The last two major Kentucky Derby prep races and the 2014 debut of two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan highlight the weekend racing program.
After Saturday's $750,000 Grade I Blue Grass at Keeneland and $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, the fields for the May 3 Run for the Roses will be all but settled.
The only remaining official prep race on set by Churchill Downs will be the Grade III Lexington, also at Keeneland, April 19.
Oaklawn and Keeneland each have impressive stakes programs throughout the weekend. Will Take Charge resurfaces in the Oaklawn Handicap after chasing Game On Dude to finish second in his last outing, "Big Cap" at Santa Anita.
Sunday's schedule overseas features the Group 1 Oka Sho, or Japanese 1,000 Guineas, at Hanshin Racecourse.
And we welcome Woodbine back. If they're racing in Toronto, it must be springtime. Let's tiptoe through those tulips!
The reigning, two-time Horse of the Year
Wise Dan, now 7 years old, is the heavy favorite in Friday's $300,000 Grade I Maker's 46 Mile. The Wiseman's Ferry gelding is tough at any trip, but has been nearly invincible at the grassy mile for the past two years, earning victories in the past two runnings of the Breeders' Cup Mile.
Looking at some tough competition in Friday's seven-horse field, trainer Charles LoPresti said he wishes he could have his charge a tad better prepared.
"You have to get started somewhere, and you can't worry about getting beat," LoPresti said.
"In a perfect world, I'd like to have another five-eighths work. But with the weather that we had, that was the hand I was dealt."
The Derby preps
Trainer Todd Pletcher entered three of the 15 prospective starters for Saturday's 1 1/8-miles Blue Grass at Keeneland and was "rewarded" with post positions Nos. 12, 14 and 15.
Of those, the most likely is Vinceremos, who will start from the 12 hole under Edgar Prado. He won the Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs, then finished second to Ring Weekend a month ago in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby.
Now he has to contend with the all-weather surface for the first time. Pletcher also has Gala Award (No. 14), winner of the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf in his last outing, and Divine Oath on the outside.
Dale Romans has entered Medal Count, who came up the rail just a week ago to win the Grade III Transylvania Stakes on opening day of the Keeneland meet. By Dynaformer out of an Unbridled's Song mare, Medal Count is likely to get better as he goes along but starts from the No. 13 gate. Harry's Holiday, who finished a nose second to We Miss Artie in the Grade III Spiral Stakes on the Turfway Park all-weather, is well-drawn in gate No. 4 with Rosie Napravnik up.
Coastline, third in the Spiral, also is in this field. Ken and Sarah Ramsey are trying to qualify another Kentucky Derby starter in Bobby's Kitten, who won the Grade III Pilgrim on the lawn at Belmont Park and finished third as the favorite in the tough Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Dance With Fate comes from California some good credentials on the all-weather courses.
Here's something to keep in mind: Last weekend, the horses who finished eighth, ninth and 10th in the Grade II Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in January all came back to win important stakes races. Well, the 11th-place horse from the Holy Bull, Big Bazinga, is set to run here. This field is a tough puzzle and the outcome will depend in part on how the 3-year-olds handle the surface.
Another contentious and interesting field will fill nine stalls in the Oaklawn Park starting gate for Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Arkansas Derby. Much of the attention will be on Tapiture, who finished second to Hoppertunity in the Grade II Rebel last month and earlier won the Grade III Southwest Stakes.
In last weekend's Grade I Santa Anita Derby, Hoppertunity finished second to potential Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome. Tapiture, a Tapit colt trained by Steve Asmussen, also won the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs in his final start of 2013, adding to his allure for the Run for the Roses. Joel Rosario, who rode Orb to win last year's Kentucky Derby, takes over the mount from Ricardo Santana Jr.
Asmussen said, "Joel's Kentucky Derby victory last year." The opposition includes two from trainer Todd Pletcher's seemingly bottomless barn. Commissioner comes off a third-place finish in the Grade III Sunland Park Derby and carries the hopes of his sire, A.P. Indy, with Mike Smith in the irons for the first time. And Danza showed promise last summer at Saratoga, took a long break and came back with a third-place finish last month at Gulfstream Park.
A wild card in this pack is Bayern, an Offlee Wild colt trained by Bob Baffert who is undefeated and untested in two starts at Santa Anita. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said he hopes to get Strong Mandate back on course. Like a few others in this field, Strong Mandate has been chasing Tapiture around the Hot Springs oval.
Eighteen 3-year-old fillies will tackle 1,600 meters in Sunday's Group 1 Oka Sho, or Japanese 1,000 Guineas. The race is worth about $1.85 million and includes several multiple winners but attention focuses on the top three from last fall's Hanshin Juvenile Fillies -- Red Reveur, Harp Star and Forevermore.
Close Hatches heads a field of five for Friday's $600,000 Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. The 4-year-old First Defence filly has missed the exacta just once in nine career starts. She was runner-up to Beholder in last fall's Breeders' Cup Distaff and opened the 2014 campaign with a win in the Grade II Azeri over the Oaklawn strip.
Prominent among the others is Let Faith Arise, who comes off a win in the Grade I Santa Margarita Stakes in California. Close Hatches will start from the rail under Joel Rosario; Let Faith Arise from the outside gate with Corey Nakatani in the irons.
Close Hatches' trainer, Bill Mott, said, "the other fillies are also going to be competitive. We respect them all."
Will Take Charge needs to take charge in Saturday's $600,000, Grade II Oaklawn Handicap. The 4-year-old Unbridled's Song colt has finished second in three of his last four races, including a nose loss to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders' Cup Classic and his futile pursuit of Game On Dude in the Santa Anita Handicap.
Still, Will Take Charge was ranked in a tie for fourth place in the most recent Longines World's Best Racehorses listing, released Thursday. Game On Dude was No. 2 on that list, behind only Japanese star Just A Way.
