As usual, the early Derby preps are indicative, not conclusive. The young 3-year-olds still have lots to prove in terms of distance capability, durability and will to win. But, you've got to start somewhere. So here they are.
Jeranimo, meanwhile, won the Grade II San Gabriel at Santa Anita for the third time. And Naples Bay went out a winner at Gulfstream Park before heading off to a date in the breeding shed with Frankel.
In news and notes: A tragedy at Aqueduct, a note of hope from England, a training milestone and a special shout out to a couple very deserving human Eclipse Award winners.
Away we go.
Road to the Kentucky Derby
Noble Moon answered the two-turn question -- and the "guts" question into the bargain -- in scoring a tough win in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct. The Malibu Moon colt shadowed the pace around the first turn and into the backstretch in the 1 mile, 70-yard test, moved to the lead easily for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., and then survived pressure from several rivals the rest of the way before finally edging away to a 2-length victory. Classic Giaconroll was second and Scotland, after making a bold bid on the rail at mid-stretch, faded to finish another 2 1/2 lengths back in third. Noble Moon finished in 1:45.08 on a fast track. Noble Moon now is 2-for-3 with a third-place finish in the Grade II Nashua in his last previous start. Trainer Leah Gyarmati said he told Ortiz if someone else went to the lead, to get Noble Moon outside and wait. That part worked. "Then, all of a sudden, there was a second wave of horses on him," Gyarmati said. "I just kept thinking back to his maiden win when I thought that he might get a little leg weary. But he didn't want to let anybody by him." Gyarmati said Noble Moon may skip the $250,000, Grade 3 Withers on Feb. 1 and train up to the $500,000, Grade I Gotham March 1. The colt earned 10 points toward a possible Kentucky Derby start with Saturday's win.
Mighty Brown seems to like the Florida weather just fine. The Big Brown colt won his second straight race at Tampa Bay Downs Saturday, taking the $100,000 Pasco Stakes by 3 1/4 lengths over pacesetting favorite Cool Cowboy. Giancarlo was up for third. Mighty Brown was positioned perfectly off the pace by jockey Dean Butler, moved to challenge at the top of the lane and went on when Cool Cowboy had enough at the sixteenth pole. He finished 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.17. Mighty Brown showed promise in the Midwest this summer but was still a maiden when he finished sixth in the Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot on Nov. 11 -- his seventh career start. Shipped to Tampa, he now is 2-for-2 in the Sunshine State. But trainer Tim Ice said he still isn't sure about Mighty Brown's distance limits, adding he is leaning against trying the 1 1/16-mile Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 1. "Right now, I think I'll just want to keep him going one turn," Ice said. "He's run well going a mile but I don't know whether I'm willing to push him that far yet."
Just Call Kenny started last of six in Saturday's $100,000 Spectacular Bid at Gulfstream Park, dropped far back but then got through along the rail in the stretch and passed them all, winning by 2 1/4 lengths as the longest chance on the board. C. Zee was second, Hollywood Talent third and the favorite, Trailblaze, was an undistinguished fourth. Just Call Kenny, a Virginia-bred Jump Start colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.58 with Joe Bravo in the irons. He won at first asking at Monmouth in August, then finished second in an allowance event at Laurel Park in October before getting a break. Trainer Patrick McBurney said Just Call Kenny was in the Spectacular Bid only because an allowance race didn't fill. "Our plan was to back off horses and pick up a little check here," the New Jersey-based conditioner said. Now, "We'll have to come up with a new plan ... . We'll have to get together and see what there is for him." Bravo added, "His better races are going to be going further in the future.
Roman Unbridled was virtually unchallenged in Saturday's $75,000 Big Drama Stakes at Delta Downs. After shooting right to the lead, the Roman Ruler colt jetted off to an 8 1/2-length win, finishing 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.67 with Kevin Smith in the irons. The favorite, Dunkin Bend, was the best of the rest and Mypalcharliebrown picked up show money. It was the second win in seven starts for Roman Unbridled, who finished fourth in the $1 million, Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot in November after traffic trouble.
