California Chrome is a likely Kentucky Derby favorite after dominating the Santa Anita Derby while New York's top Derby prep turned up a long shot winner.
Two other impressive weekend winners, however, will bypass the Run for the Roses.
Meanwhile, a Kentucky Oaks prep at Keeneland also may have been a prep for the Investec Oaks in England.
Weekend oddities: The eighth-, ninth- and tenth-place finishers from January's Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park all came back to post significant stakes wins on Saturday. Cuppycake won at Tampa Bay Downs but Cottagecupcake was nipped at the wire at Sunland Park.
Overseas, an historic race meeting in Chengdu in mainland China came off smoothly, marking a major milestone in efforts to fully open that vast marketplace to the sport. A New Zealand mare continued to dominate Australia's best. In Hong Kong, Able Friend took a step toward top international competiton. And there was a big race over the jumps in England that could result in some three dozen jockeys being taken over the hurdles by racing regulators.
But let's jump first to the American 3-year-old picture.
Kentucky Derby preps
California Chrome was impressive enough in winning Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Santa Anita Derby that he likely will be the favorite four weeks from now in Louisville -- at least among those who don't automatically dismiss the California contenders. After contesting the lead with long shot Dublin Up, California Chrome simply took over as the field rounded the stretch turn and shot away to a 5 1/2-lengths victory. Hoppertunity was the best of the rest with Candy Boy third. Jockey Victor Espinoza hand-rode California Chrome to a respectable time of 1:47.52 over a fast track. After struggling early in his 2-year-old season, the Lucky Pulpit colt turned a corner in winning the King Glorious Stakes against fellow Cal-breds in December, starting what is now a four-race winning streak. "It was awesome. That's all I can say," said winning trainer Art Sherman. "Right now, he's kind of freaky and I'm enjoying it. I can't believe the races I've been seeing." Sherman said he likely will ship to Churchill Downs about a week before the Run for the Roses. Hoppertunity's trainer, Bob Baffert, said California Chrome is "a really good horse … I got beat today but I'm really happy with my horse." He said Hoppertunity, winner of the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park, will move along to the Kentucky Derby. And Candy Boy's trainer, John Sadler, said he will, too, if he has enough qualifying points. Doubters frequently feel horses who run on the lead in California have a more difficult time when asked to go 1 1/4 miles on the quirky Churchill Downs main track.
Wicked Strong charged up the middle of the Aqueduct track, ran by tiring would-be phenom Social Inclusion and went on to win Saturday's $1 million, Grade I TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial by 3 1/2 lengths. Samraat put a nose in front of Social Inclusion under the wire for place money. Schivarelli was fourth and Uncle Sigh, who got a slow start and a wide trip, settled for third. Wicked Strong, a Hard Spun colt out of a Charismatic mare, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.31 with Rajiv Maragh up. It was only the second win from six starts for Wicked Strong. The colt broke his maiden at Belmont Park in October, then finished third in the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct. In his 2014 debut, he finished ninth in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. "I thought he was training well enough in Florida," said winning trainer Jimmy Jerkens. "But he didn't show up in the afternoon for some reason." The 100 points he earned Saturday guarantee the colt a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. "I'd love to get another crack at it, that's for sure," Jerkens said. "Looks like a horse where distance shouldn't bother him." Trainer Rick Violette said Samraat, who was defeated for the first time in six starts, also will move along to Louisville. "I don't think there's anything he can't do," Violette said. And Social Inclusion's trainer, Manny Azpurua, said if his colt gets into the Run for the Roses, "He'll win. He'll kill them." However, Social Inclusion currently is No. 22 in the Derby points standings. Only 20 can start and a few more are likely to leapfrog Social Inclusion in next week's Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby so owner Ron Sanchez admitted Social Inclusion is more likely to resurface in the Preakness than in the Run for the Roses.
Speaking of impressive victories, Our Caravan stalked the pace in Saturday's $250,000 Calder Derby at Calder Race Course, took over when asked by jockey Manoel Cruz and shook clear to a 9 3/4-lengths victory. The odds-on favorite, Ring Weekend, beat the other seven with Cleburne 3 3/4 lengths farther back in third. Our Caravan, a Daaher colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:54.32. He finished eighth in the Holy Bull and seventh in the Fountain of Youth, both down the street at Gulfstream Park. "All we did is add blinkers," said winning trainer Michael Dilger. Ring Weekend came into the race off a win in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby and is headed for the Kentucky Derby. Our Caravan, won for the second time in four starts, did not earn Churchill Downs qualifying points for Saturday's win. "We're heading to New York, Dilger said. "Maybe for the Peter Pan."
