The Kentucky Derby pot starts to simmer this weekend, with valuable races in Florida and Louisiana.
There also are important events for 3-year-old fillies targeting the Kentucky Oaks, a smattering of races for the handicap crowd and some potentially informative races for turf runners.
On the international front, a rare Group 1 dirt race in Japan has implications for Dubai World Cup night. And, in Hong Kong, reigning stars Military Attack and Akeed Mofeed have at it again in the Hong Kong Gold Cup.
Let's have at it.
Kentucky Derby preps
The "Road to the Roses" picks up speed this weekend as the two top races offer 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the winner, 20 for second, 10 for third and five for fourth. Earlier races were worth only 10-4-2-1 to the top finishers. The points are used to determine the starting field for the Kentucky Derby if more than the maximum 20 are entered.
The huge fields entered for this weekend's tilts indicate some sorting-out is in order.
Thirteen are entered for Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Fountain of Youth at 1 1/16 miles on the Gulfstream dirt. Although the field includes some of the top Florida Derby hopefuls, the size of the field indicates no one is scared of the favorites. Todd Pletcher's duo of Commissioner and the highweight, We Miss Artie, drew the 1-2 posts, respectively. Commissioner, an A.P. Indy colt, comes off a season-opening win over the course. We Miss Artie, by Artie Schiller, comes off a tight, second-place finish behind Storming Inti in the Kitten's Joy Stakes on the grass and has yet to show much on real dirt. Wildcat Red has won three and finished second twice in two starts and won the Grade III Hutcheson Stakes at 7 furlongs in his most recent outing. Cee Z was a close second in the Hutcheson and returns here. General a Rod is 2-for-3, including a win in the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day in his last start. Medal Count, by Dynaformer, comes off an allowance win. One to watch: Top Billing, a Curlin colt trained by Shug McGaughey who is 2-for-3 and won a 1 1/16-miles allowance race emphatically in his last trip to the track.
Sixteen entries for Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds left two on the also-eligible list and the likely favorite, Vicar's In Trouble, in the No. 14 gate. Vicar's In Trouble, an Into Mischief colt, has won two straight races at the New Orleans oval, the latter being the Grade III LeComte, a romping win. He also benefits from jockey Rosie Napravnik, a fan favorite wherever she rides. Albano and Gold Hawk, who chased Vicar's In Trouble home in the LeComte, are back for another try but a more likely challenger is Rise Up, making their 3-year-old debut. The Rockport Harbor colt already has four wins under his belt, including the Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot in his last start, back in November. His only bad race was a sixth-place finish in the Grade III Iroquois at Churchill Downs in September -- ironically, with Napravnik up. Tapiture, a leading Kentucky Derby hopeful, was third in the Iroquois. Another likely pick, Bond Holder, reportedly will be scratched after a rough trip from California, where he broke his maiden in the Grade I FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita, then finished fourth in both the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Grade I Cash Call Futurity. Intense Holiday has been close in three straight graded stakes for Pletcher but so far has been no match for the top rivals. Commanding Curve has been running his eyeballs out training over the track for his 2014 debut for trainer Dallas Stewart and might repay a close look. The huge field trails all the way down to Vigorish, a maiden still after seven races, but trained by D. Wayne Lukas, so dismiss the English Channel colt at your own risk. Ditto Hoppertunity, a Bob Baffert-trained colt by Any Given Saturday, who comes off a maiden win at Santa Anita. With Bond Holder is out, check the also-eligibles because neither is hopeless.
Since Mine That Bird came out of New Mexico to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby at odds of 50-1, we don't totally ignore 3-year-old races at Sunland Park. So, be it noted there is a well-balanced field of 10 set for Saturday's $120,000 Mine That Bird Derby over the course. Double Eagle Ranch and Bennie "Chip" Wooley, the connections who sent Mine That Bird to Louisville, will start Got Your Back, a relative long shot here. Let's see what happens in this prep for the $800,000 Sunland Derby next month. An aside: Mine That Bird finished second in this race -- then called the Borderland Derby -- and fourth in the Sunland Derby. While he never won again after the Kentucky Derby, he did finish second in the Preakness Stakes and third in the Belmont.
My Rochester is the morning-line favorite among eight entered for Saturday's $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby in Arizona. He is 2-for-3, with a second-place showing at Sunland Park in his first start of the season.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds could be a good pointer to the Kentucky Oaks. Seven are entered, representing some of the country's top trainers, and a good case can be made for six. The morning-line favorite is Streaming, a Baffert-trained Smart Strike filly who won at first asking at Hollywood Park, and then took the Grade I Hollywood Starlet. She started 2014 with a second-place showing behind Fashion Plate in the Grade I Las Virgenes at Santa Anita. Untapable, from the sprawling Steve Asmussen training empire, finished third in the Hollywood Starlet and makes her 2014 debut. Got Lucky, an A.P. Indy filly trained by Pletcher, finished second in the Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct as a maiden, then graduated at Gulfstream Park last month. Up-and-coming young trainer Jeremiah Englehart saddles Ria Antonia. That Rockport Harbor filly makes her first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile fillies on a disqualification of Eclipse Award winner She's a Tiger. Ria Antonia has been working briskly at Fair Grounds but needs to show the Breeders' Cup win, only the second of her career, was not a fluke. Express Model and Shannon Nicole have shown ability. The outsider is Army, a maiden winner who drew the rail for this 1 1/16-miles race.
