The Dubai World Cup races and a pair of Kentucky Derby "semifinals" headline one of the biggest weekends on the racing calendar.
In Dubai, the 17th running of the Dubai World Cup, now worth $10 million, caps a Meydan Race Course program that offers total purses of $27.25 million. Many of the world's superstars will be in attendance.
Meanwhile, back in the States, Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and Sunday's $1 million, Grade II Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds will go a fair way toward settling the lineup for the May 5 Kentucky Derby.
Gulfstream and Fair Grounds provide outstanding undercards, as well, including the $500,000, Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks and the $300,000, Grade II Gulfstream Oaks, both on Saturday. And Santa Anita, gearing up for its own Derby, features the $300,000, Grade I Santa Anita Oaks on Saturday.
Sit back, buckle up and away we go.
Trainer Bill Mott got the first pick of World Cup post positions at Wednesday's draw in the glitzy Meydan facility. That's only appropriate, as Mott trained the winner of the first-ever running of the race, Cigar, and now is bidding to become the first trainer of a female winner with Royal Delta.
"It's the middle of the field," Mott said after his pill was plucked first by an Emirates Airline flight attendant and he picked gate No. 7 for Royal Delta. "She can see all of them and No. 7 has always been lucky for me."
Royal Delta won last year's Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic almost for fun after the eventual Horse of the Year, Havre de Gras, opted for the Classic against males. She has had one prep race for this event, finishing second, and Mott said she shipped "as well as a horse can ship."
"She's a stalker," he added, "and we're not going to be changing her running style now."
One thing that will change is the quality of the competition. The 14-horse field for the World Cup is replete with Group 1 winners from around the world, from Japan to Germany. Monterosso, who ran third last year, is back leading a four-horse home team for Godolphin. The Japanese contingent hopes to make it two straight for their nation. So You Think, a sensation in both Australia and the British Isles, is among the favorites.
But while Mott got the best of the draw, the other U.S. horse in the World Cup, Game On Dude, arguably got the worst of it – with the last pick, owner Bernie Schiappa perforce picked gate 14 and tried to put a good face on it.
"It's a perfect position," he said enthusiastically. "Fourteen has always been a lucky number for me."
In addition to the outside starting slot, Game On Dude has the first female jockey in the history of the race, Chantal Sutherland, and a hospitalized trainer -- Bob Baffert, who suffered a heart attack shortly after arriving in Dubai but is recovering and may attend the races Saturday.
"I can't repeat what Bob said on the phone" after getting the outside post position, Schiappa added.
The World Cup is one of nine races on Saturday's card -- one for purebred Arabian horses and the others all graded events restricted to Thoroughbreds -- who also trace their lineage to the Arabian Peninsula. All of the races drew tough fields from around the world.
Kentucky Derby preps
Fourteen signed on for Sunday's 1 1/8-mile Louisiana Derby, including an entry from Kentucky owner, breeder and ex-Governor Brereton Jones -- Mark Valeski and Mr. Bowling. The Larry Jones-trained pair drew side-by-side post positions in the middle of the field with Rosie Napravnik named on the better fancied part of the duo, Mark Valeski, who finished second by a nose to El Padrino in the Risen Star Stakes last time out, and Robby Albarado up on Mr. Bowling.
Cigar Street is the second-favorite at 7-2 on the morning line, Rousing Sermon was posted at 6-1 and Z Dager at 8-1. The others are at double-digit odds.
"I like the way we're coming into this race," Jones said Tuesday after Mark Valeski breezed 6 furlongs in 1:00 3/5 over the New Orleans oval. "This has got us in a situation that we like to be in. He didn't work quite as fast today as he did right before the Risen Star, but then again he went a little faster than I wanted the last time. Also, this horse is a little further along than he was before the Risen Star."
At Gulfstream, nine are scheduled to run in the Florida Derby with the big two consisting of Union Rags and El Padrino.
Union Rags, undefeated until he couldn't get by Hansen in the stretch run of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, bounced back to win the Fountain of Youth handily in his only previous start this year. El Padrino won an optional claiming event at Gulfstream in his seasonal bow, then journeyed to New Orleans to capture the Grade II Risen Star.
Trainer Michael Matz said Union Rags had some "unfortunate problems" in the Breeders' Cup, adding, "I think he should take a step forward from the Fountain of Youth. You're never sure what to expect coming off of a four-month layoff. But it couldn't have gone any better. I was very pleased. It didn't look like he had to give everything he had. I would hope that having a race under his belt would help him for the Florida Derby."
Todd Pletcher, who trains El Padrino, said his colt is becoming "more and more professional. His allowance race here was an impressive race for a young horse, sitting behind horses on the inside and having to wait for something to open and finishing up strongly against a horse that was kind of loose on the lead.
