Kentucky Derby preparations take a backseat this weekend to rich races in West Virginia and Illinois.
While Keeneland's spring meet continues apace, it's adios to Santa Anita and hello to Woodbine. There's turf racing at distances from 6 1/2 furlongs to 1 mile.
Overseas, it's "g'bye, mate," to Australia's super mare, Black Caviar, who retires undefeated in 25 starts. And let the speculation begin about her breeding career. Animal Kingdom? And one of Hong Kong's top horses is being considered for the "iron man" feat of running in Group 1 events on consecutive weekends.
Oh, there is one race that could impact the Kentucky Derby field, depending on how things shape up. Other than that, the Run for the Roses is just about set and looking like a very strong edition, indeed.
It's not often these days that West Virginia and Illinois headline racing news, so enjoy it while you can:
Within relatively recent memory, this scenic oval was running for three-figure purses. No2, thanks to the wonders of electronic gaming, the purse for Saturday's Grade II Charles Town Classic is $1.5 million and the 9-furlongs race has attracted an appropriately strong field of seven, headed by multiple Grade I winners Game On Dude and Ron the Greek. Caixa Eleronica invades from New York to head up a trio of runners trained by Tod Pletcher.
Game On Dude, a 6-year-old Awesome Again gelding, has been awesome indeed since he returned from last year's unsuccessful trip to Dubai. Other than a seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic when he missed the start, Game On Dude has won six of seven races in that year's span, all of them graded stakes. He was second in the other start and now is riding a three-race winning streak for trainer Bob Baffert.
Ron the Greek, a 6-year-old son of Full Mandate, finished fourth behind Game On Dude in his last race, the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, and has been a bit of an enigma for trainer Bill Mott. But he has run competitively in top company, including a fourth-place showing in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic.
Clubhouse Ride, another California shipper, is an interesting proposition. The 5-year-old son of Candy Ride shows four straight second-place finishes in good races out west, including the Grade II San Antonio Stakes and the Santa Anita Handicap. He was, however, 7 3/4 lengths back of Game On Dude at the finish of the latter race. While he has won only three of 26 starts, he usually earns a check.
Caixa Eletronica won this race last year when it was worth "only" $1 million and the field did not include the likes of Game On Dude. Since starting his career in Florida, the 8-year-old, New York-bred son of Arromanches has made his living at the New York tracks, shipping only for the most select targets. He is coming off two wins at Aqueduct, including the Grade III Fall Highweight Handicap. Pletcher also brings Mordi's Miracle and Percussion, who would seem to be running for a minor share of the pot.
Isn't He Perfect also comes from New York, where he has been picking up minor checks in minor stakes and has not won since last May.
There are five supporting stakes on the Saturday card at Charles Town with the $200,000 Sugar Maple Stakes for fillies and mares chief among them. That 7-furlongs encounter also attracted seven. Baffert also has a strong claim here with Book Review, who won the $400,000 Charles Town Oaks last fall over the course and has been first or second in each of her last three races in California -- all of them graded stakes. The other six are somewhat less accomplished.
Hawthorne Race Course
When Churchill Downs omitted the Illinois Derby from its list of qualifying races for the Run for the Roses, Hawthorne decided to make lemonade from the lemon. The suburban Chicago oval upped the purse from $500,000 to $750,000 and moved the date of the race to a spot where it is more likely to draw Preakness hopefuls. The move succeeded -- although the race still deserves a spot as a Kentucky Derby prep -- with a full field of 14 set to go the 9 furlongs Saturday on the dirt.
The morning-line favorite for the Grade III race is Departing, winner of three straight before getting home third in the Grade II Louisiana Derby. Trainer Al Stall said he plans to see how his star gelding performs at Hawthorne -- and how the Kentucky Derby shakes out -- before deciding whether to pick up the Triple Crown series in Baltimore.
Others in the Illinois Derby field who might consider bigger things down the road include Siete de Oros, who finished second the Grade II Jerome at Aqueduct, third in the Grade III Withers and fourth in the Grade III Gotham; Ground Transport, who ran fifth in the Louisiana Derby in a step up; Show Some Magic, who was runner-up to Governor Charlie in the Sunland Derby; and Abraham, who was third in the Sunland Derby for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Narvaez finished a fading fourth in the Florida Derby but did manage to beat Shanghai Bobby.
