Baffert saddled Chitu and Midnight Hawk to a 1-2 finish in Sunday's Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico. Pletcher sent out We Miss Artie to win Saturday's Derby prep at Turfway Park in Kentucky.
Baffert also has Hoppertunity near the top of the Kentucky Derby qualifying points standards compiled by Churchill Downs. Pletcher has Intense Holiday up there as well.
Meanwhile, a couple likely favorites for the Kentucky Oaks also were on display. Godolphin had a big day at Aqueduct. And, on the international scene, Her Majesty the Queen narrowly missed a Group 1 win in Australia.
While we wait for this coming Saturday's Dubai World Cup, catch up on the weekend that was:
Kentucky Derby preps
Chitu and Midnight Hawk both stayed close to the quick early pace in Sunday's $800,000, Grade III Sunland Park Derby. As the early leader chucked it in, Midnight Hawk got first run to the lead. But he couldn't hold off stablemate Chitu, who blew by and won by 2 1/2 lengths. Commissioner, a Pletcher trainee shipped in from Florida, bobbled at the start and made up ground late to finish a non-threatening third. Chitu, a Henny Hughes colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:47.88, just a few hundredths of a second off the track record set last year by the Baffert-trained Govenor Charlie. "From day one, everything went well," Baffert assistant Jim Barnes said of Chitu's effort. "He shipped well. With two sprints and one route under his belt, this was the race he needed. He's getting fitter and fitter." The colt won two sprints last year to start his career. He started 2014 with a second-place finish behind Candy Boy in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita on Feb. 8. Midnight Hawk won the Grade III Sham Stakes in January and, since then, has been placed in three consecutive graded stakes without finding the winner's circle.
We Miss Artie joined the party late in Saturday's $550,000 Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. But once he got there, he gave his connections plenty to celebrate -- and even more to look forward to. With John Velazquez up, We Miss Artie raced well back in the 12-horse field, then advanced three-wide around the stretch turn. He still had plenty to do as it appeared the race had come down to a desperate battle on the front end between Harry's Holiday and Coastline. But it was We Miss Artie, flashing outside both rivals, who stuck a nose in front under the wire. Harry's Holiday was second and it was a head farther back to Coastline. The favorite, Tamarando, came all the way from California to finish a dismal eighth. We Miss Artie, an Artie Schiller colt out of a Fusaichi Pegasus mare, ran 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:52.26. He is trained by Todd Pletcher for Ken and Sarah Ramsey. His best efforts have come on all-weather tracks and on the grass, making him a question mark for the Kentucky Derby. "He's been training on the dirt and getting better," said the Ramseys' son, Jeff, who represented the family at Turfway. Before the race, the elder Ramsey, who has two other potential Kentucky Derby starters, said, "If we qualify all three of them, that means there will only be room for 17 others because Ramsey's going to take all three of his spots." The Spiral win earned 50 Derby qualifying points for We Miss Artie. The points are used to determine who starts in the Run for the Roses if more than the maximum 20 3-year-olds are entered.
Despite Ramsey's focus on the Kentucky Derby, the Ontario-bred We Miss Artie also is the 4-1 futures book favorite for the Queen's Plate on July 6 at Woodbine -- Canada's top 3-year-old race. The 125 nominees to the Canadian Triple Crown were evaluated by a panel of Daily Racing Form handicappers and Keith McCalmont of the Woodbine communications department.
Next week, the water gets deeper with three Derby preps on the calendar, each worth 100 points to the winner. Cairo Prince is the likely favorite in a short field in the Florida Derby. Also on the schedule are the UAE Derby in Dubai and the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. After that, all that's left are the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby on April 5, the Blue Grass and the Arkansas Derby on April 12 and the Lexington on April 19.
Grade II Remsen winner Honor Code, who was slated for the Wood Memorial, will miss that race and is off the Derby trail now with a suspensory tear, trainer Shug McGaughey said during the weekend. The Wood field is expected to include the embattled duo of Samraat and Uncle Sigh, as well as Florida sensation Social Inclusion, who defeated Honor Code last time out.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Awesome Baby was awesome enough to win Sunday's $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks by 4 1/2 lengths over Lucky For You. Empress of Midway was 4 more lengths in arrears while picking up show money. Awesome Baby, another Baffert trainee, got 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.80 with Mike Smith along for the ride. Lucky For You, trained by Pletcher, had Javier Castellano in the irons. She now has three wins from five starts and two graded stakes victories in a row.
