All northern hemisphere 2-year-olds turn 3 years old at midnight on Jan. 1 and the best of the best won't have to wait long to get going down the path to the 2016 classics.
Shortly after the dawn of the new year, things get serious, especially on the road to the Kentucky Derby. The Grade III Jerome at Aqueduct starts the New York series leading to the Grade I Wood Memorial. And Gulfstream Park has several options for the new 3-year-olds that presage the Grade I Florida Derby.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby
Flexibility could be the one to beat in Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct at 1 mile and 70 yards. The Bluegrass Cat colt, trained by Chad Brown, has finished second twice behind the talented Mohaymen. Among the others, Bird of Trey comes off a victory in the Dec. 5 Pennsylvania Nursery -- a race that launched Smarty Jones to his Kentucky Derby triumph. King Krantz is entered for this but more likely to run in Friday's Lost in the Fog Stakes at 6 furlongs.
The Lost in the Fog is expected to feature King Krantz, who finished second in the Grade II Futurity at Belmont Park in October. This sprint also includes Jan's Reserve, Sallisaw and Zen Pappa, among others.
Saturday's $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes at 1 mile on the Gulfstream Park main track. Awesome Speed, a November stakes winner at Laurel Park with an 84 Beyer Speed Figure, is the morning-line favorite. There's not a lot to separate the other six.
Sheikh of Sheikhs is the morning-line choice among seven in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Hutcheston at 6 furlongs at Gulfstream Park. The Discreetly Mine colt is 2-for-3, with his last win in a stakes at Keeneland. The runner-up from that event, Noholdingback Bear, also is back for more. Full Salute has missed the exacta only once in seven previous starts. Awesome Banner was an awesome winner in his only previous start but that was way back in June. While Ye May won at first asking in late November in a turf sprint at Gulfstream Park West.
Life Imitates Art has made four starts and finished second in each of them. The last three efforts found the More Than Ready colt short by a neck, a nose and another neck. He gets another try in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Dania Beach Stakes at 7 1/2 furlongs on the turf at Gulfstream Park -- a rather wide-open affair with 10 set to start. Among the others to watch are Isotherm, Ray's the Bar, Mountain Music Man and an improving Urban Bourbon.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Lucy N Ethel is the morning-line pick among six entered for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Old Hat Stakes over 6 furlongs at Gulfstream Park. The Pennsylvania-bred During filly is undefeated in two tries, the latest by 13 1/4 lengths. Ballet Diva has four wins from six starts. The others need an improved effort.
Pretty N Cool is the narrow morning-line pick in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Ynez at Santa Anita but the Scat Daddy filly has something to prove. After three wins from her first four starts -- and a second to budding superstar Songbird, Pretty N Cool finished fifth in the 7-furlong Desi Arnaz at Del Mar and a fading fourth in the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos around two turns. She's back to 6 1/2 furlongs for this heat, which should give trainer Bob Baffert a better handle on distance limitations. The competition includes Code Warrior, undefeated in three tries on the Gold Gate all-weather track, and Forever Darling, who apparently didn't like Keeneland, finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Lira looks sound as a dollar among 10 in for Saturday's $100,000 Ginger Brew on the turf at Gulfstream Park. The Giant's Causeway filly, the morning-line favorite, has won both her previous races, both over the Gulfstream West green course. Pricedtoperfection comes off a decent run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. Andreya's Reward could be a good price. She ran well earlier in 2015 but comes off a couple of poor outings, including a last-place debacle in that same Breeders' Cup heat. Auntie Joy, an Uncle Mo filly, comes off a nice maiden win.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Gabriel Stakes at Santa Anita has a power-packed field, including Big John B, who was second only to The Pizza Man in the Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup in November; Poshky winner of the Grade III Berkeley Handicap at Golden Gate in his last outing; Brazilian-bred Bal a Bali, second in the Grade II Seabiscuit in his most recent race; the aging but talented multiple Grade I winner Obviously; and Grade I Hollywood Derby winner Chiropractor. The race is 1 1/8 miles on the turf and should preview some of the contenders who will line up at the end of the year for the 2016 Breeders' Cup Turf over the same course.
Seven, including some more heavyweights, are in for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Midnight Lute Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita. The roster includes graded stakes winners Distinctiv Passion and Salutos Amigos, as well as speedballs San Onofre and All Run, either of whom easily could spring the upset.
Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Monrovia Stakes down the hillside turf course at Santa Anita has a tough field of 12.
Thursday's $500,000 Qatar Derby produced a dead heat for the win and a clean sweep by international horses. Tannaaf, trained by Mike de Kock and ridden by Wayne Smith, hit the wire together with Rogue Runner, a German-trained contender ridden by Eduardo Pedroza for trainer Mario Hofer. Shutterbug finished third. The race originally was judged a victory for Rogue Runner but another examination of the photo resulted in the amended verdict. Nasser Al Kaabi, general manager of the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club, lauded the close finish by in the invaders, adding, "We are looking forward to welcoming more international runners for The Emir's Sword Festival" on Feb. 26-28.
The HK Group III Chinese Club Challenge Cup at 1,400 meters on New Year's Day is not a top-level event in its own right but has been a guidepost to same in the recent past. Winners from the past few years include subsequent Group 1 winners Sterling City, Little Bridge, Egyptian Ra, Joy And Fun and Floral Pegasus. Last year's winner, Rewarding Hero, went on to run second to Able Friend in the Group 1 Champions Mile in May. This year's top hopeful is Packing Pins, already twice a winner this season and fifth in the Group 2 BOCHK Wealth Management Jockey Club Mile. "He has done everything right and is capable of further improvement," said trainer Ricky Yiu. "This year's Chinese Club Challenge Cup will be a very good race."