Will Take Charge, last year's 3-year-old champion, kicks off his season Sunday against a star-studded field at Gulfstream Park.
The $500,000, Grade I Donn Handicap at 9 furlongs also attracted graded stakes winners from all points of the compass. It anchors a big weekend of racing at the South Florida track, also featuring important early-season stakes for sprinters and turf runners, including the third "last" start for champion sprinter Groupie Doll.
Out west, Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita is an important step on the Kentucky Derby trail but also puts a spotlight on a non-participant -- last year's 2-year-old champion, Shared Belief. The colt has suffered hoof problems and missed another scheduled workout this week. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has been tight-lipped about his condition, prognosis and schedule.
Santa Anita also has graded stakes on the turf and the dirt, featuring the 2014 debut of Game On Dude.
At Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, the sprint crowd will contest the $100,000 King Cotton Stakes at 6 furlongs.
In Dubai, some important candidates for World Cup Night -- and for the summer's top races in Europe and the UK -- were on display Thursday.
Let's ignore the snow, ice and cold outside our winter-frosted windows and start with the Donn Handicap.
The Handicap Horses
Will Take Charge could start a very credible Horse of the Year campaign with a win in Donn, which was moved from Saturday to Sunday to accommodate television schedules. The 4-year-old Unbridled's Song colt missed by just a nose to Mucho Macho Man in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic after a wide trip into the stretch. He then finished his 3-year-old campaign by beating older horses in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 29. He also won the Grade I Travers and the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby. Despite his formidable resume, there is no shortage of opposition in the 1 1/8-miles Donn. The other 10 include Revolutionary, winner of last year's Louisiana Derby and recent allowance winner over the track; Lea and Neck 'n Neck, the first- and third-place finishers in the recent Grade III Hal's Hope; graded stakes winner River Seven; the hard-knocking Godolphin runner Romansh; and Bourbon Courage, who was second in this race last year.
Saturday also marks the seasonal debut for Game On Dude, who flopped again in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic, then came up just a head short of Will Take Charge in the Clark. Game On Dude, now 7, is among seven entered in the $300,000, Grade II San Antonio Stakes at 9 furlongs over the Santa Anita main track. The Awesome Again gelding won six straight graded stakes -- including the San Antonio -- coming into the 2013 Breeders' Cup but folded early in that race for the second straight year. He has not raced since the Clark. Also back from a short break is Blueskiesnrainbows. He won the Grade III Native Diver and the Grade II San Pasqual before hibernating. Willyconker, a Grade I winner two years ago, won a claiming race at Hollywood Park in his last start but found no takers for the $40,000 tag and now makes a rare start on the main track. Majestic Harbor has bounced around but jumped up to finish second at long odds in the San Pasqual in his last start.
Kentucky Derby preps
Even without Shared Belief, Saturday's Robert B. Lewis should provide some solid guidance about the 3-year-old contenders out west. Bob Baffert saddles Midnight Hawk, a Midnight Lute colt who is undefeated in two starts, including the Grade III Sham Stakes in his last start. The Sham was run at 1 mile. He adds a sixteenth for Saturday's effort. Midnight Lute shows great promise as a sire and continued improvement by this colt would add greatly to his luster -- and value. Among the rivals is Candy Boy, a Candy Ride colt who posted his first win going 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood Park in November, then finished second to Shared Belief in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity over that same track. Tamarando, another promising California sophomore, was third in the Futurity. The other five in Saturday's fray all are playing catch-up but, at the same time, all have shown some ability.
Kentucky Oaks trail
Only five signed up for Saturday's $100,000 Dearly Precious Stakes at Aqueduct. At 6 furlongs, it's unlikely to be a factor on the Oaks trail. Still, it's worth watching if only for the presence of Gracer, an Exchange Rate filly who looks like she could be a force in this division at sprint distances. She has three wins, a second and a third from five tries including stakes wins at Penn National and Laurel Park in her last two outings. Bridget Maloney, a Pollard's Vision filly, is 3-for-3 with two of those wins over the course.
Sunday's $300,000, Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap features eight grass specialists. Summer Front comes off a win in the Grade II Fort Lauderdale in his 5-year-old debut. Boisterous makes his seasonal debut after winding up last season with three disappointing runs. Tetradrachm has finished twice in graded stakes since shipping south for the winter. Nikki's Sandcastle has run well on the Florida green. Charming Kitten has been knocking on the door and could be better at age 4 with a local win last month. Imagining won three of his last four starts in 2013 for trainer Shug McGaughey. One to watch: Amira's Prince, an Irish-bred son of Teofilo, came to the United States to race in December of 2012 and promptly ran off four straight wins, culminating in the Grade II Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Handicap at Fair Grounds. He hasn't been seen in the afternoon since that March race but has been working steadily at Payson Park for trainer Bill Mott.