"If he were mine, I'd still have him on the Derby trail," trainer Dale Romans said after Medal Count slipped through along the rail to post a convincing win in Friday's $100,000 Transylvania Stakes on opening day at Keeneland. "Today was a big performance and showed he can go anywhere." The 1 1/16-miles event for 3-year-olds came off the turf and onto the Polytrack -- not a problem for the colt or the trainer. "He's versatile," Roman said. "This is a really good horse. He's been one of my favorites all along." But his owners, Spendthrift Farm, "wanted to take a more conservative approach and let him grow up a little bit," Romans said. Medal Count is one of the last of the Dynaformer dynasty, out of the Unbridled's Song mare Brisquette. He finished in 1:43.35 with Robby Albarado up. Picozza took the outside route into the stretch and finished well to take second, 1 1/4 lengths back and a neck in front of the promising Woodfield Springs.
Kentucky Oaks preps
As suggested here earlier in the week, Rosalind surged to the lead in the short stretch in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Ashland at Keeneland. But then she was unable to hold off the relentless late bid of Room Service and the two hit the wire together, dead-heating for the win. It was 7 lengths back to Thank You Marylou in third while the favorite, Testa Rossi, settled for fourth. Rosalind, a Broken Vow filly, had Joel Rosario in the irons. Room Service, by More Than Ready, benefitted from the services of Shaun Bridgmohan. The pair toured 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:43.38 after some no-hope rivals carved out a fast early pace. Rosalind was bouncing back from a subpar effort but before that finished an excellent third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Room Service won at first asking at Kentucky Downs last fall but had been without a victory in three intervening tries. Trainer Kenny McPeek said Rosalind is being considered for bigger things. "The Kentucky Oaks and the English Oaks (Group 1 Investec Oaks at Epsom) are under consideration," he said. Wayne Catalano, who conditions Room Service, said owners Gary and Mary West "like to run in these big races. This is what we're all in the game for." Trainer Mike Maker said Thank You Marylou also will advance to the Kentucky Oaks. The dead heat was the first ever in a Grade I event at Keeneland. "That's the third dead heat I've had in stakes and I don't think I've had three other dead heats in my life," McPeek said.
Sugar Shock led from the break in Saturday's $400,000, Grade III Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park, shadowed all the way by Kiss Moon, then finally won by 1/2 length over that one. Euphrosyne finished third, 3 1/2 lengths farther back, and the favorite, Please Explain, inexplicably never challenged and finished next-last of eight. Sugar Shock, a Candy Ride filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.87 with Channing Hill in the irons. She now has three wins, a second and a third from six starts and would have had another victory but for a disqualification in the Grade III Honeybee in her last start -- a demotion that gave that victory to Euphrosyne. "We're just ecstatic," said winning trainer Doug Anderson. "She's such a joy to be around. It sure is a possibility that she'll go to the Kentucky Oaks. We'll see how she comes out of this."
Fashion Plate seized the lead at the start in Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Santa Anita Oaks and never looked back, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over 2013 Breeders' Cup victor Ria Antonia. Bajan was a non-threatening third. Fashion Plate, a daughter of Old Fashioned, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.97 with Gary Stevens in the irons. She picked up her third straight win in a streak that also includes the Grade I Las Virgenes. "As races go, it was a perfect ride," said winning trainer Simon Callaghan. "She's getting better as we stretch out in distance. She's a really smart filly and she relaxes well." Bob Baffert, who took over training duties for Ria Antonia after her last race, said he is "learning more about her. I learned a lot from her race today. She just got beat today."
My Miss Sophia was the easiest of winners in Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Gazelle Stakes at Aqueduct. The Unbridled's Song filly, under Javier Castellano, led from the start and shook clear late, scoring by 7 1/4 lengths. Got Lucky got second and Sweet Reason was another 1/2 length back in third. My Miss Sophia ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.48. It was only her third career start, following a second-place finish and then a win at Gulfstream Park. "It went how we thought it might on paper," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "It looked like she was the only speed. But you never know how a race is going to unfold."
