California Chrome was named Horse of the Year in weekend ceremonies while Finest City scored a double, winning an Eclipse Award and a Grade II race within a matter of a few hours on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Guest Suite led a small band of horses moving forward on the Kentucky Derby trail while Farrell kept the pedal to the metal on her quest for an Oaks berth.
Internationally, Hong Kong has a budding star in Rapper Dragon, who was breathing fire in Sunday's Hong Kong Classic Mile.
Let's fire this up with:
The Road to the Roses
Guest Suite survived a wide trip to win Saturday's $200,000 Grade III LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds by 1 1/4 lengths thanks to a stout stretch rally. The Quality Road gelding scored his third career win, backing up a dominating victory in an optional claimer at Churchill Downs in his 2-year-old finale. Untrapped was along for second in the LeComte, followed by Takeoff.
Guest Suite, with Robby Albarado in the irons, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on the muddy, sealed track in 1:43.20. He earned 10 points toward a potential Kentucky Derby start, moving him into a seven-way tie for the No. 5 spot on that list.
"Everyone has the same goals looking ahead after getting started in a race like this," said winning trainer Neil Howard. "Obviously it was nothing short of great to see that kind of performance."
Howard said he focused on starting Guest Suite's 3-year-old campaign in the LeComte after the win in Louisville. "It's hard because you try to give them a little bit of a break," he added. "I certainly think that everything is in front of him, but it's too hard to tell. There are some really good ones out there ... "
High Roller hit the front at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Frank Whiteley Jr. Stakes at Laurel Park and the odds-on favorite, O Dionysus, could not catch him after enduring race-long traffic issues. The margin under the wire was 1/2 length with Butch Walker third, 1 1/4 lengths behind the favorite.
High Roller, a Florida-bred colt by High Cotton, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.86 under Trevor McCarthy. The colt picked up his second win in his fourth start while McCarthy won three stakes races on the card. Winning trainer Dale Capuano said High Roller will be pointed to the 1-mile Miracle Wood Feb. 18 at Laurel.
"I've been telling Dale he needs to go seven-eighths," McCarthy said. "He needs that more and he's going to want to go further, big time. I can't wait to ride him going longer. We'll see what he's got."
The Money Monster outfinished favorite Chance of Luck with a late surge to take Saturday's $100,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs by 1/2 length. Arrecife was third. The Money Monster, a Majestic Warrior colt, finished 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.04 with Edgard Zayas at the controls, remaining undefeated after two trips to the races.
"He likes this track, I think," said trainer and part-owner Rohan Crichton, who earned his first stakes victory as a trainer. "And I think he wants to go two turns." He pointed out both of The Money Monster's grandsires, A.P. Indy and Awesome Again, "are Breeders' Cup Classic winners, so I think the longer they go, the better he'll get."
So Conflated came roaring down the Golden Gate Fields stretch and got by the early speed to win Saturday's $100,000 California Derby by 3/4 length. More Power to Him led briefly late and held second, 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Colonel Samsen. The favorite, Vending Machine, made the early lead but then faded to finish sixth of seven. So Conflated, a Florida-bred Eskenderea gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.71 with Mario Gutierrez up. He broke his maiden on Boxing Day at Santa Anita.
Freakonthelead paid $143 as the winner of Saturday evening's $100,000 Pelican Stakes for Louisiana-breds at Delta Downs. The Run Production gelding raced close to the pace, got to the lead in the stretch and held on doggedly. Magic Vow and late-running favorite Underpressure dead-heated for second and third, 1/2 length back of the winner, who ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:27.46 with Timothy Thornton up. Freakonthelead took six tries to get his first win and now has two straight victories.
Road to the Oaks
Farrell kicked off her 3-year-old season in style, winning Saturday's $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds by a convincing 2 3/4 lengths. Wicked Lick came from off the pace to finish second, a head in front of the early leader, Gris Gris. Summertime Sky was fourth and the well-fancied Untapped finished fifth.
Farrell, a Malibu Moon filly, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on the muddy, sealed track in 1:44.01 with Channing Hill up for trainer Wayne Catalano. It was the third career win for the Kentucky-bred, who wound up 2016 with a 6-lengths victory in the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs. She earned 10 points toward a start in the Kentucky Oaks, giving her 20 and placing her just 1 point behind the leader, Champagne Room.
Catalano said he had "a nervous moment" at the top of the long Fair Grounds stretch -- "but not a whole bunch. You want to wait until mid-stretch here before you really worry. At that point, she was looking nice and Channing was sitting pretty good."
