. Smith said the instructions were, "'Just go ahead and use her a little if she gets away well. If not, just go from there,' When she jumped well, I just took advantage of it. It was just pretty much her from that point on."
Close Hatches went right to the lead in Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Gazelle Stakes at Aqueduct and never looked back. At the line, the favorite, Princess of Sylmar, was still chasing and a full 3 3/4 lengths back. Walkwithapurpose was third and the other three starters might as well have been in the next race. Close Hatches, a daughter of First Defence, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.53 under Dubai World Cup champ Joel Rosario. Close Hatches, making her stakes debut, remained undefeated in three starts for trainer Bill Mott. "I think for a third start and first time in stakes company, she ran very, very well," Mott said. "We'll discuss her next start with the racing manager and the owner. The [Kentucky Oaks] is certainly a possibility." Princess of Sylmar had been riding a four-race win skein.
Fillies and mares
Withgreatpleasure got first run on the leaders in the stretch drive of Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Ruffian Handicap for fillies and mares, then held off the favorite, My Wandy's Girl, to win by 3/4 of a length. Twice the Lady finished well back in third. Withgreatpleasure, a 5-year-old Hold That Tiger mare, got the mile on a fast track in 1:36.52. Winning rider John Velazquez said he moved when he had to but acknowledged, "I took the chance to move her there, and she lasted. She was going well the whole way to the sixteenth pole. She started getting tired the last 20 yards, but I had to make the early move."
On the grass
Jack Milton got to the lead three-wide in the $100,000, Grade III Transylvania Stakes for 3-year-olds on opening day, then held on to win by a neck over Up With the Birds. Redwood Kitten was on the lead early and held third, 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Brown Almighty. Jack Milton, a War Front colt, ran 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:41.80 with John Velazquez up. The Todd Pletcher trainee now has two wins and a second to show from three starts. "The only thing down the lane," Velazquez said, "it's the first time he's been to the lead a little bit early. When he got to the lead, he decided to wait on the horses. The other horse came to him on the outside and he put up a good fight. But he made me work for it." Up With the Birds was coming off three straight wins, including the Black Gold Stakes in New Orleans in his last outing and is being pointed to the Queen's Plate in July at Woodbine.
At Santa Anita, Scarlet Strike got by pacesetting Birdlover in deep stretch to win Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by a half length. Sweet Red Cat was third. Scarlet Strike, a daughter of Smart Strike out of the French Deputy mare Scarlet Tango, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:47.52 with Rafael Bejarano riding. It was only her second win in 10 starts but she has never finished off the board in any of those races. "At the three-eighths pole I found my position right behind the leader," Bejarano said. "So I just followed her and kept on running. I still had a lot of horse, and I knew I did, so that's why I moved a little early, to find a better position."
Swagger Jack, a budding star in the sprint ranks, rolled from the back of the field in the stretch run of Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct and outfinished Sahara Sky to win by 3/4 of a length. The favorite, Discreet Dancer, flattened out in the final sixteenth and settled for third. Swagger Jack, a 5-year-old son of Smart Strike, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in a sharp 1:21.44 with Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard. He had finished second to Fort Loudon in the Grade III Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship and second to Discreet Dancer in the mile, Grade III Gulfstream Park Handicap earlier this season. "He should have won the Gulfstream Sprint Championship," said winning trainer Marty Wolfson, "but he got left at the start. And then in his last race, Fort Larned stumbled at the start and Discreet Dancer was left alone on the lead. I was confident there was enough speed in today's race that he'd be able to make a run."
Declan's Way came five wide down the lane in Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Bay Shore Stakes for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct and got by Clearly Now in the late going to win by a head. The Truth and K G finished third. Declan's Way, a Majestic Warrior colt, ran 7 furlongs in 1:22.09 for jockey Jose Lezcano. It was his third win from four starts and his stakes debut. "First time he ran, breaking his maiden at Belmont, that's how he came," said Nick Zito, who trains the colt for his wife, Kim. "He came with a run. I told Jose, don't take him out of his game, because that's a no-no. We've done that since we were kids, you know. You take a horse out their game, and it never works. In this particular situation, it worked out. The speed got going, and he got going in the end ... . He could be a special horse."
