A few pieces of the Kentucky Derby puzzle fell into place in weekend racing while a showdown between sprinters went to a long shot.
On the Kentucky Oaks front, there were minor upsets in California and New York. But on Florida's Gulf Coast, form ruled.
Internationally, the Dubai-based horses are starting to sort themselves out for World Cup night, now less than two months away. And another Hong Kong star may have stamped his ticket to the desert.
Kentucky Derby trail
Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Withers Stakes at Aqueduct was billed as a virtual match race between two promising New York-breds -- Samraat and Uncle Sigh. And so it came to pass. Uncle Sigh showed the way with Samraat right behind and four others nowhere in the picture. At the quarter pole, Samraat moved to the lead and the two battled down the stretch until Samraat finally edged clear late to win by a length, remaining undefeated in four starts. It was 10 1/4 lengths back to Scotland in third. Samraat, a Noble Causeway gelding, finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:46.31 under Jose Ortiz -- 2 seconds faster than the winner of the earlier Busher Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Uncle Sigh, an Indian Charlie colt, now has a win and two seconds from three starts. Winning trainer Rick Violette said it's good to have a tough stretch battle "before you get to the bigger races. They have to learn how to fight ... . This was a tough race." He said he might wait for the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 5 for Samraat's next start. "If he's kind of kicking the walls down, he can come back in the Gotham" on March 1. Or, he said, he might opt for the Louisiana Derby on March 29. "There are a lot of options." Gary Contessa, trainer of Uncle Sigh, agreed about the value of a tough race. "Maybe he got me on experience today," Contessa said. "I look forward to 'Rocky II' ... Hopefully he comes back in the Gotham. I'll be there."
On the Florida Gulf Coast, another desperate stretch battle played out at the end of Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Twelve-to-one long shot Vinceremos got to the lead in the stretch after tracking pedestrian early fractions and Harpoon, with a late rush, fell just a nose short of catching him. Cousin Stephen made all the early going and held on for third. Vinceremos, a Pioneerof the Nile colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:47.34. Edgar Prado rode for trainer Todd Pletcher -- who also handles Harpoon. Vinceremos now has two straight wins after finishing second in his first race. "It was a great job on Edgar's part," said Randy Gullatt, racing manager for the winners. "We're learning about him every time." He suggested the $350,000, Grade II Tampa Bay Derby "would be the next logical race." Pletcher assistant Ginny DePasquale added, "A dead heat would have been perfect. You never know when they are going to step up to the plate and he [Vinceremos] obviously did it at the right time."
Wildcat Red had way too much for eight rivals in Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfsteam Park, rallying from a pace-stalking position to win by 4 3/4 lengths. Cee Z was second and Pablo Del Monte finished third. Vinceremos was cross-entered in this race but opted for the longer challenge across the peninsula. Wildcat Red, a Florida-bred D'wildcat colt, ran 7 furlongs in 1:22.21 with Javier Castellano aboard. He was turning back in distance after winning the 1-mile Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day. Despite that, trainer Jose Garoffalo said he will try to get Wildcat Red to go farther. "If you look at his pedigree, he doesn't show much stamina," the trainer said. "But the way he's training, the way he relaxes now, I think we could try him around two turns and see what happens." He said he is considering the Fountain of Youth, especially since Cairo Prince is expected to pass on that 1 1/16-mile event on Feb. 22.
Harry's Holiday took charge on the turn in Saturday's $60,000 96ROCK Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky and rocked on to an 8-length victory. Artemus Coalmine was the best of the rest, a nose in front of Bisque. Harry's Holiday, a Harlan's Holiday colt, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:16.72 with Rodney Prescott riding. It was his first race over an all-weather surface and his first stakes start. "We thought it was a good fit for him," said winning trainer Mike Maker, who shipped the colt up from Florida. Maker said Harry's Holiday may remain at Turfway to contest the John Battaglia Memorial on March 1, the final local prep for the Grade III Spiral Stakes.
Fashion Plate led all the way to a mild upset in Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita, holding off the previously unbeaten, even-money favorite, Streaming, by a half length under the wire. Arethusa was third with a late rush. Fashion Plate, a daughter of Old Fashioned, ran the mile on a fast track in 1:37.22 with Gary Stevens up. She was coming off her maiden win, scored Dec. 29 over the same track. "When they came to her, she really dug in and tried real hard," winning trainer Simon Callaghan said. "Gary put up a great ride ... . We'll look at the Santa Anita Oaks and, if she does well there, maybe we'll take her to Kentucky." Fashion Plate is owned by Arnold Zetcher and Michael Tabor. Streaming's trainer, Bob Baffert, said, "Turning for home, I thought we had it. That's why he [Stevens] is the best, though. He's tough."
