Dubai World Cup night dominates weekend racing action, with the Louisiana Derby and England's All-Weather Championships prominent on the undercard.
In Japan, Sunday's Grade I Takamatsunomiya Kinen makes it two races in two days for the Global Sprint Challenge.
Lots to cover, so let's get sprinting.
There was a bit of unaccustomed drama as post positions were drawn for Saturday's $10 million Dubai World Cup at the Meydan Theater. One by one, a flight attendant from sponsoring Emirates Airline drew the names of the 12 starters. As each name was drawn, an owner or trainer selected a gate for that horse. Five, six, seven and then eight names were drawn and still trainer Art Sherman was waiting to find the fate of California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, runner-up in last year's World Cup and the favorite for Saturday night's race. Finally, the penultimate draw was California Chrome. But only the two outside gates were left. Sherman took No. 11, commenting hopefully, "The outside is good. If you have the horse."
The fact is, though, the dirt track at Meydan this season has displayed a tendency to favor horses running on the rail, thus benefitting those who draw inside or who have enough early speed to get to the front and get over. The trend was on full display on "Super Saturday" three weeks ago when long shot Special Fighter rode the rail to a massive win in the Group 1 Maktoum Challenge Round III. That means jockey Victor Espinoza either will have to expend some of California Chrome's energy at the start of the race to gain position or hope he can make up ground against the bias in the late going.
Matthew de Kock, son of trainer Mike de Kock, made the situation plain as he picked No. 4 for Mubtaahij, last year's UAE Derby winner. "There tended to be an inside bias throughout he season," the younger de Kock said. Bradley Weisbord, representing Grade I Donn Handicap winner Mshawish, added, "We wanted to draw the inside so we're pleased," as he hung his horse's colors on the No. 2 gate.
And in case anyone still missed the point, Jerry Crawford, owner of Travers Stakes winner Keen Ice, took gate No. 1 right before Sherman's draw. "I hope all of you who were talking about the speed bias on the outside knew what you were talking about," Crawford said.
The other American horses also drew towards the outside -- Frosted No. 9 and Hoppertunity No. 10. Hong Kong hopeful Gun Pit was installed in gate No. 3. Special Fighter got No. 5 this time around. Six went to Candy Boy, who finished fourth in the Maktoum Round III in his first race in some 15 months. Vadamos, from France, got No. 7. Japan's Hokko Tarumae drew No. 8 and Teletext, in from Saudi Arabia, was left on the outside after Sherman's pick.
The other races on the World Cup Card:
Godolphin Mile, Group 2, 1,600 meters, dirt. Trainer Doug Watson, who won the regular-season title, has three of the 10 starters and it would be foolish to discount any of them. Faulkner drops back from the 2,000 meters of the Maktoum Challenge, where he finished third while spinning his wheels late. Cool Cowboy and One Man Band are both last-out winners. Among the others, Godolphin sends out Marking, a three-time winner from five starts. Maftool has yet to miss the frame in four dirt-track efforts.
Dubai Gold Cup, Group 2, 3,200 meters, turf. The Aga Khan's Vazirabad, a Group 1 winner in France, is the highest-rated of the 11 runners in the evening's marathon event. Vazirabad, a 4-year-old son of Manduro, won five straight races last season, culminating in victory in the Group 1 Prix Royal-Oak at Saint-Cloud. Certerach won this in 2014 but has not won since. Godolphin has two, including Haafaguinea, who has hit the board in all three races this season at Meydan.
UAE Derby, Group 2, 1,900 meters, dirt. This race will be watched as carefully in Kentucky as in Dubai as the huge favorite, the undefeated filly Polar River, could be considered for the Kentucky Oaks in May if she runs to her notices against a half dozen colts here. Trainer Doug Watson has waffled a bit on his plans but the attraction is there. Opponents include American runner Frank Conversation, who has sparkled on the all-weather surface at Golden Gate Fields but has not won on dirt; and Vale Dori, an Argentine-bred filly by Asiatic Boy who finished only 3/4 length behind Polar River in the Group 3 UAE Oaks.