Out West, Jimmy Creed pressured pacesetter Comma to the Top through the early furlongs of Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Potrero Grande Stakes, got by that rival turning for home and held off Unbridled's Note to win by 3/4 of a length. Apriority was along to take third away from the early leader. Jimmy Creed, a 4-year-old Distorted Humor colt, finished 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:15.03 with Garrett Gomez in the irons. The victory backed up his win last time out in the Grade I Malibu Stakes, which followed a ninth-place showing in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. "He had a perfect trip," said winning trainer Richard Mandella. "He had a great post on the outside this time and he broke good. It looked like it was meant to be." He said he will consider the Met Mile in New York on Memorial Day, adding, "I think he would go farther" than a straight sprint. The 7-furlongs Churchill Downs Stakes on Derby Day also is a possibility, Mandella said.
In other action
Battle Force was up in the final few jumps to beat pacesetting favorite Fed Biz by a head in Saturday's $75,000 Thunder Road Stakes at the mile on the grass. Tigah was third. Battle Force, a 4-year-old Giant's Causeway colt, got home in 1:32.94 under Corey Nakatani.
Tampa Bay Downs
Saturday was Florida Cup Day, with a series of $75,000 races for state-breds.
Highlighting the fest was Wild About Chrome, who ran his record to 5-for-5 with a late-running win the Hilton Garden/Hampton Inn Suites Sprint by a length over Sneaking Uponyou. Soaring Stocks finished third. Wild About Chrome is a 4-year-old Indian Ocean gelding out of the Frosty the Snowman mare Keri's Snowman. He got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.91 under Ronald Allen Jr.
Allen also guided Hooh Why to a perfectly timed victory in the Distaff Turf, getting up by a head in the final strides. Inaugurate settled for second with Sweet Little Lion third. Hooh Why, a 7-year-old Cloud Hopping mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on good turf in 1:42.56.
City of Weston also won in the final strides, taking the Ocala Breeders' Sales Sophomore Stakes for 3-year-olds by a nose over Ruler of Love. Rick Factor finished third. City of Weston, a Holy Bull colt, ran 7 furlongs on the main track in 1:23.48 under Paco Lopez.
Hobbs caught pacesetting favorite Star Channel in the late going to win the Besilu Stables Turf Classic by a half length. Bad Debt finished third. Hobbs, a 4-year-old Put It Back gelding, got about 9 furlongs on the lawn in 1:49.22 under Daniel Centeno.
The Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies went to longshot Putitinmypocket, by 2 lengths over Cindy's Casino. Cotton Pickin finished third. Putitinmypocket, a Put It Back filly, ran 7 furlongs on the dirt in 1:25.39 with Juan Leyva in the irons.
Boy of Summer came from off the pace to win the Journeyman Stud Sophomore Turf by a head over China Holiday with Balino third. Boy of Summer, an Exclusive Quality colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on the good turf in 1:43.67 with Centeno up.
Embarr stalked the pace set by Ask Me Anything early in Saturday's $75,000 Dahlia Stakes for fillies and mares, took over when prompted by jockey Forest Boyce and held on to win by 3/4 of a length. Ask Me Anything held second and Charged Cotton was third, a neck farther back. Embarr, a 5-year-old Royal Academy mare, ran the mile on firm turf in 1:37.35. She has won all three of her starts at Pimlico.
The venerable Ben's Cat did it again in Saturday's $75,000 Mister Diz Stakes for Maryland-breds, stalking the pace, then charging to the lead for a 1 1/2-length victory -- his fourth straight win in this event. Night Officer finished second and Disco Elvis was third. Ben's Cat, a 7-year-old Parker's Storm Cat gelding, ran 5 furlongs on the grass in 57.74 seconds with Julian Pimentel in the irons. Overall, the local favorite now has 20 wins from 30 starts with earnings of more than $1.4 million. "Four years in a row -- that's quite rare," said equally venerable King Leatherbury, who owns, trains and bred Ben's Cat. "He is amazing."
