A starting gate full of qualified contenders makes Saturday's 128th running of the Kentucky Derby one of the most interesting and competitive in years.
The exact makeup of the field won't be known until Wednesday, since more than the maximum 20 starters are still interested in the race. If more than 20 are entered, earnings determine who gets in and who doesn't.
It's hard to find a horse to dismiss, even going beyond the top 20.
Likely favorite off his victories in the Toyota Blue Grass and the Florida Derby is Harlan's Holiday. Others likely to attract attention at the windows are the first two from the Wood Memorial -- Buddah and Medaglia d'Oro, Santa Anita Derby 1-2 Came Home and Easy Grades, Illinois Derby winner and Saturday's likely pace-setter War Emblem, and the first two finishers from the Arkansas Derby, Private Emblem and Wild Horses.
Question marks include the European contingent of Castle Gondolfo and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Johannesburg, as well as the Godolphin Racing hopeful, UAE Derby winner Essence of Dubai. In recent years, limited preparations overseas have not proved a winning route to victory in the Run for the Roses.
Among those hoping for a defection to get them into the field are U S S Tinosa, who ran fifth in the Santa Anita Derby, and a Japanese-bred, Sunday Break, who showed promise in the Wood.
As usual, all the other tracks currently conducting live racing expect a banner day Saturday with the Churchill Downs simulcast serving as a centerpiece of the day's activity. The weather handicappers see thunderstorms mid-week in Louisville but at least some of them call for dry conditions for the Kentucky Oaks on Friday and on Derby Day.
In weekend racing:
Javier Castellano was unfamiliar with Sportsman's Park -- and especially its long homestretch when he loaded With Ability into the starting gate for Sunday's $300,000 Sixty Sails Handicap. But he obviously knew the best place to put a horse at the Cicero, Ill., oval. With Ability, a 4-year-old daughter of A.P. Indy, went right to an unchallenged lead when Pretty Gale stumbled out of the gate. She opened up a comfortable margin and coasted home a 5 ¾-lengths winner over Lakenheath. Katy Kat was third. "This is my first time riding here," Castellano said. "I was surprised when I turned for home and I said, 'Oh my God. I don't see the finish line." The win was the third in five starts this year for With Ability, trained by Mark Hennig. She finished 9 furlongs in 1:51.37.
Saturday, Emeraldforajudge used the same front-running tactics to win the $100,000 National Jockey Club Oaks by 3 ¼ lengths over Summer Delight. With Larry Sterling Jr. up, the Judge T C filly picked up her first win in three starts this year." She was a little rank on me the first half mile and I was a little worried," said Sterling. "Then she started to settle down and she was fine from there." First Again, the mutuel favorite, stumbed at the start and never reached contention, finishing fourth.
Lone Star Park
They came from both coasts to contest Saturday night's $300,000 Texas Mile but it was local boy Unrullah Bull who had his picture taken in the winner's circle. With Tony Lovato up, the 5-year-old son of Conquistador Cielo got the best of a wild, six-horse cavalry charge into the stretch. He then went by pace-setting Florida invader Hal's Hope and edged clear to win by 1 ½ lengths. Reba's Gold had to settle for second after traveling from California. Compendium was up late to finish fourth. The time was 1:37.78. At least three horses had to check in the jam-up on the final turn and the stewards looked at the tape before hanging up the "official" sign. Lovato said his horse "might have laid on (Compendium) a little bit. But the other horse was laying right back on him. We hugged that other horse real tight and just kept going." Inside of them, Hal's Hope, Mercenary, Compendium and Five Straight all were bouncing around. "They were shooting for the lead and there was some race riding going on," said steward Jerry Burgess. Unrullah Bull, claimed for $25,000 last summer, has won four of five starts on the Lone Star main track for owners Jim and Theresa Donnan. Trainer Cole Norman said he hopes the next will be the $300,000 Lone Star Park Handicap on May 27.
Suances surged quickly to the lead in Saturday's $250,000 San Francisco Breeders' Cup Mile Handicap, relaxed on the lead and coasted home a winner by 1 length over Decarchy. The Tin Man was third and Sarafan last in a short field. Suances, a 5-year-old English-bred by Most Welcome, finished in 1:35.19. "I was surprised nobody pushed me early," said winning rider David Flores. "As long as they don't push, I don't have to accelerate." Decharcy's rider, Kent Desormeaux, said he wasn't worried about the pace. "The slower the better, as far as I was concerned, because I was thinking they're not going to out-quicken my horse."
