Ancient Rome could be off and running on the Florida Derby trail after a narrow win in Saturday's Spectacular Bid Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Gulfstream's Opening Day feature race was among several weekend heats that turned up promising youngsters.
With Joe Rocco Jr. up for trainer Anthony Dutrow, Ancient Rome stalked the pace set by Town Prize, moved to the lead late in the stretch run when challenged and held on to win by a nose over late-running long shot For Oby.
Town Prize held third and Vexor, who has had good days and bad days, had another of the latter, finishing last of six after an awkward start.
Ancient Rome, a Kentucky-bred Roman Ruler colt out of the Is It True mare Wish It Were, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:08.95, less than 1 second off the track record set by Breeders' Cup winner Big Drama last January. He came into the race off an 8-length victory in his previous start and now is 2-for-3.
"Talking to Joe just now, he thought it helped him to stay interested when that other horse came up to challenge, and he was game enough to win," Dutrow said. "The way it worked out told us he needed that kind of seasoning."
Despite the win, Dutrow was cautious about Ancient Rome's future plans.
"We do feel like he'll go a little further than this at least," the trainer said. "And, he's by Roman Ruler, who had a Belmont winner this year," referring to Ruler On Ice, who won the 1 1/2-mile final jewel of the 2011 Triple Crown.
Also on Saturday's Opening Day card at Gulfstream, Discreet Dancer, a first-time starter, blazed his way through a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight for Florida-bred 2-year-olds, winning by 9 3/4 lengths in track-record time of 1:02.34. Trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by Javier Castellano, the Discreet Cat colt clearly has more to offer.
The quick pace and final times of those two races were not the norm for the day. Older horses ran slower in other races on the card.
Elsewhere among the soon-to-be-3 set:
-- Dixie Strike raced with the second flight through the early furlongs of Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian) Ontario Lassie Stakes on Saturday at Woodbine, then came five-wide around the leaders and dominated the stretch run, winning off by 5 1/2 lengths. Rose and Shine was second and Awesome Fire finished third. Dixie Strike, a daughter of Dixie Union out of the Smart Strike mare Noble Strike, struck the wire at 144.92 with Patrick Husbands up. The easy victory was no big surprise since Dixie Strike is a half-sister to 2011 Woodbine Oaks and Queen's Plate winner Inglorious. "She had big footsteps to follow in," assistant trainer Kathryn Sullivan said. "But I think she has proven today that she will be able to do that."
-- Class Break rallied from last of seven to win Saturday's $100,000 Pat Whitworth Illinois Debutante Stakes for Illinois-bred juvenile fillies at Hawthorne by a head. Diva's Diamond and Our Domain dead-heated for second and third. Class Break, a daughter of Sunday Break out of the Benchmark mare Mark of Class, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:48.12. It was her first try around two turns but she used the same off-the-pace style that had resulted in two wins in four previous starts. "I was a little worried," admitted rider Florent Geroux. "But, she ran the same way the last time so I thought she could do it."
-- Applauding raced her way onto the Fair Grounds Oaks trail with an impressive victory in a Friday allowance event in the Big Easy. The Florida-bred Congrats filly, out of the Forestry mare Andria's Forest, led quickly and drew off to win by 6 lengths, ridden out by Shane Sellers. She got the 6 furlongs in 1:10.34 despite being geared down. "I don't think that two turns is going to be a problem for her at all," Sellers said. "She's got tactical speed. I really believe that two turns is going to be her ticket." Trainer Al Stall Jr. said he will target the Silverbulletday, on Jan. 21, en route to the March 31 Fair Grounds Oaks.
-- Lady of Fifty set a pressured but measured pace in Saturday's $75,000 Corte Madera Stakes for 2-year-old fillies at Golden Gate Fields, then survived at the end by a half length over Sweet Nothings. Hennessey River finished third. Lady of Fifty, a Kentucky-bred After Market filly out of the Maria's Mon mare K.D.'s Shady Lady, ran the mile on the all-weather surface in 1:39.04 under Kevin Krigger.
-- Swag Daddy surged late in the stretch run in Sunday's $65,000 Damon Runyon Stakes for New York-bred 2-year-olds at Aqueduct and nipped Pretension by a head at the wire. Disco On led for a while and finished third. Swag Daddy, a Scat Daddy colt out of the Eastern Echo mare Mrs. Filio, ran 1 1/16 miles on the fast inner track (it must be winter!) in 1:43.90 with Junior Alvardo riding.
-- E Bar Way found his way barred a couple times during the running of Sunday's $120,000 New Mexico Eddy County Stakes for state-bred 2-year-olds, altered course to the outside each time and still got up to win by a half length over Zenon's Star. That's Who had the lead briefly but faded to finish third. E Bar Way, a gelded son of The Way Home out of the Gold Fever mare E Bar Prospect, ran the mile on a fast track in 1:40.06 with Duane Sterling in the irons.