Aurelia's Belle sat just off the pace in Saturdays' $125,000, Grade III Pure Romance Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway Park, advanced to the lead when prompted a furlong out by jockey Channing Hill and went on to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Sloan Square contested the pace and held second. Katie's Eyes, as suggested here Thursday, outran her 18-1 odds to come on late and finish third despite the outside draw, completing an $802.40 trifecta. Aurelia's Belle, a Lemon Drop Kid filly, ran 1 mile on the all-weather track in 1:38.99. Wayne Catalano trains. "She got a beautiful trip," Catalano said. "The race set up just like we thought. It was a great ride from Channing to get her out when she needed to. We liked the timing of this going into the (Kentucky) Oaks. That race looks like the next step."
On the international front:
Silent Achiever came and got Carlton House in the final jumps to win Saturday's Group 1 Ranvet Stakes at Rosehill by a short head. Silent Achiever, a former New Zealand Derby winner, thus denied Her Majesty the Queen, Carlton House's owner, a "down under" Group 1 triumph. It's a Dundeel finished third and Melbourne Cup winner Fiorente finished seventh of nine. Silent Achiever is a 6-year-old, New Zealand-bred mare by O'Reilly. It was her second straight win after nearly a year and a half of disappointments. Despite the disappointing performance, Fiorente joins the top three as candidates for Royal Ascot later in the spring.
Robin Hood's Bay, with Luke Morris up, won Saturday's Group 3 coral.co.uk Winter Derby over the Lingfield Park all-weather, earning a berth in the Coral Easter Classic All-Weather Middle Distance Championship. The latter is part of a Good Friday program comprising six races with total purses of 1 million pounds sterling. Godolphin's Windhoek was second in Saturday's race with Aussie Reins third. The favorite, Grandeur, faded to finish eighth.
Also Saturday, Stepping Point upset the bookmakers.co.uk Hever Sprint Stakes at 5 furlongs, earning a spot in the sprint division of the Championship program. In the 32 Red Spring Cup at 7 furlongs, it was the favorite, Ertijaal, victorious over Oasis Dream and earning a berth in the Good Friday program.
Horses qualify for the six Championship races by running in a minimum of three races at Britain's all-weather tracks between October 26 and April 12 or else by winning one of 16 "Fast-Track Qualifiers" like Saturday's at Lingfield.
Twenty-five international Group 1 winners are among the 89 horses nominated for Hong Kong's two spring Group 1 international races, the Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup at 2,000 meters on April 27 and the Champions Mile on May 6, both at Sha Tin.
Entries for the AP QEII Cup include last year's winner, locally based Military Attack, as well as The Fugue, Red Cadeaux, Cirrus Des Aigles, It's A Dundeel, Shamus Award, Boban and Vercingetorix. Many of those also will be competing in Dubai this coming weekend. Other locals on the list include Akeed Mofeed and the recent HK Group 1 BMW Hong Kong Derby winner, Designs On Rome, at potential star of the future.
Among the home competition, Akeed Mofeed proved himself a world-class opponent when winning the G1 Hong Kong Cup (2000m) in December, as did Dominant with his success in the same day’s G1 Hong Kong Vase (2400m). An exciting new and relatively untapped threat also exists amongst the domestic entries in the shape of the recent HKG1 BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m) winner Designs On Rome, whom his trainer John Moore rates as a bona fide international G1 competitor on a par with his former champion Viva Pataca, winner of the AP QEII Cup in 2007 and 2010.
The Champions Mile could shape up as one of the key early races of 2014, featuring last year's winner, Dan Excel against the likes of South Africa's Soft Falling Rain and Variety Club, Flotilla, Gordon Lord Byron and others. Able Friend and Glorious Days also are potential home-team runners.