On the Santa Anita turf course, Nashoba's Gold came four-wide around the leaders to score a 1-length victory in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Providencia Stakes. The favorite, Diversy Harbor, finished second after a troubled trip and One More was third. Nasahoba's Gold, a Smart Strike filly, ran 9 furlongs on firm going in 1:48.08 with Joe Talamo riding. Diversy Harbor defeated Nashoba's Gold by 1/2 length in their last start, the China Doll Stakes over the same course. "My filly's just maturing," said winning trainer Carla Gaines. "She's learning. But it was a great race and a great ride."
International racing took a big step toward the future Sunday with five races staged at Jinma Lake Racecourse under a partnership between Chinese and Dubai-based organizations. Royston Ffrench rode the first and final winners on the card as Al Raihe closed the program with a victory in the Chengdu Dubai International Cup presented by Longines. The card featured horses imported from Dubai and returned to the UAE through quarantine -- a first for racing on the China mainland. While many wrinkles remain to be ironed out before the sport gains full exposure in China, Sunday's races were a significant milestone. Dubai Racing Club CEO Frank Gabriel, a prime mover in the event, said: "I would like to thank all the trainers, jockeys and stable staff for their dedicated preparation and to thank everyone involved in the partnership with Meydan Group for their tremendous support. We had the safety of horses and riders as our prime priority when planning the race meeting, and thanks to everyone's hard work, everything has gone well. Also, we had a good crowd and everyone seems to have enjoyed the day."
New Zealand's Silent Achiever again proved her current form is too good for the best Australia has to offer by handling It's A Dundeel and Melbourne Cup winner Fiorente in Saturdays Group 1 The BMW at Rosehill. Ridden in midfield by Nash Rawiler, Silent Achiever began picking up rivals through the second half of the race, hit the fore with 200 meters to go and was clear by 1 3/4 lengths at the end. It's A Dundeel caught Fiorente in the final strides to take third. Silent Achiever, a 6-year-old mare by Winning Spree, got 1 1/2 miles over soft turf in 2:34.29. Two weeks ago, she won the Group 1 Ranvet stakes at Rosehill by a short head over Her Majesty's runner Carlton House, with It's a Dundeel third and Fiorente seventh.
Mossfun missed the start in Saturday's Group 1 Tooheys New Golden Slipper for 2-year-olds at Rosehill but found room late and came up along the inside to deny Earthquake in the final strides. The final margin was 3/4 length as Mossfun, a daughter of Mossman, got the 6 furlongs on soft going in 1:12.17. Bring Me the Maid finished third as fillies filled the first five finishing slots in the US $3.25 million event.
Able Friend cruised to a 1 3/4-lengths win in Sunday's HK Group 2 Chairman's Trophy at Sha Tin, a prelude to a step up to the International Group 1 Champions Mile on May 4 -- and perhaps the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot. "I just wanted to keep him ticking over for the Champions Mile," trainer John Moore said of his 4-year-old star. "So now he's got some more mileage into his legs and we'll have a very fit horse going into that race." About Royal Ascot, he added, "We'll take it race by race, we'll see how he pulls up after the Champions Mile and then we'll put it to his owner, Dr. Li, about running in the Queen Anne."
Also Sunday, Divine Ten, a 4-yeasr-old son of Holy Roman Emperor, ran his career record to five wins from six starts -- all down the Sha Tin straight course at 1,000 meters. Trainer Me Tsui said he will look for a 1,200-meters test for the gelding.
Pineau De Re, an 11-year-old, French-bred gelding, upset Saturday's Crabbie's Grand National at Aintree -- the premier jumps race of the season. Pineau De Re reported home 5 lengths ahead of Balthazar King and 38 other starters. It was announced after the race an inquiry will be conducted into the start, questioning whether the riders lined up too early, endangering the racecourse staff.
Back in the States, in the divisions:
Saturday's fifth race at Keeneland was billed as an allowance -- a restricted one, at that -- but had graded stakes quality stamped all over it. And in that context, Boisterous showed great promise in rallying from mid-pack to win by a neck over Tricky Hat after a nip-and-tuck stretch battle. Unbridled Ocean was third, followed by Sky Blazer, Forte Dei Marmi and the favorite, Up With the Birds. The 9 furlongs went in 1:50.86 over firm turf. Joel Rosario rode the winner. Boisterous, a 7-year-old son of Distorted Humor, was a turf-running terror from 2011 through early 2013 but slumped badly after winning the Grade I Man o' War at Belmont last September.