R Angel Katelyn pressed the pace for a brief spell in Saturday's $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, then took over and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Jumby Bay. Lirica was third with a late rush. R Angel Katelyn, a daughter of High Cotton, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.94 under Edwin Gonzalez. She survived a stewards' inquiry and claim of foul to pick up her fourth win from five starts.
"I didn't want to go to the lead right away and be fighting with everybody," Gonzalez said. "So I sat behind two other horses until about the 3/8-mile pole. Nothing was coming behind me, and she did it pretty easy."
Chanel's Legacy stalked the pace in Saturday's $125,000 Dixie Belle at Oaklawn Park, came to the lead three-wide turning for home and kicked away to a 2 1/2-lengths win. My Sweet Stella came from last of seven to finish second, 1/2 length ahead of Five Star Factor. The odds-on favorite, Vertical Oak, vied for the lead and faded to finish fourth.
Chanel's Legacy, an Iowa-bred daughter of Dominus, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.85 with Alex Birzer riding.
"We talked about it this morning and we thought there would be speed," said winning trainer Lynn Chleborad. "We thought we'd be laying about third, right off of them, pressing the pace if things worked out. But, you never know until they break. I think she could have gone to the lead pretty easy, but she's got to save her kick for the end." Chleborad said Chanel's Legacy will be pointed to the $125,000 Martha Washington Stakes Feb. 11 over the Hot Springs oval.
Star Super stalked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Marshua Stakes at Laurel Park, surged to a lead in the lane and held on to win by neck over Lucky in Malibu. Squan's Kingdom finished third. Star Super, a Kentucky-bred filly by Super Saver, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.30 for jockey Trevor McCarthy. She was second in each of her two previous starts -- both Laurel stakes races.
"I was confident coming into the race," said winning trainer Cal Lynch. "I was a lot more confident this morning than I was at the sixteenth pole, but that's her. She does like to fight and she was playing a little bit with the field but she's a very talented filly." Lynch said the 7-furlongs Wide Country Stakes at Laurel on Feb. 18 will be the next goal for Star Super.
Mr. Al's Gal, the odds-on favorite, led from the start in Friday's $100,000 Azalea Stakes for Louisiana-bred 3-year-old fillies at Delta Downs and drew off to win by 3 1/2 lengths. Our Millie and My Gal Layla filled the trifecta slots. Mr. Al's Gal, a Salute the Sarge filly, ran 7 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:27.56 with Richard Eramia in the irons. She now has three wins, including the Louisiana Futurity at Fair Grounds, and a second from four starts.
Detouring overseas ...
Jockey Joao Moreira said he was "a bit surprised" when trainer John Moore asked him to put Rapper Dragon close to the front in Sunday's Hong Kong Classic Mile, the first race in the prestigious local 4-year-old Classic Series. He was less surprised when the Australian import, a son of Street Boss, responded to urging some 300 meters from home, hit the lead within a handful of strides and raced away to win by 2 lengths.
Seasons Bloom made a late run to take second place away from Beauty Generation. Winner's Way was fourth and Pakistan Star finished fifth. Rapper Dragon ran the 1 mile on good turf in 1:34.98 with the final 400 meters in 22.03 seconds.
The series continues with next month's Hong Kong Classic Cup at 1,800 meters and concludes with the 2,000-meters BMW Hong Kong Derby in mid-March. "The way he won today, you wouldn't doubt that he would step up to 1,800 meters and perform at his top level," Moreira said. "And I also believe he will make it over 2,000 meters."
Moore said Sunday's result leaves him the task of keeping Rapper Dragon at peak form. "This is a great horse for the stable and a great win for Hong Kong," said Moore, who saddled half of Sunday's 14-horse field. "The way he ran today you'd have to say he's 100 percent fit so the idea now is to keep him at this level for the next two races, culminating in the Hong Kong Derby."
Meanwhile, back in the States:
Finest City had a pretty fine day Saturday, picking up an Eclipse Award as the top female sprinter of 2015 and kicking off her 2016 season with a front-running win in the Grade II Santa Monica Stakes at Santa Anita.
Finest City, the reigning Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner was under pressure from Fantastic Style through the opening furlongs of the Santa Monica, then shook loose and won by 3 3/4 lengths. Fantastic Style was second, a neck in front of Sheer Pleasure. The 7 furlongs on a wet-fast track went in 1:21.49 with Mike Smith in the irons.
Finest City, a 5-year-old City Zip mare, was second in last year's Santa Monica. She had been idle since the Breeders' Cup. "Breaking from the one hole in this slop, you gotta get outta there," Smith said. "She's never had this kinda dirt in her face and I certainly didn't want her to get any today."
