The 2014 Kentucky Derby trail has been spiced up by two budding head-to-head rivalries, one of which sees a rematch this weekend.
A looming feud between New York-breds Samraat and Uncle Sigh will be renewed Saturday as those two Kentucky Derby prospects are among 11 entered for the $500,000, Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.
The other set-to was fought to a near standstill last Saturday at Gulfstream Park as Wildcat Red edged General a Rod after the two dueled well in front of the competition around a speed-favoring track.
Samraat, a Noble Causeway colt out of an Indian Charlie mare, is undefeated in four starts. Uncle Sigh, a son of Indian Charlie, has one win and two seconds. They first clashed in the Grade III Withers at the Big A on Feb. 1, with Uncle Sigh leading into the stretch as the favorite, then surrendering the lead to Samraat, who went on to win by 1 length.
The rest of the Withers field was well up the stretch, effectively isolating attention on the top two.
"There's no question more racing will help him," said Samraat's trainer, Rick Violette. "If we're lucky enough to make it to the (Kentucky) Derby, we felt two races would be the way to go."
Uncle Sigh's trainer, Gary Contessa, said he was happy to get the No. 3 gate in the Gotham. "I was hoping for a good post position because it can play a big part in the landscape of this race," Contessa said. "He's trained good, had a good work this (Monday) morning and we'll see what happens."
The Gotham is not all about those two, though.
Also in the field is the highly regarded Harpoon, a Todd Pletcher trainee who comes north after a third-place showing in the Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. He got the outside post position for Saturday's race. Extrasexyhippzster, winner of two straight races, steps up in class and distance but looks capable. In Trouble was undefeated in two starts last year and makes his first start since winning the Grade II Futurity at Belmont Park in September. He has been working in Florida.
Meanwhile, back in Florida, Wildcat Red and General a Rod are both being pointed to a rematch in the $1 million, Grade I Florida Derby on March 29. Also expected in that race is Cairo Prince, who passed up the Fountain of Youth after a romping win in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes of Jan. 25.
Top Billing and East Hall, the third- and fourth-place finishers in the Fountain of Youth, also are likely candidates for the Florida Derby, which shares a date with the Dubai World Cup at Meydan in the UAE.
The Gotham isn't the only 3-year-old event worthy of note this weekend.
Saturday's Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park is only 7 furlongs and normally wouldn't be of much interest for later classics. But this year's field includes one established international star and another with potential to top-shelf. Trainer Wesley Ward, who has established a beachhead as a leading "American at Ascot," will lead over No Nay Never for the Swale. Ward describes the Scat Daddy colt as his best-ever and no wonder, since he was 3-for-3 last year, with wins at Keeneland, then in the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes at Ascot and the Group 1 Prix Morny at Longchamp. He is targeting Royal Ascot this June. Also entered for the Swale is Havana, who was 2-for-2 last season for trainer Todd Pletcher, including a win in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont, before finishing second to the since-retired New Year's Day in the Breeders' Cup. None of the other five entered for the Swale is exactly a pushover, so if the two stars aren't fully cranked up, anything could happen.
In Kentucky, Turfway Park on Saturday hosts the final local prep for its big Kentucky Derby trial, the $550,000, Grade Spiral Stakes on March 22. Saturday's $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial drew an impressive field of 11. Poker Player won the Grade III Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland before finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and returns to the all-weather surface. Solitary Ranger won the Grade III Arlington-Washington Futurity last fall and also won his 2014 debut at Fair Grounds. Canzoni finished second in the OBS Championship in Florida last time out. Laddie Boy wound up his 2-year-old season with a second-place effort behind Tapiture in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs in November. Harry's Holiday won the 96Rock Stakes on the Turfway all-weather.
