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UPI horse racing roundup

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer   |   Jan. 4, 2016 at 4:22 PM

The first weekend of the new year turned up some impressive contenders for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, while a French-bred horse with a French jockey produced a big upset on the Santa Anita turf.

On the international front, more than 77,000 fans turned out at Sha Tin in Hong Kong on New Year's Day to see a potential sprint contender for Dubai's World Cup program. And, in Dubai, Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin Racing unveiled a possible candidate for the UAE Derby on that same World Cup card and -- who knows? -- maybe the Kentucky Derby after that.

Let's hit this week's ...

Road to the Roses

A pair of "awesome" runners headlined weekend action among the newly turned 3-year-olds, but Kentucky Derby handicappers are warned to maintain some "flexibility" this early in the season.

Flexibility, in fact, rallied four-wide from off the pace to win Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, drawing off late to finish 4 1/4 lengths to the good of runner-up Vorticity. In Equality was third. Flexibility, a New York-bred colt by Bluegrass Cat, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on the fast inner track in 1:42.98 with Irad Ortiz Jr. at the controls. As a 2-year-old, he twice finished second behind the highly regarded Mohaymen.

"He's been professional throughout," said Cherie DeVaux, assistant to winning trainer Chad Brown. "He just steps it up each time. It was a very professional effort, sitting behind the speed today and moving on cue. The race set up well for him. He's always been a big, strong colt who did everything correct. Chad and the owners will talk about what's next for him."

Awesome Speed pressed the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park, went to the front with a quarter-mile left and won by 1 1/4 lengths over El Charro. Bullet Gone Astray didn't fire and finished third, another 6 1/2 lengths back. Awesome Speed, an Awesome Again colt, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.97 with Joel Rosario up for trainer Alan Goldberg. The colt now has won three straight after a learning experience in his first career start.

"He got pinched a little bit at the start," Rosario said. After letting others take the lead, he said, "I eased him out a little bit trying to get him to the outside pocket and then he had a nice cruising speed. He's a nice horse, easy to ride." Goldberg said Awesome Speed will handle more distance, "but I don't know if he'll stretch out with good horses." He said he originally planned to bypass the Grade II Holy Bull on Jan. 30 and wait for the Grade II Fountain of Youth on Feb. 27. After Saturday's effort, he said, "We'll see."

Awesome Banner, making his first start since June 5, battled to the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park and drew off in the stretch to a 4 3/4-lengths victory. Noholdingback Bear contested the early pace, then held on for second, 1 length ahead of Sheikh of Sheikhs, who broke slowly. Awesome Banner, an Awesome of Course colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.57 with Jose Caraballo in the irons and now is 2-for-2 for trainer Stanley Gold. He established a track record in his lone start as a 2-year-old, running 4 1/2 furlongs in 51.07 seconds at Gulfstream. But then he needed surgery to remove a chip on his knee and trainer Stanley Gold said the long layoff had him worried. "You always have doubts first time out and this long off, and when they get pressured all the way, you could find yourself coming up short despite whatever you do," the trainer said. "There's nothing like a race to get tight. When he started to draw off in the stretch, I was impressed." Gold hinted Awesome Banner might get a chance in the Florida Derby preps. "I think he'll go longer," he said. "He's a fast horse, but he's not a speed horse, a crazy horse. He's very relaxed."

King Kranz stalked the pace in Friday's $125,000 Lost in the Fog Stakes at Aqueduct, came to the lead about the eighth pole and held off the favorite, Jan's Reserve, winning by 1 length over that foe. Sallisaw finished third. King Kranz, a Munnings colt, ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:11.84 with Cornelio Velasquez in the irons. Owned by Zayat Stables, the colt recorded his first win after taking two seconds and two thirds from five starts as a 2-year-old. He was second in the Grade II Futurity at Belmont Park in October. "It was frustrating last year," said Tonja Terranova, assistant to winning trainer John Terranova, who added blinkers for the start. "But at least we started out the new year right." Velasquez added, "He was definitely more focused today with the blinkers on."