Joint Return filed notice in Saturday's $100,000 Busher Stakes at Aqueduct that she's going to tax the patience of some rivals. The Include filly, a 7-1 long shot, raced at the back of the pack early, swung five-wide and ran by them all and on to a 4 1/4-length victory. Vero Amore was he best of the rest, with Ketel Twist third. The favorite, Ballylee, ran evenly and finished fifth. Joint Return ran 1 1/16 miles on the fast inner track in 1:48.49. She now has three straight wins after finishing third in her career bow. "We left there and she put me in a good position," winning rider Kendrick Carmouche said. "Being 4 1/2, 5 lengths off of it is a good place for her and I thought from there they couldn't beat her."
Please Explain certainly didn't need any excuses after Saturday's $100,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. The Curlin filly saved ground down the backstretch, found room on the rail to take the lead turning for home and won by a comfortable 6 lengths. Nesso was second and Light Bringer was a neck farther back in third. Please Explain, with Julien Leparoux in the irons, got 1 mile and 40 yards on a fast track in 1:44.94. She ran second twice at Churchill Downs and third once at Keeneland during her 2-year-old campaign and finally found the winner's circle in her first start of 2014 at Gulfstream Park. Trainer Tom Proctor said he wasn't counting his chickens before the race, although, "If you go somewhere, you have to be able to beat these kid of horses ... . This filly looks like she wants to go two turns and a couple of workouts over this track means a lot." He said he has no set plan for the filly.
Aragorn Ami overhauled pacesetting Euphrosyne heading around the stretch turn in Saturday's $100,000 Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park and the two battled to mid-stretch, when Aragorn Ami edged clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Ireland was third and the favorite, Kiss Moon, got home seventh. Aragorn Ami, a daughter of Aragorn, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:41.20 with Norberto Arroyo in the irons. A claim of foul against the winner for alleged stretch interference was disallowed. "For the first time on that track, I thought it was an extremely good performance," said winning trainer Josie Carroll. "It's a little bit of a tiring track and I thought, for her to win in that company, first time on that track, really showed her class." Carroll said there is a "good possibility" Aragorn Ami will stay in Arkansas for the 3-year-old filly series.
(By RICHARD GROSS)
A full month into the Dubai World Cup Carnival, fun yielded to serious business as a pair of Group 2 races presaging Dubai World Cup day runners highlighted Thursday's card at Meydan. Fields became larger and outcomes more interesting as trainers try to find which horses to point toward which Dubai World Cup Day races March 29.
Godolphin put another certified star in the winner's circle when Certify literally ran away with the featured Group 2 Cape Verdi Stakes over 1,600 meters on the turf. It was the fifth win without a defeat for the now 4-year-old daughter of Elusive Quality, returning to the track after sitting out her entire 3-year-old season due in part to a six-month suspension because of steroid use in Great Britain by her former trainer.
There was nothing elusive about the quality of her first run since 2012 as she was kept well back until the stretch run by a very confident Mickael Barzalona who pulled the trigger and shot past her small group of five quality rivals including eventual runner-up L'Amour De Ma Vie in the final 200 meters without ever using the whip. The 3/4-length hand-ride win was just 0.09 seconds off the track record at 1:36.09. The 2012 Cartier Champion 2-year-old filly in Europe scored her first Group 2 win in the UAE to go along with her previous Group 1, 2 and 3 victories in Great Britain.
"We always thought she was very good and she did that in the style of a classy filly," trainer Charlie Appleby said following the impressive effort. "Hopefully, she can go on to justify the ultra-high regard in which we have always held her."
The highly anticipated match had Certify pitted against new Godolphin hope Shuruq, the first filly to win the Al Maktoum Challenge 1 on the opening night of this year's Carnival. The new star took the early lead but faded in the stretch to an exhausted last-place finish.
The evening offered an unusual second turf feature, the 1,800-meter Al Rashidiya. Also unusual was a false start caused when the stalls failed to open in unison. The race got under way after a delay and a gate test and perennial-winning Meydan trainer Mike de Kock scored a one-two win for owner Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum and his sixth win in this event when Mujaarib, guided by Christophe Soumillon, was a neck better than stablemate Mushreq and jockey Dane O'Neill in a crowded 12-horse field.
Saxo Jack made it a double for Godolphin and jockey Barzalona, holding on for a half-length win over stablemate Haafaguinea in the 2,000-meter Potlines Trophy turf handicap. The 2012 UAE Derby winner, Daddy Long Legs again came up flat-footed, finishing 12th in the 14-horse field racing without the shoes trainer Mike de Kock believed were responsible for the horse clipping and cutting his own legs while running.
