Undefeated Samraat bested fellow New York-bred Uncle Sigh for the second time in Saturday's $500,000, Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, cementing a rivalry that, with luck, will spice up this year's Run for the Roses. But watch out for a supporting player who could steal the show.
Florida and Kentucky also contributed fascinating plot twists to the Kentucky Derby script during the weekend. And, back in New York, 7-year-old Strapping Groom continued a plot development so unlikely it might have a hard time finding a stage.
In Dubai, two evenings of racing were needed this week to sort out contenders for the upcoming Dubai World Cup night.
Let's start with Act 1, Scene 1: We hear the call to the post as the horses enter stage right onto the track at the Big A ...
Kentucky Derby preps
Samraat raced in third place into the stretch in Saturday's Gotham, came outside pacesetter In Trouble and pesky rival Uncle Sigh and prevailed by just a neck over the latter after a stiff stretch test. In Trouble, making his first start since Sept. 29, finished only a neck farther behind in an excellent effort. Samraat, a Noble Causeway colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on the fast inner track in 1:44.44 with Jose Ortiz up. He now has five straight wins, all on the New York circuit. In his last previous outing, Samraat bested Uncle Sigh by 1 length in the Grade III Withers and he was adding five pounds for the Gotham. Asked about the Kentucky Derby, winning trainer Rick Violette said, "I'd be lying if I said we weren't already thinking about it. At this stage, we don't want to do anything that would prevent us from going to the Derby." He said he will ship Samraat back to Florida but may return for the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 5 "if the horse cooperated and tells us that we should get on a plane and come up for it." Uncle Sigh, by Indian Charlie, now has one win and three close seconds. His trainer, Gary Contessa, said Uncle Sigh "is still very young. He was intimidated and he got bumped and he might have been a little bit cautious down in there. But we're getting better." He said he will contest the Wood. And don't count In Trouble out of Triple Crown contention. He won the Grade II Futurity at Belmont Park in his second career start before being put away for the winter. "Coming off a layoff, we were concerned he might need a race," said jockey Joe Rocco Jr. He, too, is a likely Wood contender.
Solitary Ranger was a solitary figure indeed in the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway Park, leading by as much as 8 lengths before coasting home first by 4 3/4. The favorite, Poker Player, was best of the rest and Harry's Holiday finished third. Solitary Ranger, a U S Ranger colt out of the Lil E. Tee mare Galileo's Star, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:47.21 with Florent Geroux in the irons. Lil E. Tee won the 1992 Kentucky Derby after also winning his final prep at Turfway. He came to Saturday's race off a win on the dirt at Fair Ground in New Orleans and also took the Grade III Arlington-Washington Futurity at Arlington Park last fall on the all-weather. Poker Player won the Grade III Bourbon Stakes on the Keeneland all-weather during the fall meet but got home eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Wayne Catalano trains both Solitary Ranger and Poker Player and said the latter is more likely to return for the 9-furlongs Spiral Stakes on March 22. "We're not too sure about the limitations of distance for 'Solitary,'" he said. But for Poker Player, "The mile and an eighth, it looks like he'll take that just fine."
As noted here Thursday, the heavy favorites for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park both appeared to be looking toward future races and looked vulnerable. Well, one of them, Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up Havana, didn't make the start, reportedly because of a quarter crack that ends any reasonable hope he can make the Kentucky Derby. The other, globetrotting No Nay Never, suffered his first loss as Spot ran right by him in the stretch and won by 2 1/2 lengths. Brotherofthetime finished third. Spot, a promising Pulpit colt trained by Nick Zito, ran 7 furlongs in 1:22.44. He started his career at Arlington Park with little successs, finally broke his maiden in late October at Hawthorne Race Course and finished fifth in the Grade III Hutcheson at Gulfstream in his 2014 debut. Zito said he watched the colt work and arranged to buy him for his client, Joseph Moss. "Sometimes they go to a new place, things change," Zito said. "I've got goose bumps ... Everybody is saying Kentucky Derby but I don't know. I wish there was a mile race here. I'll figure it out." No Nay Never was making his first start since winning the Group 1 Prix Morny at Deauville in France last August. Jockey Javier Castellano said No Nay Never "was fresh and hadn't run for a while." When he got to the lead, Castellano said, "he seemed to completely lose his momentum." No Nay Never also won the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot.