On the turf: Life Imitates Art had started four times and finished second four times coming into Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Dania Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Enough is enough, said the More Than Ready colt as he outfinished Isotherm to win by a head. Actually, Life Imitates Art had officially won one previous start, thanks to a disqualification, so the Chad Brown trainee now has two wins and three seconds from five starts. He finished Saturday's 7 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:30.42 under Joel Rosario. Urban Bourbon finished third and the favorite, Ray's the Bar, was sixth. "He really put it together," Brown said. "We've always thought he was one of our better horses. They've got a good turf series here and we'll take a look at what's next."

On the international front: Godolphin got right into the action on New Year's Day at Meydan in Dubai as Blue Creek overcame a slow start to win in his first official race, a 1,600-meters maiden event that opened the program. With Richard Mullen up, the Street Cry colt, out of the Dynaformer mare Blue Bunting, took the lead on the turn and was gone. He won by 5 lengths over the Doug Watson-trained Tobacco. "This fellow has plenty of ability and a great pedigree," said trainer Charlie Appleby of the winner. "He will only improve with time and the further he goes, the better he will be." Appleby said Blue Creek likely will bypass the UAE Guineas in favor of the longer trips in the Al Bastakia on Super Saturday and the Group 2 UAE Derby on World Cup night, March 26. The latter is a major Kentucky Derby prep.

On the Santa Anita turf on New Year's Eve, Path of David came from far back win the $75,000 Eddie Logan Stakes by 1 length over Imperious One, with Arabian Leopard rallying from last to get show money. Path of David, an Istan gelding out of the Dynaformer mare Rimini Road, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.07 with Joe Talamo up.

Half Cajun led all the way to an upset win in Thursday's $95,000 Louisiana Futurity for state-bred 2-year-olds at Fair Grounds, winning by 4 1/2 lengths over the even-money favorite, John's Luck. Icy Gentleman was third. Half Cajun, a Half Ours gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.02 with Richard Eramia up.

After the weekend action, Flexibility moved into a three-way tie for the third spot on the Churchill Downs-run "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points standings with 14. Nyquist (30) and Exaggerator (16) are the top two. Brody's Cause and Mor Spirit also have 14 points each.

Kentucky Oaks preps

Lucy N Ethel shot right to the front in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Old Hat Stakes at Gulfstream Park and got clear in the final sixteenth, winning by 3 3/4 lengths. My Dear Venezuela was second at 20-1 odds. Ballet Diva, checked shortly after the start, rallied to take third. Lucy N Ethel, a Pennsylvania-bred daughter of During, toured 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.03 for jockey Joshua Navarro, winning for the third time without a loss. Her first two starts were at Parx. "I had to use here a little bit the first part to get the early lead," Navarro said. "As soon as they got to me at the three-eighths pole, she gave me another gear and kept going. I was worried. I was thinking she wins the first two times in Philly, but Philly and here is way different. So if she wins today, she proves she belongs, and she did it today." Trainer Raymon Preciado Lucy N Ethel will move along to the Grade II Forward Gal on Jan. 20, going 7 furlongs.

Forever Darling pressed the pace set by Pretty N Cool in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Ynez at Santa Anita, went by when prompted by jockey Rafael Bejarano and then outfinished previously undefeated Code Warrior for the win. Pretty N Cool held on for third. Forever Darling, a Congrats filly, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.25. She finished eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in her previous outing after a stumbling start and now is 2-for-4 for trainer Richard Baltas. "I don't think she wants to go two turns yet," Bejarano said. "I think she would like 6, 6 1/2, 7, but the Breeders' Cup was too tough for her. I thought she was so much better today, running 6 1/2."

