WASHINGTON, Apr. 4 (UPI) -- A weekend replete with Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks preps also has a potentially historic note on mainland China.
In addition, the return of Keeneland and Pimlico to the racing schedule heralds the return of spring.
Let's spring right into the action.
The Road to the Roses
California Chrome gets his chance Saturday to claim a place at the top of the Kentucky Derby standings. After three straight wins, including the Grade II San Felipie, the Lucky Pulpit colt takes on seven rivals in the $1 million, Grade I Santa Anita Derby
. He has plenty of experience to draw on, with nine races and five starts already to his credit. But he also has some tougher competition. Hoppertunity hops right back to work after winning the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn three weeks ago for trainer Bob Baffert
. Candy Boy, on the other hand, hasn't raced since winning the Grade II Robert B. Lewis on Feb. 8 but has the credentials to move up the Derby rankings with a good outing Saturday. He finished second to last year's juvenile champion, Shared Belief, in his final start as a 2-year-old. The others need to step it up a notch. But watch for Rprettyboyfloyd, who remains a maiden after five starts but has four seconds and a third against some tough ones.
Samraat and Uncle Sigh have been duking it out in New York but that duo gets some new competition in Saturday's $1 million, Grade I TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. New to the fray in the 11-horse field are Social Inclusion, who created a buzz when he won his second straight race in Florida, beating Honor Code by 10 lengths -- and in track-record time -- in an allowance race on March 12. But the Pioneerof the Nile colt has only two career starts. The focus will be on the unbeaten Samraat. The Noble Causeway colt's five wins include the Grade III Withers and the Grade III Gotham and in both of those races, Uncle Sigh was second -- in the Gotham, by only a neck. Uncle Sigh, an Indian Charlie colt, has one win and three seconds from four races. Should they hook up in another thriller, it would be another legendary racing rivalry in the making. But there are others who could spoil that story. Kid Cruz won the Private Terms at Laurel last time out. Noble Moon returns for the first time since winning the Grade II Jerome Stakes on Jan. 4. Los Borrachos had to migrate from California to score his first win and trainer Bill Mott
could have him ready for a surprise effort. Kristo picked up minor checks running against the best in California and his effort here might be a gauge of the relative merit of the East Coast 3-year-olds vs. their West Coast rivals. Harpoon, a Tapit colt from the Todd Pletcher
barn, needs to atone for two straight losses, including a fifth-place finish in the Gotham.
At Calder Race Course, 10 are entered for Saturday's $250,000 Calder Derby
, which is neither graded nor an official Kentucky Derby qualifying race. Nonetheless, a couple here are worth a look -- notably Cleburn, trained by Dale Romans
for Donegal Racing. The Dixie Union colt is undefeated in two starts but has not run since taking the Grade III Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs way back in September, earning 10 points toward a start in the Run for the Roses. He has been working steadily at Gulfstream Park. Ring Weekend took five tries to break his maiden, then immediately stepped right up to win the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby a month ago for trainer H. Graham Motion, earning 50 Kentucky Derby points. The others are a bit suspect. But we all can wish the outside horse, Gaining Ground, might have a chance to run sometime at Turfway Park.
Sweet Reason and Got Lucky head a cast of six for Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct. Sweet Reason won the Grade I Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga last summer, then finished second the Grade I Frizette at Belmont and fourth as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. She came from off the pace to win her 2014 opener over the course a month ago. Got Lucky finished second -- albeit 9 1/2 lengths in arrears -- to likely Kentucky Oaks favorite Untapable in the Grade III Rachel Alexandra
at Fair Grounds and second in the Grade II Demoiselle last fall at Belmont to multiple graded stakes winner Stopchargingmaria, a likely favorite in Saturday's Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Stopchargingmaria is, in fact, the morning-line favorite among eight entered for the $400,000, Grade III Fantasy. The Tale of the Cat filly won the Grade III Tempted and the Grade II Demoiselle to wind up her 2-year-old season but finished fifth in her 2014 debut in the Grade II Davona Dale at Gulfsream Park. Saturday's rivals include Sugar Shock, who was demoted from first to second by the stewards after the Grade III Honeybee in her last start, Euphrosyne, who was awarded the Honeybee win, and Please Explain, who finished third in that heat after winning the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
Eight are entered for Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Santa Anita Oaks
. Of prime note is Ria Antonia, winner of last season's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies thanks to the disqualification of She's a Tiger. Ria Antonia checked in fourth in the Grade III Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds, a respectable effort behind the winner, Untapable. She since has been moved from trainer Jeremiah Englehart's barn to Bob Baffert. Fashion Plate, front-running winner of the Grade I Las Virgenes, is back to tackle the added sixteenth, as is Arethusa, who was third in the Las Virgenes. Artemis has shown promise. One wonders why trainer Mike Puype has spotted Kissin Lucky Lips here. The Dunkirk filly has started twice, both times in maiden claiming events, and finished eighth and seventh.
A tough field of 13 is set for Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. Florida Oaks winner Testa Rossi, along with Thank You Marylou, Room Service and Candy Kitty, are the morning-line favorites. But if Rosalind goes off anywhere near her 15-1 morning-line odds, she is worth a look. The Broken Vow
filly finished a fast-closing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and easily could have won with as a clean start. She since has been fourth and third in tough races against top company and returns to the surface where she finished second last season in the Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades behind the highly regarded My Conquistadory.
The Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct is always an early indicator in the Sprint Division and Saturday's $500,000 renewal promises more of the same. Sahara Sky, second in last year's running, is the 122-pound highweight against a half dozen rivals. The 6-year-old son of Pleasant Tap is in from California after winning the Grade II San Carlos at Santa Anita last month. This is his third race back from a long layoff, often a spot for a top effort. Although every horse in the field is graded-stakes placed, Sahara Sky's top rival likely is Strapping Groom, a 7-year-old son of Johannesburg who has been in the money consistently since he settled into the New York circuit a couple years ago. He most recently won the Grade III Tom Fool over the course. Golden Ticket, who dead-heated with Alpha for victory in the 2012 Travers, shortens up to this 7-furlongs distance.
Also Saturday at the Big A and also at 7 furlongs is the $300,000, Grade II Bay Shore for 3-year-olds. Kobe's Back, who bombed at Oaklawn after winning in California, completes his eastward travels to run here. Oliver Zip has been zippy over the course, The Admiral comes from California to represent the Coolmore connections and trainer Bob Baffert. The race looks pretty wide open and one to watch is the undefeated Favorite Tale, coming from Parx Racing and largely untested in three starts.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Seven are set for Sunday's $100,000 Carousel Stakes at 6 furlongs on the Oaklawn Park strip. Aireofdistinction has won four straight, including the Spring Fever Stakes over the course in her last outing. Her stablemate in the Steve Asmussen
barn, Speedinthruthecity, has won three of her last four and finished third in the Grade III Azalea at Calder last year. Itsallinthefamily has been moving up the class ladder.
They're off and running Friday in Keeneland's spring meeting and first up, stakeswise, is the $100,000, Grade III Transylvania Stakes for 3-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles on the lawn. As usual at the Lexington track, there's no shortage of contenders with a dozen signed on. The morning-line favorite is Storming Inti, a Stormy Atlantic colt who won four straight races before settling for third last time in the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream -- caught late when he tried to stretch out to 1 1/8 miles. Also worth a look are Pleuven, Global View and Picozza. But the favorites are all drawn on the outside of this big field and it's Keeneland so anything can happen.
As with Keeneland, Pimlico's opening is a sign of spring's eventual arrival. Saturday's card at the Baltimore track include a trio of statkes featuring the $100,000 Dahlia for fillies and mares at 1 mile on the grass course. A nicely balanced field of 11 is headed by Joy, Embarr and Zucchini Flower.
Saturday's fifth race at Keeneland, a 9-furlongs, restricted-allowance affair over the grass, features multiple graded stakes winners Forte Dei Marmi, Boisterous and Up With the Birds, among others. It looks like a free-for-all among quality horses who will be making their mark later in the year in some top races. Don't pass up this race just because it doesn't have a name.
Filly & Mare Turf
Ten 3-year-old fillies are set to contest Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Providencia Stakes at Santa Anita, going 9 furlongs on the grass. Full Ransom spots the others five pounds as a result of her victory last fall in the Grade III Miesque Stakes at Hollywood Park. The runner-up in that race, Savings Account, is back for another try. Diversy Harbor, Nashoba's Gold and Tiz Kissable, the 1-2-3 in the recent China Doll Stakes, all look betable, especially since Full Ransom got home 12th in that race after a slow start from a far-outside gate. Don't overlook French import Margot Machance, who raced well enough last season in Europe without winning, then graduated in her first U.S. effort last month.
Five turf races at the Jinma Racecourse on Sunday will mark a milestone in the long and rocky road leading to a renaissance of racing in mainland China. The races, a partnership among the Meydan Group from Dubai, the Chengdu Municipal Government, theWenjiang District Government and other local groups, mark the first time horses will be imported into China through quarantine for racing, then return from whence they came -- in this case, Dubai. Trainer Doug Watson, who is based in Dubai, told local media on Thursday, "This is my first visit to the track and, although I knew the facilities such as the stables and the racecourse would be good, they have surpassed my expectations." Jockey Royston Ffrench added, "I have ridden around the world for 17 years and the facilities here compare very favorably with anything I've seen." The program, however, remains a work in progress and purse details will not be announced until Friday. The races are the Chengdu Dubai International Cup over 2,200 meters and the Wenjiang Meydan Classic at 1,600 meters, both presented by Longines, and the Wenjiang Sprint (1,200 meters), Guangsha Handicap (1,400 meters) and Meydan Mile (1,600 meters).
Sunday's Chairman's Trophy at Sha Tin is only a local Group 2 event but it could have implications for later international Group 1 events on two continents. Able Friend, who has slugged it out with stablemate Designs on Rome -- with mixed results -- throughout the season, is the standout among six prospective starters. Trainer John Moore
said he wanted to keep Able Friend sharp and fit before a scheduled run in the Group 1 Champions Mile on May 4. "If he wins the Champions Mile," Moore added, "I'll be talking to (owner) Dr. Cornel Li about flying him over for the Queen Anne Stakes
at Royal Ascot, then give him a little break there before flying back into Hong Kong." Among those trying to interfere with that schedule are Packing Whiz, Helene Spirit and Rainbow Chic.
News and notes
Keeneland will replace its Polytrack main course with real dirt in time for the fall meeting, leaving only a handful of North American tracks -- and Meydan in Dubai -- as proprietors of synthetic surfaces. Del Mar earlier announced it will switch back to dirt. Santa Anita made the change a few years ago and Hollywood Park's artificial main track became a moot point when the track closed for good at the end of last year's meeting. Others with the all-weather surfaces are Woodbine, Arlington Park and Golden Gate Fields. "This is not a decision that we have undertaken lightly," said Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason. "From the outset of the synthetic surface installation in 2006, we have always said that this is a journey and not a destination. The racing landscape has changed, and for that reason we have an obligation to our horsemen and to our fans to evaluate where the industry is going. Owners and trainers, especially those who compete at the highest levels of the sport, overwhelmingly prefer dirt tracks," he said. Thomason said Keeneland is convinced it can maintain its safety record as well with a modern dirt track as with the Polytrack surface.