Sunday, Boss Ego surged to the lead a furlong from home in Sunday's $55,000 San Carlos Handicap, then held off Out of Mind to win by a head. Moonlight Meeting was third. Boss Ego, a 6-year-old son of Pleasant Tap, got the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:34.79. "It went pretty much according to plan," said winning rider Russell Baze.
Can really be over already? Proper Gamble won the last stakes event of Keeneland's sprint meet, leading most of the way to win Friday's $250,000 Stonerside Beaumont Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by a nose over a late-running Respectful. Vicki Vallencourt was third. Proper Gamble, a daughter of Prospectors Gamble, got the 7 furlongs in 1:28.79. "She's just one of those horses who loves to fight," trainer Todd Pletcher said of the stretch battle.
Wake At Noon passed $1 million in career earning with his victory in Saturday's $150,000 Vigil Stakes. The 5-year-old son of Cure The Blues stalked the early pace set by Dream Launcher. He went to the lead on the turn under jockey Emile Ramsammy and won by 1 ¼ length over Exciting Story. Geraint was third. It was the third stakes win of the year for Wake At Noon, following the Briartic and the Jacques Cartier. "He's really improved," said Ramsammy. He's easier to ride and he learned his game."
Sky Terrace came out running in Saturday's $100,000 Derby Trial and didn't stop, winning by 2 lengths over odds-on favorite Cashel Castle. Ide Be Spencers was third. The win was the third in seven starts for Sky Terrace, a son of Skywalker, who is not nominated to the Triple Crown races. The 1 mile on a sloppy track took 1:36 4/5. "He broke sharp and put me right in the race and he was good enough," said winning rider Craig Perret. "Down the road, he might be able to handle two turns.
Calkins Road was just along at the wire to win Sunday's $250,000
Cal Fed Snow Chief Stakes for 3-year-olds by a head over Menacing Dennis. Highly Suspect was third and the favorite, Gobi Dan, was fourth. Calkins Road, a son of Illinois Storm, ran 9 furlongs in 1:51.07. The Snow Chief highlighted a day of stakes races for Cal-breds.
Native Desert came from far back to win the $175,000 TVG Khaled Stakes at 1 1/16 mile on the grass. High Hefner led until the final jumps and Visual Energy was third. Native Desert, a 9-year-old Desert Classic gelding, was timed in 1:41.87. The only other 9-year-old stakes winner in Hollysood Park history was John Henry.
Laffit Pincay Jr. guided Ladylore through a small hole on the rail in the stretch run of the $200,000 Melair Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and upset the event by 1 ½ lengths over Super High. Calzada Kid was third. Ladylore, by Video Ranger, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.88.
Smokin' Charlotte drew clear in the stretch to win the $175,000 Fran's Valentine Stakes by 3 ½ lengths over Stetson Lady, finishing 1 1/16 miles on the green course in 1:41.94. Favorite Funtime led most of the way to beat Song of Summer by 1 ½ lengths in the $150,000 B. Thoughtful Stakes for fillies and mares at 7 furlongs. And in the Quicken Tree Stakes on the grass at 1 ½ mile, Adminniestrator outfinished Turkish Prize to win by 1 ½ lengths. Adminniestrator is a 5-year-old son of Incinderator out of Admiral Minnie. How cute is that?
Queen of Wilshire got an uncontested lead in Saturday's $100,000 Hawthorne Handicap, opened up daylight over four fivals and just held on to win by a nose over Alexine at the end. Verruma was third. Queen of Wilshire, a 6-year-old mare by Major Impact, ran 1 1/16 mile under Patrick Valenzuela in 1:43.16. Valenzuela said two scratches, including Stormy Society, "sure didn't hurt." He said he was particularly worried about Stormy Society because, "I know she needs to be on the lead. If she were in there, I probably would have had to sit off her." Gary Stevens said Alexine "got wiped out leaving the gate" when she was pinched back and then steadied. Queen of Wilshire was scratched from Friday's Wilshire Handicap to run in the Hawthorne.
Eurolink Raindance rolled from the back of a five-horse field to win Friday's $100,000 Wilshire Handicap by a head over Crazy Ensign, with Impeachable another head back in third. Eurolink Raindance, a 5-year-old Irish-bred, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.31 under Chris McCarron. Trainer Ben Cecil said he thinks the mare "is going to be better at a mile and an eighth. But she certainly ran well today."
Pyrus set the pace, saving ground, in Saturday's $100,000 Fort Marcy Handicap, then held on to win by a neck over Proud Man. Capsized was third. The favorite, Sharp Performance, broke down in the stretch run while challenging for the lead and was vanned off. Pyrus, a 4-year-old son of Mr. Prospector, ran 1 1/16 mile on a yielding course in 1:44.53. "This was his best effort today," said Ryan Van Tilburg, assistant to trainer Elliott Walden. "We're going to take him back to Kentucky and regroup." Trainer David Donk said Sunday Sharp Performance suffered "severe soft-tissue damage in both front legs....It's a shame. I'm very upset."