The 3-year-old turf runners put on quite a show in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park -- and the race could impact the Triple Crown events. Gala Award stalked the pace, took the lead in the stretch and held off a big late run by Mr Speaker to win by 1/2 length. The early leader and favorite, Storming Inti, preserved third, a neck farther back and just 1/2 length better than French-bred Pleuven. Can'thelpbelieving finished fifth and Cabo Cat struggled home seventh. Gala Award, a Kentucky-bred Bernardini colt, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.19 with John Velazquez in the irons. Gala Award was making his third start, all around two turns on the Gulfstream Park turf. He finished second in his first try and now has two straight wins. "It's a big jump and I think it says a lot about his quality," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "His dirt works have improved a lot. I'm not going to rule out something like the dirt or the Blue Grass (on Keeneland's all-weather track). Mr Speaker, trained by Shug McGaughey, got a shot on the main track earlier this winter and quickly was moved back to the green course.
It was only 7 1/2 furlongs and restricted to state-bred 3-year-olds but Ide Be Cool ran so well in winning Saturday's $100,000 Pelican Stakes at Delta Downs that you have to wonder. The Ide gelding, with Chris Rosier up, finished in 1:33.96 and was an easy 2 lengths ahead of Kapenta without expending much effort. Sunken Road finished third. Ide Be Cool remains undefeated in six starts.
In other Derby doings:
-- Here's a cautionary tale about trying to buy a Kentucky Derby winner. Shadwell Stable's his career debut in a maiden race Saturday at Gulfstream Park. The Distorted Humor colt started from post position No. 9 and quickly was last of 10, which is where he finished, 11 lengths behind his closest rival. He went to the post as the favorite. Kiaran McLaughlin will need to make some script adjustments. The winner, Peter Island, was making his first start for trainer Shug McGaughey and could be heard from later in the spring. Another 3-year-old allowance race on the Saturday card at Gulfstream produced two-time winner Anchor Down, who also provides late-season options for trainer Todd Pletcher.
-- Buying a proven runner might be slightly less risky than gambling on young 'uns. Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin Stable has purchased a majority interest in Cairo Prince, one of the top-shelf contenders for Kentucky Derby. Cairo Prince, winner of the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 25, is slated to contest the Grade I Florida Derby on March 29. Sheik Mohammed has never sent out a Kentucky Derby winner despite repeated attempts.
-- The third of four Kentucky Derby futures pools closed this weekend with the field, or "all others" as a solid favorite at 3-1. Cairo Prince was the next-favorite at 9-1 odds, reflecting the still-unsettled Derby picture. Samraat was 30-1 and Uncle Sigh closed at 42-1. Remember, if your horse doesn't start, there's no refund.
-- The long slog to Churchill Downs continues next week with the $300,000, Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita; the $350,000, Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on Florida's Gulf Coast; and the $100,000 Private Terms at Laurel Park in Maryland.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Room Service came from last of nine to deliver an upset win in Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes at 9 furlongs on the Gulfstream Park turf. The favorite, Candy Kitty, got to a short lead in the lane but couldn't sustain the advantage. Seeking Her Glory showed the way early and faded to get home third. Room Service, a More Than Ready filly, ran 9 furlongs on firm going in 1:46.82 with Joel Rosario up for trainer Wayne Catalano, who had a nice weekend.
Awesome Baby went right to the lead in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita and extended the advantage late, winning by 2 3/4 lengths. Artemis was second with the favorite, Swiss Lake Yodeler, checking in third. Awesome Baby, a daughter of Awesome Again, ran 1 1/16 miles on a wet-fast track in 1:41.58 with Mike Smith up for trainer Bob Baffert. The victory backed up her win in the Grade II Santa Ynez Stakes in her last start on Jan. 4. "I told Bob I don't know if it was her turning 3 or the mud today," Smith said. "But I finished with something left. That was real impressive to me because I didn't know if she was going to get the distance at all."
(By RICHARD GROSS)
Legendary Chicago Cubs baseball player Ernie Banks so loved the game, he once was quoted as saying, "It's a great day for a ball game. Let's play two!" Planners of the penultimate week in this year's Dubai World Cup Carnival calendar may have been listening to Ernie as they scheduled Carnival meets both Thursday and Saturday to accomodate trainers racing to find a gate for their runners on next week's Super Saturday card -- not to mention a place in a race on Meydan's season-ending Dubai World Cup day, March 29.
