The Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks capture worldwide attention this weekend while British and Japanese 3-year-olds also crank things up.
The reigning U.S. Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, is back in action at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Bob Baffert is focused on Hollywood Park rather than Churchill Downs. And international milers will take to the turf Sunday in Hong Kong.
Read on about one of the year's most exciting racing weekends.
The Derby and the Oaks
The weatherman is calling for an excellent chance of rain -- perhaps substantial rain -- at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. If the forecast is right, an off track would make an already fascinating race even tougher to call as none of the top contenders has ever run in the mud or the slop. In fact, there are only a handful of off-track running lines in the past performances of any of the 20 prospective starters for the $2 million, Grade I Kentucky Derby, Presented by Yum! Brands. Since they're all in the same boat, the favorites for the 1 1/4-miles race, first leg of the Triple Crown, remain Florida Derby winner Orb, who will start from gate No. 16 under Joel Rosario, and undefeated Wood Memorial winner Verrazano, who drew No. 14 and has John Velazquez up. Orb is trained by the venerable and respected Shug McGaughey, who is looking for his first Derby winner. Verrazano is one of five starters trained by Todd Pletcher, who has won the Derby only once from 31 starters in 12 runnings of the American classic. Verrazano has another jinx to break -- he did not make his first start until New Year's Day. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby without starting as a 2-year-old since Apollo -- in 1882. After the favorites, the race is very wide open, with good odds available on the likes of Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary (10-1 on Mike Battaglia's morning line), Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents (5-1), Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze (15-1) and UAE Derby winner Lines of Battle (30-1). Casual bettors who pick by their horse's name can find the likes of Itsmyluckyday, Giant Finish and Charming Kitten. The Derby only rolls around once a year (the rest are called "Dahr-bies"). So don't miss it. NBC-TV and the Horse Racing Radio Network will have live coverage and simulcasting is available in many parts of the word.
You won't often find 3-1 odds, even on the morning line, on a horse that has won four of six career starts in top company and took her last race, the Grade II Gulfstream Oaks, by 21 3/4 lengths -- without even being asked for her best. But that's where Dreaming of Julia starts the wagering as the oddsmaker's favorite for Friday's $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks. Of course, it's not like there's no competition for the daughter of A.P. Indy. The 10-filly field also includes Beholder, a winner five times from eight starts, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks. Then there's Unlimited Budget, undefeated in four starts and winner of the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks last time out. Flashy Gray was to have been the 11th horse in the Oaks but was scratched Friday when she came back from a workout with a bruised heel.
Churchill Downs on Oaks day
On Fire Baby and Believe You Can are the heavy favorites in a field of seven entered for the $300,000, Grade II La Troienne for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the main track. On Fire Baby, a 4-year-old Smoke Glacken filly, won the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park last month in her first start since May of 2012. Believe You Can, a 4-year-old daughter of Proud Citizen, won her first two starts this year in New Orleans. Midnight Lucky has won both her starts for trainer Bob Baffert, including the Sunland Park Oaks in her last trip. Close Hatches is 3-for-3, including the Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct.
The $300,000, Grade II Alysheba Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the main track drew nine, with three longshots on the inside and the remainder all contenders. Among the likelies: Richard's Kid, Hymn Book, Take Charge Indy, Macho Macho, Bourbon Courage and Cyber Secret.
Thirteen 3-year-olds were drawn for the $200,000, Grade II American Turf at 1 1/16 miles on the lawn. Noble Tune and Admiral Kitten are the morning-line favorites. The former has three wins from four starts with a second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last fall sandwiched in between. The latter is 2-for-4 with a close second in his last outing.
A well-balanced field of 14 is set for the $150,000, Grade III Eight Belles Stakes for fillies and mares at 7 furlongs on the dirt. How tough is this field? I'll tell you how tough: The 7-2 morning-line favorite, Calistoga, won a maiden event and an optional claimer at Gulfstream in her only two previous starts for trainer Bill Mott and is drawn on the far outside.
Also on the Oaks Day card is the $150,000 Edgewood Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the grass.
Churchill Downs on Derby Day
Marketing Mix makes her first start since the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf in Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Distaff Turf Mile and likely will have to chase down Daisy Devine if she wants to win this one. The latter, a confirmed frontrunner, hasn't been out of the exacta in her last six starts, including a second in the Grade I Jenny Wiley at Keeneland. Stephanie's Kitten is making her first start since last October at Keeneland but usually is in the mix. At total of 10 are set to go.
The $400,000, Grade II Churchill Downs, a 7-furlongs affair, attracted nine, including morning-line favorites Trinniberg and Delaunay. Trinniberg is wheeling back just a bit more than a month after finishing 11th in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen on World Cup night in Meydan but ended last year's campaign with a win in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Delaunay has won five straight -- four in Louisiana sandwiching the Bet On Sunshine Stakes at Churchill Downs almost exactly six months ago. Unbridled's Note is almost always around at the finish. Handsome Mike could be a big overlay after showing some life with a win when finally shortened up from routing in his last start.
