Will Take Charge, the 3-year-old champion of 2013, couldn't catch the speedy leader in Sunday's Grade I Donn Handicap. And at Santa Anita, both Game On Dude and Blueskiesnrainbows burned out in a pace duel in Saturday's Grade II San Antonio Stakes. Their failures opened the way for some promising newcomers to the top of the handicap ranks.
All was not lost for the chalk players. Groupie Doll, a two-time champion and two-time Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner, dominated a handful of rivals in Florida while winning her third and probably final "final" start. And, in New York, Gracer continued to prove her prowess in the ranks of sprinting 3-year-old fillies.
Candy Boy won the weekend's top Kentucky Derby prep while a few of his rivals, including Midnight Hawk, ran well enough to move along the Road to the Roses.
Meanwhile, bad weather forced cancellations across parts of the Midwest and East -- including the far East. Tokyo's Sunday meeting, including the Group 3 Tokyo Shimbun Hai, was snowed out and rescheduled for Friday.
Hoping it's nicer where you are, read on:
The Classic division
Sunday's $500,000, Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park capped a weekend where upsets were the rule rather than the exception. Lea challenged for the lead early in the run down the backstretch, battled around the turn, finally opened a good lead and held off the favorite, Will Take Charge, to win by 1 1/2 lengths. With the rest of the better fancied rivals struggling, it was another 9 1/4 lengths back to 44-1 shot Viramundo in third. Lea went to the post at odds of 5-1. Revolutionary finished seventh, River Seven as 10th and Romansh got home last of 11. Lea, a 5-year-old son of First Samurai, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in track-record time of 1:46.86 with Joel Rosario aboard. Lea was coming off a victory in the Grade III Hal's Hope Stakes at 1 mile over the course in his first start of the year. "He just never quit running," Rosario said of Sunday's effort. "I was very happy turning for home. I never worried about Will Take Charge coming from behind." Bill Mott, who took over training duties last fall, commented, "It's a long year and the big races are at the end of the year and there's a lot of good racing in between. Right now, I'd love to point him to the Whitney at Saratoga." Will Take Charge's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, noted his horse was caught in a little traffic. "That's just horse racing," he said. "They had to set a track record to beat us, so that's all you need to know."
In California, Game On Dude and Blueskiesnrainbows burned out contesting the lead in Saturday's $300,000, Grade II San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita and were nowhere to be found at the end. Instead, Blingo, at 16-1 odds, got home first, running by 26-1 shot Imperative in the late going to score by a half length. American Blend was third at 19-1. There was bridge-jumper money in the show pool on one or both of the under-performers as the payoffs in that column were seriously inflated. Blingo, a 5-year-old Artie Schiller colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:47.95 with Aaron Gryder up for the first time. It was his first top-three showing in a graded stakes. "I was hoping for a hot pace today and I was real happy with the first eighth of a mile," Gryder said. Mike Smith, who rode Game On Dude, admitted the early fractions were too fast "based on where we finished. When you go that fast, you pay for it. And we both paid for it." He said he was unwilling to take back, fearing that would give Blueskiesnrainbows a clear shot to win on an uncontested lead. "Maybe I don't win either way," he added. Jerry Moss, co-owner of Blingo, said Gryder "rode him great. It was a perfectly timed ride ... . It was his first time on but it's his horse from now on." That ongoing assignment could include the Santa Anita Handicap next time up. "That's what we're hoping," Moss said.
Kentucky Derby trail
Candy Boy saved ground into the stretch turn in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes, swung out three-wide and prevailed in a stiff stretch battle. Chitu pressed the pace, led for a time in the stretch and yielded grudgingly to lose by a half length. The favorite, Midnight Hawk, was in the thick of the battle until the final yards, then tired and finished third, 1 1/4 lengths farther back. Candy Boy, a Candy Ride colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:41.83 with Gary Stevens up. Candy Boy was making his first start since finishing second in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park Dec. 14. Trainer John Sadler said Stevens moved prematurely that day but rode perfectly in the Lewis. "Now he knows him a little better," Lewis said of Stevens. "He's been on him a couple of times in the morning so we felt good going into today's race. Stevens said Candy Boy is "the No. 1 draft choice for me. That was quite a performance he just put on against some pretty nice 3-year-old colts." Chitu, a Henny Hughes colt, made two starts in December and won them both. Jockey Martin Garcia said he "took a misstep" soon after the start. Midnight Hawk, a son of Midnight Lute, also won both his previous starts, including the Grade 3 Sham Stakes last time out. Bob Baffert trains both Chitu and Midnight Hawk and said he was happy with the effort from both.
On a weekend with its share of big upsets, Gracer more than lived up to her odds-on favorite status in Saturday's $100,000 Dearly Precious Stakes at Aqueduct. With Alex Cintron up, the Exchange Rate filly blasted right to the lead and blazed away, winning by 10 1/4 lengths. Sustainable beat the other three with Go West Marie third. Gracer finished 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:10.36, ridden out. It was her third straight win, following a third-place showing in the Grade 2 Matron Stakes at Belmont. Overall, she has four wins from six career starts. "It appeared to be very easy for her," winning trainer Tony Dutrow said. "She broke well and went very easily around there. I've watched a 1-9 horse get beat so many times. They all have to run around there. Nothing's taken for granted in this business."