William Nader, executive director of racing for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said the potential lineup reflects "the broad appeal of our two spring showcases, with those horses spanning 10 nations or jurisdictions across five continents and representing the best form lines from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres."
Meanwhile, back in the States: Classic Division
The Godolphin entry of Romansh and Long River finished first and second, just a neck apart, in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct. Romansh, a 4-year-old Bernardini colt, stalked the pace set by Percussion, got to the lead first, gave it up and then came again to beat his stablemate. Percussion held third. Romansh, with Jose Ortiz up, ran 1 1/8 miles on the fast inner track in 1:49.07. Romansh won the Grade III Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct in November, then started his 2014 campaign with a last-place finish in the Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. "I think he's a serious horse," trainer Tom Albertrani said of Romansh. "We've always thought that way. He's got a good future. We'll play it by ear as far as his next race." But he said the 9-furlongs distance looks best for his colt.
Ground Transport saved all the ground while leading all the way in Saturday's $100,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial at Laurel Park in Maryland and won off by 3 3/4 lengths over the favorite, Mr Palmer. Swift Warrior finished third. Ground Transport, a 4-year-old Big Brown colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:52.17. Winning jockey Trevor McCarthy said the plan "was to go to the lead and control the pace and we were able to slow down the pace. That gave us lots of horse for the lane and it worked out very well. He can be a track horse to ride and has to have his way. Today, he got it."
Fire With Fire fired out to the lead in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Luis Rey Stakes at Santa Anita, dueled for the final half mile with Lucayan and finally got the better of that one by 1/2 length. Temeraine's late bid found him only a nose farther back at the wire. The favorite, Vagabond Shoes, broke down with a half mile left to run, was vanned off and later euthanized, reportedly having suffered a broken canon bone left hind leg. Fire With Fire, a 6-year-old Distorted Humor gelding, finished the 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:25.03 with Tyler Baze in the irons. It was his first graded stakes win but his sixth overall, from 30 starts. "I didn't try to slow him down, didn't try to make him speed up. Just let him have a good time," Baze said. "He just proved that's what was going to work with him." Winning trainer Neil Drysdale added, "I want to take it step by step and we'll wait to see where we go next with him." Vagabond Shoes, campaigned early in his career in Europe, was a multiple graded stakes winner and finished fifth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Turf, only 2 1/4 lengths behind the winner, Magician.
Enterprising, with Gary Stevens in the irons, rallied from mid-pack to win Saturday's $75,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita by a nose over Quotient. Home Run Kitten finished third, another 1/2 length in arrears. Enterprising, an Elusive Quality colt, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.75. The Tom Proctor trainee earlier finished second in the California Derby and third in the Grade III El Camino Real Derby, both on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather track. "He's a nice horse," Proctor said. "I might try the dirt with him next time. It's nice to win a race."
Brewing had things all his own way in Saturday's $100,000 Gazebo Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park. Leading from the early jumps, the Maimonides colt opened a daylight lead in the lane and won by 3 lengths over Big Sugar Soda. Condo Closing was third and the favorite, Kendall's Boy, finished sixth. Brewing, with Jon Court in the irons, ran 6 furlongs on a wet-fast track in 1:10.45. "Jon gave him a great ride," said winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "The race worked out perfectly. This is a gutsy little horse."
Filly & Mare Sprint
Heart Stealer stole alongside the leaders in the stretch run of Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Inside Information Stakes and Gulfsteam Park and ran on to win by 2 lengths in a minor upset. My Pal Chrisy was second and pacesetter Five Star Mama faded to get home third. The favorite, Centrique, had an awkward start, was never in the mix and finished fifth. Heart Stealer, a 4-year-old Speightstown filly, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.57 with Joel Rosario in the irons. Heart Stealer won two of her last three races to wind up 2013 but finished fifth in her seasonal debut, the Grade III Hurricane Bertie last month at Gulfstream.
Halo Dolly led from the start in Sunday's $100,000 Dream of Summer Stakes for California-bred fillies and mares, turned back a challenge from the odds-on favorite, Unusual Way, and got clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths over that rival. Could Be Trouble was far back in third. Halo Dolly, a 6-year-old Popular mare, toured 1 mile over a fast track in 1:35.73 with Corey Nakatani up.
