And, while winter extended its grip over much of North America, there were a few signs of spring, with races on the grass in southern climes and a pair of brilliant performances by fillies eyeing the Kentucky Oaks.
There was a historic upset in Japan, a resurgent champion in Hong Kong and some promising international competitors in Australia.
On the move: Normandy Invasion, fourth in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, returned to action with a track-record performance after 10 months off. And Frank Gabriel will exit the Dubai Racing Club after World Cup night and return to the United States and the more loosely governed New York Racing Association.
Speaking of moving, let's move right along to the action:
Kentucky Derby preps
It's still too early to figure out what -- if anything -- is going on with the 3-year-olds. And Saturday's two big races didn't do a whole lot to clarify the picture. Several of the best-regarded Derby contenders are awaiting bigger races in March. But, here's what happened:
Wildcat Red and General a Rod blazed away on the front end in Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, with Wildcat Red hanging on tenaciously to win by a head. The favorite, Top Billing, saddled with an outside post, got going late and could do no better than third, 2 lengths behind General a Rod, in his stakes debut over a generally speed-favoring track. Wildcat Red, a D'wildcat colt out of the Miner's Mark mare Racene, got 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.85. Luis Saez had the mount for trainer Jose Garoffolo. Wildcat Red has four wins and two seconds from six starts. He won the Grade III Hutcheson Stakes in his previous start, beating General a Rod by a head. But he finished second to General a Rod in the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day. Wildcat Red earned 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, General a Rod 20, Top Billing 10 and East Hall 5 for finishing fourth. Garoffolo said Saturday's result makes it possible that Wildcat Red will use those points.
"We proved that we were right, that the horse could go the distance," he said. "The (March 29) Florida Derby will be the next step, depending on how the horse comes back, and then we'll see. If everything goes the right way, we'll go straight to Churchill Downs."
While the Fountain of Youth certainly boosted the stock of the top three finishers, they still have to deal with Cairo Prince should they advance to the Florida Derby. Cairo Prince is 3-for-4, with a win last time out in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes Jan. 25. Cairo Prince had a little break in his training after the Holy Bull.
At Fair Grounds in New Orleans, a pair of moderate long shots finished 1-2 in Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Risen Star Stakes, the local prep for the March 29 Louisiana Derby. Intense Holiday, a Todd Pletcher charge, rallied from the middle of a huge field to nail front-runner Albano at the wire, winning by a nose at 5-1 odds. The favorite, Vicar's In Trouble, launched a bid at the top of the lane but couldn't sustain it and finished fourth. Hoppertunity, a Bob Baffert trainee from California, put in a late run to finish fourth. Intense Holiday, a Harlan's Holiday colt out of an Unbridled's Song mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.86. Winning jockey Mike Smith said he was working with the colt the whole way to ration his energy.
"There was a lot of room to improve there and a lot of room to grow," Smith said.
The win was only the second of Intense Holiday's career. But he has run well in graded stakes in New York and was third in the Grade III Holy Bull in his only other 2014 outing. Rosie Napravnik, who rode Vicar's In Trouble, noted she was forced wide throughout.
"It's tough to circle a field that big," she said.
The Kentucky Derby points division was the same as in the Fountain of Youth -- 50, 20, 10 and 5.
In other Derby doings:
-- Proceed proceeded to the lead with about 3 furlongs left in Saturday's $120,000 Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico and got home first by 2 lengths over Rebranded. It was another 12 3/4 lengths back to Ima Happy Strike. Proceed, a New Mexico-bred colt by Desert God out of the Texas Glitter mare Annis, is undefeated in three starts, all in the Land of Enchantment. He ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.47 with Alfredo Juarez Jr. up. The race is named for 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and serves as the local prep for the $800,000, Grade III Sunland Derby on March 23. Mine That Bird led the post parade for Saturday's feature.
-- Lotsa Mischief took the point in Saturday's $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby in Arizona and had no trouble handing on, winning by 3 1/2 length over Lawly's Goal. The favorite, My Rochester, settled for third. Lotsa Mischief, an Into Mischief colt out of the Tabasco Cat mare Saucy Countess, accounted for 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.50. Skyler Whiteshield had the mount for trainer Dan McFarlane. He has three wins and two thirds from his last five starts.