Thirteen, including one for "main track only" are entered for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park. This interesting bunch includes Mr Speaker, who was going great guns on the turf for trainer Shug McGaughey but came a cropper in the Holy Bull on the main course, finishing seventh and likely ending his Triple Crown hopes. Storming Inti has won four straight races, including three straight stakes on both grass and dirt. Patent, a Darley homebred by A.P. Indy, could benefit from the stretch out to 1 1/8 miles. Pleuven makes his second U.S. start after racing in France. Can'thelpbelieving is by Duke of Marmalade and a recent course and distance winner, which is reason enough to take a close look. One to watch: Smart Cover, an Any Given Saturday colt, makes his first start since finishing second by a neck to Cleburn in the Grade III Iroquois over the Churchill Downs main track way back in September. Tapiture, winner of the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park two weeks ago, was third in that race. Ride On Curlin, third in the Southwest, was fourth in the Iroquois. And Rise Up, winner of November's $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot, was sixth. Dale Romans trains for Donegal Racing -- not connections to be ignored. "He'll go back to the dirt after this one," Romans said. "I just wanted to get him started." Should he run well, the trainer said, expect to see him in one of the "100 point" Kentucky Derby qualifying races in the coming two months.
If Bond Holder should win the Kentucky Derby, it will be no thanks to his frequent flyer points. The Mineshaft colt was scratched from last weekend's Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds after he was shaken up during a turbulent flight from California. Now, according to The Blood-Horse, he is "stranded" in Florida. The magazine quotes owner Paul Reddam as saying Bond Holder "was freaking out" on a flight from New Orleans to Miami, where he was to be transferred to a flight back to California. "The situation was dangerous for him and his handler," Reddam said. Bond Holder now is slated to van to Tampa Bay Downs for the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 8.
Oaks and Oaks preps
In Dubai, Godolphin's filly, Ihtimal, cruised to a 10-lengths win Thursday at Meydan in the Group 3 UAE Oaks and trainer Saeed bin Suroor said the Shamardal filly may have greater goals before her. "She has always been a real favorite and we must think about the UAE Derby now," the trainer said. Ihtimal was a Group 2 winner in England last season and also took third in the Group 1 Fillies Mile. She warmed up for Thursday's tour de force with a 3-lengths win in the UAE 1,000 Guineas three weeks ago. Rider Silvestre De Sousa said Thursday's win "was very impressive. The pace was not very fast early on and she was a little bit keen, but soon settled into a lovely rhythm."
U.S. Oaks preps continue Saturday at Santa Anita with the $100,000, Grade III Santa Ysabel at 1 1/16 miles. In a field of eight, the standouts include Awesome Baby, who comes off a win in the Grade II Santa Ynez Stakes over the course. Be Proud, winner of the California Oaks last time out, is one of two saddled by Bob Baffert.
On Sunday at Gulfstream Park, it's the $100,000, Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes at 9 furlongs on the turf. Candy Kitty, winner of two straight for trainer Todd Pletcher, heads a field of nine. She has won stakes at Gulfstream on both the grass and the sloppy main track.
Other racing of note:
-- Fillies and mares tackle 1 1/16 miles in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct. The field includes familiar opponents Centring, Teen Pauline, Summer Applause and Royal Lahaina.
-- Sprinters go 6 furlongs at the Big A in Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Tom Fool Handicap. Strapping Groom is the even-money favorite on the morning line in a field of seven off his last-out win in the Gravesend Handicap. However, Jake N Elwood might get some play after the recent death of screenwriter Harold Ramis.
-- The $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston is the highlight of a generally light weekend for the handicap crowd.
News and Notes
Sheik Mohammed has given his British operation another shake in the wake of a report on alleged past drug infractions. None of this week's changes was tied directly to the embarrassing scandal and the report found disgraced former trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni was solely responsible for the use of banned steroids in his yard. However, Simon Crisford, longtime racing manager for Godolphin, stepped aside and will become Sheik Mohammed's international racing adviser. Godolphin said in a statement he will not be replaced and trainers will be expected to take full responsibility for their yards. Godolphin also was reported to have replaced three veterinarians.
Churchill Downs and NBC Sports Group have agreed to a 10-year extension of rights to televise the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and related programming. The extension runs through 2025, including the 150th Run for the Roses in 2024.
Voters in Revere, Mass., have approved a referendum that would allow construction of a casino at Suffolk Downs. An earlier plan, spanning two communities, earlier passed in Revere but failed in the other half of the site. The state still must choose between the Suffolk Downs site and one being pushed by Wynn Resorts on a site just two miles from the track. A decision is expected late this spring.