Takrees raced last while saving ground into the stretch turn in Sunday's $100,000 Interborough Stakes for fillies and mares, tipped out for room and was just up at the wire to win by a neck over Disco Chick. Hot City Girl was third, followed by Miss Away, Clothes Fall Off and Miss Hollywood. Takrees, a 4-year-old Daaher filly out of the Dynaformer mare Uroobah, ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:11.70 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons, picking up her first stakes win and third victory of any kind.
"Takrees always shows up," said Joe Lee, assistant to winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "She likes the outside and she likes to make her run and that's what she did today. That's her kind of style, she seems happiest that way."
Saturday was Sunshine Millions Day, with five rays of sunshine for state-bred steeds and their connections. The track was fast and the turf was firm.
Early Entry tracked down pacesetting favorite Delta Bluesman in the lane in the $100,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint and held on to win by 1/2 length over that rival. Awesome Banner ran well in the final furlong to finish third, a neck farther back. Early Entry, a 6-year-old son of Keyed Entry, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.50 for jockey Paco Lopez. In the past year, Early Entry has worked his way up from $32,000 claimers to score three straight wins, including two restricted stakes.
Family Meeting dropped to last, then rallied in the final yards to win the $100,000 Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf by a neck over Frosty Friday. E B Ryder was third with a late bid. Family Meeting, a 4-year-old Sky Mesa filly, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.18 with Jose Lezcano in the irons. She was third in last year's Grade III Florida Oaks but had not won since taking the Grade III Jimmy Durante at Del Mar in November of 2015.
Mia Torri pressed the pace in the $100,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff, then held off the late-running You Bought Her to score by a neck. Moment of Delight was another 1 1/4 lengths back in third. Mia Torri, a 4-year-old General Quarters filly, got 6 furlongs in 1:10.32 with Javier Castellano riding. It was her seventh career start. She has never finished worse than third and missed by only a neck in the Grade III Charles Town Oaks last fall.
Our Way outfinished Enterprising to take the $100,000 SunshineMillions Turf by a neck. Reporting Star was third and the favorite, Go Around, faded from the lead to finish fourth. Our Way, a 4-year-old Tizway gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:41.81 with John Velazquez doing the honors. She has won three of her last four starts, including the English Channel Stakes at Belmont Park in October, her last start before Saturday's effort.
Hy Riverside battled gamely through the stretch in the $200,000 Sunshine Millions Classic, appeared through and then found another gear, getting up to win by a nose over 35-1 long shot Nauset Beach. The favorite, Awesome Slew, was in the thick of the battle in the final sixteenth but settled for third, another 3/4 length in arrears. Hy Riverside, a 5-year-old Macho Uno gelding, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.39 for jockey Jose Ortiz. He finished fourth in the Classic Preview at Gulfstream Park West in November, then was fifth in a pair of graded stakes before Saturday's effort.
Tampa Bay Downs
No Fault of Mine rallied three wide into the stretch in Saturday's $50,000 Wayward Lass Stakes for fillies and mares and drew off late, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over Royal Jewelry. The early leader, Alto Belle, was another 7 lengths back in third at the end. No Fault of Mine, a 5-year-old daughter of Blame, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.63 with Daniel Centeno in the irons.
The best news of the weekend at the New Orleans oval was the lifting of the state-imposed general backstretch quarantine, prompted by an outbreak of contagious illness earlier in the meeting. The decision means horses are free to ship into and out of the track, except for a few barns which have yet to clear individual quarantine requirements.
Granny's Kitten and Western Reserve battled down the stretch through soft turf in Saturday's $125,000 Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap with Granny's Kitten prevailing by a neck. The favorite, Chocolate Ride, dueled with Western Reserve through the early furlongs, then settled for third. Granny's Kitten, a 5-year-old son of Kitten's Joy, finished the squishy 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.61 with Miguel Mena aboard.
Kitten's Roar made it a double for her sire and owner-breeders, Ken sand Sarah Ramsey, taking advantage of a slew of scratches to win Saturday's $75,000 Marie G. Krantz Memorial for fillies and mares by a nose over Prado's Sweet Ride. Cambodia was third while Cash Control and Dynazar completed the order of finish. Kitten's Roar, a 5-year-old Kitten's Joy mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on soft turf in 1:44.92 with Mena up. Expected favorite I'm a Chatterbox was among seven scratches from the Krantz with the expectation an end to the Fair Grounds quarantine will permit her to start in the $400,000 Grade III Houston Ladies Classic next Sunday. "That's the plan and it's a pretty good plan to have," said trainer Larry Jones. Include Betty, the other Grade I winner in the original field, also was scratched.
