The Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes highlight a schedule that also finds several Breeders' Cup champs back in action -- including Horse of the Year and Breeders' Cup Mile winner Wise Dan and Classic winner Fort Larned, who will try again to get his season started after dumping his rider last time out.
Overseas, Black Caviar is set to go again, provided the rain doesn't make too much of a mess of the Randwick course, and Nakayama Racecourse in Japan hosts the first leg of that nation's Triple Crown. And the Audemars Piguet QE II coming over the horizon in Hong Kong is shaping up as quite the international tussle.
Look quickly because they'll be running fast!
This is it, for all intents and purposes, for 3-year-olds hoping to make it to the Kentucky Derby. Those without enough points to crack the Churchill Downs starting gate on May 4 need to put in a good showing Saturday in either the $1 million, Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park or the $750,000, Grade I Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland -- or lower their sights.
Only one of the 11 entrants for the Arkansas Derby -- the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Oxbow -- already has enough qualifying points to be sure of a Derby slot. California trainer Bob Baffert, who has suffered a series of setbacks on the Triple Crown trail, has two in this field who need more points -- Den's Legacy, who languishes at 19th on the list and probably needs a third-place finish or better, and late-developing War Academy, who likely needs a top-two finish to make it to Louisville. The race looks like a tossup with at least half the field having credentials that could support a win bet. Among those are Falling Sky, Overanalyze and Frac Daddy, all of whom already have earned Derby points. Despite his lack of experience, War Academy was installed as the 2-1 morning-line favorite for this 9-furlong test.
Fifteen are entered for the Blue Grass, which also has a lot of horses "on the bubble" for the Kentucky Derby -- with the added wrinkle that the race is run over Keeneland's all-weather surface. In this bunch, Uncaptured is No. 15 on the Kentucky Derby priority list and Java's War is No. 17. Java's War, who finished a late-closing second behind Derby favorite Verazzano in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby last month, has shown an affinity for the surface by running third in the Grade I Dixiana Breeders' Futurity last fall. West Hills Giant was second to Vyjack in the Grade III Gotham Stakes back in March. Uncaptured won four straight on the Woodbine all-weather track last fall and was second to Black Onyx last month in the Grade III Spiral Stakes on the Turfway Park all-weather. He was installed as the morning-line favorite. Charming Kitten has been good on the dirt but ran poorly in his only race at Keeneland. Balance the Books won the Grade III Bourbon Stakes over the course last fall. Rydilluc has won three in a row on the turf in Florida, including the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes in his last outing.
After these races, only the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 20 and the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs the following weekend offer Derby qualifying points -- and minor points, at that. So most of the field for the Run for the Roses should be set by Saturday night.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Rose to Gold joined a list of impressive fillies likely for the Kentucky Oaks when she overcame a sloppy track to take Wednesday's $400,000, Grade III Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park by 4 1/2 lengths. Manuka Honey was second and Marathon Lady finished third. Rose to Gold, a Friends Lake filly, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.8 with Calvin Borel up. Rose to Gold now has five wins and one second from seven starts with her only disappointing performance coming over the Keeneland all-weather last fall. Rose to Gold is tied with Beholder for the No. 1 spot on the Kentucky Oaks preference list with 164 points. "She's proven she wants to go there and we're going to give her every opportunity to get there," said winning trainer Sal Santoro. "I'm extremely proud of her. If my daughter had just won the Nobel Prize, that's how proud of her I am."
A field of 10 or 11 is expected for Sunday's $150,000, Grade II Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland, going 7 furlongs over the all-weather track. The race offers just 20 points to the winner but could help settle the bottom of the listings for the May 3 Kentucky Oaks.
The older males
Fort Larned, the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic winner, headlines Saturday's $600,000, Grade II Oaklawn Handicap at the Hot Springs oval. This is his second try to start his 5-year-old season. The first ended when he stumbled out of the gate in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap a month ago, fell on his nose and dumped jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. to the dirt. Both avoided serious injury and Fort Larned should be a handful again Saturday going 9 furlongs -- if he can keep Hernandez aboard. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has Optimizer set, hoping to rebound from a bad outing last time in New Orleans. Cyber Secret jumped out of the allowance ranks to win the Grade III Razorback for track owner Charles Cella in his last race and returns. Unstoppable U has been improving and won the Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston in his last race. Alternation won this race last year but is struggling this season.
Tiz Miz Sue won the Grade III Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park last year, then finished third in the Grade I Apple Blossom. She won this year's renewal of the Azeri, too, and hopes to improve in Friday's $600,000 renewal of the Apple Blossom where she is scheduled to meet a tough field of six others. Those rivals include proven graded stakes performers Grace Hall, Summer Applause and She's All In. On Fire Baby returns to action for the first time since finishing fourth in the Grade I Acorn last June.
Justin Philip, fifth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Sprint, moved to Oaklawn Park late last month and promptly won an allowance event by 4 1/2 lengths. He moves back into graded stakes company in Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at 6 furlongs against seven rivals. Among them, Laurie's Rocket stands out on the basis of a two-race win skein over the track.
Gantry ran second to Delaunay in both his stakes tries at Fair Grounds this winter, now takes on a different type of field in Saturday's $175,000, Grade III Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland. Only six signed on for the 7-furlong sprint on the all-weather track. An interesting prospect -- or perhaps project -- is Handsome Mike, who has been oh-so-promising at longer distances but, aside from the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby last year, hasn't delivered. Now he goes short for trainer Doug O'Neill.