Miner's Prize rolled from far back in the field to nip early leader and mutuel favorite Fight For Ally by a head in Saturday's $100,000 Bosselman/Gus Fonner Handicap. The winning margin was a head and Miner's Prize, a 5-year-old son of Miner's Mark, finished the 1 1/16 mile in 1:48 4/5 on a muddy track. Rub was third, just a neck farther back after tracking the leader most of the way.
Calder Race Course
Fappie's Notebook swapped the lead with Danaher Steve down the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Ponche Handicap before prevailing by ¾ length. Callie and Jake was third. Fappie's Notebook, a 5-year-old son of Notebook, took 1:11.12 for the 6 furlongs on a fast track. "My horse doesn't like the lead," said winning rider Cornelio Velasquez. "At the quarter pole, he wanted to wait and wait. He was running good and I had a lot of horse in the stretch." Trainer Manny Tortora said he hopes to stretch Fappie's Notebook out to 1 1/16 mile for the $100,000 Memorial Day Handicap.
Ms Well ran well in Saturday's $75,000 Peach Blossom Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, dominating seven rivals in the lane to win by 3 ¼ lengths. Haunted Lass was second and the favorite, Cherokee Girl, was third. Ms Well, a Florida-bred daughter of Mister Jolie, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.51. "We do not have too many go off 8-1. That's for sure," said winning trainer Scott Lake. He said he was surprised at how thoroughly Ms Well dominated the race and will reconsider where he next start will be. Added winning rider Clinton Potts, "She did just what she wanted to do. She had her mind made up that she wanted to win."
On Friday, For Rubies sat behind and outside the early speed in the $50,000 Goldfinch Stakes, then let his filly take charge for a ¾-length victory. Don't Countess Out was second and Freddy's Folly, the pace-setter, got home third. Winning rider Justin Vitek said trainer Lynn Whiting told him to ride off the pace. "I just hoped that I didn't move on her too soon," he added.
Saturday, Private Horde came from off the pace to score a 4-length victory over Vito Corleone in the $50,000 Golden Circle Stakes for 3-year-olds. Only the third choice in the mutuels, winning trainer Joe Cain said he thought his Brunswick colt was overlooked. He said bettors apparently overlooked competition in Kentucky races that included likely Kentucky Derby starters Request foor Parole and Perfect Drift. "He would go with those horses for a mile and I thought that this field would be in trouble with him," Cain said.
Vesta took command in the stretch run to win Saturday's $50,000 Smart Halo Stakes by 6 lengths over Fresh Tracks. Gracefulciti was third. winning rider Mario Pino rode the New York-based winner, who went off as 3-5 favorite. "She kicked in nicely and finished very strong," he said.
Crowning Meeting obviously enjoyed the long vacation that ended with Sunday's $35,000 Seattle Handicap. The 8-year-old General Meeting gelding waited well behind the early speed, then moved when jockey Gary Baze asked him to go, winning by a head over Road Afleet. The time of 1:07 4/5 tied the track record set by Handy N Bold in the same race two years ago. Handy N Bold this year was used up on the pace. Said winning trainer Sharon Ross: "Our main goal is the (Longacres) Mile (on Aug. 25). But we don't have to dance every dance between now and then."
Tampa Bay Downs
Onasilverplatter won his sixth straight race at Tampa Bay on Saturday, half on the turf and half on the main track. The year-old son of Ide has won at distances from 7 furlongs to 1 1/16 mile and now heads to Finger Lakes to try to continue the streak.
Everyone in the grandstand saw the entry of Eagleton and Bristolville in Sunday's $35,000 Wildcat Handicap at 11 furlongs on the grass. Bet down to 10 cents on the dollar, the duo finished 1-2, with Venturesome Beau 1 ¾ lengths back in third. Eagleton, a 6-year-old Virgina-bred by Majestic Light, got the win by 2 lengths over his stablemate, finishing in 2:16.62.
News and notes
Last time Hollywood Park had a rollover of a $1 million guaranteed Pick Six, the jackpot ballooned to more than $3.5 million the next racing day. That's the same scenario now awaiting Wednesday card after no one hit all six winners Sunday. No wonder, either, with win payoffs of $65.40, $50.40 and $23.60 making up half the wager. Get your Wednesday editions of Daily Racing Form early for extra study time!