General a Rod put a nose in front at the wire to win the year's first derby, but weekend races might have more to say about what's to come.
Saturday's races include potential Kentucky Derby preps in New York and at two Florida venues. And 3-year-old fillies pointed toward the Kentucky Oaks also have some opportunities.
Elsewhere, there are some nice turf races in the warm-weather areas.
In Hong Kong, some of those trounced by Lord Kanaloa in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint a month ago found the going a little easier now that the Japanese star has moved on to his second career.
Here's a look as 2014 kicks into gear and we all try to remember that horses foaled in 2009 are now 5 years old and not 4. Bear with me on this!
The Kentucky Derby trail
There were some promising horses among the nine entered in Wednesday's $100,000 Gulfstream Park Derby but the stretch run came down to a desperate duel between General a Rod and Wildcat Red, with the former prevailing by a narrow nose. East Hall ran evenly to finish third while the favorite, Pablo Del Monte, settled for fourth. The others were well back and likely will be looking for easier pickings. General a Rod, a Roman Ruler colt out of the Dynaformer mare Dynamite Eyes, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.84 with Joel Rosario up for trainer Michael Maker. He won at first asking at Keeneland in October and then finished a good second behind Conquest Titan at Churchill Downs on Nov. 30 before shipping to Florida. "He's just learning," Maker said. "He's always shown great promise. He's a big, immature colt. But since his last race, he's made no mistakes. We were looking for a big effort today and we got it." He said he may target the $400,000, Grade III Holy Bull over the same course on Jan. 25, adding, "Everything's a possibility."
The first official Kentucky Derby prep of the year is Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, an early precursor of the Grade I Wood Memorial. The 6-5 morning-line favorite among eight entrants is Noble Moon, a Malibu Moon colt who finished third behind Cairo Prince and Financial Mogul in the Grade II Nashua Stakes two months ago in his second start off a maiden win. That's not a glowing resume but it's better than the rest of this field. Master Lightning, a Todd Pletcher-trained Pulpit colt, won his last race but has struggled in two earlier graded stakes. One to watch could be Lawmaker, another Malibu Moon colt who won his first start nicely at Laurel Park for trainer Chad Brown. Irad Ortiz Jr. rides Noble Moon while Jose Ortiz is up on Lawmaker.
Down at Gulfstream, they're going 6 furlongs in Saturday's $100,000 Spectacular Bid and Pletcher saddles the two favorites, Corfu and Trail Blaze. Corfu, yet another Malibu Moon colt, won the Grade II Saratoga Special last summer, with Wired Bryan just missing catching him at the wire going 6 1/2 furlongs. He finished second in the 6-furlongs, Grade II Futurity at Belmont before a misfire in Maryland. Corfu won his first start at Aqueduct, scoring by daylight in a 5 1/2-furlongs maiden event. Also at single-digit odds on the morning line are C Zee, Elusive Blueboy, Hollywood Talent and Giancarlo. Unless something jumps up here, this likely is a stepping stone for promising sprinters.
Across the peninsula, Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday offers the $100,000 Pasco Stakes at 7 furlongs. Oddly enough, none of the eight set for this one is trained by Pletcher. Cool Cowboy and Early Entry return from their 1-2 finish in the Inaugural over the track. Giancarlo is cross-entered here and at Gulfstream. And is Mighty Brown finally on track? He finished sixth in the Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot in November, then finally got into the win column in his eighth career start when he shipped in to Tampa Bay. He does have four seconds and a third.
Speaking of Delta, the Louisiana track on Saturday has a contentious field of seven entered for Saturday's $75,000 Big Drama Stakes at 7 furlongs.
On his last day as a 2-year-old, Dixie Beat got to the lead in the stretch run in Tuesday's $97,605 Louisiana Futurity for state-bred colts and geldings and managed to hold off the favorite, Yankee Gambler, by a neck. It was only another neck back to Forerun in third. Dixie Beat, a Minister Eric gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.64 with Robby Albarado riding.
On Saturday, Jessethemarine is the odds-on favorite among six in the $100,000 Frank Whiteley Jr. Stakes at Laurel Park going 7 furlongs. The With Distinction colt has three wins and a second from five starts as a juvenile including stakes wins at Delaware Park and Laurel.
The Kentucky Oaks trail
Eight 3-year-old fillies are entered for Saturday's $100,000 Busanda Stakes at Aqueduct at 1 mile and 70 yards. Of those, Flipcup has three wins from four starts, including a victory in the East View Stakes over the course. She's by Milwaukee Brew. Alpaca Fina, a daughter of Big Brown, also has three wins from four trips to the track and has emerged victorious in her last two starts, both at the Big A.
Gracer, a gray Exchange Rate filly, is the odds-on choice in a short field in the 6-furlongs Marshua Stakes at Laurel Park on Saturday. She finished third in the Grade II Matron Stakes at Belmont, then won the Blue Mountain Juvenile Fillies at Penn National.