At Aqueduct, filly and mare sprinters get their chance in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Distaff Handicap at 6 furlongs. Spectacular Sky is the 119-pound highweight off a second-place finish in the Grade II Inside Information Stakes at Gulfstream Park in her last start. The other six are looking for some "black type" in a very soft spot. Cluster of Stars has won all four of her career starts but all have been on the Big A's inner track. Action now has shifted to the main track, which often makes a big difference.
Eleven fillies and mares signed on to tackle 7 furlongs on the Keeneland all-weather track in Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Madison Stakes. Holiday for Kitten won the Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes the last time she set hoof on the Keeneland plastic. But that was in October of 2011 and she hasn't shown much in occasional appearances since. Byrama is in from California with a solid record but few wins. Shumoos has given a good account of herself in England and California, finishing second against males in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint. Fantasy of Flight was second in the Grade III Hurricane Bertie at Gulfstream in her last race.
On the grass
Horse of the Year and Breeders' Cup Mile champ Wise Dan makes his seasonal debut Friday in the $300,000, Grade I Maker's 46 Mile over the Keeneland turf. The 6-year-old Wiseman's Ferry gelding has been working steadily at the Lexington oval for trainer Charles LoPresti and faces just four rivals in Friday's race. He has won seven of his last eight starts -- all graded stakes. Data Link, last year's winner, is back for another try and has won his last two starts in California and Florida. Silentio has been running well in California, just missing by a nose to Suggestive Boy in the Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita in his last start.
A really nice field of fillies and mares tackles 1 1/16 miles on the grass at Keeneland in Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Jenny Wiley Stakes. Centre Court has not been out of the exacta in any of her last nine races against top company. Old Tune has won six straight, in South America and in Florida. Better Lucky won the Grade I Matriarch at Hollywood Park in her last start but has been idle since November. Quiet Oasis has been on the board in six of her last seven starts. Samitar won the Grade I Garden City Stakes at Belmont last year and finished second in her seasonal debut in Florida. Abaco took nine tries to break her maiden for patient trainer Shug McGaughey but then reeled off four straight wins and a second in the Grade III Suwanee River in her last outing. Daisy Devine has been first or second in nine of her last 10 starts. Hard Not to Like was second in last year's Grade II Ashland Stakes over the Keeneland all-weather track. Solving this puzzle should produce a nice payday.
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Shakertown Stakes is for the turf sprinter specialists -- 5 1/2 furlongs on the lawn. Regally Ready won the 2011 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint but then saw his career derailed after an unproductive trip to Dubai last spring. The More Than Ready gelding makes his seasonal debut against eight rivals. Among them, Perfect Officer won this event last year but hasn't raced since last August.
A half dozen filly and mare turf sprinters take to the Santa Anita lawn Saturday in the $100,000, Grade III Las Cienegas Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs. Mizdirection won the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint last year and also took her two intervening starts. She also won this race last year and overall shows nine wins from 14 starts and earnings just north of $1 million. The others all have something to prove against a horse of Mizdirection's caliber.
Black Caviar, bidding for her 25th win without a loss, drew the inside position in a field of 11 for Saturday's AUS-Group 1 T J Smith Stakes at Randwick. Also in the field is Hay List, the only Australian rival who has been able to extend the champion mare. But Hay List is coming off a series of injuries and was entered only after a satisfactory midweek work made up for subpar effort last weekend. Black Caviar, meanwhile, will not start if the course is too wet, said trainer Peter Moody. Moody was particularly concerned that the T J Smith was moved to be the last of nine races on the card and eight preceding races could compromise the footing for his star.
The Satsuki So, or Japanese 2,000 Guineas, drew 21 entrants for Saturday's renewal at Nakayama Racecourse. The race is the first leg of the Japanese Triple Crown and, at 2,000 meters, also the shortest. The early favorites include Camino Tassajara, winner of the Jpn-Group 2 Hochi Hai Yayoi Sho, over the course and distance, over two other strong contenders for Saturday's race -- Codino and Epiphaneia. Last year's top 2-year-old, Logotype, also is looking to step forward here and rides a three-race winning streak dating back to last year.
The April 28 Audemars Piguet QE II is shaping up as a crackerjack event, with successful runners from Dubai World Cup night set to clash with a quartet of top local stars. Two-time Hong Kong Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon, rising stars Akeed Mofeed and Military Attack and the brilliant California Memory are the embattled locals and, should they all go in the 2,000-meters event over the Sha Tin turf, their rivalry would be a headliner on its own. However, they also may have to contend with the likes of Sheik Mohammed's feisty mare Sajjhaa, who won the $5 million, Group 1 Dubai Duty Free on World Cup night; South African star Igugu, who finished fifth in the Duty Free; and Treasure Beach, who got home eighth in the $10 million World Cup but is always dangerous. All three are on the list of selected runners two weeks out. Also listed are solid local performers Thumbs Up and Irian. In Addition, Group 1 winner Eishin Flash is listed to represent Japan in the event. "This year's race has again attracted some of the world's highest caliber racehorses and it will be intriguing to see how they match up against what is an outstanding home team," said Bill Nader, executive director of racing for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.