De Kock and Soumillon still gained a double when Zahee earned a 1-length win over Gold City and nine other fortune seekers in the 1,400-meter Casthouse Trophy handicap over the all-weather Tapeta. Veteran local trainer Satish Seemar was rewarded with a victory when Richard Mullen guided Ottoman Empire to a conquering 1-length win over String Theory in the Billet Trophy handicap across 1,900 meters on the all-weather.
The evening began with an excellent finish in the 1,000-meters Excellence Trophy handicap turf sprint as Saudi invader Alsaaeqah, with William Buick aboard, hung on by a short head over Beat Baby, who in turn, beat Medicean Man by only a neck with Abstraction finishing fourth, a neck ahead in the race over Racy. The win was the first in 39 attempts in the UAE for a horse raced by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud and the first win on the turf by 7-year-old Alsaaeqah.
Akeed Mofeed, making his first appearance since lifting the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Gold Cup in December, shrugged off a 133-pound impost to win Sunday's HK Group 3 Centenary Vase. Ashkiyr, toting 20 pounds less, mounted a late run but fell a neck short of catching Akeed Mofeed, who clearly was getting geared up for later objectives. "We knew we were the best horse in the race," winning trainer Richard Gibson said. "It was just a question of whether he'd had enough work ... . It was a good workout, which he needed." Gibson said the HK Group 1 Citibank Hong Kong Gold Cup in three weeks' time "is the No. 1 objective" although Akeed Mofeed also is entered for both the Group 1 Dubai World Cup and the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free on March 29. "After the Gold Cup, we'll make a decision about Dubai," Gibson said.
Back in the USA
Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Palos Verdes Stakes at Santa Anita looked like a match race beween Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Secret Circle and Met Mile victor Sahara Sky. But it was Wild Dude who rallied from off the pace and outfinished Secret Circle in the final yards to win by a neck. Sahara Sky was never involved and finished last of five despite some late effort. Wild Dude, one of three saddled by Jerry Hollendorfer, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.09. He is a 4-year-old colt by Wildcat Heir. Wild Dude won his third straight race but the Palos Verdes was his stakes debut. "Yes, it was a big step up for him," Hollendorfer said. "But he's been doing good and the race came up light so we decided to go with three horses instead of two." Hollendorfer also trains Sahara Sky and commented, "I hope nothing's wrong. I don't think it is." Secret Circle's trainer, Bob Baffert, said he thought his horse had the race won. "He ran well off the layoff. He just got beat," Baffert said. "I just don't think he saw that other horse."
Candyman E got by pacesetting favorite Dads Caps in the final yards to take Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Toboggan Stakes at Aqueduct by 3/4 length. Non Stop finished third. Candyman E, a 7-year-old Candy Ride gelding, ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:10.34 with Charles Lopez in the irons. It was his third straight victory. "The plan was to not let [Dads Caps] get away," winning trainer David Jacobson said. "Chuckie did a great job of stalking him, staying with him, and we were able to run him down in the last few jumps."
Filly & Mare Sprint
Lion D N A took the lead into the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 Correction Stakes for fillies and mares at Aqueduct, opened a daylight advantage and held off Delightful Quality at the end to win by a head. Masasi finished third. Lion D N A, a 4-year-old, Illinois-bred Lion Heart filly, finished 6 furlongs in 1:11.32 with Charles Lopez up. He now has three straight wins and, before that skein, had three straight second-place finishes.
Guys Reward got by the odds-on favorite, Salto, in deep stretch to upset Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Lambholm South Tampa Bay Stakes, winning by 1 1/2 lengths. Golden Sabre was third. Guys Reward, dispatched at odds of almost 15-1, ran 1 1/16 miles on yielding turf in 1:43.44 with Abdiel Jaen up. The 7-year-old son of Grand Reward had not won since taking the Grade II Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs in July 2012. Owner Michael Bruder said he was nervous about the course condition. But, he added, "I'm sure Dale [trainer Dale Romans] was confident or else he would have sent him somewhere else ... . He's had some hoof issues but we've finally got him to where he's right."
Winning Prize waited well behind breakaway leader Regally Ready in Saturday's $200,000, Grade I Arcadia Stakes at Santa Anita, got to even terms at mid-stretch and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Tom's Tribute put a neck in front of Regally Ready to get place money. Winning Prize, a 5-year-old, Argentine-bred son of Pure Prize, ran the mile on firm turf in 1:32.89 with Rafael Bejarano riding. The Neil Drysdale trainee picked up his second win in four tries since immigrating to the United States last year. It was his first start since Nov. 29. "There wasn't anywhere to run," Drysdale said of the layoff. "Plus, it's going to be a long year for him so there was no rush."