More Than a Cruise came from last of five to sail home first in Saturday's $100,000 Conniver Stakes for Maryland-bred distaffers. Celtic Katie was 3 3/4 lengths behind in second and it was another 6 3/4 lengths back to Brenda's Way in third. The favorite, Tell a Great Story, faded throughout and finished last. More Than a Cruise, a 5-year-old More Than Ready mare, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.55 with Julian Pimentel in the irons.
I Dazzle was dazzling enough to come from off the pace and win Saturday's $60,000 Red Camilia Stakes for Louisiana-bred fillies and mares. The 6-year-old Hold That Tiger mare got home 1 1/4 lengths in front of Tensas Harbor. Ladyzarbridge finished third. I Dazzle, with Robby Albarado up, ran about 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:46.19 as the pari-mutuel favorite.
Tampa Bay Downs
Tulira Castle got by the leaders with a three-wide move in the stretch run in Saturday's $60,000 Challenger Stakes and kicked clear, winning by 2 3/4 lengths over Nicklaus Way. Managed Account finished third while the favorite, Ruler of Love, settled for fourth. Tulira Castle, a 4-year-old War Pass colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.68 for jockey Angel Serpa.
Ghost Is Clear got clear late in Saturday's $50,000 Hansen Starter Stakes, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over Keg Party. Sniper got home third. Ghost Is Clear, a 6-year-old Ghostzapper gelding, covered 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:16.88 with John Velazquez up for owner/trainer Mike Maker. The race is named for the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Eclipse Award champion Hansen, who broke his maiden and won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway Park by a combined 25 lengths. The horse's namesake, Dr. Kendall Hansen, was in attendance Saturday. Hansen, a very light gray son of Tapit, was sold last fall to South Korean breeders and currently stands there.
Diamond Joe rallied five-wide around the leaders in Saturday's $25,000 Budweiser-Tondi Stakes and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Tribal Dreams. Early leader Two Violins got show money. Diamond Joe, a 5-year-old Dazzling Falls gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12 4/5 with Jake Olesiak aboard.
Mancation outfinished Desert Mystery to win Sunday's $85,000 New Mexico Breeders' Derby for state-breds by a neck. Mays or Mantle was third and the favorite, D E Lover, stumbled at the start, dropping jockey Joe Martinez. Mancation, a Going Wild gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:46.00 with Irwin Rosendo in the irons.
Zasha stalked the pace in Sunday's $85,000 New Mexico Breeders' Oaks for state-breds, then went on when asked to win by 1 length over Happy N Harmony. Renewed Vows was third and the favorite, My Bikini Fell Off, suffered her first career embarrassment by finishing fourth. Zasha, a Desert God filly, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.44 under John Velazquez.
African Rose led all the way to a 1 1/4-lengths victory over Hard to Resist in Sunday's $75,000 Harry Henson Handicap for fillies and mares. Ricspretentiousgal, a Kela mare, finished third. African Rose, a 5-year-old Bwana Charlie mare, finished 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.77. The race was marred by a two-horse spill early in the stretch run.
Warren's Knockout outfinished the favorite, Wine Police, to win Sunday's $75,000 Bill Thomas Memorial Stakes by a neck. Isn't He Clever was another neck back in third. Warren's Knockout, a 6-year-old Stormed gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.41 under Alfredo Juarez Jr.
Tricky R. set a pressured pace in Sunday's $85,000 La Coneja Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares and held on gamely to win by a neck over Funnyoushouldask. Lakehouse Fun finished third. Tricky R., a 7-year-old Favorite Trick mare, ran 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.24 for jockey Nancy Summers.
News and notes
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the New York Times have distributed an expose alleging mistreatment of horses by trainer Steve Asmussen and his staff. The report is based on an undercover investigation by a PETA member working on Asmussen's staff, the organization said. In the wake of the report, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame "tabled" Asmussen's 2014 Hall of Fame nomination, pending investigation by the relevant authorities. For a balanced and insightful look at the situation, read Jenny Rees's blog at the Louisville Courier-Journal.