Al Quoz Sprint, Group 1, 1,000 meters, straight turf course. Last year's 1-2 finishers, Sole Power from England and Peniaphobia, winner of the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint last December, are back for another try in a wide-open cavalry charge with 12 set to go. Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner Mongolian Saturday was a late scratch after shipping poorly, leaving Lady Shipman as the U.S. hope. That's not a bad hope as Lady Shipman was only a neck back in second in the Breeders' Cup. The locals should be dangerous here, along with Hong Kong's Not Listenin'tome, who finished third behind Peniaphobia and Gold-Fun in the Hong Kong Sprint.
Dubai Golden Shaheen, Group 1, 1,200 meters, dirt. This should be a good one with a fistful of local winners, including Super Saturday victor Muarrab, against American speedster X Y Jet, who is in top form, and the always-tough Hong Kong contingent featuring Rich Tapestry, Domineer, Super Jockey and Master Kochanwong. Godolphin-owned Confrontation ran well in the United States during the first half of 2015 but then was out of action until he won a comeback race at Meydan in February. Renaldothewizard won this race in 2013 and the 10-year-old has been in good form so far this year.
Dubai Turf, Group 1, 1,800 meters. A highly competitive field of 15 is set for this with Tryster one of the favorites off a win in the Group 1 Jebel Hatta early this month. The 5-year-old Shamardal gelding has won both his starts this season. Euro Charline won the Grade I Beverly D. at Arlington Park in 2014 and finished third in the same race last summer. She finished second to Very Special -- another of Saturday's competitors, in the in the Group 2 Balanchine over the course three weeks ago. Japan sends Real Steel, who seldom wins but usually is around at the end. A question mark is Intilaaq, a 4-year-old Dynaformer colt who makes his first start since last August and who earlier was slotted for the World Cup. A case could be made for most of the others to at least fill the frame.
Dubai Sheema Classic, Group 1, 2,410 meters, turf. The nine-horse field includes Duramente, who was dramatically good as a 3-year-old in Japan before suffering a season-ending injury. He returned with a hard-won victory at Nakayama at the end of February and would be competitive if he is back to his old form. Highland Reel, trained by Aidan O'Brien, last year won the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park, finished third in the Group 1 Cox Plate in Australia and won the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin in Hong Kong last year. The regally bred 4-year-old colt makes his seasonal debut. Postponed has won three straight at the highest level and he and Saturday opponent Dariyan finished 1-2 in the Group 2 Dubai City of Gold earlier this month. Among the locals, Sheikhzayedroad jumped up to win the Group 3 Nad al Sheeba Trophy on March 3. The Blue Eye has been an eyeful in Doha this season, winning three straight and four of his last five.
The night opens with the Dubai Kahayla Classic, a Group 1 event for Purebred Arabians. The breed is a favorite of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, head of Godolphin Racing and driving force behind the World Cup program.
Sunday's Grade I Takamatsunomia Kinen, the third leg of the Global Sprint Challenge, lost its international cachet when Hong Kong's Aerovelocity, last year's winner, was withdrawn because of a bout of colic. Trainer Paul O'Sullivan said he hopes for a full recovery for the 8-year-old. "I believe that many Japanese racing fans were looking forward to seeing Aerovelocity race," O'Sullivan said. "It is very disappointing for us as well and I hope that we will be able to return to Japan again and I ask for your continued support." That leaves a crew of locals consisting of hopeful veterans and some promising newcomers to sort out the 1,200 meters over undulating turf at Chukyo Racecourse.
There are 77 horses declared to run in the seven races for the third All-Weather Championships Finals Day at Lingfield Park Friday, with purses totaling 1.1 million pounds sterling. The day's richest race is the 200,000-pound Coral Easter Classic, featuring Grendisar, the easy winner of the Group 3 Coral Winter Derby over the course and distance last month.