The waters aren't so deep here as the six rivals, relatively speaking, are fringe players. Moreno had a good run last year, including a second to Will Take Charge in the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby, but then finished 10th in the Breeders' Cup Classic in his last start. Todd Pletcher saddles two, including Grade III Razorback Handicap winner Golden Lad and Revolutionary, who needs a rebirth of form.
"I have a lot of respect for Will Take Charge and how good he is, especially on his home track," Pletcher said. "It's a tall order. But we felt like it was the right spot for our two horses and we'll hope for the best." Prayer For Relief, a 6-year-old warrior, is not hopeless in this bunch.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Jenny Wiley Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the Keeneland grass picked up a really tough field of 10 and will be a milestone race for this division heading into the warm-weather months.
Last year's winner, Centre Court, comes off a season-opening win in the Grade II Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park. The Ramsey-owned and bred duo of Emotional Kitten and Stephanie's Kitten both are graded-stakes proven competitors although the latter is coming off a nine-months layoff.
A third daughter of Kitten's Joy, but from different owner and breeder, is Kitten's Point and she, too, looks quite capable.
Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin Racing has Fitful Skies, who ran successfully in France and Germany, then finished a close second to Tannery in the Grade I E.P.
Taylor Stakes at Woodbine in her first North American start last fall. Discreet Marq has been in the money in 11 of 13 starts against the best. None of the 10 is easy to toss.
Sunday, distaffers tackle 1 1/4 mile on the grass at Santa Anita in the $150,000, Grade III Santa Barbara Handicap.
Go Blue or Go Home may have a negative connotation around Lexington after Kentucky's loss to Connecticut in the NCAA basketball tournament championship game.
But Go Blue or Go Home gives Wildcat fans another chance in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Shakertown at Keeneland. He will have to step it up a bit in a competitive field of 13 set to tackle 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass.
And we'll have to ignore the fact he was bred in Virginia. Meanwhile, Something Extra, who finished second in this race last year, is among the opposition but hasn't raced since last July.
If he's right and tight, he's good enough to win in this field. Gantry was too good for the competition in Louisiana but meets some different rivals here.
Shrinking Violet looks sharp. Havelock had an unsuccessful trip to England last summer, came back to win the Grade III Woodford Stakes at Keeneland and then bombed in the Breeders' Cup. A few others have shown flashes of ability.
Ciao Bella Luna is the highweight for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Las Cienegas Stakes for fillies and mares down the hillside course at Santa Anita. Ciao Bella Luna won the Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Sprint two starts back and finished second Irish O'Brien Stakes in her last outing.
On Sunday, the $100,000, Grade III San Simeon also is down the hill at Santa Anita and open to all 4-year-olds and up.
If Go Blue or Go Home doesn't cut it in the Turf Sprint, maybe Big Blue Spirit can improve his game enough to figure in Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland at 7 furlongs on the all-weather course.
It will require a pretty big step up in his first stakes try while facing 11 others -- a tough bunch, including Laugh Track, who finished second in last fall's Breeders' Cup.
Note the presence of Carving, once trained in California by Bob Baffert and owned by Baffert's wife, Jill, and Olympic snowboarder Bode Miller. He's now under new management.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Potrero Stakes at 6 1/2 furlogns at Santa Anita got eight entries, including Grade II Palos Verde Stakes winner Wild Dude. Big Macher, second in the Grade II San Carlos, also is in here.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Judy the Beauty and Heir Kitty finished 1-2 in the Grade III Las Flores Stakes at Santa Anita in their last outing and resurface among nine set for Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Madison at Keeneland. The race is 7 furlongs on the all-weather track.
Judy the Beauty has six wins, seven seconds and a third from 14 career starts, including a second-place finish in last fall's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, only 1/2 length in arrears of Groupie Doll. Better Lucky finished third behind the recently retired Egg Drop in the Grade I Matriarch last December at the recently retired Hollywood Park and before that won the Grade I First Lady over the Keeneland grass. Byrama is a Grade I winner and several others are knocking on the door.
Seven 3-year-old fillies are set for Saturday's $100,000 Instant Racing at 6 furlongs at Oaklawn Park. The mix ranges from experienced winners to Jojo Warrior, who won at first asking at Del Mar last September in her only previous start. Don't ignore her, though.
She worked 5 furlongs from the gate in 58 2/5 seconds last week at Santa Anita -- best of 71 that day and distance -- and Gary Stevens will ride for Bob Baffert.
Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland is for 3-year-old fillies going about 7 furlongs on the all-weather course. Ready to Act heads a field of seven.
Ten 3-year-olds tackle 1 mile in Saturday's $100,000 Northern Spur at Oaklawn Park. Six Spot has won two in a row at Oaklawn and will start from the rail.
News and notes
With the consent of Her Majesty the Queen, the QIPCO British Champions Day lineup will expand this year to six races by adding the Balmoral Handicap, a 1-mile race worth 250,000 pounds sterling. British Champions Day will be run Saturday, Oct. 18, at Ascot.
"The last time the race title was used was at Royal Ascot 2003, when it was a 5-furlong handicap, which was replaced to make way for the then-new Group 2 Windsor Forest Stakes," said Ascot CEO Charles Barnett.
"It has very much been on our mind to bring back this name when an appropriate opportunity such as this arose." Balmoral Castle in Scotland is a private residence owned by the British Royal Family.
Up north, Woodbine returns after resolution of some unpleasantness with provincial officials that threatened Ontario racing's financial future.
The usual stellar lineup of stakes races is highlighted by the Queen's Plate for locally-bred 3-year-olds on July 6 and by three top international turf events in the fall. Chantal Sutherland-Kruse returns from whence she came after a three-year stint in Southern California.