A talented field of 14 is entered for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Marcos at 1 1/4 miles over the Santa Anita turf. The more accomplished include Jeranimo, Lucayan, Vagabond Shoes, Temeraine, Utopian and Slim Shadey. Segway segued nicely from the optional claiming ranks into a third-place finish in the Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup in his last outing. Artic North, a 4-year-old North Light gelding is one of the younger starters and shows promise. Ditto the French-bred 4-year-old Si Sage. Some of the others seem ambitiously placed.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $150,00, Grade III Suwannee River Stakes at Gulfstream Park got eight takers. Caroline Thomas makes her seasonal debut after winding up 2013 with a third-place finish in the GradeI Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland. Riposte raced with mixed success in England, Ireland and France as a 3-year-old and makes her first start for trainer Bill Mott. The rest are a somewhat motley crew, but well-matched.
There's a really interesting field of 11 in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Gulfstream Park Sprint Stakes at 7 furlongs -- a promising newcomer versus some veterans and several runners at various stages of comeback efforts. Catron, a 4-year-old Distorted Humor colt, has made only two starts but won them both, most recently in a 6-furlongs sprint over the course and has Javier Castellano up for trainer Todd Pletcher -- not a combination to be ignored. Jackson Bend, now 7, picked up in 2014 where he left off last year, finishing second last month in the Grade III Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream. Last year's winner, Fort Loudon, also is in the field but hasn't done well since that 2013 triumph. Singanothersong comes off a victory in the Grade III Mr. Prospector Stakes but drew the No. 10 gate. On the rail is Laugh Track, the long shot place horse in last fall's Breeders' Cup Sprint. Remember Reveron? He finished second to Take Charge Indy in the 2012 Florida Derby, then was out of action for a year and eight months and has been improving in three recent starts. Falling Sky finished last in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, was away for six months and showed signs of life in his last start. Brujo De Olleros finished a well-beaten third in last fall's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile behind the gilded pair of Goldencents and Golden Ticket. This should be interesting.
Seven runners, two of them coupled in the wagering, are set for Saturday's $100,000 King Cotton Stakes at 6 furlongs over the Oaklawn Park strip. Alsvid, part of the entry, finished second in this race last year. The other half, Black Bear, is a 4-year-old Midnight Lute colt (see above) who has won six of 10 starts and steps up a bit in class. Continuing the theme, Anillo finished third in his last race, the Midnight Lute Stakes at Santa Anita. And in the outside gate is Picko's Pride, who briefly bounced onto the fringes of the 2011 Arkansas Derby picture with a fourth-place finish in the Grade III Southwest Stakes but then bounced back off with an eighth-place showing in the Grade II Rebel. He finished second to Justin Phillip last spring in the Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn and has won five of his last eight races, dating back to 2012.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Champion distaff sprinter Groupie Doll will make her final start in Sunday's $150,000, Grade III Hurricane Bertie Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs at Gulfstream Park. This is the third time Groupie Doll will make her "last" start. She was sold to Mandy Pope as a broodmare prospect after her first "last" race -- the Breeder's Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Pope then changed her mind and gave Groupie Doll "one last start" in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. She finished fourth there, enduring a rough trip in nasty weather. So Pope elected to try a third time to wind up the champ's career. "It was horrible and I hated to end her career like that," Pope said of the Aqueduct race. "It was cold. Not a fun day over all. I figured down here, with the nice weather, people will be able to be outside and see her and enjoy her. Hopefully, it will be a grand day to have her last race." The 6-year-old daughter of Bowman's Band likely will be the favorite in her final "last" start. Her six rivals include some speed to set up her late run and the No. 1 post position shouldn't pose any problems for jockey Rajiv Maragh.
(RICHARD GROSS will have a full report in Sunday's roundup)
Godolphin landed both Thoroughbred features at Thursday's meeting at Meydan. Prince Bishop took the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round Two, holding off stablemate African Story -- who might be a good chance to improve in a few weeks' time on his fifth-place showing in the 2013 Dubai World Cup. Meanwhile, it was Prince Bishop's night as he took the lead with 600 meters to run and held on, winning in track-record time. "I like this horse and I think he has more to offer," said winning rider Kieren Fallon. "I really thought I went for home too soon and he was getting a bit tired and a bit lonely. But, luckily, we hit the line in time."
Prince Bishop is trained by Saeed Bin Suroor, who also saddled Ihtimal to victory earlier in the card in the UAE 1,000 Guineas, sweeping past the early leaders to win easily. Ihtimal was impressive last year in England, winning the Group 2 May Hill Stakes, then finishing a good third in the Group 1 Fillies Mile. Winning rider Silvestre e Sousa, who also partnered African Story, said Ihtimal "has a bit of class and her only defeats have been behind very good fillies."