The Illinois Derby is supported by the $200,000, Grade III Sixty Sails Handicap for fillies and mares at 9 furlongs on the main track. A half dozen distaffers are entered, headed by the Pletcher-trained Disposablepleasure. That 5-year-old Giocomo mare struggled late last year but won her seasonal debut at Gulfstream Park last month. Brushed by a Star is usually close at the end and finished third in the Grade I Santa Margarita Stakes at Santa Anita in her last outing.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Coolmore Lexington Stakes for 3-year-olds offers 20 points to the winner toward getting into the Kentucky Derby. So, in theory, it could shake up the standings at the bottom of the 20-horse field for the Run for the Roses. Eleven are entered, including the filly Pure Fun, who drew the outside post position and already is qualified for the Kentucky Oaks. She also is the morning-line favorite. Sunbean, Winning Cause, Examen, Cerro and Pick of the Litter all have potential claims in the 1 1/16-miles contest over the all-weather track.
Sunday is the $150,000, Grade III Ben Ali at 9 furlongs on the main track. This event drew a field of seven, including Successful Dan and Richard's Kid. The former is making his first start since finishing second in the Grade III Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows last summer, capping an excellent run that included a win in the Grade II Alysheba at Churchill Downs. Richard's Kid, by contrast, has struggled in California since an unsuccessful stay in Dubai in 2011 and 2012. Boisterous makes his first start since November and trainer Shug McGaughey takes him off the turf for a try on the Polytrack. A couple of the others have been nibbling at the edges in good races.
On Thursday, Unbelievable Dream rallied from last of eight to win the $100,000, Grade III Appalachian Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 1/2 length over Overheard. Eden Prairie got home third. Unbelievable Dream, a New York-bred daughter of Kitalpha, ran 1 mile on the firm turf in 1:37.91 for jockey Joel Rosario, who said he was concerned with her sluggish start. "I said, 'Oh my God. Maybe I'm never going to get there.' But Barclay (trainer Barclay Tagg) told me that's the way she likes to run. She put in a really good run. That was very impressive. It was awesome."
Racing returns to the suburban Toronto oval thanks to an interim agreement with the provincial government on allocation of proceeds from a long-running and successful gaming operation. Saturday's feature is the $150,000 Star Shoot Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 6 furlongs and Sunday brings the $150,000 Woodstock Stakes for 3-year-old.
While Woodbine opens its doors, Santa Anita shuts down for the season after the weekend. The farewell feature traditionally is the 1 3/4-miles San Juan Capistrano over the turf and Sunday's Grade II feature is worth $150,000. Seven stayers are set for the race, including several who contested the 1 1/2-miles San Luis Rey last month.
Saturday's card has the $150,000, Grade II Santa Barbara Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 1/4 miles on the grass and the $100,000, Grade III San Simeon at 6 1/2 furlongs on the lawn.
Hollywood Park opens Thursday with uncertainty about its future. The property near LAX is slated for development and no promises have been made about stabling or racing at the venue past this year's calendar.
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Miami Mile on the grass got an overflow field with a dozen in the main body and a pair of "main-track only" entrants. The 3-1 morning-line favorite, Summer Front, drew the rail. Monument Hill, Mucho Mas Macho, Cool Blue Red Hot and Alley Oop Oop all are in with chances.
Super mare Black Caviar has been retired undefeated in 25 starts, her owners and trainer said Wednesday. "She has done everything we have asked her to do," trainer Peter Moody said at a news conference at Caulfield Racecourse. "We thought long and hard about racing on. But we believe she has done everything we asked of her and felt it was the right time to call time on her wonderful career." Black Caviar, a 7-year-old mare, won her final start last weekend -- the Aus-Group 1 TJ Smith Stakes at Randwick, in dominating fashion. Moody and her owners had discussed pushing on into next season as Black Caviar was running so well. "She is in great shape and that's the way we wanted her to bow out," Moody said. "We just thought the time was right. It was a hard decision." All but one of Black Caviar's wins came in Australia. In her lone foreign expedition, she survived by a desperate short head at last year's Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot meeting as jockey Luke Nolan misjudged her ability to carry on to the wire and stopped riding prematurely. She had an eight-months layoff after that expedition before returning to win three races during the Southern Hemisphere fall season.Breeding plans were not announced. However, Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup winner Animal Kingdom is on his way to stand at Arrowfield Stud and speculation will be rampant that the two would be an intriguing match.
Hong Kong's two-time Horse of the Year, Ambitious Dragon, is in the preliminary field for the Group 1 Champions Mile at Sha Tin Racecourse -- just a week after he is scheduled to contest the Group 1 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup over the same course but at 2,000 meters. "We will focus on the APQEII as our first hurdle and, as long as he comes out of it in good shape, we intend to give the Champions Mile a go," trainer Tony Millard said Thursday. The prospective field for the Champions Mile also includes last year's 1-2 finishers, Xtension and Glorious Days, as well as a small international contingent headed by New Zealand star King Mufhasa. Ambitious Dragon arguably will face a tougher challenge in the QE II Cup, with Akeed Mofeed among the local rivals and a stronger field of foreign entrants.