Hawaakom rallied from last to first in Saturday's $75,000 Louisiana Stakes, winning by 3/4 length over Dazzling Gem, who led briefly in the stretch. Rocket Time was third and the favorite, Iron Fist, finished fourth after contesting the early pace. Hawaakom, a 7-year-old Jazil gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on the muddy track in 1:44.01 with Mena riding.
Only four faced the starter in Saturday's $75,000 Duncan F. Kenner and the winner was no surprise to anyone. Holy Boss, the odds-on favorite, was right on the lead and drew off late, scoring by 5 3/4 lengths. Chief Istan, Bayerd and Clearly Now completed the order of finish Holy Boss ran 6 furlongs on the muddy, sealed track in 1:10.14 with Ricardo Santana Jr. in the irons. The 5-year-old son of Street Boss was making his first start since a narrow runner-up finish in the Bet On Sunshine Stakes at Churchill Downs in November.
Winter tracked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Nellie Morse Stakes for fillies and mares, took the lead when prompted by jockey Trevor McCarthy and went on to win by 2 3/4 lengths from Addibel Lightning. Moon Virginia finished third and the favorite, Bawlmer Hon, faded from the lead to finish fifth. Winter, a 4-year-old Awesome Again filly, finished about 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.32.
Page McKenney was off to a bumpy start in Saturday's $75,000 Native Dancer Stakes, recovered to stalk the pace and then took charge in the stretch run to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Bodhisattva came from last of eight to finish second, a nose in front of Cosmic Destiny. Page McKenney, a 7-year-old Eavesdropper gelding, ran about 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.01 with Horacio Karamanos up. After winning the first three of the day's four stakes, Trevor McCarthy finished next-last of eight in this one on Kid Cruz.
Wildcat Wish bided his time in Saturday's Fremont Stakes, shot to a big margin early in the stretch run and drew off to win by 6 lengths over the favorite, Mageez. Only In America was third. Wildcat Wish, a 4-year-old gelding by Wildcat Heir out of the Rahy mare Rahy's Wish, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.11 with Luis Negron up.
Vieja Luna led all the way to a 1 1/4-lengths victory in Friday's $70,000 Eldorado Stakes for fillies and mares. Believeinsomething applied pressure all the way but could do no better than second. The favorite, rallied late to get show money. Vieja Luna, a 4-year-old Street Hero filly, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.96 under Roberto Morales.
Crewman emerged from a speedy pace battle, then survived objections by two other riders, to take Saturday's $50,000 Forego Stakes. The 6-year-old Candy Ride gelding got home 3/4 length in front of Hollywood Talent after, according to the Equibase chart caller, bumping that rival off stride in deep stretch while drifting out. Hollywood Talent's rider, Albin Jiminez, and the rider of Dac, who also was impeded, both lodged objections, which were dismissed by the stewards. Crewman, with Jack Gilligan in the irons, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:15.41. "I didn't expect the objection, so I was a little nervous about that," said winning trainer Dee Poulos, whose late husband, Ernie Poulos, trained the immortal Black Tie Affair. The Forego was Crewman's second straight win, following consecutive seconds at Kentucky Downs, Keeneland and Churchill Downs.
Sippin led from the opening bell in Sunday's $85,000 Enchantress Stakes for New Mexico-bred 3-year-old fillies, rebuffed a challenge by Pink Cadillac and went on to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Pink Cadillac held second with Rolling Star third. Sippin, a daughter of Swissle Stick, went to the post as the odds-on favorite and ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:40.83 with Tracy Hebert up.
Forest Mouse tracked the three early leaders in Saturday's $65,000 Winsham Lad Handicap, blew by them when roused and drew off to a 3 1/4-lengths victory. Ol Winedrinker Who came from last of seven to finish second, 1 length to the good of Get a Notion. Forest Mouse, a 9-year-old entire son of Teton Forest, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.35 under Ry Eikleberry.
Eclipse Award winners:
Horse of the Year: California Chrome received 202 first-place votes, adding a second Horse of the Year title to the crown he earned in his 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness season. Arrogate, who narrowly defeated California Chrome in the Breeders' Cup Classic, got 40 votes, Songbird had 5 and Highland Reel got one vote. The other winners:
Two-Year-Old Male: Classic Empire (unanimous) Two-Year-Old Filly: Champagne Room Three-Year-Old Male: Arrogate Three-Year-Old Filly: Songbird (unanimous) Older Dirt Male: California Chrome (unanimous) Older Dirt Female: Beholder Male Sprinter: Drefong Female Sprinter: Finest City Male Turf Horse: Flintshire Female Turf Horse: Tepin Steeplechase Horse: Rawnaq Owner: Juddmonte Farms, Inc. Breeder: WinStar Farm LLC Jockey: Javier Castellano Apprentice Jockey: Luis Ocasio Trainer: Chad Brown