The Arabic word ihtimal means chance, but the filly Ihtimal was a certainty as the 3-year-old daughter of Shamardal cruised easily from fifth place and left seven challengers 10 lengths in her wake at the end of the Group 3 UAE Oaks over 1,900 meters on the all-weather Tapeta in Thursday's feature. Feedyah ate up enough ground coming from the rear to finish a very distant second.
Godolphin's Ihtimal added to her 3 1/4-lengths victory three weeks ago in the 1,600-meter UAE 1,000 Guineas, completed a UAE fillies' Classic sweep for only the fourth time and give trainer Saeed bin Suroor his ninth UAE Oaks win.
"That was impressive," understated jockey Silvestre de Sousa. "It was a big win."
"We must think about the UAE Derby on World Cup day now," said bin Suroor, rethinking his original plan to have the filly return to England after this race to prepare for the season at Newmarket.
Local trainer Satish Seemar continued his winning ways this season when Gold City minted a win by 2 1/4 lengths over My Freedom in the evening-opening handicap over 1,400 meters on the all-weather. Local favorite 10-year-old gelding Barbecue Eddie, trying to crack the million-dollar earnings mark before his likely retirement at the end of the season, tracked the leaders but finished a disappointing fifth for trainer Doug Watson.
Watson did catch a lucky winner when Ireland's My Catch finished a length ahead of Jallota over 1,400 turf meters in the Meydan Classic.
Medicean Man made another successful house call after last Thursday's win, racing ahead of Racy all the way to win by a length in the 1,200-meter all-weather handicap with Conveyance 1 1/2 length back to carry third.
French trainer Mikel Delzangles savored his first UAE winner after the 1,600-meter Group 2 Zabeel Mile went easily to Mshawish by 2 1/2 lengths on the turf over Trade Storm before bin Suroor and de Sousa claimed a double for Godolphin on the evening with Tha'lr journeying from Ireland to land four hooves in front of Farrier and win the card-ending handicap by a length over 2,200 meters on the all-weather.
Saturday's Carnival-week nightcap saw bin Suroor and de Sousa continue their winning ways when 8-year-old Godolphin veteran runner Cavalryman charged to the lead in the final furlong to capture the Nad al Sheeba trophy by 5 1/2 lengths over Star Empire in a Meydan track record 2:56.48 over 2,810 turf meters. Godolphin has won all four installments of the race named in honor of the long-time Dubai racecourse built in 1996 and host of the first 14 Dubai World Cup days before completion of Meydan.
"Cavalryman ran a huge race," said delighted trainer bin Suroor. "He'll be better suited for the 2 miles of the Dubai Gold Cup on Dubai World Cup day, so hopefully he will head there now."
Trainer and jockey claimed another double when Free Wheeling felled Dragon Falls by 1 1/2 lengths in the 1,400-meter all-weather handicap.
Samurai Sword opened the card by slashing past five previous Meydan winners to record his first UAE victory in six tries, an upset 2-lengths win over Tanfeeth in the 2,000-meters all-weather handicap.
Capital Attraction caught a lot of attention for trainer Ernst Oertel and jockey Tadhg O'Shea with his 1 3/4-lengths win over Mike de Kock-trained Disa Leader in the 1,600-meters all-weather handicap. Both trainer and jockey are in striking distance of the UAE crown for most victories this season.
South Africa's de Kock still went home with a trophy in each hand as Kavanagh squeaked by under Christophe Soumillon to win by a closing neck over Dux Scholar and successfully defend last year's 1,200-meter turf handicap crown. The pair finished with a pair of wins on the night when Sanshaawes finished right over Start Right for a 3/4-lengths win in the closing handicap over 2,000 meters on the turf.
Next up is Super Saturday, March 8. In the on-deck circle is Dubai World Cup day, March 29.
Dubai note: A full-length concert by Jennifer Lopez will cap off the festivities at Meydan on World Cup night. With luck, those staying to hear the pop star will have a good time and reduce the crush of vehicles all trying to leave the plush facility at the same time after the $10 million World Cup. That's a win-win, even for a site without wagering.
A pair of contenders for the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free on World Cup night warmed up in Saturday's Group 2 Nakayama Kinen with Just A Way blazing away down the stretch after shooting through a narrow opening to score by 3 1/2 lengths over Archimedes. The other Dubai nominee, Tokei Halo, was a deal less impressive, struggling home sixth.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
Fillies and mares
Teen Pauline looked plenty grown up as she led from the early stages to a 2 1/2-lengths victory over Centring in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct. Flash Forward made a little late move to take third, a nose farther back, and Royal Lahaina busted a few trifectas by finishing fourth. Teen Pauline, a 4-year-old Tapit filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on the fast inner track in 1:45.04 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons. She now has three straight wins and has missed hitting the board only twice in 11 career starts. The Top Flight was her first graded stakes win. "She broke a little slow today," Ortiz said. "She usually breaks in front. But she was keen and got the lead easy. I never sent her."