"Then," Pletcher said, El Padrino "went to Louisiana and showed he had some courage in a dogfight with a nice horse (Mark Valeski) and was able to put his nose down at the wire. It's nice to know that he's capable of sitting behind horses and taking some dirt when he's down inside, and that when he gets in a situation that he needs to find more, he can come up with it."
The others would need to show significant improvement to crack the exacta -- which is exactly what developing 3-year-olds often do. In that category could be Reveron, who won the Gulfstream Park Derby on Jan. 1, then finished a good third in the Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. Trainer Agustin Bezara said he picked the Florida Derby over the Grade III Illinois Derby at Hawthorne because Reveron didn't travel well even across Florida. Asked if he would travel to Louisville if Reveron runs well Saturday, the Venezuelan-born trainer replied, "Si."
The farthest afield Kentucky Derby prep could be Saturday in Dubai -- in the UAE Derby, to be precise. There, Lucky Chappy will take on an international field of 13 rivals in his first race since finishing second to Daddy Nose Best in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate. If Dubai seems an odd choice for a next race, realize Lucky Chappy is owned by Team Valor International and trained by Graham Motion – the team that showed last year with Animal Kingdom that one doesn't have to take the traditional way to Kentucky Derby victory. Saturday's 1 3/16 miles on the all-weather surface will determine where the Irish-bred High Chaparral colt goes next. However, Team Valor has two colts prepping in the States for the Run for the Roses – Howe Great and Well the Day Went so Lucky Chappy may be pointed in a different direction. Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner Wrote also is in the UAE Derby field.
Kentucky Oaks preps
In Saturday's Fair Grounds Oaks, the improving Summer Applause is among the favorites off her last-out win in the Grade III Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds in her last start. Believe You Can will be trying to atone for a disappointing 6th-place finish in the Rachal Alexandra. Before that, the Proud Citizen filly won the Silverbulletday Stakes, holding off Summer Applause by 1 1/2 lengths, and is 4-for-7 for her career. She also is a Brereton Jones-Larry Jones property. Five others are entered, including Inny Minnie, who was third in both the Rachel Alexandra and Silverbulletday; Colonial Empress, third in the Honeybee at Oaklawn last time out; Disposable Pleasure, in from Florida where she was fourth in the Grade II Davona Dale in her seasonal debut; and Small Kitchen, undefeated in two starts but making her stakes debut.
Grace Hall, second in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, highlights the eight-filly field for Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Gulfstream Oaks. She also finished second in her only previous 2012 start -- by a neck to Yara in the Grade II Davona Dale. Trainer Anthony Dutrow said Grace Hall has "trained really well since the Davona Dale. We have her right where we want her to be for the Oaks." Yara also will line up Saturday in an effort to back up her longshot win. Captivating Lass won the Busanda at Aqueduct before settling for third in the Davona Dale and is back for another try. Matz trains the dangerous And Why Not, who has not been out of the money in three starts on real dirt and makes her first start since finishing second to On Fire Baby in the Pocohontas at Churchill Downs in October.
Five other stakes back up the Florida Derby and Gulfstream Oaks. In the $150,000, Grade III Rampart Stakes, Pletcher saddles Awesome Maria, who has won five straight races and been off the board only once in 13 career starts. In her last start in the Sabin Stakes last month, she beat Breeders' Cup winner and Dubai World Cup starter Royal Delta by 8 lengths. She will face five rivals at 9 furlongs on the main track. The $100,000, Grade III Skip Away, at 1 3/16 miles on the main track, got nine takers. The $100,000, Grade III Appleton Stakes at 1 mile on the grass attracted a highly competitive field of eight. And the $150,000, Grade III Orchid Stakes will see one filly and eight mares trying 1 1/2 miles on the turf.
If anyone has money left after betting Friday's Pick 18 -- really, check it out! -- the stakes-rich cards on Saturday and Louisiana Derby Day Sunday will provide plenty of opportunity to invest it. On Saturday, in addition to the Oaks, the Big Easy oval has the $100,000 Bayou Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the grass and two state-bred events. Sunday's racing includes three Louisiana-bred stakes plus the $400,000, Grade II Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap at 9 furlongs on the grass; the $400,000, Grade II New Orleans Handicap at 9 furlongs on the main track; and the $150,000 Duncan F. Kenner Stakes for sprinters on the dirt. The New Orleans Handicap in particular has a deep, talented lineup that includes the winners of the last two Louisiana Derbies, Pants on Fire and Mission Impazible. Mission Impazible also won this race last year. They will face the likes of Nehro, who was second last year in the Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky derbies and is back on track this year for trainer Steve Asmussen. Also in the field are the likes of Redeemed, Toby's Corner, Nate's Mineshaft and Fast Alex. In the Muniz, Smart Bid will be bidding for a repeat win against a field that includes Willyconker, a Grade I winner in California last time out who also is nominated to the BMW Hong Kong Mile April.
The rest of the world, mercifully, is taking the weekend off from major stakes action.