Be Proud, the odds-on favorite, had no trouble with a quintet of would-be rivals in Saturday's $65,000 California Oaks at Golden Gate Fields. Leading from the start, the Proud Citizen filly kicked clear to win by 3 lengths. Kris Furillo and Tiz Kissable fleshed out the trifecta. Be Proud, with Russell Baze in the irons, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:47.62.
Lochte upset Sunday's $300,000, Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, saving ground into the stretch, slipping through inside and then clearing to win by 2 3/4 lengths at odds of nearly 40-1. Imagining rallied from last of eight to finish second and Amira's Prince finished third. Lochte, a 4-year-old Medaglia d'Oro gelding, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:45.67 with Orlando Bocachica in the irons. He needed seven tries to get to the winner's circle but now has won three of his last four starts. Sunday's race was his first stakes start. "It's like they say after the Super Bowl. 'I'm going to Disneyland,'" winning trainer Marcus Vitali said. "I talked it over with the owner and we were taking our chance here. His numbers were going up and up ... . I didn't go into this expecting to come out on top. But I surely hoped I would."
Vagabond Shoes raced wide most of the way in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Marcos Stakes at Santa Anita, came five-wide into the stretch and rallied past the speedy ones to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Si Sage finished second, also with a late run, and Lucayan was third. Vagabond Shoes, a 7-year-old, Irish-bred gelding by Beat Hollow, ran 1 1/4 miles on firm turf in 1:58.88 with Victor Espinoza at the controls. It was his second win from nine starts since moving to the United Stakes. That stretch also includes a fifth-place finish in last fall's Breeders' Cup Turf. "He's a nice horse," winning trainer John Sadler said. "He can run a few different distances but this was the one I wanted. He ran a really good race in the Breeders' Cup but this looked like his comfort zone." Jeranimo, who finished fifth, "just didn't fire today," trainer Mike Pender said.
Filly & Mare Turf
Parranda set a pressured pace into the final bend in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Suwannee River Stakes at Gulfstream Park, worked clear when given the cue by jockey Jose Lezcano and went on to win by 2 lengths. Riposte came from last in a field of seven to take second and the favorite, Abaco, ran evenly to finish third. Parranda, a 5-year-old English Channel mare out of the Rahy mare Dynamic Feature, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:49.07. "She loves it here. I wish the meet wasn't going to end," winning trainer Roberto Garcia said. "We'll see what happens now and look at our options."
Falling Sky led from the start to win Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Gulfstream Park Sprint Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths. But the pari-mutuel sky really fell when Narvaez, at odds of 139-1, rallied from last of 11 to take second, a half length in front of Brujo de Olleros. The favorite, Catron, undefeated in only two previous starts, was a head farther back in fourth as the $1 trifecta paid $5,077.60. Other prominent names in the field: Laugh Track finished seventh, Jackson Bend ninth and Fort Loudon 10th. Falling Sky, a 4-year-old Lion Heart colt ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:20.65 with Luis Saez in the irons. Falling Sky finished last of 19 in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, then was off until November and -- as noted here Thursday -- had been improving steadily for trainer George Weaver. Narvaez finished fourth in last year's Florida Derby and did little in route races after that. He did show promise when shortened up to 6 1/2 furlongs in his last previous start.
Saturday's $100,000 King Cotton Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas fell victim to a third straight day of weather-related cancellations. The good news from Hot Springs is that reallocation of purse money from canceled dates, as well as good results from early in the season, led to a hefty purse hike, announced Friday.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Groupie Doll finally wound up her illustrious career with a victory in Sunday's $200,000, Grade III Hurricane Bertie Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The 6-year-old Bowman's Band mare, a two-time champion and Breeders' Cup winner, got the fast early pace she needed, surged around all six rivals and left them in her dust. The final margin of victory was 7 lengths and could have been more if jockey Rajiv Maragh hadn't taken her in hand through the final sixteenth. She ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:14.68, missing the track record by only 0.24 second. Groupie Doll was sold for breeding after she won last fall's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint but her new owner, Mandy Pope, decided she would have one more race -- the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. But things didn't work out that day, so Groupie Doll got one more "last" chance Sunday and made the most of it. She retires now with 12 wins from 23 starts and earnings of more than $2.6 million. "I'm in tears," Pope said. "Very excited. I'm so happy for everyone." Asked if Groupie Doll is really retired this time, Pope said, "That was the plan and it would be nice to stick to it." Trainer Buff Bradley, who was retained by Pope after the sale, said, "I wish she could keep racing this year, then retire. But I understand the business part of it."
(By RICHARD GROSS)
A two-legged veteran upstaged the four-legged equine stars as Godolphin lead trainer Saeed bin Suroor corralled his 10th Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 victory after snaring his 7th UAE 1000 Guineas and a Nova Stakes handicap win at Meydan Thursday.