In other weekend racing:
Transcend, runner-up in this year's Dubai World Cup, successfully defended his title in the $3.4 million, Group 1 Japan Cup Dirt on Sunday at Hanshin Race Course. Jumping to the lead from the outside stall, the 5-year-old son of 1998 Kentucky Cup Classic winner Wild Rush accelerated down the stretch to a 2-length victory over Wonder Acute, a son of 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic. Espoir City, who won the Japan Cup Dirt in 2009, finished third this time around. Transcend, with Shinji Fujita up, ran the right-handed 1,800 meters in 1:50.6. "To be honest," winning trainer Takayuki Yusada said, " I did have some doubts after drawing stall no.16. Fujita insisted that he should take the lead and, with full confidence in him, I let him do what he thought best. After he took the lead, the pace was perfect and our horse showed a strong performance. He has improved remarkably this season. We will kick off the next season in the February Stakes and will challenge the Dubai World Cup once again."
Kettle Corn squeezed through a narrow opening along the rail to get by pacesetting favorite Tres Borrachos with a sixteenth of a mile to run in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Native Diver Handicap and prevailed by 1/2 length. Tweebster, after pressing the early pace, settled for third. Kettle Corn, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Candy Ride colt out of the Lil E. Tee mare Something Beautiful, ran the 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:40.03 with Garrett Gomez up. It was the first stakes start for Kettle Corn but trainer John Sadler said bigger things now are in store for colt. "We got him for synthetic at Del Mar," Sadler said. "He had very ordinary form on dirt and the minute he went to Arlington, he ran really well … . We really got him for Dubai, because that's synthetic over there. They have a mile race for him over there [$1 million Godolphin Mile]. We might run him once more and then go to Dubai."
Ellafitz sang a pretty tune at the windows for her backers in Sunday's $150,000, Grade II Bayakoa Handicap for fillies and mares. After leading most of the way, the 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Tiznow filly drew off in the final sixteenth to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Miss Mittagong was second with Bauble Queen third. Ellafitz, under Martin Garcia, ran the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather surface in 1:42.69. Trainer Bob Baffert said Ellafitz has raced sparingly because she had a lot of minor issues. "I've been trying to find an allowance race for her but it wouldn't fill. Then she worked great [seven furlongs in 1:24 Nov. 28] and then I said, 'You know what, I'm going to run her in the Bayakoa if she's doing that well.' I think this race may have been her best by far."
Calder Race Course
Silver Medallion stalked the pace in Friday's $100,000, Grade III Tropical Turf Handicap, took charge in the lane and won by 2 lengths over the favorite, Mr. Ryder. Hollinger ran evenly to finish third. Silver Medallion, a 3-year-old Badge of Silver colt, completed the 1 1/8 miles on firm going in 1:48.84 with Javier Castellano in the irons. Silver Medallion finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby and fourth in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in April, then returned this fall with Todd Pletcher as his new trainer. He was third in his last outing, the Commonwealth Turf at Churchill Downs. Owner David Callan said he "gave him a chance to see if he could be a [Kentucky] Derby horse after we bought him. He did all right, but we knew if it didn't work out, we'd still have a nice grass horse."
Casablanca Smile, coming off an 11-month layoff, surged quickly to the lead in Friday's $100,000, Grade III La Prevoyante Handicap, skimmed the hedge under Javier Castellano while setting a tepid pace, then held on well to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Cheetah chased all the way but then couldn't make up any ground late and settled for second. Tesoro de Amor finished third at a big price. Casablanca Smile, a 5-year-old, Chilean-bred Ocean Terrace mare, got the 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:31.51. "She just galloped beautifully," winning rider Javier Castellano said. "She put herself on the lead. Turning for home, I knew I had a lot of horse. She has a powerful turn of foot and it was like she had just started the race."
Eagle Poise wrapped up the stakes season at the Toronto Oval, rallying from well back to win Sunday's $150,000 (Canadian), Grade III Valedictory Stakes by a head over Harrod's Creek. The favorite, Eye of the Leopard, finished third. Eagle Poise, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred Empire Maker gelding, ran the 1 3/4 miles on the all-weather track in 2:57.62 with Patrick Husbands husbanding his energy throughout. The time was a course record. "I just waited as long as possible," Husbands said. "Down the lane, he showed me again how gutsy he is."
It Happened Again got by pacesetting Isthmus in the late going to win Saturday's $150,000 Claiming Crown Jewel, the set piece of the annual Claiming Crown series which was run for the first time this year in New Orleans. Isthmus held second, comfortably in front of Al Muhtasib in third. It Happened Again, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred Proud Citizen gelding, ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.56 while toting Shane Sellers.