-- In a race watched almost as closely as the Fountain of Youth, Constitution started a step slow in a talent-laden allowance event Saturday at Gulfstream, still got quickly to the lead and drew off smartly to win by 3 1/4 lengths. The colt is by Tapit, out of the Distorted Humor mare Baffled. He now is 2-for-2 and bears watching, especially with Pletcher as trainer.
-- The "Road to the Roses" continues next weekend with the $500,000, Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct as the main attraction. The 1 1/16-miles Gotham is the local prep for the Wood Memorial. Also on tap for 3-year-olds are the 7-furlongs Swale Stakes and the 9-furlongs Palm Beach Stakes on the turf, both at Gulfstream Park and neither a likely choice for a serious Kentucky Derby prospect. Saturday's $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial Stakes on the all-weather track at Turfway Park in Kentucky is that oval's prep for the Spiral Stakes.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Two impressive winners gave notice Saturday they will be reckoned with on the road to the Kentucky Oaks.
Onlyforyou was out front all the way in the $200,000, Grade II Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park and got home a comfortable winner by 2 1/4 lengths over House Rules. Onlyforyou, a daughter of Malibu Moon, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.71 with Javier Castellano up. Aurelia's Belle was third and the well-regarded Stopchargingmaria stopped early, finishing fifth. Onlyforyou remains undefeated in four starts, including a victory in the Grade II Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream in her previous start.
"I had a beautiful trip," said Castellano, who won six races on the card. "She really blew out of the gate. My only concern was the two turns and she responded today."
Pletcher said Onlyforyou handled the distance well and likely will make one more start in Florida before heading to Louisville. He said Stopchargingmaria, coming off a layoff, was compromised by a wide trip.
In New Orleans, Untappable cut loose in the long Fair Grounds Stretch and went on to win the $200,000, Grade II Rachael Alexandra Stakes by 9 1/2 lengths with no particular encouragement from jockey Rosie Napravnik. And the field she destroyed was top-notch, including Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Ria Antonia, who finished fourth, and California-based filly Streaming, who checked in last. Got Lucky and Shanon Nicole finished second and third. Untappable, a Tapit filly owned and bred by Winchell Thoroughbreds, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.64.
"I had lots of confidence in her," Napravnik said. "It was a wide trip, which just goes to show you how much the best she was." The race was a bit of a breakthrough as Untapable came to New Orleans after a pair of fairly decisive defeats in California, including a third-place finish behind Streaming in the Grade I Hollywood Starlet last December. She also finished eighth in the Breeders' Cup race that Ria Antonia won on a disqualification.
On the international front:
With British and continental racing still only a gleam in the punters' eyes, weekend action focused squarely on Dubai -- even when it was happening in Japan or Hong Kong.
(By RICHARD GROSS)
Gray was the color of green when European-trained horses successfully invaded the UAE Thursday as the six-race card at Meydan put more than $1 million in purse money on the table in stretch-run preparation for Super Saturday March 8 and Dubai World Cup day, March 29.
L'Amour De Ma Vie raced in France until this season but showed her love of UAE ground as the 5-year-old gray mare stormed across the Meydan finish line by 1 3/4 lengths over Flotilla to capture the winner's share in the Group 2 Balanchine Stakes over 1,800 meters on the turf. Pearl of Africa shone a short head back in third.
The victory not only bested L'Amour De Ma Vie's runner-up performance in the Cape Verdi Stakes three weeks ago, but also gained revenge against previously undefeated Cape Verdi victor Certify, who finished a disappointing fourth as the favorite in a six-horse field. It was the first win in the UAE for both trainer Pia Brandt and jockey Maxime Guyon.
"She really deserved that win after a brave effort in defeat last time," Guyon said. "I am delighted as it is my first winner in Dubai and hopefully she will be back on Super Saturday."
The surprise win almost overshadowed a sentimentally appropriate Godolphin score by Saeed bin Suroor-trained Tasaday, who held a neck over Empoli in the inaugural running of the Dubai Millennium Stakes over 2,000 meters of turf.
The 4-year-old gray daughter of Nayef ran with leader Robert the Painter, then brushed past to take a lead at 1,600 meters and held the advantage to the wire. Bin Suroor trained Godolphin legend Dubai Millennium, who won the 2000 Dubai World Cup and Prince of Wales Stakes before succumbing to sudden illness in 2001.
"She will be better when she steps up to a mile and a half," bin Suroor said of his plan for Tasaday. "We may consider the Dubai Sheema Classic on Dubai World Cup night."
