Kentucky Derby prospects are back in the spotlight this week as Tamarando looks for a score in the El Camino Real Derby in California.
Also on tap during the first two days of the Presidents' Day weekend are the Grade Barbara Fritchie for fillies and mares at Laurel Park; distance turf races for both males and distaffers at Gulfstream Park; a classy sprint for 3-year-olds and, weather permitting, stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Looking forward to Dubai World Cup night, only seven weeks away:
-- In Meydan, dual South African Horse of the Year, Variety Club, easily won Thursday's Group 3 Firebreak Stakes. Although it was only 1,600 meters, the horse is seen as a contender for the $10 million Dubai World Cup. And in the co-featured Group 3 UAE 2,000 Guineas, Godolphin runner, Long John, had his photo taken and becomes a contender for the UAE Derby. Long John also landed the 2013 Group 1 Caulfield Guineas in Australia and has the look of a potential globetrotting star.
See RICHARD GROSS's comprehensive Dubai wrapup, replete with the usual clever plays on words, in Monday's UPI Thoroughbred Racing Roundup.
-- In Japan, Gentildonna is among the prospects for Sunday's Group 2 Kyoto Kinen. The 5-year-old Deep Impact mare made a big impact in winning the Group 1 Japan Cup last fall, holding off Denim and Rubies in deep stretch. The race could be a prep for a repeat try in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic, where she finished second last year behind the ill-fated St Nicholas Abbey. Among the others in Sunday's 2,200-meters turf affair are Trailblazer, Tosen Ra and To the Glory.
-- In Hong Kong, Sunday's HK Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize continues the rich speed series at Sha Tin. It looks like a quartet from the John Moore stable against Lucky Nine -- provided the latter is back in form after a disappointing seventh in last December's Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint. Moore's star, Sterling City, will be going shorter than his preferred distance in the 1,200-meters event. But Moore said he expects a good run from the fifth-place finisher in the international race. Should his optimism be vindicated, he is hoping for an invitation to the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen on World Cup night at Meydan.
Despite late-week cancellations from Turfway Park in Kentucky to the East Coast, and ever hopeful that spring eventually will arrive, let's focus back on the 3-year-olds with an eye on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
A month ago, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer looked to have the nation's top Kentucky Derby prospect in Shared Belief, crowned the 2-year-old champ of 2013 on the basis of three straight wins. But Shared Belief is on the shelf with hoof issues and Hollendorfer will use Saturday's $200,000, Grade II El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields to see if Tamarando can fill the void. The Bertrando colt has plenty of experience, with three wins, two seconds and two thirds from nine career starts. His wins include the Grade I Del Mar Futurity last Sept. 9. But he finished third in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park in December -- a race Shared Belief won going away. Looked at another way, Tamarando finished only 1 1/4 lengths behind Candy Boy in the Cash Call. And Candy Boy went on to win last weekend's Grade II Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, vaulting to the top end of the Derby standings. Saturday's seven rivals won't be mistaken for Shared Belief or Candy Boy. However, note that Dance With Fate finished second in the Del Mar Futurity and also was second in the Grade I FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita, a race in which Tamarando settled for third. Hollendorfer also has Puppy Manners, a Kitten's Joy colt who was fourth in the California Derby over the Golden Gate all-weather track.
Sunday's $200,000, Grade III San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita is run at 7 furlongs and attracted six entries. Kobe's Back won at first asking last year, then finished second in the Grade III Hollywood Prevue, 7 3/4 lengths back of Shared Belief. But when trainer John Sadler stretched him out to 1 1/16 miles in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity on Dec. 14, he had a nightmare trip from Post Position No. 13, caught wide and then clipping heels, and finished tenth. The San Vicente could be a "restart" for the gray Flatter colt. Papa Turf was fourth in the Hollywood Prevue and most recently second behind the promising Indianapolis in the 6-furlongs San Pedro Stakes over the Santa Anita strip. The others are recent maiden winners except for Grazen's Hope, who is 2-for-2 against lesser, and Rprettyboyfloyd, who has finished second in both his previous starts.
Fillies and mares
Fiftyshadesofhay will try to get her 4-year-old campaign going against six rivals in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Maria Stakes at Santa Anita. The Pulpit filly showed lots of promise last season and won three graded stakes. She finished fourth in the Grade II La Canada Stakes in her first outing of 2014, beaten less than a neck. Let Faith Arise, who was second in the La Canada, is back for this event, as is Ondine, who finished third in that one. Iotapa, in the money in all seven career starts, also is a likely choice. Golden Production has won four straight but steps up to graded stakes company.