Pletcher has two in Saturday's $100,000 Old Hat Stakes at Gulfstream Park, another 6-furlongs affair. They're a good exacta hunch bet, too -- Sweet Whiskey and Co Cola. But it's really a tossup and none of the six prospective starters would be a surprise.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Ynez at Santa Anita got only four takers to tackle 6 1/2 furlongs. Tastes Like Candy won at first asking, then finished second in the Grade I Hollywood Starlet a month ago. Awesome Baby won at first asking at Del Mar, then disappointed in two Grade I events. The other two come off maiden wins in this surprisingly light event, considering the purse and grade.
Sunday's feature at Gulfstream is the $100,000 Ginger Brew Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the grass. Eleven are entered for this one.
On her last day as a 2-year-old, Nurse Emmielle Nursed an narrow lead through the long stretch run in the $106,105 Louisiana Futurity for 2-year-old fillies, then inched clear to win by 1 length from Top Doll. French Celebrity finished third and the favorite, Sweet Alice Benbow, bowed to pressure late, fading to finish sixth. Nurse Emmielle, a Private Vow filly, got 6 furlongs in 1:12.72 under James Graham.
In other action:
Sterling City, a respectable fifth in last month's Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup, swept to a convincing win against local company in Wednesday's HK Group 3 Chinese Club Challenge Cup. With Douglas Whyte up, Sterling City sat fourth through much of the 1,400-meters sprint, swung out and surged to the lead 300 meters from home and won by a comfortable 3 1/4 lengths over stablemate Destined for Glory. "Douglas said it was a steering job," said winning trainer John Moore. He said he likely will have to switch distances for Sterling City as the season wears on as there are few suitable 1,400-meters events at Sha Tin and Happy Valley. "We might even consider the 1,200-meters race in Singapore later in the season," he said. A crowd of 71,239 turned out to test the New Year's luck at Sha Tin.
On the turf:
Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Gabriel Stakes at Santa Anita picked up 11 entries. Fire With Fire has had some recent success, including a third-place finish in the Grade III Berkeley Handicap at Golden Gate. Black Spirit comes from England, where he struggled last year for trainer Clive Cox. Jeranimo, Slim Shadey, Huntsville and Willyconker all have back class and recent failures.
Twelve are entered for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Marshua's River Stakes at Gulfstream Park at 1 1/16 miles, with Dreaming of Sophia a main-track-only starter. Of the others, Abaco won the Grade III Cardinal Handicap in her last start, Deanaallen'skitten has won two straight, and Angelica Zapata was second in the Grade My Charmer at Calder last time out and won three in a row before that.
Strapping Groom heads the cast of Saturday's $100,000 Fireplug Stakes, a 6-furlongs test for 4-year-olds and up. The Johannesburg horse has hit the board in four of his last five races, including a victory in the Grade I Forego Stakes at Saratoga last summer. Service For Ten has been a consistent contender at Laurel. Bandbox and Fersmiley certainly are worth a look.
Six are set for Saturday's $100,000 Nellie Morse Stakes for fillies and mares, led by Firenze Feeling and Access to Charlie. The race is about 1 1/16 miles.
Tapicat wore down pacesetting long shot She's Spooky in the final sixteenth to win Wednesday's $75,000 Voodoo Dancer Stakes by 1/2 length over that rival. Coarsegold was making up ground late and finished third, just a neck farther back. Tapicat, a 4-year-old Tapit filly, ran 7 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:32.54 with Joel Rosario up.
Sushi Empire rolled by the early leaders a furlong out in Wednesday's $75,000 Blue Norther Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and won by 1 1/4 lengths over the favorite, Full Ransom. Rever du Vous was 1/2 length farther back in third at the wire. Sushi Empire, a daughter of Empire Maker, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.22 with Corey Nakatani up.
Teen Pauline got the lead in Wednesday's $100,000 Affectionately Stakes for fillies and mares and the favorite, Centring, couldn't make any ground in the lane. At the wire, it was Teen Pauline by 4 3/4 lengths over that rival with Royal Lahaina and Street Secret completing the order of finish. Teen Pauline, a 4-year-old Tapit filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on the fast inner track in 1:45.64 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons.
Lion D N A roared past pacesetting Baby J and then outfinished Fantasy of Flight to win Wednesday's $100,000 Interborough Handicap for distaffers by 1/2 length. Fantasy of Flight finished second, 1/2 length in front of Baby J, who in turn was 1/2 length to the good of the favorite, Delightful Quality. Lion D N A, a 5-year-old, Illinois-bred daughter of Lion Heart, ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:11.88 with Charles Lopez up.
Uncle Dave had 'em all the way in Tuesday's $35,000 Luke Kruytbosch Stakes for 3-year-olds, setting a pressured pace before kicking clear in the lane for a 1 1/4-lengths victory. Red Zeus ruled over the others with On the Key third. Uncle Dave, a Pennsylvania-bred Langfuhr gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.62 with Luis Rodriguez up. Kruytbosch called races at Churchill Downs, Turf Paradise and several other tracks before his death in 2008 at age 47.