The road to the Kentucky Derby warms up this weekend in Florida while other big-money races are scattered around the country.
Fillies and mares from all points of the compass are headed for Texas to compete in Saturday's night's rich card at Sam Houston Race Course. The distaff set also has important events in New York and California.
Sam Houston and Tampa Bay Downs both host graded turf races.
Santa Anita's top weekend offering is the California Cup card for state-breds on Saturday, which includes a 3-year-old race with some potential for the national scene.
Overseas, things continue apace as the March 29 Dubai World Cup night looms only two months away.
Step right up and read all about it:
Triple Crown trail
Eleven budding stars are entered for Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park and you can make a case for quite a few of them. High on the list is Cairo Prince, who would be undefeated in three starts for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin but for a nose loss at the wire to Honor Code in the Grade III Remsen at Aqueduct in November. Coming into the race undefeated is Coup de Grace. Shug McGaughey is trying Mr Speaker on the dirt after his victory on the grass last time out in the Grade III Dania Beach Stakes. Almost Famous was a romping winner in his first try around two turns last time out at Churchill Downs. Wicked Strong is back after a close third-place finish in the Remsen. A good showing here would be a big boost toward the $1 million, Grade I Florida Derby, which shares the March 29 racing spotlight with Dubai.
Tamarando is the 124-pound co-highweight among 11 in Saturday's $250,000 California Cup Derby for state-breds at Santa Anita. The Bertrando colt finished third, well behind winner Shared Belief, in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park last month but won the Grade I Del Mar Futurity in September. He has been working well over the Santa Anita dirt for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Also toting 124 is California Chrome, winner of the King Glorious Stakes on Dec. 22. A few others show promise.
Eight are entered for Saturday's $100,000 Miracle Wood Stakes at 1 mile at Laurel Park in Maryland. The morning-line favorite is Extrasexyhippzster, who laughed all the way to a 5-lengths win in the Don Rickles Stakes at Aqueduct in his last outing. The Stroll colt makes his debut around two turns. Joint Custody comes off two local stakes wins. Jessethemarine has four wins and two seconds in his last six starts.
Meanwhile, recently crowned 2013 2-year-old champion Shared Belief is slated to work Friday at Santa Anita as Hollendorfer downplays the impact of a quarter crack that forced a slight deviation from his training schedule. Hollendorfer said he will decide after the work whether the gelding's next race will be the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Feb. 8 or the Grade II San Felipe a month later. Shared Belief was undefeated in three starts as a juvenile.
And don't lose track of Indianapolis, who won at 6 furlongs for trainer Bob Baffert on Monday at Santa Anita. The Coolmore-owned colt is headed for longer and better things, likely against Shared Belief and others.
Onlyforyou, undefeated in two starts, steps right into stakes company in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Forward Gal Stakes going 7 furlongs at Gulfstream Park. The Malibu Moon filly, trained by Todd Pletcher, won at first asking at Aqueduct in November and came right back with an impressive, pace-stalking victory at Gulfstream last month. Aurelia's Belle, a Lemon Drop Kid filly, won her first start at Keeneland in October, then was third in the Grade III Old Hat Stakes locally on Jan. 4. Flash Encounter has won half her four starts against lesser. The other three are seeking their first triumph over winners.
Taris, a beautifully bred filly by Flatter out of the Theatrical mare Comedy, won her first start by 11 3/4 lengths at Aqueduct last month and returns in Saturday's $100,000 Wide Country Stakes at Laurel Park, stretching out from 6 to 7 furlongs. She is the 4-5 morning-line favorite in a field of seven. Jonesin for Jerry didn't show much last summer at Saratoga but has been in the money four straight times on the Delaware-Maryland circuit. She's Holy broke her maiden at Zia Park in New Mexico last September and has been working at Penn National. She's Holy and Taris are both trained by Todd Beattie.