Compliance Officer rallied to the lead late to score victory in the $100,000 Claiming Crown Emerald, winning by 2 3/4 lengths over Baryshnikov. Quick Delivery was third. Compliance Officer, a 5-year-old, New York-bred Officer gelding, ran the "about" 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:44.51 with Alex Solis in the irons.
Rattlin Gypsy came from off the pace to win by 3 lengths over D'cats Meow in the $75,000 Claiming Crown Glass Slipper. Right to Rule led briefly and got home third. Rattlin Gypsy, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Quest filly, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:11.45 with Rosie Napravnik up.
Atthebuzzer closed sharply in the $50,000 Claiming Crown Express to overtake Bombast and win by 1 1/2 lengths. Plasma Beam finished third. Atthebuzzer, a 46-1 long shot, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:10.28 for jockey C.J. McMahon. The winner is a 5-year-old, Arkansas-bred Even the Score gelding.
Pedrolino put the pedal to the metal in the stretch run of the $50,000 Claiming Crown Iron Horse, drawing out to a big lead, then coasting home first by 7 3/4 lengths. Severe Weather finished second and Built to Precision was third. Pedrolino, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred Distorted Humor gelding, ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.13 with Robby Albarado up. This is the race for which Rapid Redux had been pre-entered in his quest for a 20th straight win but his connections ultimately passed on the race.
McKenna's Justice advanced steadily from the back of the field in Sunday's $200,000 Zia Park Distance Championship and was just up in time to win by a nose over Red Lead. Vamoose finished third and the favorite, Imco Spirit, faded from the lead to finish sixth. McKenna's Justice, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Medaglia d'Oro colt, ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.56 with Miguel Hernandez up.
First Strike tracked the pace in Saturday's $150,000 Zia Park Derby, went by Thirtyfirststreet when asked by jockey Alfredo Juarez Jr. and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over that rival. Half Dome Dude ran best late to be up for third. First Strike, a Kentucky-bred Vindication gelding, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.86. The favorite, Awesome Bet, in from Remington Park, finished fifth.
Zero Rate Policy paid off at the windows Sunday after the $60,000 Sunshine State Stakes for state-breds. After pressing the pace, the 3-year-old Trippi gelding got by the leaders and edged clear, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over Manicero. It's Never To Late was just a little late with his move and finished third. Zero Rate Policy, ridden by Paco Lopez, ran the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.57.
Dr Disco led all the way to a 1-length win over Law Enforcement in Sunday's $60,000 Vodka Stakes for New York-breds. Pretty Boy Freud finished third. Dr Disco, a 3-year-old Disco Rico colt, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:10.40 for jockey Mike Luzzi.
C C's Pal rallied outside pacesetting Isn't She Grand in the late going of Saturday's $65,000 Garland of Roses Handicap for fillies and mares and went on to win by 2 1/4 lengths over that rival. Cinco de Mayo Mio chased and finished third. C C's Pal, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred Alex's Pal filly, ran the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.56 with Junior Alvarado in the irons.
Friday night's $50,000 Ladies on the Lawn Stakes for Oklahoma-bred distaffers ran on the main track and that was no problem for She's All In. The 4-year-old Include filly stalked the pace, took over entering the stretch and won by a comfortable 2 3/4 lengths over a closing Going Okie. Miss Natalie showed the way and held on for third. With Glen Murphy up, She's All In ran the mile on a fast track in 1:38.04. It was her fourth straight win and sixth in her last eight outings.
Eighttofasttocatch was all of that in Saturday's $75,000 Jennings Handicap for Maryland-breds, jetting out to a daylight lead, turning back a challenge halfway home and drawing off late to win by 4 3/4 lengths. Indian Dance was the best of the rest and Concealed Identity was third. Eighttofasttocatch, a 5-year-old Not For Love gelding, completed the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.76 with Sheldon Russell in the irons.
Tampa Bay Downs
The Gulf Coast track swung back into action Saturday with Jenny's So Great rallying from well back to win the $75,000 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares by 1 length over Supreme with new mother Rosemary Homeister Jr. taking the 4-year-old, Ontario-bred filly to the winner's circle. Bounding Bi and Suzzona dead-heated for third and fourth. Jenny's So Great, a daughter of Greatness, got the 5 furlongs on firm turf in 56.02 seconds. "I worked hard all fall to get ready and took eight mounts today," Homeister said. "This was my second win [since returning to action at Churchill Downs]. I am fit and I am ready."
Fortune Play stuck a head in front of pacesetter Waccamaw to win Saturday's $50,000 Holiday Inaugural Stakes for fillies and mares. Hyperlink finished third. Fortune Play, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred Five Star Day mare, ran the 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:11.62 under Ramon Vazquez.