In other action, Ireland's Eastern Rules ruled by 1 1/4 lengths over Sommerabend in the opening 1,400-meters turf handicap. The winner repeated his feat of two weeks past, a victory in the 1,400-meters all-weather IPIC Trophy handicap.
Avon Pearl kept a 2 1/4-lengths advantage for Great Britain over Van Rooney in a full-field over the all-weather Tapeta in the 1,600-meters Meydan Sobha handicap.
Medicean Man also represented the British Isles well gaining a neck cure over Ahtoug in the 1,000-meters Meydan Sobha Phase II turf handicap. And Ireland's Elleval maintained a neck over Start Right in the Phase I handicap over 2,000 meters on the all-weather Tapeta.
Next Thursday's Carnival meeting is the last before Super Saturday, the prelude to the Meydan season-ending Dubai World Cup day March 29.
Military Attack returned not just to top form, but to imposing form, in winning Sunday's HK Group 1 Citibank Hong Kong Gold Cup. With a late move under jockey Joao Moreira, quickly overhauled the leading pair, Blazing Speed and Dan Excel, with 200 meters to run down the Sha Tin straight and blitzed past to score by 3 lengths in 2:01.21. Dan Excel bested the late-running Dominant for second, giving trainer John Moore a 1-2-3 finish. Blazing Speed finished fourth. Military Attack was practically invincible last spring and summer in Hong Kong and Singapore. But after losing to Akeed Mofeed in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup last December, he went into a tailspin that was reversed only Sunday. Just in time, too, as trainer Moore has his sights set on Dubai.
"I entered him for both the Dubai Duty Free (at 1,800 meters on the turf) and the Dubai World Cup (at 2,000 meters on the all-weather course)," Moore said. "I wanted to get him into the World Cup but I had to accept that his form wasn't on the board and they put him back into the Duty Free. But maybe I'll get a telephone call and they'll say, 'Would you like to run in the World Cup?' And the answer will be that I'd love to run in the World Cup."
Akeed Mofeed, meanwhile, tired before he hit the stretch run and finished fifth in Sunday's tussle.
Sunday's Group 1 February Stakes -- one of only two top-level dirt races in Japan -- was ripe for an upset with the two favorites already looking forward to potential trips to Dubai. And so it came to pass as Copano Rickey, at odds too big for the tote board to handle, got home first, with favorites Hokko Tarumae and Belshazzar immediately in his wake. Copano Rickey officially went to the post at 271-1, the longest shot in the field of 16. Those odds were the fourth-longest ever to win a JRA Group 1 race and the longest in 13 years. The 4-year-old Gold Allure colt ran 1,600 meters in 1:36.0. Hokko Tarumae still is slated for Dubai. Plans were not announced for Belshazzar, winner of last fall's Group 1 Japan Cup Dirt.
Melbourne Cup winner Fiorente returned to the winner's circle Saturday with a short head victory in the Aus Group 2 Peter Young Stakes at Caulfield and trainer Gai Waterhouse said that opens the door to a return to Royal Ascot in June for the son of Monsun. Waterhouse said Fiorente will go again in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick in April.
"And then there's Royal Ascot to think about," the trainer said. "He's had his inoculations. It's definitely on the agenda."
The 6-year-old competed at the Royal meeting in 2011 and 2012 when trained by Sir Michael Stoute, finishing second in the Group 2 King Edward VII Stakes in 2011 and sixth in the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes the following year. He finished fourth in the Group 2 Prix Foy at Longchamp in Paris that fall, then was sent to Australia, where he has remained. Now in his fourth year of racing, he has made only 17 starts, with five wins, four seconds and two thirds.
Earthquake won the Group 1 Sportingbet Blue Diamond Stakes for 2-year-olds for Sheik Mohammed. The Exceed and Excel filly now is 2-for-2 in her short career. Moment of Change won the Group 1 Cathay Pacific Futurity and Lankan Rupee landed the Group 1 Oakleigh Plate for 2-year-olds and up.
Meanwhile, back in the States ...
