Overseas, it's a busy week in Ireland, leading up to Saturday's Group 1 Irish Derby, which is expected to see Epsom victor Ruler of the World trying to double his Derby fun.
Churchill Downs features both ends of the accomplishment scale on its Saturday night card. Wise Dan, the reigning Horse of the Year, goes in the Grade II Firecracker at 1 mile on the grass. And the Group III Bashford Manor for 2-year-olds is a serious test for youngsters just getting going on their careers and hoping to return on the first Saturday in May.
But that's getting far, far ahead of ourselves so let's focus on the immediate future.
The biggest weekend of the year in Iowa racing is highlighted by Saturday night's $300,000, Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Stakes. The 9-furlongs event drew a field of six with multiple graded stakes winners Prayer for Relief and Silver Max among the likely ones. Silver Max, a 4-year-old Badge of Silver colt, was a terror on the turf last season, winning the Grade III Transylvania at Keeneland, the Grade II American Turf at Churchill Downs and the Grade II Virginia Derby. After that, he struggled and trainer Dale Romans tried him with eye-popping results on the Churchill Downs main track on June 1 when the Opening Verse Stakes was rained off the grass. Silver Max led all the way to a 9 1/2-lengths win, beating Daddy Nose Best and Cease. Granted, the track was sloppy and Saturday's Iowa strip promises to be fast. Prayer for Relief won the Grade III Iowa Derby on this card last year, then went on to win the Grade II West Virginia Derby and Grade II Super Derby. He has not won since but finished second in his only two starts this year -- both graded stakes in Texas. Red Lead, who bounces back and forth between New Mexico and the upper Midwest, is making his third start in the Cornhusker after finishing sixth in 2010 and seventh in 2011. Taptowne got home second in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap earlier this year.
Seven signed up for the $250,000, Grade III Iowa Derby at 1 1/16 miles. Among them: Trainer Bob Baffert brings Manando, who finished third in the Grade III Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park last time out. Our Double Play comes off a win in the Prairie Mile early this month. Bashaar was second in that heat. Stormdriver has run well in the Southwest.
Ten were attracted for the $200,000, Grade III Iowa Oaks at 1 1/16 miles. Fiftyshadesofhay, winner of the Grade II Black Eyed Susan at Pimlico in her last outing, drew the outside post for Baffert but will be among the fancied anyway. She also was third in the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks earlier in the year. So Many Ways was great last summer, winning all three of her starts including the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga but was slow to round into form this year. She finally revisited the winner's circle after the Grade III Eight Belles at Churchill Downs on Oaks Day in her last start. Louisville-trained Hitechnoweenie invaded to win the Panthers Stakes on June 1 and is back for another bite. Canticle was second in that race.
On Friday night's Card, Delaunay is the odds-on favorite for the $125,000 Iowa Sprint off six straight wins. Rosie Napravnik is named on the 6-year-old Smoke Glacken gelding, who took the Grade II Churchill Downs Stakes on Derby Day in his last outing. Among four rivals, Gentlemen's Bet has won four of his five career starts and Jasizzle was second in the Grade III Aristides at Churchill Downs last time out.
Friday's $100,000 Iowa Distaff, a 1 1/16-miles affair, got a field of seven with Flashy American the morning-line choice off a win at Churchill Downs. And the $100,000 Saylorville has a contentious field of six going 6 furlongs.
In the divisions:
Wise Dan, assigned 128 pounds, will give 11 pounds or more to each of his seven rivals in Saturday night's $150,000 Grade II Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs. The weight was earned. The reigning Horse of the Year and Breeders' Cup Mile champ is riding a six-race winning streak and has been victorious in nine of his last 10 starts. He cuts back to the 1-mile distance after a dominating win in the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs going 9 furlongs. "He's doing as well as I could ask," said trainer Charles LoPresti. He won the Firecracker two years ago and is aiming to be the first horse to win the race twice. None of the others has credentials to run with Wise Dan though there are several other graded stakes winners in the field. Corporate Jungle, recently second in an Arlington Park stakes, finished second to Wise Dan in last year's Grade II Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga -- albeit 5 lengths back of the winner, who scored in a hand ride. Trainer Tom Proctor indicated he might scratch Corporate Jungle rather than face the champ.
Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" event, includes Grade II American Handicap winner Obviously, a 5-year-old Irish-bred who is 4-for-5 at this trip and working well for trainer Mike Mitchell. Last year's winner, Jeranimo, is back. Za Approval comes off back-to-back graded stakes wins in Florida and New Jersey.
Fillies and mares will tangle at 1 1/16 miles on the Monmouth Park turf in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Eatontown Handicap. Dayatthespa, a three-time graded stakes winner last year, is the 120-pound highweight in a field of 10. Last year's winner, Silver Screamer, tries to repeat and Ruthenia who finished fourth last year, tries again. Naples Bay and Laughing are graded stakes winners and Peace Preserver has been running well in tough company in Florida and New York.