Germaniac led from the start in Saturday's $100,000 Frank Whiteley Jr. Stakes at Laurel Park and kept right on rolling to a 6 1/2-length victory. The odds-on favorite, Jessethemarine, ran second all the way and Starry Moon finished third. Germaniac, a Henny Hughes colt, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.08. "I knew I had to take him to the front," winning jockey J.D. Acosta said. "He's been working well and I knew he was ready today. I could tell at the three-sixteenths, when he was that far ahead, no one was going to catch me." He now has three wins from five starts.
Kentucky Oaks hopefuls
Awesome Baby led from the start in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Ynez Stakes at Santa Anita, turned back a mid-race challenge from Taste Like Candy, then held off a second bid by that rival to win by a half length. The favorite, Crushed Velvet, was third all the way and an outclassed Uzziel completed the order of finish, 18 1/2 lengths last. Awesome Baby, a daughter of Awesome Again, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.62 with Mike Smith in the irons. She won at first asking at Del Mar but then was unplaced in the Grade I Del Mar Debutante and the Grade I Chandelier at Santa Anita. "I was getting a little discouraged with her because she just wasn't finishing," winning trainer Bob Baffert said. "But today, she got out there and I could tell about the 3/8ths pole this filly was running like she did in her maiden race." Baffert said Awesome Baby will stay in one-turn races but stablemate Crushed Velvet "is going to stretch out."
Fierce Boots strode right out to the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Busanda Stakes at Aqueduct and the favorite, Flipcup, couldn't cut into the advantage in the stretch run. At the wire, it was Fierce Boots by 2 lengths over that rival with Fleet of Gold another 2 lengths in arrears in third. Fierce Boots, a Tiznow filly out of the Wild Again mare Shop Again, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:46.62 with Jose Ortiz aboard. Fierce Boots, trained by Todd Pletcher, won for just the second time in five career starts. Flipcup had three previous wins, including the East View Stakes. "She hadn't gone to the front in the past," Pletcher assistant Byron Hughes said. "But she'd been more rank lately and we thought it would be a good idea to let her settle where she wants to be. Todd thought two turns would suit her." Fierce Boots is owned by celebrity Chef Bobby Flay of Mesa Grill fame.
Nesso led early in Saturday's $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, gave up the advantage and then came again to score a 1-length victory. Ice for the Lady finished second and Runway Giant was third. Nesso, a Roman Ruler filly, got 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.93 with Abdiel Jaen in the irons. Nesso showed promise this summer and fall on the turf in California but finished 10th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. She then was fourth in the grassy Grade III Miesque Stakes. After that, said owner Dennis Amaty, "We thought it was time to bring her home and have a little fun with her ... . She's a little horse with a big heart and will fight to the end." He said he will confer with trainer Herman Wilensky about Nesso's next start.
As suggested here Thursday, Sweet Whiskey and Co Cola made a sweet little exacta in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Old Hat Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Sweet Whiskey, a daughter of Old Fashioned, started last, saved ground and got through along the rail to post a 2 3/4-length victory. Co Cola led briefly early in the stretch run but couldn't stay with the winner. Aurelia's Bell finished third. Sweet Whiskey, with Javier Castellano handling the reins, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.63. Yet to be tested beyond 6 furlongs, she won her first start at Saratoga, then finished fourth in the Grade I Spinaway at the Spa and second in the Grade II Matron at Belmont before heading south for the winter. "She was kind of in a situation she hadn't been in before, on the inside and in between horses," said trainer Todd Pletcher, "and I thought she handled it really well." He said he will determine whether the $200,000, Grade II Forward Gal on Jan. 25 "makes sense."
Gracer had too much for a quartet of rivals in Saturday's $100,000 Marshua Stakes at Laurel Park. After stalking the pace, the Exchange Rate filly easily seized the lead and won off by 3 lengths. Jump Two was second and Jonesin for Jerry got show money. Gracer, with Alex Cintron up, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.18. "I knew that we were the one to beat," winning trainer Tony Dutrow said. "She ran a strong race and I was happy to see her pull off strongly at the finish." She now has three wins, a second and a third from five starts. The third came in the Grade II Matron Stakes at Belmont Park in September behind Miss Behaviour and the aforementioned Sweet Whiskey.