Farhaan dueled with Percussion through the latter half of Saturday's $100,000 Stymie Handicap at Aqueduct and finally prevailed by a neck over that rival. Jonesy Boy was 1 length farther back in third. Farhaan, a 4-year-old Shadwell Farm homebred by Jazil out of a Danzig mare, ran 9 furlongs in 1:53.52 under Irad Ortiz Jr. The horse was campaigned in 2012 in England with scant success, and then struggled during the second half of last year on the New York Circuit. He now has two straight wins at the Big A for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin Jr.
"Our horse has really grown up," said McLaughlin assistant Art Magnuson. "We're very excited about him."
Magnuson said Farhaan has shown ability on both grass and the main track, opening options for his future. But he mentioned the Grade III Excelsior on March 22 as "a logical spot."
Bradester stalked the pace in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Mineshaft Handicap at Fair Grounds, went by the leaders in the long stretch run and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Grand Contender. Fordubai finished third and the favorite, Prayer For Relief, checked in sixth. Bradester, a 4-year-old Lion Heart colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.80 with Napravnik in the irons. He now has four wins from six starts, along with a second in last year's Grade II Indiana Derby and looks like a promising candidate in the division for trainer Eddie Kenneally.
"Sat in a great position, he wanted to wait," Napravnik said. "I had to urge him along. But he's a classy horse."
Behemoth rallied from the back of the field in Saturday's $100,000 John B. Campbell Stakes at Laurel Park and stuck his nose in front of pacesetting favorite Managed Account under the wire to post an 11-1 upset victory. Concealed Identity was 4 1/2 lengths farther back in third. Behemoth, a 4-year-old, Ontario-bred son of Giant's Causeway, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.59 with Victor Santiago up. Behemoth had six wins from 29 previous starts but was, nonetheless, stepping into stakes company for the first time.
"Victor did everything the right way," said winning trainer Claudio Gonzales. "I said if we fight the one horse (Managed Account), we'll be last. Take him back and relax and make one move."
Behemoth has been in the money 10 times in 13 races at Laurel.
Here's one to watch: Normandy Invasion, fourth in last year's Kentucky Derby, was coming off a 10-month vacation when he lined up for a one-turn mile allowance Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Trainer Chad Brown obviously had the Tapit colt cranked up for his return as he blasted home in track-record time of 1:33.13, shaving more than a half second off the mark that has stood for six years. He won by 7 3/4 lengths. Owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farms said the wait, prompted by foot issues, "was worth it."
"This one-turn mile was a good starting point," Borwn said. "We're looking to run the horse in those two-turn dirt handicap races, really anywhere."
Potomac River rallied from far back to upset Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap by a nose over fellow long shot Skyring. The favorite, Daddy Nose Best, was another length back in third. Potomac River, a 5-year-old son of English Channel, ran 1 1/8 miles on good turf in 1:50.52 with Juan Vargas in the irons. Potomac River wound up his 2013 campaign with a win in the Grade III River City Handicap at Churchill Downs but got off on the wrong hoof in 2014, finishing eighth in the Grade III Col E.R. Bradley Handicap at the New Orleans oval on Jan. 18 with a wide trip.
Trainer Jose Cameo reached a new plateau and said: "I can't describe my first stakes win because it's too emotional. It feels good."
He said Potomac River had a difficult time in shipping from Kentucky and wasn't 100 percent for January race.
Reload was along late to catch pacesetting Mr. Online and win Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Canadian Turf Stakes at Gulfstream Park by a neck. Salto was third, 1 3/4 lengths farther in arrears, and the favorite, Rydilluc, faded after chasing the pace and got home fifth. Reload, a 5-year-old son of Hard Spun, spun the 1 mile on firm going in 1:32.34 under jockey Javier Castellano. Normally a habitue of the allowance ranks, Reload scored his first stakes win.
"Sometimes he just doesn't show up," said winning trainer Shug McGaughey. "But since I put him on grass, it seems to have turned him around."
Ready Signal outfinished the favorite, Byrama, by a nose and Angel's South by another head to win Sunday's $75,000 Ten Palms Stakes for fillies and mares. Ready Signal, with Edgar Prado riding, got 1 mile on firm going in 1:34.10.
Believe in Charlie surged to the lead in the lane in Sunday's $75,000 Ladies Turf Sprint at Gulfstream Park and was all out to hang on by 1 length over Allwewantforxmas. My Due Process finished third and the favorite, Runway Ready, faded to finish fifth after contesting the lead. Believe in Charlie, a 4-year-old Indian Charlie filly, ran 5 furlongs on firm turf in 54.73 seconds with Javier Castellano up.