Smallish filly Ihtimal started bin Suroor's big night running away from Mike de Kock-trained Mensoora by 3 1/4 lengths with Silvestre de Sousa aboard in the listed UAE 1,000 Guineas over 1,600 meters on the all-weather Tapeta.
"Ihtimal is small but she has a good turn of foot and a mile suits her nicely," the winning trainer explained. "She could have one more race at Meydan and then the target may be the English 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket."
Excellent Result got just that with de Sousa up again in a 3/4-length win over de Kock's Star Empire after 2,810 meters on the turf in the Nova Stakes handicap. The 4-year-old Shamardal colt was held well back in the 14-horse field until de Sousa made up ground inside along the rail, then moved wide to overtake Certerach in the final furlong to gain the win. It was the first time the colt stepped up to this distance and the winning jockey had some concerns.
"I was worried about the pace because Excellent Result has to be switched off in his races," de Sousa confided. "I wasn't pleased with the way the race was run but I was pleased with the way he finished."
"We will now aim him at a Group 3 then hopefully the Dubai Gold Cup on World Cup night," bin Suroor said of his plan.
A 1-2 finish was the crowning touch on the evening for bin Suroor as Prince Bishop with Kieren Fallon up held onto a 1 1/4-lengths advantage and a storybook ending over stablemate African Story for bin Suroor's 10th score in the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 over 1,900 meters on the all-weather.
"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," said a relieved Fallon.
Fourth-place finisher Hunter's Light won both the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 and Round 3 last year, but was never a real factor in the race. Eight-year-old globetrotting French star and 2011 Melbourne Cup-winner Dunaden ran his 45th race, but had a forgettable first outing on the Meydan Tapeta, finishing 6th in the 16-horse field, 8 lengths off the winner.
While the evening belonged to bin Suroor and Godolphin, the Irish also enjoyed good luck in the card's three other Thoroughbred races. Ireland's Eastern Rules took only a week off after a game third-place finish in last week's 1,400-meter Casthouse Trophy, but still managed to rule by a neck over fellow Irish runner Mustaheel in the 1,400-meters all-weather IPIC Trophy handicap. Irish trainer Michael Halford teamed with countryman jockey Shane Foley for the win.
Trainer David Marnane and jockey Fergal Lynch scored another victory for the green on the green when He's No Saint was blessed with a 2-length win over Make It Reel in the 1,400-meter Meydan Classic turf conditions race.
Irish 7-year-old gelding Mont Ras finished off the card with a half-length final score for the Emerald Isle over El Estruendoso in the Cepsa Mile turf handicap over 1,600 meters on the turf. The Irish luck in the finale consigned a de Kock horse to a runner-up finish for the third time on the evening.
Sky High Gal led from the early stages in Sunday's $75,000 Wishing Well Stakes and won a prolonged stretch duel by a head over Birdlover, a neck over Fanticola in third and yet another head over Purim's Dancer. Sky High Gal, a 4-year-old Leroidesanimaux filly, ran about 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course in 1:22.22 with Corey Nakatani up.
Jaycito broke a tad slowly in Sunday's $50,000 Curribot Stakes but quickly made up the lost advantage and eventually drew off to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Dry Summer was second and Smack Ridge finished third. Jaycito, a 6-year-old son of Victory Gallop, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.93 under Ry Eikleberry.
African Rose dueled for the lead in Saturday's $50,000 El Diario Handicap for fillies and mares and finally edged clear late to win by 2 lengths over persistent rival Cottagecupcake. Wine Thief was third. African Rose, a 5-year-old Bwana Charlie mare, got 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.05 with Alfredo Juarez Jr. in the irons.
Tampa Bay Downs
Risky Rachel rallied to the lead three-wide in Saturday's $50,000 Manatee Stakes, quickly opened a big lead and held on to win by 3 3/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Cookie was second and Ambush finished third. Risky Rachel, a 7-year-old Limehouse mare, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.48 with Daniel Centeno in the irons.
Sam Houston Race Park
Triumph and Song triumphed in a major way in Saturday's $50,000 Bucharest Stakes for Texas-breds. Leading all the way, the 5-year-old My Golden Song gelding opened a big lead in the lane and coasted home first by 2 1/2 lengths. Solar Charge was second and Ishararuler got show money. Triumph and Song, with Junior Chacaltana up, ran 5 furlongs on firm turf in 57.55 seconds.
Elevated led into the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Christopher Elser Memorial Stakes for 3-year-old colts and geldings and won by a nose over entrymate Sonny Inspired. Geaux Mets was third and Back Alley completed the trifecta. Elevated, a Jump Start colt, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.48 with Frankie Pennington in the irons.
Aunt Elipsis kicked away in the stretch to win Saturday's $75,000 Donna Freyer Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 3 3/4 lengths. Chubbianna was second, 2 3/4 lengths better than Je Suis Enchantee. Aunt Elipsis, a Successful Appeal filly, got home in 1:17.54 under Luis Hiraldo.