Candy Kitty stalked the pace in Sunday's $100,000 Ginger Brew Stakes at Gulfstream Park, had to come out around traffic in the stretch and went on to win by a length over Miss Besilu. Stonetastic finished third. Candy Kitty, a daughter of Lemon Drop Kid, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:45.52 with Edgar Prado up. Trainer Todd Pletcher, noting his filly's success on grass and the main track, said he now has options for her. "I think she's just getting better and better, and she's kind of learning how to run and settle in well ... . I felt like this was going to clarify which way to go and it really just opened up more options."
Light Bringer stalked the pace in Saturday's $65,000 Chispiski Stakes at Calder Race Course, dueled to the lead in the stretch and won by a length over pacesetting favorite Flutterby. Luna Santa was a sleigh ride farther back in third. Light Bringer, a Northern Afleet filly, ran the mile on a good, sealed track in 1:41.09 with Jonathan Gonzales up.
A couple of old warriors got back on track in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Gabriel Stakes. Jeranimo came from last of seven to catch pacesetting 6-year-old Slim Shadey and won by 1 1/4 lengths over that rival, taking this race for the third time in his long career. Arctic North finished third. Jeranimo, an 8-year-old son of Congaree, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.00 with Rafael Bejarano up. Jeranimo has been all-or-nothing in the past year, winning the Grade I Eddie Read at Del Mar and the Grade II San Gabriel at Santa Anita but going unplaced in his other five starts in 2013. "We had backed off his training a little, which I thought was best, seeing he is 8 years old," winning trainer Mike Pender said. "He didn't drop as far out of it today as he had in some other races where he just didn't fire. So, consequently, he had dead aim on the rest of the field throughout." He said Jeranimo will be on a race-to-race basis. "If he starts feeling good, we'll run him." Jeranimo won the San Gabriel in 2010 and 2013. He finished second in 2012 -- a loss that Pender blamed on "his bone-headed trainer."
In Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Monrovia Stakes down the hillside turf course, Pontchatrain reeling in pacesetting Kindle in the final sixteenth, winning by 3/4 of a length over that rival. Purim's Dancer finished third. Pontchatrain, a 4-year-old War Front filly, made it three in a row over the course, finishing in 1:11.14 with Gary Stevens in the irons. She won the Unzip Me Stakes in September and the Grade III Sen. Ken Maddy Stakes in November. Trainer Tom Proctor, asked if he ever had another horse win three straight on the hill, replied, "I wouldn't think so. I don't remember past last week, so don't ask me. I haven't had any win pretty much three in a row anyway, to be honest." He said he hasn't thought about Pontchatrain's next race. See "News and Notes" for more on Proctor.
Cyclometer got a narrow lead in the stretch run in Saturday's $75,000 Midnight Lute Stakes and held off Moonshine Bay to win by 3/4 length. Anillo and Midnight Transfer completed the order of finish. Cyclometer, a 6-year-old son of Cyclotron, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.95 with Mike Smith in the irons.
Naples Bay got through between rivals a furlong out in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Marshua's River Stakes for fillies and mares and outfinished Somali Lemonade to win by a length. Angelica Zapata was second and the favorite, Abaco, came late to finish fourth. Naples Bay, a 6-year-old Giant's Causeway mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:41.73 with Joe Bravo in the irons. Naples Bay had not won in seven starts since September of 2012, when she took the Grade III Noble Damsel at Belmont Park. "She's a very nice filly," winning trainer Christophe Clement said. "But unfortunately, she's much better on firm turf and in the past year we kept meeting softer grass." He said the Marshua's River was Naples Bay's swan song as she is to be bred to Frankel. "We wish her the best of luck in her new career," he added.
Firenze Feeling rallied to the lead in the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 Nellie Morse Stakes for fillies and mares and got clear to win by 4 3/4 lengths over Celtic Katie. Access to Charlie finished third. Firenze Feeling, a 4-year-old Macho Uno filly, ran about 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:48.69 under jockey Victor Carrasco.
Broad Rule rallied strongly through deep stretch to upset Saturday's $100,000 Fire Plug Stakes, winning by 3/4 of a length over Service For Ten. The favorite, Fersmiley, finished next-last of six. Broad Rule, a 6-year-old son of Dixie Union, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.49 with Forest Boyce up.