Sweet Swap stalked the pace in Sunday's $75,000 Joe Hernandez Stakes down the Santa Anita hillside course, challenged for the lead crossing the main track and prevailed by 1 3/4 lengths. Zimmer rallied for second, Pure Tactics was third and Unbridled Note, the favorite, checked in fourth. Sweet Swap, a 5-year-old son of Candy Ride, finished the about 6 1/2 furlongs on firm going in 1:12.28 with Joe Talamo riding.
Our Double Play mixed it up with long shot Sneaking Uponyou for 6 of the 7 furlongs of Saturday's $75,000 Super Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and finally put that one away late to win by 3 3/4 lengths. Action Andy saved ground and made a mild move late to take third. Our Double Play, a 4-year-old Grand Slam colt, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.09 with Victor Lebron at the controls.
Filly & Mare Sprint
My Wandy's Girl tracked pacesetting La Verdad through most of Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Barbara Fritchie Handicap at Laurel Park, then won a three-way stretch battle to score by 1 length. La Verdad held second, just a neck in front of the favorite, Centrique. My Wandy's Girl, a 5-year-old Flower Alley mare, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.79. Rajiv Maragh had the mount for trainer Mike Hushion.
"It was a very competitive race," Maragh said. "I had one to the inside and one to the outside and my horse showed a lot of guts by holding them off."
It was her second stakes win since shipping from Camarero in Puerto Rico, where she was dominant.
Aireofdistinction broke on top in Saturday's $100,000 Spring Fever Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, took back behind a brisk pace and then came again to win by a nose over long shot Chortle. Boss Barney's Babe rallied from last of nine to get show money. Aireofdistinction, a 4-year-old Songandaprayer filly, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:04.50 with Ricardo Santana Jr. applying the judiciously metered ride. It was the first career stakes win for Aireofdistinction but the fifth stakes win of the season for Santana.
Zivo won a three-way, bumping stretch run to take Saturday's $100,000 Kings Point Stakes for New York-breds by a head over Sinistra. Beautyinthepulpit finished third, 1 length farther back and there was an unproductive inquiry into the interaction between the second- and third-place finishers. Zivo, a 4-year-old son of True Distinction, ran 1 1/16 miles on the good inner track in 1:46.66 with Abel Castellano Jr. in the irons.
Ambitious Brew stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Sensational Star Stakes for California Breds down the hillside turf course, went to the front midway down the stretch and prevailed by 1 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Lakerville. Summer Hit was another 1/2 length back in third. Ambitious Brew, a 4-year-old Tizud gelding, ran about 6 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:12.00 with Brice Blanc in the irons.
Class Included ran by pacesetting favorite Eden Prairie in the stretch run to win Saturday's $60,000 Bayou Handicap for fillies and mares by 1 1/2 lengths over that rival. Starstruck finished third. Class Included, with Shaun Bridgmohan aboard, ran about 1 1/16 miles on good turf in 1:43.46.
Milam kicked away in the stretch run and won Saturday's $65,000 Pica Slew Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 8 lengths over the favorite, Co Cola. Boheme de Lavi was a whisker farther back in third. Milam, a Street Sense filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.58. Orlando Bocachica had the ride as trainer Eddie Kenneally scored the Louisiana-Florida stakes double for the day.
Triumph and Song, the odds-on favorite, triumphed in Saturday's $50,000 Sam Houston Sprint Cup -- but only by a diminishing neck over Silver Lining John. Solar Charge finished third. Triumph and Song, a 5-year-old My Golden Song gelding, led all the way and finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.39 with Junior Chacaltana in the irons.
News and notes
Frank Gabriel Jr., chief executive officer of the Dubai Racing Club since 2005 and overseer of the development of the sprawling Meydan Racecourse, will return to the United States after the Dubai World Cup to become racing secretary for Belmont Park and Saratoga. During the past year, Gabriel had been involved with an effort to kick off an international race meeting in mainland China. Gabriel worked for the New York Racing Association earlier in his career and has served at Arlington Park, Timonium, Keystone, Atlantic City, Meadowlands, Garden State, Hialeah and Gulfstream Park.
"After a remarkable nine years with the Dubai Racing Club, I look forward to working with the horsemen and the NYRA management team to bring the fans the best quality racing programs at the Belmont and Saratoga meets," Gabriel said.