Strapping Groom caught pacesetting Dads Caps in the final 100 yards and went on to win Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Tom Fool Handicap at Aqueduct by 1 length over that rival. Saturday's Charm was along for third. Strapping Groom, a 7-year-old son of Johannesburg, negotiated 6 furlongs of fast inner track in 1:09.84 with Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard. Strapping Groom was claimed by trainer David Jacobson for $35,000 last May at Forego Stakes at Saratoga last summer. "He's a good horse. And he's one of the better sprinters on the East Coast, if not in the country, right now, in my opinion," Jacobson said. He added the $500,000, Grade I Carer, on April 5 "is on the top of the list. Anything is possible."
Ribo Bobo got to a good lead in the stretch in Sunday's $75,000 Caixa Eletronica Stakes at Gulfstream Park and held on late to win by 1/2 length over Dad'z Laugh. Mongolian Saturday was third. Ribo Bobo, a 6-year-old Louis Quatorze gelding, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.98 under Paco Lopez.
Red Rifle shipped in from Gulfstream Park for Saturday's $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston Race Park and more than justified his expense account with a front-running, 2 3/4-lengths win. Frac Daddy finished second and Texas Air was 6 lengths farther back in third. Red Rifle, a 4-year-old Giant's Causeway colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in course-record time of 1:48.73. Robby Albarado had the mount for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Bold Thunder led from the early jumps in Wednesday's $75,000 Silks Run Stakes at Gulfstream Park and held off the favorite, Varsity, at the end to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Easy Tune finished third. Bold Thunder, a 4-year-old colt by Bold N Flashy, ran 5 furlongs on firm turf in 55.22 seconds under jockey Paco Lopez. He had won three of his four previous races, sandwiching a ninth-place showing in the Gulfstream Park Turf Stakes. Varsity is still looking for his first win since finishing sixth in the Al Quoz Sprint on last year's Dubai World Cup night.
Ancil dueled to the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Turf Dash at Tampa Bay Downs and gradually drew clear to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Pyrite Green. Tell All You Know was a neck farther back in third. Ancil, a 5-year-old City Zip gelding, got 5 furlongs on firm going in course-record time of 54.88 seconds with Daniel Centeno in the irons. It was his first stakes win and fifth overall from 19 starts. "I had no idea we were going in record time," Centeno said. "He was going so easily."
Calder Race Course
Tashir drew off in the stretch run to win Sunday's $75,000 Smooth Air Stakes for 3-year-olds by 3 1/2 lengths over King Cyrus. Monopolize rounded Go third. Tashir, an Afleet Alex colt, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.87 with Myrzabek Kappushev in the irons for trainer Gennadi Dorochenko.
Valid Commander outfinsihed the favorite, Goods Gone West, to win Saturday's $75,000 Nodouble Breeders' Stakes for Arkansas-breds by 1 length. Humble Smarty led briefly and finished third. Valid Commander, a 4-year-old Hesabull gelding, completed 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.96 for jockey Alex Canchari.
Sunbean got a wide and somewhat rough trip in Saturday's $60,000 Star Guitar Stakes for Louisiana-breds but still won easily, by 2 3/4 lengths, over Hud's Rebellion. Populist Politics finished third. Sunbean, a 4-year-old Brahms gelding, finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.24 under Richard Eramia.
Ibaka led from the early going in Saturday's $50,000 Texas Heritage Stakes for 3-year-olds and got clear late to score by 3 lengths over Sea View Chico. Kowboy Boots finished third. Ibaka, an Oklahoma-bred gelding by Uncle Abbie, got 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.70 with Lindey Wade in the irons.
Always Kitten rallied from last of 10 to win Saturday's $50,000 Jersey Lilly Stakes for fillies and mares by a neck over Every Way. Vilao finished third. Always Kitten, a 4-year-old Kitten's Joy filly out of the Dynaformer mare Misinformer, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:45.53 with Rosie Napravnik aboard.
Notable deaths of 2014 [PHOTOS]