Seeking Ms Shelley got by Good Deed with a furlong and a half to run in Saturday's $75,000 Pan Zareta Stakes for fillies and mares and kicked clear, winning by 1 1/2 lengths. Good Deed, the odds-on favorite, held second with Swift Artist third. Seeking Ms Shelley, an 8-year-old Cactus Ridge mare, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on soft turf in 1:04.32 under Roman Chapa.
Miss Da Point rallied to a big lead in the lane in Sunday's $75,000 Judy Soda Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares and held on to win by 3/4 of a length over Tahoe Tigress. Dreaming of Cara was disqualified from her third-place finish, promoting Carameaway to that position. Miss Da Point, a 4-year-old daughter of Strong Contender, ran the mile on the fast inner track in 1:39.96 under Emmanuel Esquivel.
La Malaguena, making her first stakes start and dismissed at odds of nearly 35-1, got the lead in the lane in Saturday's $60,000 Wintergreen Stakes for fillies and mares, then held off 70-1 chance Aggressive Elegance to win by a half length. Moon Philly finished third and the favorite, Coup, came home next-last of 12. The $2 exacta payoff was $2,996.80. "She broke really well and then I had to fight for my position," winning jockey Alben Jiminez said. "When we turned into the stretch, I knew I had a lot of horse left."
Smack Ridge led from the start in Sunday's $50,000 Winsham Lad Handicap, opened a daylight lead and then held on to win by 3/4 of a length over Dry Summer. Jaycito finished third. Smack Ridge, a 6-year-old Cactus Ridge gelding, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:39.80 with Dusty Shepherd up.
News and notes
Trainer Tom Proctor picked up his 1,000th career win in Saturday's eighth race at Tampa Bay Downs but watched from California, where he has been nursing an illness. "I've been deathly ill all week," he said Sunday at Santa Anita after saddling Pontchatrain to win the Grade II Monrovia Stakes. "I didn't think I was going to make it to 1,000 wins. I thought I was going to die first." Before going public in 2005, Proctor trained exclusively for Glen Hill Farm in Ocala, Fla., owned by Chicagoan Leonard Lavin. That combination sent out homebred mare One Dreamer to win the 1994 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs and also is responsible for Pontchatrain.
Two horses, one of them stakes winner Caixa Eletronica, died in a training mishap Saturday at Aqueduct. A New York Racing Association statement said Caixa Eletronica, a 9-year-old gelding, collided with a loose horse, Six Drivers, who had unseated rider Julio Pezua. Caixa Eletronica suffered a skull fracture and Six Drivers sustained a broken neck, the association said. Carlos Castro, who was aboard Caixa Eletronica, was hospitalized for evaluation. Pezua was not injured. "It's a terrible day for racing," said Mike Repole, who claimed Caixa Eletronica in 2011 for $62,500. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the gelding subsequently won seven stakes, four of them graded.
On a brighter note, St Nicholas Abbey is reported recovering from the latest complication of the pastern fracture he sustained while training in July. The multiple Group 1 winner was patched up in complicated surgery, survived a bout with colic and then needed repair for a break in one of his surgically installed pins. Most recently, he has suffered laminitis, a hoof ailment that often is the harbinger of doom for an injured horse. Equine surgeon Tom O'Brien told Racing Post Saturday there are signs of new growth on the affected hoof. "We are happy with how he is doing," O'Brien said. He added the hoof was treated with maggots inserted inside St Nicholas Abbey's cast. "They eat all the dead and infected tissue," he said. "They eat it all and the change that has happened since doing that has been quite remarkable."
And, on a personal note: Congratulations to all the media Eclipse Award winners announced this week (See the NTRA website for a complete rundown and links). All the honorees are worthy. But here's a special shout out to Daily Racing Form's dual winners, Marty McGee and Marcus Hersch. Their winning entries both dealt with complex human personal relationships, and demonstrate great tact and sensitivity as well as exceptional reportorial and writing skills. As a bonus, Marty and Marcus are both great guys. Well done, all.