Swiss Lake Yodeler brings a record of three wins from four starts into Saturday's $200,000 California Cup Oaks at Santa Anita at 1 mile. The last two starts resulted in stakes wins for the Swiss Yodeler filly, trained by Hollendorfer, who finished second in her other start. She looks to be a solid favorite in a field of 14 but watch for Sprague River, unbeaten in two starts at Hollywood Park, one of them on the grass, and stakes winner Sprouts, provided she can adapt to real dirt. Rovenna has been close against open company.
Sunday's $100,000 Sweetest Chant Stakes at Gulfstream Park is 1 mile on the grass for 3-year-old fillies. Eight are set to go in this. None is a proven commodity, though Lemon Point has run well for trainer Bill Mott. Party Now and Duff One would make an interesting exacta box for fans of "The Simpsons."
The Distaff set
Rose to Gold tops a field of eight for Saturday night's $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic at Sam Houston at 1 1/16 miles. The Friends Lake filly won the Grade III Honeybee and the Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park last spring but then finished eighth in the Kentucky Oaks and has not shown much in two intervening starts. She ships in from Calder. Also in from Florida is Awesome Flower, who finished third in the Grade II Chilukki Stakes at Churchill Downs two starts back. Jeff Bonde trains Unusual Way at Santa Anita but sent her to New Mexico to win the Zia Park Oaks in October and now ships further east. Class Included comes from Fair Grounds after winning two stakes in Louisiana. Moon Philly comes off a third-place finish in the Wintergreen Stakes at Turfway Park and has been working on the Keeneland all-weather course.
Heir Kitty, off a victory in the Grade I La Brea Stakes over the course and distance, is a likely choice in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Monica Stakes at 7 furlongs at Santa Anita. However, Iotapa has never finished out of the money in six lifetime starts and got home second, only 2 3/4 lengths behind Beholder and ahead of Fiftyshadesofhay, in last year's Grade I Santa Anita Oaks. Teddy's Promise won this race last year and usually runs well unless she's in a Breeders' Cup race. Winding Way is graded stakes placed.
Saturday's $200,000 Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct finds a field of five tackling 9 furlongs. It's a thin choice among Teen Pauline, Centring and Royal Lahina -- who finished 1-2-3 in their last start, the Affectionately. Teen Pauline won that by 4 3/4 lengths after being allowed to set a leisurely pace. Royal Lahina and Centring finished 1-2 a race before that, in the Grade II Go For Wand Handicap. For those playing a part-wheel in the trifecta: Centring has only two wins from 16 career starts but seldom fails to hit the board.
The grassy types
Admiral Kitten, winner of the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park last year, tops eight prospective starters for Saturday night's $200,000, Grade III John B. Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston at 9 furlongs. In addition to that win, the Kitten's Joy colt finished second six times during 2013, including the Grade I Hollywood Derby and Grade I Jamaica Handicap. In his only previous start in Texas, Admiral Kitten won the El Joven Stakes for 2-year-olds over the Retama Park green course. He is trained by Mike Maker, who also sends out King David, who was second in this race last year behind Swift Warrior. Vertiformer, a very lightly raced, 7-year-old son of Dynaformer, makes his first start in more than a year for trainer Wayne Catalano and would not be a surprise if he's finally right.
Fourteen are set for Saturday's $250,000 California Cup Turf Classic for state-breds at Santa Anita. The 9-furlongs event promises to be a slugfest. Among the foremost is Summer Hit, a 5-year-old Bertrando gelding coming off a win in the Grade III Berkeley Handicap at Golden Gate Fields. Tiz a Minister has been off form but did finish third in the Grade II San Felipe and fourth in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby last year -- both of those, of course, on the dirt. He won the Grade III Affirmed on the all-weather at Hollywood Park last June for his most recent winner's circle picture. Winning punters will have earned their reward here.
Twelve plus an also-eligible are in for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Endeavour Stakes at about 1 1/16 miles at Tampa Bay Downs. The morning-line favorites, Moment in Dixie and Left a Message, drew post positions No. 1 and No. 11, respectively, promising to make this a tactical race. Final Escrow and Wholelottashakin also could shake things up.