Dads Caps led all the way to a 10-1 upset win in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct -- one of the early mileposts for the nation's top sprinters. Sahara Sky came five-wide to take second, 1 1/2 lengths back, with the favorite, Clearly Now, another 3 3/4 lengths in arrears for show money. Dads Caps, a 4-year-old colt by Discreet Cat, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.02 with Luis Contreras at the controls. Dads Caps has been moving nicely up the class ladder but usually for minor checks. In his last two races, he finished second in both the Grade III Toboggan and the Grade III Tom Fool, both over the Aqueduct strip. Trainer Rudy Rodriguez said he entered Dads Caps in a $60,000 claimer earlier in his career just to make him eligible for starter allowance races. Then, he said, "We never had the opportunity to run him in a starter allowance because he was improving every time we ran him." He said he hopes to give the colt a break after a hard winter campaign. Sahara Sky, meanwhile, will be pointed to the Grade I Met Mile on June 7 -- a race he won last year, also after finishing second in the Carter.
Coup De Grace had a bit of a rough trip in Saturday's $300,000, Grade III Bay Shore for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct, bumping repeatedly before winning a tough stretch battle by a nose over Oliver Zip. The race was tight until the finish, with the favorite, Kobe's Back, just another 1/2 length back in third and two others within a length and a half. Coup De Grace, a Tapit colt, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.19 with Javier Castellano in the irons. "He didn't break sharply and it worked out great for me," Castellano said. "I was able to relax behind horses. He finished very strongly today." It was his third win from four starts. In the other, he finished 10th in the Grade II Holy Bull at Gulfstream, fading from the lead late, then forced to check in traffic.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Speedinthruthecity sped through the stretch run in Sunday's $100,000 Carousel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, kicking clear to win by 3 lengths. Ms Anna Destiny was second and Itsallinthefamily filled the trifecta. Speedinthruthecity, a 4-year-old City Zip filly, ran 6 furlongs on a sloppy, sealed track in 1:10.36 with Luis Quinonez up.
Princess of Sylmar had won eight of her previous nine starts before finishing last of six in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last fall. She hadn't been seen again in the afternoon until Sunday, when the now-4-year-old Majestic Warrior filly returned with a bang in the $100,000 Cat Cay Stakes at Aqueduct. After tracking the early pace, Princess of Sylmar quickly took charge into the stretch and drew off to win by 3 1/2 lengths. She was geared down in the final sixteenth by jockey Javier Castellano but still finished the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:34.79. Wedding Toast was second and Flash Forward finished third. "The next, immediate goal is going to be the Ogden Phipps," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher, referring to the $1 million, Grade I on June 7. "We'll see after that. But I think races like the Delaware Handicap are a possibility, the Personal Ensign, the Beldame. Those are the type of races we're looking at right now."
Alert Bay emerged from a scrum to eke out a 1/2-length victory over late-running Life Is a Joy in Saturday's $200,000 Echo Eddie Stakes for California-bred 3-year-olds. Well Measured was third and the favorite, Whine for Wine, faded to finish last of eight. Alert Bay, a City Zip gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:15.61 under Tyler Baze.
Rovenna dueled to the lead in Saturday's $200,000 Evening Jewel Stakes for state-bred 3-year-old fillies, worked clear and won by 2 3/4 lengths over Harlington's Rose. Cause Ur My Babe was third. Rovenna, a Vronsky filly, got 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.55 with Victor Espinoza up.
Tom's Tribute rallied from far back to win Sunday's $75,000 Thunder Road Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths over Joelito. Bright Thought finished third and the favorite, Peace and Justice, faded to get home fifth. Tom's Tribute, a 4-year-old Lion Heart colt, ran 1 mile on the firm turf in 1:31.78, equaling the course record set by two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Mile. Mike Smith had the mount for trainer James Cassidy. "I knew they were running up front," Smith said. "They're really fast horses up there. That really played into our hands today."
Yes I'm Lucky won a stretch duel with even-money favorite Cabo Cat in Saturday's $75,000 Mr. Light Stakes for 3-year-olds, prevailing by a head over that rival. Master Lightning finished 2 1/2 lengths farther back in third. Yes I'm Lucky, a Yes It's True colt, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.20 with Paco Lopez up.