On the turf: Lira is going to be a good one if Saturday's $100,000 Ginger Brew Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park is any measure. Totally bottled up on the fence with a sixteenth to run, jockey Javier Castellano had to detour the Giant's Causeway filly all the way to the outside, where she quickly found another gear and surged to the front in the final strides, quickly followed by Pricedtoperfection and Module. The Todd Pletcher trainee, owned by Mathis Stable LLC, finished 7 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:30.38, remaining undefeated in three starts, all in South Florida.

Smittys Cougar ran to her odds-on favorite status in Thursday's $97,000 Louisiana Futurity for state-bred juvenile fillies at Fair Grounds, kicking away from seven rivals to win by 9 3/4 lengths. Rita's Fifty Seven was second, 2 3/4 lengths in front of Thegoodwitch. Smittys Cougar, a daughter of Half Ours, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.20 with Jose Valdivia Jr. in the irons.

Otherwise:

Santa Anita

Flamboyant, at odds of 46-1, ran by pacesetting favorite Obviously in the final strides to win Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Gabriel by a neck. Bal a Bali was a nonthreatening third. Flamboyant, a 5-year-old, French-bred gelding by Peer Gynt, finished 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.64 with French-bred jockey Brice Blanc in the irons. It was his first win since the La Puente over the course and distance -- his first U.S. start, way back in April of 2014. "Maybe Brice speaks the same language," quipped winning trainer Paddy Gallagher. "Ever since Brice has ridden him, he's done everything right. So, no matter what language he speaks, it must be working."

San Onofre stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Midnight Lute Stakes, got the lead at the top of the stretch and was all out to win by 1/2 length over the favorite, Salutos Amigos. Pulling G's came from last to finish third. San Onofre, a 6-year-old Surf Cat gelding ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:14.82 with Alex Solis in the irons. He has been an ATM in his short career, with five wins and four seconds from 11 starts. "I'm very, very pleased," said winning trainer Karen Headley. "The strategy worked out perfect, finally. His last two sprints he had gone against monsters, not that this was a soft field."

Prize Exhibit outfinished Shrinking Violet in a battle of long shots in Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Monrovia Stakes for fillies and mares down the hillside turf course. The favorite, Ageless, was right behind in third. Prize Exhibit, a 4-year-old, British-bred filly by Showcasing, ran 6 1/2 gravity-aided furlongs in 1:12.96 with Santiago Gonzalez in the irons. It was her first run down the unique course but trainer James Cassidy said, "I didn't think she'd have any problem unless she started idling trying to figure out what the heck this is all about, which she has a tendency to do ... Gonzalez is a really good rider. If he keeps finding his skills, he'll be one of the best riders here, if he isn't close to that already."

Aqueduct

Empire Dreams rallied from off the pace in Thursday's $100,000 Alex M. Robb Stakes for New York-breds, dueled with Saratoga Snacks through deep stretch and finally prevailed by a head. Good Luck Gus was third, 3 lengths farther up the track. Empire Dreams, a 4-year-old son of Patriot Act, ran 1 1/16 miles on the muddy inner track in 1:44.14 with Manny Franco up.

Laurel Park

Sweet On Smokey pressed the pace in Saturday's $75,000 What a Summer Stakes for fillies and mares, then kicked away in the stretch run to win by 2 1/2 lengths over the early leader, Raging Smoke. E Dubai's Humor finished third. Sweet On Smokey, a 4-year-old daughter of Successful Appeal, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.05 with Victor Carrasco in the irons.

Page McKenney was chapter and verse better than five rivals in Saturday's $75,000 Native Dancer Stakes, taking charge late and winning off by 3 1/2 lengths. Golden Glint was best of the rest, with the early leader, Warrioroftheroses, finishing third. Page McKenney, a 6-year-old Eavesdropper gelding, ran about 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.70 with Horacio Karamanos up.

