The schedule includes potential Kentucky Derby preps in Louisiana and northern California. Older horses have graded stakes chances all over the landscape.
And check out the big upset in Thursday's feature in Dubai as last year's stars have some hurdles to clear before repeating on this year's World Cup night.
Hurtling forward ...
The older horses
Mucho Macho Man faces five rivals in Saturday's $400,000 Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park -- a race restricted to Florida-breds. This will be an interesting test for the 6-year-old. He finished second in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic, and then was pulled up in this race a year ago, failing to finish as Ron the Greek won by 11 1/4 lengths. Mucho Macho Man went on from that disappointment to a pair of third-place finishes before winning the Grade I Awesome Again and the Breeders' Cup Classic. Two years ago, Mucho Macho won this race and also went on to a very successful campaign. Saturday's competition is so weak it seems Mucho Macho Man could win even if he is eased again. Only Bernie the Maestro and Gourmet Dinner seem remotely qualified to challenge the Breeders' Cup Classic winner, who also is a long shot for an Eclipse Award in Saturday night's festivities at Gulfstream. It looks like a perfect race for bridge-jumper money.
There are five other rich state-bred stakes on the card, most of which are far more competitive.
An impressive field of eight is entered for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, which is restricted to 4-year-olds. The co-highweights, Dice Flavor and Rookie Sensation, drew the No. 1 and No. 2 post positions. Dice Flavor, a Scat Daddy colt, won the Grade II La Jolla Handicap at Del Mar last summer but went winless and was unimpressive in three subsequent races. Rookie Sensation won the Grade II Twilight Derby on the Santa Anita turf on Nov. 1 but then was fifth in the Grade I Hollywood Derby over the grass. Saturday's 1 1/16-miles event will be the first try on real dirt for the Unbridled's Song colt. Hear the Ghost has two wins and three seconds from five career starts, including a victory in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita last spring. The Ghostzapper colt is one to watch. Shakin It Up, a Midnight Lute colt, won the Grade I Malibu Stakes at 7 furlongs in his last outing for trainer Bob Baffert off a nine-month layoff and Midnight Lute currently is a hot sire. Also from the Baffert barn and also by Midnight Lute is Governor Charlie, who has not been seen since finishing eighth in last year's Preakness.
Saturday's $100,000 Evening Attire Stakes at Aqueduct, at 1 1/16 miles on the inner track, drew eight. The morning-line favorite is Darley Stable's Long River, with Cease and Saratoga Snacks also very much in the mix.
A well-matched field of six is on tap for Saturday's $100,000 Louisiana Handicap at Fair Grounds. Prayer for Relief, Agent Di Nozzo, and Grand Contender are among the better fancied.
Kentucky Derby trail
Nine are in for Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans at 1 mile and 70 yards on the dirt. A balanced and unproven field finds Gold Hawk as the lukewarm favorite. The Empire Maker colt has won both his starts, first at Churchill Downs and then Dec. 27 at Fair Grounds in an optional claimer. Albano, an Istan colt, has won two straight over the course, including the Sugar Bowl Stakes in his last outing. Vicar's In Trouble, a recent maiden winner, will get play if only because Rosie Napravnik is up on the Into Mischief colt. Anything could happen. Oxbow won last year's running and Ron the Greek took the 2010 Lecomte.
Saturday's $100,000 California Derby is run at 1 1/16 miles on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course. If you like the nearby San Francisco 49ers, this is the race for you because the field includes a colt names Harbaugh. You know, like the 49ers coach? The colt's not hopeless, either, with two wins from four starts. But, like the 49ers, he won't be the favorite. Exit Stage Left is 2-for-2 for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and both wins came in local stakes -- the Golden Nugget at 6 furlongs and the Gold Rush at 1 mile. Enterprising has won his last two, including the Eddie Logan Stakes last month at Santa Anita, a 1-mile turf event. Morally Bankrupt had two wins in England last year but his pedigree might point toward the turf. Another British import, Royal Banker, showed promise in stakes events at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park late last year. And Puppy Manners, a Kitten's Joy colt, could be getting good for Hollendorfer. He also could be this week's "Name of the Week."
Speaking of grass and Kitten's Joy, 10 are set for Sunday's $100,000 Kitten's Joy Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the green course at Gulfstream Park. We Miss Artie, an Artie Schiller colt, broke his maiden on the grass at Saratoga and won the Grade I Dixiana Futurity on the Keeneland all-weather course. He most recently finished seventh on the main track in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile for trainer Todd Pletcher. Storming Inti won the grassy Awad Stakes at Belmont Park, then also won the off-the-turf Pulpit Stakes at Gulfstream. Cabo Cat finished second to the promising Mr Speaker in the Dania Beach Stakes on the local grass in his last start. The rest need to take a step forward to figure here and several seem capable of doing so.