Devil and a Half bedeviled nine rivals in Sunday's $60,000 Arkansas Breeders' Stakes for state-breds, shaking clear in the lane to win by 6 lengths. Humble Smarty was the best of the rest with Presidential Colors flying a length farther back in third. Devil and a Half, a 6-year-old Storm and a Half gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:46.54 with Alex Canchari in the irons.
Officer Alex slipped by pacesetting Bobcat Jim in deep stretch to win Saturday's $75,000 Bachelor Stakes for 3-year-olds by a nose. Stormy Holiday finished third. Officer Alex, a Pennsylvania-bred Officer colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.90 with Alex Birzer up.
Golden Gate Fields
Luscious Lonna led all the way to a 2 1/2-length win over Lady Aspen in Saturday's $50,000 Golden Poppy Stakes for fillies and mares. The favorite, Halo Dolly, got home third. Luscious Lonna, a 5-year-old Benchmark mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on yielding turf in 1:45.86 with Jesus Velazquez in the irons.
Jaws and Paws led from the start in Saturday's $50,000 Czaria Handicap for fillies and mares and won by a length over a late-closing Pyrite On My Mind. African Rose finished third. Jaws and Paws, a 6-year-old mare by Onebadshark, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.21 with Ry Eikleberry riding. She now has won eight of her last nine races, scoring at Santa Anita, Turf Paradise and Northlands Park before landing in New Mexico.
Significant Bling outfinished stablemate and entrymate Blazing Bling to win Saturday's $50,000 Royal North Stakes for Ohio-bred 3-year-old fillies by a half length. Uptown Gal finished third and Deniro's Saint completed the trifecta. Significant Bling, a daughter of Too Much Bling, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12 with Deshawn Parker up.
Ayusan, a relative outsider in a wide-open race, took down Sunday's Group 1 Oka Sho at Hanshin Racecourse by a neck over Red Oval. Ayusan was partnered by Cristian Demuro, substituting for the injured Genki Maruyama. Red Oval was ridden by Mirco Demuro and it marked the first time brothers have finished in JRA history, the organization said. Ayusan and Red Oval also are both daughter of Deep Impact. Ayusan ran the right-handed 1,600 meters in 1:35.0.
Overreach handled off going and all the competition in Saturday's Aus-Group 1 Golden Slipper, billed as the world's richest race for 2-year-olds. With Tommy Berry up for trainer Gai Waterhouse, Overreach saved ground into the straight, came out and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Sidestep. Sweet Idea was another length back in third. Overreach got the 1,200 meters in 1:11 and is on to try next weekend's Sires Produce Stakes at Randwick.
Next Saturday, Black Caviar will try to run her perfect record to 25 in the T J Smith Stakes at Randwick. Trainer Peter Moody said the mare is "going as good as she ever has."
Douglas Whyte rode six winners on Sunday's 11-race card at Sha Tin, equaling Hong Kong's professional-era record for most victories in a single day. He also rode three seconds on the card. "I'm hungry and I'm up for anything now," said the 12-time and defending Hong Kong riding champion. "My confidence has increased and I'm riding better than ever."
News and notes:
Goldencents' victory in the Santa Anita Derby made a nice "daily double" for one of his owners -- University of Louisville basketball Coach Rick Pitino, whose Cardinals advanced to the NCAA Championship game with a victory Saturday night over Wichita State.
Verrazano did not race as a 2-year-old. To find the last Kentucky Derby winner unraced as a 2-year-old, you have to go back even past the start of the Chicago Cubs' World Series drought -- to Apollo in 1882. Or, look at it positively: Apollo proved it can be done.