Filly & Mare Turf
Lady of Shamrock, a consistent graded stakes performer in California, ships east for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II New York Stakes for fillies and mares over 10 furlongs of Belmont Park greensward. She won the Grade I American Oaks and Grade I Del Mar Oaks last summer and has been in the money in all three starts this season. Dream Peace is still seeking her first U.S. win after three straight third-place showings in graded events. Bill Mott saddles Starformer for Juddmonte Farms. Irish import Tannery won the Grade II Sheepshead Bay in her last start. Regalo Mia has been consistent. Anjaz represents Godolphin Racing off a second in the Sheepshead Bay. Mystical Star won this race last year but hasn't scored in six intervening starts.
Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Triple Bend Handicap at 7 furlongs over the Hollywood Park all-weather course, is a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Mitchell has another likely candidate in this in last year's winner, Camp Victory. It's a tough heat, with Jimmy Creed, Comma to the Top, Rail Trip, Tres Borrachos and Centralintelligence also in the field.
Delaunay's effort in Friday night's Iowa Sprint at Prairie Meadows also will be noted in this division.
Filly & Mare sprinters
Eight distaffers are set for a 6-furlong tussle in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Victory Ride Stakes at Belmont Park. Kauai Katie, who won her first three starts of the year, will try to bounce back from a third-place showing in the Grade I Acorn a month ago. Fusaichiswonderful was second to So Many Ways in the Grade III Eight Belles in her last race. I'm Mom's Favorite won the Miss Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in her last outing and Lighthouse Bay took the Jostle Stakes at Parx Racing in her last effort.
Aubby K looks like the class among 10 distaffers entered for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Chicago Handicap at Arlington Park. Aubby K comes off a win in the Grade I Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs on Derby Day and earlier won the Grade II Inside Information at Gulfstream Park. She will, however, be giving significant weight to the other nine going 7 furlongs on the Arlington all-weather course.
Seven are set for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Bashford Manor under the Twin Spires in Louisville. Steve Asmussen trains two of them, Gun Roar and D'cajun Cat, both coming off first-out wins at Churchill Downs. Hollywood Talent is trained by Wesley Ward for Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Ken Ramsey said he had ticketed the colt for Royal Ascot but changed his mind, deciding, "It would be smarter to win the Bashford Manor with him and then take him to Saratoga and let him win the Sanford." Debt Ceiling has won both his starts, a maiden affair at Laurel Park and the Rollicking Stakes at Pimlico where he drew off late to win with authority. The Bashford Manor has not been a producer of Kentucky Derby winners but has been won by the likes of Favorite Trick, Boston Harbor and Limehouse.
Saturday's 1 1/2-miles Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby, in addition to the undefeated Ruler of the World, also features the second-and third-place finishers from the English classic, Libertarian and Galileo Rock. Trading Leather and Sugar Boy also are to be considered while Battle of Marengo and Limonade were dropped from the race on Thursday, leaving a field of nine. Aidan O'Brien, who trains Ruler of the World, has saddled seven straight Irish Derby winners, including last year's champion, Camelot, who also completed the "Derby double" with that victory. Two of the runners in this race have been sold recently -- Libertarian going to Godolphin and Sugar Boy to Sheik Mohammed bin Khalifa al-Maktoum.
Sunday's feature at the Curragh is the Group 1 Pretty Polly Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/4 miles. O'Brien saddles five of them -- Was, Moth, Say, Magical Dream and Just Pretending. Was hasn't won in more than a year but was third in last season's Group 1 Nassau Stakes and Group 1 Yorkshire Oaks. Of the others, Shirroco Star was second in the Group 2 British Champions Fillies and Mares Stakes last October. Both Was and Shirroco Star appeared to need their seasonal debuts and will be looking to improve in their second start of the year.
Already in the books is Wednesday's Oaks Trial at Naas, which produced something of an upset. Venus De Milo, after racing at the rear of the pack, found herself fully armed in the final furlong, hitting the lead 50 yards out and outfinishing Opera Gloves to win by 3/4 length. Bunairgead was third. The favorite, Moth, was blocked at a critical juncture but then one-paced when she got room and finished eighth of 11 starters. Venus De Milo won for the second time in two outings. She is from the first crop of the Coolmore sire Duke of Marmalade, who was European older horse of the year in 2008 with multiple Group 1 wins. She is out of the Galileo mare Inchmahome.
Darwin, an American-bred Big Brown colt who started his career last fall in New York with Todd Pletcher, won his first start of 2013 Wednesday at Naas in Ireland, for Aidan O'Brien. With Joseph O'Brien up, the chestnut colt got clear at the end to win by 2 3/4 lengths. Only three started in the 1-mile Boston Access Race. Darwin is entered for some of the summer's biggest races, including the Sussex Stakes, Juddmonte International and Irish Champion Stakes.
Notable deaths of 2014 [PHOTOS]