Kentucky Oaks trail
Divine Beauty and Unbridled Forever head a field of six entered for Saturday's $125,000 Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds. Divine Beauty, a Divine Park filly, broke her maiden at Churchill Downs, then went directly to a victory in the Letellier Memorial at Fair Grounds last month. Napravnik gets the leg up from trainer Larry Jones on the Brereton Jones-owned filly, adding to the appeal. Unbridled Forever, a daughter of Unbridled's Song, joined the ranks of winners in her second effort on Nov. 30 at Churchill Downs, winning by 5 1/4 lengths over a big field. Dallas Stewart trains and Robby Albarado has the mount. Among the others, Istanford has wins at Arlington Park and Fair Grounds but finished fifth in the Arlington-Washington Lassie in between those triumphs.
Fiftyshadesofhay and Broken Sword are the featured players among seven for Sunday's $200,000, Grade II La Canada Stakes for 4-year-old fillies at Santa Anita. But the hunch-bet favorite on the weekend after the announcement of Academy Award finalists might be Oscar Party. Fiftyshadesofhay, a Pulpit filly, finished in the money in her last eight starts as a 3-year-old and all were graded stakes. Broken Sword, a daughter of Broken Vow, is an improving sort who won the Grade II Bayakoa Stakes at Hollywood Park in her last start. Ondine, a stablemate of Fiftyshadesofhay in Bob Baffert's barn, finished third in the Grade II Hollywood Oaks last June and recently won the Beverly J. Lewis Stakes at Fairplex. Spellbound looks like she could show more in her second start after a layoff. And Oscar Party is not hopeless. She finished second in last year's Grade II Indiana Oaks -- behind Pure Fun and just in front of Fiftyshadesofhay.
Saturday's feature at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas is the $100,000 Pippin Stakes for fillies and mares going 1 1/16 miles. A half dozen are entered but the odds-on favorite is last year's winner, Don't Tell Sophia. The 6-year-old Congaree mare went on from last year's Pippin to win the Bayakoa Stakes, then finished second in the Grade III Azeri and third in the Grade I Apple Blossom, behind only On Fire Baby and Tiz Miz Sue. Those looking to beat her might eye Dixie Strike, part of the string trainer Mark Casse has brought to Hot Springs from Woodbine. The 5-year-old Dixie Union mare was third in the 2012 Queen's Plate and last time out finished second in the Grade III Maple Leaf Stakes at Woodbine. She has dirt-track experience and a good breeze over the Oaklawn oval.
On the turf
There are some familiar names in Saturday's $125,000, Grade III Col E.R. Bradley Handicap at Fair Grounds. Among the 12 entries we find multiple graded stakes winner Daddy Nose Best, locally dominant String King and Irish-bred Speaking of Which, who comes off a victory in the Grade III Tropical Turf Handicap at Calder.
Thursday's Dubawi Stakes was pitched as a rematch of last year's Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen, with the field including the top three finishers from that prestigious event -- Reynaldothewizard, Balmont Mast and Krypton Factor. None of those, however, was a factor of any kind, Krypton or otherwise, in the Dubawi. United Color took the lead as the field straightened out into the lane and scored by a diminishing neck over Russian Soul. Rafeej was third in what would have been a generous trifecta if wagering were allowed in the UAE. Balmont Mast finished fourth, Krypton Factor sixth and Reynaldothewizard seventh. Improvement could be in the offing, however. Renaldothewizard was making his first start since his big win last March. Krypton Factor had a disappointing summer in England and was making his first start since July.
Read more about Thursday's Meydan races, including trials for the UAE 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas, in Richard Gross's full report in Monday's UPI Thoroughbred Racing Roundup.
News and notes:
St Nicholas Abbey was euthanized Tuesday after a six-month battle with injury and illness. The 7-year-old son of Montjeu developed inoperable colic, his owners, Coolmore, said in a statement. The colic was the final straw in a series of misfortunes that began with a career-ending injury this summer while training. Most recently, St Nicholas Abbey had been recovering well from a life-threatening bout with laminitis, a hoof ailment. St Nicholas Abbey, who would have been outstanding stallion prospect for Coolmore, won nine of his 21 starts and finished worse than third only three times, earning more than $8 million. He won his last two starts, the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic at Meydan last March and the Group 1 Coronation Cup at Ascot on June 1. That was his third victory in the Coronation Cup. He also won the Grade I Breeders' Cup Turf at Churchill Downs in 2011 and the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster in 2009 as a 2-year-old.
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Chriselliam has an infection in her off hind foot, trainer Charlie Hills reports from England. Hills told Racing Post the infection is under control but the 1,000 Guineas favorite will endure a setback in her training schedule.
The final 2013 tally of Longines World's Best Racehorse Rankings was released Thursday with Japanese runner Orfevre joining America's Wise Dan for the third position on the list with a rating of 129. Two undefeated mares, Australia's Black Caviar and France's Treve, top the rankings at 130. Black Caviar was retired early this year. Orfevre, twice the runner-up in the Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, was retired after his smashing, 8-lengths victory in the Group1 Arima Kinen on Dec. 22. Black Caviar, Treve and Wise Dan were honored in early December in Hong Kong at the first-ever Longines World's Best Racehorse Ceremony. Orfevre will be feted at a date to be determined.