Also on the Good Friday card are the 32Red.com All-Weather Fillies' And Mares' Championship at 7 furlongs; the Unibet All-Weather Sprint Championship at 6 furlongs; the 32Red All-Weather Marathon Championship at 15 furlongs plus 169 yards; the Ladbrokes All-Weather Mile Championship; the Unibet 3-year-old Sprint All-Weather Championship at 5 furlongs; and the 32Red All-Weather 3-year-old Mile Championship.
Horses have been qualifying for the Championships throughout the winter months, either by winning designated Fast-Track Qualifier races or by repeated entry in designated all-weather tracks in England, Ireland or France.
The Road to the Roses
Saturday's $1 million, Grade II TwinSpires Louisiana Derby features the top four finishers from the Grade II Risen Star over the course, plus two who disappointed in that heat and the well-rested runner-up from the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes in Florida. In all, 11 3-year-olds are entered to tackle 9 furlongs in the first Kentucky Derby "semifinal". Gun Runner, Forevamo, Mo Tom and Candy My Boy were the first four in the Risen Star and all are back to try again. Tom's Ready and Uncle Walter finished second and third in January in the Grade III LeComte but reported home seventh and last, respectively, in the Risen Star. Greenpointcrusader, meanwhile, has been been working steadily in Florida since finishing second to Mohaymen, one of the Kentucky Derby favorites, in the Jan. 30 Holy Bull. Greenpointcrusader, a Bernardini colt out of the Cryptoclearance mare Ava Knowsthecode, won the Grade I Champagne in the slop at Belmont Park and was a fast-closing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. This race should help define his potential. The Derby goes as the 10th race on a 15-race card on Holy Saturday with a 5:12 p.m. CDT post time.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Venus Valentine, the 74-1 upset winner of the Grade II Rachel Alexandra back in February, will try to show she's no fluke when she lines up for Saturday's $400,000, Grade II TwinSpires Fair Grounds Oaks. Stageplay, fifth as the favorite in the Rachel Alexandra, will argue the other side of that issue as she takes the track on Saturday. Stageplay, a Curlin filly, won the Silverbulletday earlier in the meeting. Venus Valentine, a daughter of Congrats, has been improving steadily. The race drew only eight, also including two from California -- Street Fancy, the winner of the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos, and Land Over Sea, who has chased Songbird home in each of her last five races.
Chocolate Ride and Roman Approval have finished 1-2, in that order, in each of their last two races. They square off again in Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Muniz Memorial Handicap at Fair Grounds, with a bit of added competition. Chocolate Ride, a 6-year-old Candy Ride gelding, led all the way in both the Grade III Col. Bradley Handicap and the Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap while Roman Approval's late run came up 3/4 length short in each race. World Approval ships in from Florida, where he was impressing in winning a $100,000 optional claimer in his first start of the season. Take the Stand was a close second in the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby in his last start.
Filly & Mare Turf
Six fillies and mares are entered for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Ana Stakes at Santa Anita, going 9 furlongs on the green course. Four of the six are listed at 7-2 odds or less -- Her Emmynency, Nancy From Nairobi, Glory and Tuttipaesi. Her Emmynency is the only Grade I winner in the lot and Nancy From Nairobi steps up from two straight wins in the allowance ranks.
Saturday's $400,000, Grade II New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds has a distinctly local flavor. Majestic Harbor, Eagle, International Star and Ride On Curlin, all fixtures in earlier handicaps during the meeting, will square off again at 9 furlongs. Majestic Harbor was victorious in the Grade III Mineshaft Handicap. International Star won the Louisiana Handicap. Eagle was second in each of those. Adding spice to the gumbo are Mobile Bay and Jessica's Star, the 1-2 finishers in the Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston in February. Several Maxxam also-rans also will try again here.