Ready Signal came from well back to win by 1 3/4 length in Sunday's $75,000 Powder Break Stakes for fillies and mares. Savvy Hester was up for second, a neck in front of pacesetting Why Katherine. Ready Signal, a 5-year-old More Than Ready mare, covered 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:39.90 with Ramsey Zimmerman in the irons.
Embarr outdueled C C Gold in the final furlong to win Saturday's $100,000 Dahlia Stakes for fillies and mares by a head over that rival. The favorite, Zucchini Flower, settled for third. Embarr, a 6-year-old Royal Academy mare, ran 1 mile on good turf in a glacial 1:45.45 with Forest Boyce up. She also won this race last year, running more than 8 seconds faster, but had not hit the board in eight intervening starts. "She comes to the races fresh this time of year," said winning owner/trainer Susan Cooney.
Ben's Cat kept on rolling in Saturday's $75,000 Mister Diz Stakes for Maryland-breds, winning by 1 3/4 lengths over Sonny Inspired. Relentless Move led early and finished third. Ben's Cat, an 8-year-old Parker's Storm Cat gelding, ran 5 furlongs on good turf in 1:01.75 with Julian Pimentel aboard.
Aunt Ellen was along late to collar the odds-on favorite, Steady N Love, and win the $75,000 Twixt Stakes for state-bred 3-year-old fillies by a head. Turf Craze finished third. Aunt Ellen, a Pure Prize filly, finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:49.39 under Horacio Karamanos.
Tampa Bay Downs
Six stakes for Florida-breds, each worth $75,000, found a fast track and firm turf on Saturday.
Prudhoe Bay rallied late to take the Ocala Breeders' Sales Sophomore Stakes for 3-year-olds by a head over Brothersofthetime and another neck over the favorite, C. Zee. Prudhoe Bay, a Songandaprayer colt, finished 7 furlongs in 1:22.58 under Angel Serpa.
Ex Pirate had to battle for the lead in the Skinny's Place of Anna Maria Island Sophomore Turf Stakes for 3-year-olds but finally worked clear to score by 2 3/4 lengths over I'm the Lucky One. Best Plan Yet finished third. Ex Pirate, a Malibu Moon gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on the grass in 1:43.42 with Daniel Centeno up.
Cuppy Cake and E B Ryder were promoted to the top two spots in the Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf when the first-finisher, Lori's Store, was set down to third for interference. Cuppy Cake, the adjudged winner, is a 4-year-old Olmodavor filly. The 1 1/16 mile went in 1:41.47.
Holiday Magic found room inside the leaders in the late going in the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies Stakes and drove through to a 3 3/4-lengths victory. Quick As a Bunny was second and the favorite, Legal Laura, faded to finish third. Holiday Magic, a Congrats filly, got 7 furlongs in 1:23.38 with Juan Leyva in the irons.
Old Time Hockey rallied by pacesetting long shot Racing Aptitude late to win the Tampa Turf Classic by 3/4 length. Racing Aptitude held second, a nose in front of Bad Debt. Old Time Hockey, a 5-year-old Smarty Jones gelding, ran 9 furlongs in 1:48.87 with Ronald Allen Jr. aboard.
Sneaking Uponyou snuck away for a handy, 6 1/4-lengths upset win in the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn and Suites Sprint. City of Weston closed sharply to be best of the rest, a neck better than the favorite, Evolution Rocks. Sneaking Uponyou, an 8-year-old Snuck In gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.08 with Huber Villa-Gomez up.
Needmore Flattery, Dream Bling and Natural Bling, a three-horse entry, got home first, second and fourth in Saturday's $50,000 Royal North Stakes for Ohio-bred 3-year-old fillies. Catawba Gray snuck in for third to break up the Blazing Meadows Farm entry. Needmore Flattery, a Flatter filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.32 under Pablo Morales. Because of the entry, the superfecta payoff figured down to the sixth-place finisher.
Hard to Resist lived up to her name in the final strides of Saturday's $50,000 Czaria Stakes for fillies and mares, just putting a nose in front of Cottagecupcake for the win. Challenging finished third. Hard to Resist, a 6-year-old Johannesburg mare, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.47 with Enrique Gomez up.