Love Came to Town came to the lead in the lane in Saturday's $75,000 Nellie Morse Stakes for fillies and mares and quickly drew off, winning by 5 1/2 lengths over Brenda's Way. Playful Love was 4 1/4 lengths farther back in third. The favorite, Miss Mischief, beat only one rival in a dull effort. Love Came to Town, a 4-year-old Medallist filly, finished about 1 1/16 miles on the main track in 1:45.50 with Mychel Sanchez riding.

Fair Grounds

Bayerd rallied four wide on the turn in Saturday's $60,000 Bonapaw Stakes, moved up quickly and got home first by 1 length over Attain. Officer Griffin got show money. Bayerd, a 4-year-old Speightstown colt, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on the fast main track in 1:04.52 with Florent Geroux up. The race was moved off the turf.

Turfway Park

Serene Melody tracked the early leader in Saturday's $50,000 Wintergreen Stakes for fillies and mares, came to the lead four-wide and drew off, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over City of Trix. The favorite, Emotional Kitten, had every chance in the final sixteenth but weakened to finish third. "The longer you sit on her, the better she'll go," said winning rider Sophie Doyle, "and I waited until she switched leads up the stretch. Then I asked her to go on, and she did it impressively." Julie Burke rode the 43-1 runner-up. Serene Melody is a 6-year-old Street Cry mare out of the 1995 Eclipse Award divisional champion and Hall of Fame designee Serena's Song, who beat male 3-year-olds in the 1995 Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park before a futile tilt at the Kentucky Derby windmill. She ran 1 mile on the all-weather track in 1:38.12. Serene Melody, bred by her owner, the Robert and Bevery Lewis Trust, is lightly raced and, despite her regal pedigree, picked up her first-ever stakes win in her 16th start.

{b: Sunland Park}

African Rose rallied from mid-pack in Saturday's $65,000 Bold Ego Handicap for fillies and mares, split rivals around the eighth pole and drove home first by 2 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Chanteline. Cassie Sue prompted the pace, led briefly and finished third. African Rose, a 7-year-old Bwana Charlie mare, finished 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:03.32 with Enrique Gomez in the irons.

{b:International

Dubai}

Trainer Doug Watson saddled the first two finishers in the feature on New Year's Day at Meydan as Kilt Rock overcame an outside draw under a nice ride by Sam Hitchcott and defeated stablemate Domoch by 1 1/2 lengths. The 9-year-old Giant's Causeway horse already had won on the Meydan turf and the Jebel Ali dirt but was making his first start on the Meydan dirt track. "He likes to get out in front, which is not always easy over those sprint trips, but he could today and he clearly enjoyed it," said Justin Byrne of the owning Emirates Racing Entertainment Club. "He seems to like dirt so we were keen to try him on it here at Meydan and now, hopefully, this opens up plenty of options for him."

Hong Kong

A crowd of 77,735 turned out at Sha Tin on New Year's Day to see Not Listenin'tome tote 133 pounds to victory in the featured Bauhinia Sprint Trophy. Not Listenin'tome was bouncing back from a third-place finish just three weeks earlier in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint. After lagging behind the front-runners, jockey Zac Purton got Not Listenin'tome rolling with about 400 meters left in the 1,000-meters race and responed to lead with 150 meters to run. Strathmore was second and Dundonnell finished third. Trainer John Moore said the HK Group 1 Centenary Sprint Cup at 1,200 meters on Jan. 31 January is a likely next start, possibly in preparation for overseas competition. "A target would be the Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai, definitely," he said. "We will be putting an entry in shortly."

Also on Friday, Multivictory overcame a slow start and some traffic issues to land the HK Group 3 Chinese Club Challenge Cup Handicap with a late move. Jockey Howard Cheng said the plan was to stay close to the leaders but the horse lacked early speed. He got room on the outside entering the stretch and unleashed a furious charge that got him home first, just in front of Packing Pins. Contentment finished third. "We will probably keep him in stakes company now," winning trainer Tony Cruz said of Multivictory.

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