If none of the New Orleans fillies appeal, there are eight more to pick from in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Atop that pack, at least going by the morning line, is Stopchargingmaria, a Tale of the Cat filly who had three wins, a second and a third on the New York circuit as a juvenile. The Pletcher trainee starts for the first time since winning the Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct in November. Pletcher also saddles Onlyforyou, who "only" has three wins from three starts, including the Grade II Forward Gal over the course in her last outing. Penwith, a Darley homebred by Bernardini, finished third in the Demoiselle but then won her 2014 debut at Gulfstream in a tough stretch battle.
Detouring across the Pacific Ocean:
Three years ago, Transcend won the Group 1 February Stakes at Tokyo -- one of only two Group 1 dirt races on Japanese dirt -- and went on to finish second behind another Japanese runner, Victoire Pisa, in the Dubai World Cup. The result was an international triumph for Japan that, coupled with big efforts in Hong Kong and France, put Japanese racing in the international spotlight. Sunday, 16 horses will start in the 31st running of the February Stakes. Most attention is on Belshazzar, winner of last November's Group 1 Japan Cup Dirt at Kyoto, and Hokko Tarumae, who finished third in that event. However, both are tentatively ticketed for the March 29 races in Dubai and may not be fully cranked for this event. Several others have the potential to take the winner's share of the US$920,000 purse. Among them is Wonder Acute, who finished second in the Japan Cup Dirt and is looking for a breakout race.
John Moore saddles five of the seven runners in Sunday's HK Group 1 Hong Kong Gold Cup at Sha Tin but, of those five, most eyes will be on local Horse of the Year Military Attack. The 2013 Group 1 Singapore Airlines International Cup winner has suffered some tough beats in his last four races and again will have to face Group 1 Longinges Hong Kong Cup winner Akeed Mofeed. He comes off a win in a Group 3 event three weeks ago.
Recrossing the International Dateline, eastbound:
The Classic Division
Fordubai, Grand Contender and Prayer For Relief head a cast of nine entered for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Mineshaft Handicap at Fair Grounds. Those rivals finished first, second and third, respectively, in the Louisiana Handicap last month. Micromanage and Mister Mardi Gras also merit a look. The latter is cross-entered in Saturday's turf stakes.
Mail and Percussion are the morning-line favorites among seven in for Saturday's $100,000 Stymie Handicap at 9 furlongs at Aqueduct. Mail, a 4-year-old Medaglia d'Oro colt with a big upside, won two straight over the course to wind up his 2013 career. Percussion, a 6-year-old Bluegrass Cat gelding, is far more experienced but has not won since last May.
Only five signed on for Saturday's $100,000 John B. Campbell Handicap at Laurel Park. Managed Account and Concealed Identity, who won this last year, are the only previous stakes winners in the bunch.
Daddy Nose Best has won two in a row at Fair Grounds this winter and makes a worthy morning-line favorite among nine entered for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap at 9 furlongs on the greensward. Mister Mardi Gras, who runs well on all surfaces, is a danger while bouncing back from a second-place showing in the Grade II Hawthorne Gold Cup in Chicago in his last outing. Of note: Unitarian, a cleverly named, 4-year-old Pulpit colt out of the Dynaformer mare Minimalist. He has been in the money consistently on the New York and Florida circuits for trainer Pletcher and comes off two straight wins at Gulfstream Park. He can run all day and if improvement continues, could be a force in the division by Breeders' Cup time. Mike Smith has the mount.
Twelve are set for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Canadian Turf Stakes at Gulfstream Park, going 1 mile on the grass. Guy's Reward, trained by Dale Romans, is the highweight following a win last time out in the Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes across the peninsula. There's plenty more talent in this field, however, and plenty of betting opportunity. Don't miss looking at Rydilluc, a 4-year-old Medaglia d'Oro colt who tailed off badly in the second half last year after winning the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream. He has been working well for his first start since August. Abtaal, previously based in France, makes his second U.S. start for Shadwell Stable and trainer Tom Albertrani after coming from far back to win his first effort over the same course.
Filly & Mare Sprint
My Wandy's Girl heads the list of seven set for Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Barbara Fritchie Handicap at Laurel Park. The 5-year-old Flower Alley mare, who terrorized Camarero before shipping north at the end of 2012, finished second in this race last year and also was second in the Grade II Ruffian Handicap at Aqueduct before a long break. She returned with a dull, fifth-place showing in the Garland of Roses at Aqueduct on Dec. 9. La Verdad, a 4-year-old Yes It's True filly, has five straight wins in New York and steps into the stakes ranks for the first time.