As Sunday's NFL divisional championship games were important, but still only a prelude to the Super Bowl, many of the weekend's Thoroughbred races seemed to be tune-ups for events a few weeks or months down the road -- some as far away as Dubai.
Saturday's $150,000 Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita is a case in point. The Grade II event was a nice one for the winner, Friendly Island, the longshot runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in his last race. After stalking the pace, jockey Garrett Gomez sent Friendly Island to the front on the turn, got the lead and won comfortably, by 2 1/2 lengths, finishing 6 furlongs in 1:08.95.
Harvard Avenue was second, Limited Creole was third and To Sender completed the order of finish.
Asked what's next, winning trainer Michael McCarthy said the Dubai Golden Shaheen on World Cup Day March 31 "is definitely in the cards. I don't believe he'll start before then."
McCarthy, an assistant to Todd Pletcher, picked up his first-ever stakes win subbing for his suspended boss. "This is only my third winner," he noted.
And speaking of the Dubai World Cup, the $6 million event, sponsored by Emirates Airline, attracted Breeders' Cup Classic winner Invasor and Cigar Mile winner Discreet Cat, among many other top horses from around the world.
With supporting races, the $21 million program at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse picked up a record 1,340 nominations from 23 countries.
Dubai Racing Club CEO Frank Gabriel Jr. called the nomination response "exceptional." Of the prospective showdown between Invasor and Discreet Cat, he added, "To hopefully have the two best horses in the world compete at Nad Al Sheba for the world's richest race, has all the makings of a classic."
It also would be a bit of a family showdown, since Invasor is owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum while Discreet Cat is owned by Godolphin Racing, controlled by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rasheed al Maktoum.
"The standard of entries for the other six races at the meeting is also of the highest order, and the countdown to what should be a truly spectacular meeting is well and truly on," Gabriel added.
Also nominated from the United States are Lava Man, entered in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free, and Premium Tap.
Liquor Cabinet, a "horse for the course" on the Big A's inner track, lived up to his billing in Saturday's $100,000 Aqueduct Handicap, drawing off in the stretch and scoring by 9 lengths, under wraps. Angliana was second, just a neck in front of Naughty New Yorker. Liquor Cabinet, a 6-year-old, Irish-bred horse by Hennessey, got the 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.66 with Ramon Dominguez up for trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. "To be honest," said Dutrow, "I really thought he could win like that. His feet have been bugging him a little (the horse wore aluminum pads for the race), but he really brought his game. His next race will be either the Santa Anita Handicap or the Gulfstream Park Handicap."
One Off, sent off at 11-1, rallied from last to win Saturday's $150,000 San Marcos Stakes by 3/4 length over Notable Guest. Obrigado was third and the favorite, Boboman, faded to finish last of eight after contesting the early lead. With Brice Blanc up, One Off completed the 1 1/4 mile in 2:01.48. Blanc said running last wasn't in the plan drawn up by trainer Neil Drysdale. "But two jumps out of the gate, I got squeezed and my horse threw his head a little. So I was farther back early than I wanted." It was, Drysdale added, "a blessing in disguise because the horse loved it, didn't he? He was just traveling along at the back and came -- woosh."
As Laurel gears up for its Presidents' Day sprint features, Ah Day showed willing, closing along the rail in the stretch to win Saturday's $100,000 Fire Plug Stakes by 3 3/4 lengths over the favorite, Crafty Schemer. Gold Cluster, at near triple-digit odds, was up for third. Ah Day, a 4-year-old, Maryland-bred gelding by Malibu Moon, finished the 6 furlongs in 1:10.30 under Mario Pino. A multiple stakes winner as a 3-year-old, Ah Day was returning from a short layoff. Winning trainer King Leatherbury said he hopes to bring Ah Day back in the General George Breeders' Cup at 7 furlongs Feb. 19. "I consider that his best distance," Leatherbury said. "He has always run better than I have expected. The horse that ran second (Crafty Schemer) is a super horse. This is beyond my expectations."