Don't Tell Sophia drew the rail for Sunday's $100,000 Bayakoa Stakes at Oaklawn Park -- a race she won during an outstanding 2013 campaign. That year also included a win in the Grade II Chilukki Stakes at Churchill Downs and a third place finish in the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, behind On Fire Baby and Tiz Miz Sue. She is fresh off a season-opening win here. The other nine look to have their hands full, though Sisterly Love and Dixie Strike are graded stakes winners in Canada. Our Domain won the Bungalow Stakes for Illinois-breds at Fairmount Park last fall and also scored in her season-opener at Oaklawn against allowance foes. Bryan's Jewel has turned in some quality efforts at this level.
Sweet N Discreet, who outran her pedigree in winning the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff at 9 furlongs in her last start, gets another test at 1 1/16 miles in Sunday's $100,000, Grade II Sabin Stakes at Gulfsteam Park. She is trained by Todd Pletcher, who also has Private Ensign, who won an allowance race last month off a long layoff. Among the competition is Devil's Cave, who has been no worse than second in four starts since she switched from the turf to the dirt.
The Classic Division
Six signed up for Saturday's $100,000 Stymie Stakes at Aqueduct, going 9 furlongs on the inner track, weather permitting. The Chad Brown-trained Mail has two straight wins over the track. Farhaan, a Shadwell Stables import, looks to be getting better with several U.S. starts under his girth. Jonesy Boy has a local stakes win. Percussion keeps rapping on the door for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Seven are in the $100,000 John B. Campbell Handicap at 9 furlongs at Laurel Park on Saturday. Bold Curlin won both his starts in January, both of them over the course. Indian Jones finished second to Bold Curlin in the Native Dancer Stakes in his last start but was second in the Grade II Greenwood Cup at Parx Racing last fall and fifth in the Breeders' Cup Marathon. The others are allowance types.
None of the 10 set for the $100,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park on Saturday is a world-beater. But several have performed well in stakes, including graded stakes, around the Midwest. A good run here could be a ticket to better things in the immediate future.
An interesting cast of 10 is on hand for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Mac Diarmida Stakes at Gulfstream Park, carded for 1 3/8 miles. Alpha, who has had a roller coaster career on the dirt, gives the green course a try in his first start since a fourth-place finish in the Hawthorne Gold Cup in suburban Chicago on Nov. 30. Twilight Eclipse finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Turf but bounced back to win the Grade III W.L. McKnight at Calder before calling it a year. Amen Kitten comes off a third-place finish in the Grade I Hollywood Derby in December. Team Block's Illinois-bred Suntracer, another Kitten's Joy offspring, makes his first Florida start since 2011, when he was 1-for-2 in routes over the Gulfstream lawn. Dashing David, a Lemon Drop Kid colt, is making his first U.S. start after a so-so campaign in England. Bill Mott will saddle Slumber and he could wake up after some nice efforts in Grade I company.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III The Very One Stakes at Gulfstream Park got eight takers to 1 3/8 miles on the grass. Inimitable Romanee makes the first start of her southern sojourn after winding up 2013 with a win in the Grade III Long Island Handicap at Aqueduct three months ago. She does not win often but there are no tigers in the balance of the field. Preferential and Left a Message ran 1-2 in the Dowager at Keeneland in the fall.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Barbara Fritchie Handicap at Laurel Park got 10 entries, led by My Wandy's Girl.The 5-year-old Flower Alley mare finished second in this race last year, then finished second in the Grade II last April. After that, she was sidelined until December, when she finished fifth in the Garland of Roses Handicap at the Big A. Several of the others have run well enough in minor stakes but step up in class here. La Verdad has won five straight races on the New York circuit, dating back to her maiden win last May. Villette comes off three straight wins at Parx Racing. Winning Image has had her picture taken after five of her last seven starts.
Mother Nature willing, Oaklawn Park will finally get the $100,000 King Cotton Stakes up and running on Saturday. Ten are set for the 6-furlongs test on the dirt. Alsvid finished second in this race last year and makes his first 2014 start as part of an entry with Black Bear. Mico Margarita is a graded stakes winner and Picko's Pride in a local favorite who has finished worse than fourth only once in 17 career starts.