Kiss to Remember stalked the pace in Saturday's $60,000 Battle of New Orleans Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, rallied to the lead when prompted by jockey Rosie Napravnik and drew clear to win by 4 1/4 lengths over Mizzen Moon. Toni's Hollyday rallied from well back to finish third. Kiss to Remember, a Big Brown filly, ran about 5 1/2 furlongs on good turf in 1:05.80. Tom Amoss trains for owner Maggi Moss.
Wicked Tune stalked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint, then found running room inside to advance to a 3/4-length victory. Travelin Man came from last to finish second, 3/4 of a length better than Determinato. The favorite, Tightend Touchdown, was bumped at the start and never figured in the running, getting home eighth. Wicked Tune, a 7-year-old son of Concorde's Tune, ran 5 furlongs on good turf in 56.98 with Elvis Trujillo riding.
Louisiana Premier Night found no shortage of excitement for the state-breds. The track was fast and it was a night for favorites. Favorites won eight of the 12 races on the card and of those eight winners, six were odds-on. The stakes results:
In the marquee event, the $200,000 Championship, Sunbean continued to prove he's found his niche at the top of the Louisiana-bred heap. With Richard Eramia providing only light encouragement, the 4-year-old Brahms gelding, the prohibitive favorite, easily went by the leaders in the lane and drew off to win by 4 lengths. Hit the Road Lee was second with Populist Politics filling out the trifecta. Sunbean ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.04. That broke the stakes record set by the renowned Star Guitar in 2011 in the third of his four consecutive Premier Night Championship victories.
Sittin At the Bar provided an equally popular victory in the $100,000 Matron, stalking the pace, then clearing to win by 2 lengths over Wire Me Bessie. Fast City was third. Sittin At the Bar, a 4-year-old Into Mischief filly, ran 5 furlongs in 57.67 seconds with Colby Hernandez up.
Tensas Harbor delivered a rare upset victory in the $150,000 Distaff, putting a head in front of Little Ms Protocol under the wire. The favorite and pacesetter, Guadalupe High, faded to finish third. Tensas Harbor, a 4-year-old Private Vow filly, got 1 mile in 1:38.63 for jockey Mark Guidry.
Another heavy favorite, Heitai, won easily in the $100,000 Sprint, making all the going before a 5-length victory. Knockitdownhard and Folsom Fire were second and third. Heitai, a 4-year-old gelding by Fusaichi Pegasus, finished 5 furlongs in 56.69 under Diego Saenz.
Yet another favorite, Ide Be Cool, was the easiest of winners in the $125,000 Prince for 3-year-olds, opening up in the lane to score by 9 lengths. Angel Avenger was along for second and Coteau Ridge finished third. Ide Be Cool, an Ide gelding, ran 7 furlongs in 1:24.95 with Chris Rosier up.
Closing Report closed late to take the $125,000 Starlet for 3-year-old fillies by 1 3/4 lengths as the mutuel favorite. Hatainsroyalrouj led briefly and held second with Jais Pal third. Closing Report, with Rosie Napravnik up, ran 7 furlongs in 1:26.90.
Warm Breeze led from the early going in Saturday's $60,000 Happy Ticket Stakes for fillies and mares and just did hang on to win by a nose over the onrushing favorite, Same Cross. It was another 9 1/4 lengths back to Ire in third. Warm Breeze, a 4-year-old Street Sense filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.33 with Leandro Goncalves in the irons.
Sam Houston Race Park
Wampas Kitty got through between horses in the stretch run in Saturday's $50,000 Tomball Stakes for Texas-bred distaffers and kicked away to a 2 3/4-length victory. The odds-on favorite, Smiles Golden Song, was second and Mescalaress finished third. Wampas Kitty, a 6-year-old daughter of Captain Countdown, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:44.37 for jockey Alfredo Contreras.
Homerun Berti, the odds-on favorite, showed the way in Saturday's $50,000 Budweiser Handicap and won by 2 1/4 lengths over City Sage. Grand Move was another 4 lengths back in third. Homerun Berti, an 8-year-old Forestry gelding, ran 5 furlongs on a fast track in 56.45 seconds with Ry Eikleberry riding.
News and notes
The Kentucky Derby may be "presented by YUM! Brands" but it's also "dominated by Todd Pletcher". At least, Pletcher dominates the early Triple Crown nominations with 42 of the 413 3-year-olds on that list coming from his operation. That total would fill the starting gate twice, with two "also eligibles" left over and breaks Pletcher's own record of 32 nominations in 2013. This year's list also includes 18 from Bob Baffert's barn, 13 from Steve Asmussen and 12 from D. Wayne Lukas. Despite his proliferation of nominations, Pletcher has sent out only three winners in Triple Crown races -- the filly Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont Stakes, Super Saver in the 2010 Kentucky Derby and Palace Malice in last year's Belmont. Early nominations cost $600 per horse. Late-bloomers can be made eligible for $6,000 each any time on or before March 22.