Sunday's feature at Sha Tin could produce another candidate for Dubai World Cup night at Meydan should Eagle Regiment return to form as he returns to his favorite trip. The 6-year-old, trained by Manfred Man, will be trying for a record third straight win in the HK Group 1 Kent & Curwen Centenary Sprint Cup -- a 1,000-meters charge down the straightaway. Should he succeed, he will surpass the two victories notched in this race by Hong Kong legends Silent Witness and Sacred Kingdom. On form, Eagle Regiment should find this trip easier than December's Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint around one turn, where he finished 12th.
"I think coming back to 1,000 meters is better for him," Man said. "The 1,200 meters is not his best distance."
Although he will not face the monster who won the International race in December, Japan's star sprinter Lord Kanaloa, Eagle Regiment is not without meaningful competition in Sunday's heat. John Moore will saddle three, including Frederick Engles, who was third in the Hong Kong Sprint. Cerise Cherry was fourth in that race and returns. Go Baby Go has seven wins over the course and distance, including the HK Group 3 Sha Tin Sprint Trophy last fall. Eagle Regiment parlayed last year's victory in the Centenary Sprint Cup into a lucrative third in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint at 1,000 meters down the Meydan straight and Man is plotting another raid on the UAE. "He is entered for Dubai so now it depends on how he runs in this race and if Dubai invites him," the trainer said.
(See a full report by RICHARD GROSS in Monday's Racing Roundup on upi.com)
Speaking of Dubai, Anaerobio, a 6-year-old, Argentine-bred son of Catcher in the Rye, trained by Mike De Cock, took Thursday's Group 2 Al Fahadi Fort at Meydan, his third straight win at the unusual 1,400-meters distance. With Christophe Soumillon up, Anaerobio tracked Pearl Flute before surging to the lead 200 meters out and won going away.
"He's not an easy horse and one you have to know well," Soumillon said. "But he loves the 1,400-meters trip around here and has a nice turn of foot ... I'm not sure what Mike has in mind."
De Cock was in South Africa, attending the yearling sales.
Already in the books:
Ocala Training Center
Here's Johnny shadowed pacesetting Canzoni through Tuesday's $100,000 OBS Championship Stakes for 3-year-old colts and geldings and stuck his nose in front at the wire. East Hall rallied late to take third, a neck farther back. Here's Johnny, a Colonel John gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:45 4/5 with Kent Desormeaux riding.
Naughty Holiday came three-wide to the lead entering the stretch in Tuesday's $100,000 OBS Championship Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and got clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Babe's Ruler made a late move to finish second, 3/4 length to the good of Holiday Magic. Naughty Holiday, a Harlan's Holiday filly, finished the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather course in 1:46 3/5 for Javier Castellano.
Prudhoe Bay found running room on the inside late in Tuesday's $50,000 OBS Sprint for 3-year-old colts and geldings, got through and won by a neck from pacesetting Breitling Flyer. Can't Stop the Kid was third. Prudhoe Bay, a Songandaprayer colt, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:10 with Paco Lopez in the irons.
Ruslana stalked the pace in Tuesday's $50,000 OBS Sprint Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, took over late and won by 1 3/4 length over Henny Jenney. Epic Story finished third. Ruslana, a City Zip filly, got home in 1:10 4/5 with Desormeaux up.
News and notes:
Catching up on this one: Japan's Horse of the Year award for 2013 will be presented Monday to the connections of Lord Kanaloa, the crack sprinter who wound up his career with a smashing win in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint in December. This was no slam-dunk, as Lord Kanaloa beat out the likes of Orfevre, runner-up in the Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, and Gentildonna, winner of the Group 1 Japan Cup, among others. Orfevre and Gentildonna won divisional honors. A minor surprise was the selection of multiple Group 1 winner Meisho Mambo as 3-year-old filly of the year over Denim and Ruby, who just missed beating Gentildonna in the Japan Cup. Denim and Ruby defeated Meisho Mambo in the Group 2 Rose Stakes in September.