In the filly division, Silmaril tracked the early pace in Saturday's $100,000 What a Summer Stakes, got through between the leaders turning for home and drew clear to win by 3 lengths over Scheing E Jet. La Chica Rica was third. Silmaril, a 6-year-old, Maryland-bred mare by Diamond, out of the Spend a Buck mare Kattebuck, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.11 with Ryan Fogelsonger up. "I think when she beat Ashado, that's the best she's ever been," trainer Chris Grove. "But right now, she's good and she's consistent. ... I would love to try a Grade I if she were to win the Barbara Fritchie."
Any Limit made her 4-year-old debut a successful one, rallying from a pace-stalking position to win Saturday's $100,000 First Lady Handicap for fillies and mares by 2 1/2 lengths over Contrast. Actslikealady was third while the favorite, Malibu Mint, struggled home fifth. Any Limit, a Kentucky-bred filly by Limit Out, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.58 with Rafael Bejarano in the irons. She now has five wins from 13 starts. "She broke a little slow," Bejarano said. "I just asked her a little bit and she was very quick from there." Trainer Allen Jerkens said he likely will bring the filly back in the Grade III Hurricane Bertie at 6 1/2 furlongs on Feb. 17.
Silver Expression dueled down the stretch with Wild Ms. Pinke before winning Saturday's $125,000 La Senora Handicap for New Mexico-bred 3-year-old fillies by a neck. La Mora Bonita came from well off the pace to finish third. Silver Expression, a daughter of Silver Season out of the Storm Bird mare Rosebird, ran 6 furlongs in 1:14.29 with Miguel Perez in the irons.
Power Surge utilized a surge of power as the field turned for home in Saturday's $75,000 Gentilly Stakes for Louisiana-bred 3-year-olds, opened up a comfortable lead early in the stretch run and held on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Hallway. Forgotten Prince finished third. Power Surge, a gelded son of Holzmeister, ran the 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:47.60. Jamie Theriot rode.
In Saturday's $75,000 Truly Bound Handicap for fillies and mares, Delicate Dynamite seized the lead at the top of the lane, then held on well despite jumping tire tracks and won by 2 lengths over Eyes on Eddy. Dash of Humor finished third. Delicate Dynamite, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Old Trieste, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:46.44 with Gerard Melancon riding.
Tampa Bay Downs
Suaveness, at odds of nearly 70-1, came from last to win Saturday's $60,000 Gasparilla Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 2 1/4 lengths over the favorite, Foret. Pretoria Jet finished third. Suaveness, a Florida-bred daughter Suave Prospect, ran the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.03 with Charles Forrest in the irons for owner-trainer Robert Arrango.
Over the Edge chased the early pace in Saturday's $50,000 Cincinnati Trophy Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, took over the lead early in the stretch run and held on to win by 1/2 length over Miss A. Bomb. She's Impossible was third. Over the Edge, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Thunder Gulch out of the Storm Cat mare Cyber Cat, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.46 with Miguel Mena in the irons. The filly is trained by George Arnold II.
Country Diva had to sort through some traffic problems on the turn in Saturday's $50,000 American Beauty Stakes for fillies and mares. But once jockey Ricardo Feliciano found her room, the 4-year-old, Florida-bred daughter of Songandaprayer had the best finishing kick, beating Fast Deal to the wire by 1/2 length. Tax Refund finished third and the favorite, Miss Elsie, was a neck farther back in fourth. Country Diva ran the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.36.
Slew o'Platinum rallied from last to win Saturday's $45,000 Sun Devil Stakes for 3-yer-old fillies by 1 3/4 lengths over Staten Island. The favorite, Wavy Lass, was 22 lengths farther back in third. Slew o'Platinum, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Stephen Got Even, ran 1 mile in 1:44.29 with Chris Landeros up.