The reigning Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, is the obvious pick in the $500,000, Grade I Turf Classic at 9 furlongs on the grass. The 6-year-old Wiseman's Ferry gelding has won eight of his last nine races and hasn't lost since returning to the turf five races back. This is no walkover, though, especially with Point of Entry drawn right to the outside of Wise Dan. Point of Entry has won seven straight races and eight of his last nine and comes off a win in the Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. The other seven have something to prove against this level of competition.
It's Guineas weekend for the 3-year-olds at Newmarket -- the 2,000 Guineas on Saturday and the 1,000 Guineas for fillies on Sunday.
Thirteen are entered for Saturday's race as trainer Aidan O'Brien elected to send Group 2 UAE Derby winner Lines of Battle to Louisville. That leaves O'Brien with only three starters for the English Classic. He did not, however, dispatch his jockey son, Joseph O'Brien, to Churchill Downs and the youngster instead will ride Cristoforo Colombo in the 1-mile test at Newmarket. The favorite is Godolphin's hopeful, Dawn Approach, trained by Jim Bolger and partnered with Kevin Manning. Dawn Approach, an Irish-bred son of New Approach, won all five of his starts as a 2-year-old, culminating in the Group 1 Dubai Dewhurst Stakes over the Newmarket greensward, and is looking to get off on the right foot here. Also fancied is Toronado, a High Chaparral colt trained by Richard Hannon, who is 4-for-4 with one win as a 3-year-old already in the books. How "classic" is this race? It's the 205th running. The Kentucky Derby is 66 years behind.
Sunday, 18 fillies are set to go in the 200th running of the 1,000 Guineas. The early market choice in Hot Snap, a Pivotal filly trained by Sir Henry Cecil for owner/breeder Juddmonte Farms. Hot Snap is 2-for-2, with one of the wins coming over the all-weather course at Kempton. Tom Queally is named to ride.
Sunday's Group 1 Champions Mile at Sha Tin lost a bit of its luster when Ambitious Dragon was roughed up in last Sunday's Group 1 Audemar Piguet QE II Cup, finishing sixth. Had he won, trainer Tony Millard was considering running him back in the Mile. Instead, it will be Penitent, representing the U.K, and King Mufhasa, representing New Zealand, against eight local runners, including some champions. Likely favorite Glorious Days drew gate No. 2 and trainer John Size liked that. "He's been hitting the gates pretty well and able to put himself up on the speed or pretty close to the lead after a good gate," Size said. King Mufhasa's rider, Michael Rodd, said he was happy with gate No. 6 because, "I prefer to let him find his rhythm early rather than have to hustle him from an inside gate." Penitent drew the lucky No. 8. Xtension is looking for a third straight win in this race and will start from the No. 5 stall.
Sunday's Group 1 NHK Mile Cup often is regarded as a setting for secondary 3-year-olds but does have a history of producing the occasional Japanese Derby winner. King Kamehameha won both races in 2004 and Deep Sky turned the same double four years later. Seeking the Pearl, a filly, won the NHK Mile Cup in 1997, then went on to become the first Japanese horse to win an overseas Group 1 event, taking the 1998 Prix Maurice de Gheest in France. There are no foreign horses in this year's race and the field provides an opportunity for any number of starters to step up and be noticed.
Dream Peace is the morning-line favorite among nine in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Beaugay for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the grass. Dream Peace has yet to win in the United States after racing as far afield as France and Singapore. The 5-year-old Dansili mare makes her first start since last October. Centring is entered only in the event the race is moved to the main track.
Only six signed on for the $150,000 Fort Marcy at 1 1/16 miles on the turf and Speaking of Which and Real Solution are the early picks in a well-matched field. Speaking of Which started his career in Ireland, then finished second in his U.S. debut last fall in the Grade II Twilight Derby on the Santa Anita turf. He finished last in the Grade I Hollywood Derby when forced to take up in traffic inside the quarter pole. Real Solution comes from Italy, where he won three of his five starts last year.
With no runners in this year's Kentucky Derby, trainer Bob Baffert can concentrate on one of his 2012 starters, Liaison, in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather surface. The Indian Charlie colt won the Grade I Cash Call Futurity as a 2-year-old, but then didn't win again until this year's debut in the Santana Mile at Santa Anita. In between, he was sixth in both the Grade I Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby and third in the Grade II Swaps at Hollywood and the Grade II Jim Dandy at Saratoga. The second- and third-place finishers from the Santana Mile are back -- Midnight Transfer and Tres Borrachos. But with no shippers in the field, Liaison has every chance to show he can make his mark in the depleted ranks of California handicap horses.