They're off and running in the Kentucky Derby preps and, based on weekend results, it's OK to get excited about some of the contenders.
It's less than four months until Derby Day. That's a short time for some but a long time for trainers who need to keep their youngsters healthy and moving forward if they hope to run for the roses.
Still, the conditioners of some of Saturday's top finishers can be excused for being enthusiastic -- albeit quietly -- about their performances.
And there was other action around the U.S. ovals -- some tidy grass sprints and a couple other graded stakes to boot. Read on:
The Derby crowd:
There were big doings at Aqueduct and Santa Anita and some promising performances at Turfway Park and Delta Downs.
Goldencents is starting to look the part of a legitimate Classics contender after an impressive win in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. The Into Mischief colt, winner last year of the $1 million Delta Jackpot, sat just off the pace set by Manando, took over with a wide move at mid-stretch and won by 1 1/2 lengths. Den's Legacy was second and Manando held third. Long shots Dry Summer and Dirty Swag completed the order of finish. Goldencents, with Kevin Krigger up for trainer Doug O'Neill, got 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.50. "We had a good challenge in the stretch," Krigger said. "But by the time we got to the eighth pole, I got him on top of his feet and just said, 'Let's go,' and that was it. We're keeping our fingers crossed and praying that he stays sound." O'Neill said he was happy to see Krigger take back when he was squeezed out of the starting gate. "As the waters get deeper, you've got to be versatile and I think Goldencents and Kevin showed their versatility today," said O'Neill, who won last year's Kentucky Derby with I'll Have Another. The Sham is the first local prep leading to the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 6.
Vyjack remained undefeated in three lifetime starts with a gritty win by just a head over 41-1 long shot Siete de Oros in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Jerome Stakes over Aqueduct's inner track. Vyjack, a gelding also by Into Mischief, was embattled virtually the entire 1 mile and 70 yards, leading on the backstretch, surrendering the advantage to Siete de Oros on the turn, then rallying to salvage the victory. Amerigo Vespucci, another big long shot, came from far back to finish third and Long River, who seemed to hesitate in the stretch run, finished fourth. Vyjack, with Cornelio Velasquez up for trainer Rudy Rodriguez, finished in 1:40.67. He earlier had won a 6 1/2-furlong maiden event and a 7-furlong overnight stakes. Both jockey and trainer agreed the gelding needs more focus. "He's still learning and hopefully he keeps learning," Rodriguez said. "Hopefully this race will wake him up a little bit and put him more in the game because he's got a lot of talent." He said Vyjack will skip the Grade III Withers on Feb. 2 and run next in the Grade III Gotham March 3. Trainer Ramon Preciado said Siete de Oros will run in the Withers, all things being equal. The $1 million, Grade I Wood Memorial April 6 is the final New York prep for the Kentucky Derby.
At Delta Downs, Bandini's Band got home first in Saturday night's $100,000 Big Drama Stakes but was disqualified to fourth for drifting in during the stretch run, impeding rivals. That left the favorite, King Henry, atop the results, with Hero Force and Heaven's Runway elevated to place and show. King Henry, a Kentucky-bred Henny Hughes colt, finished 3/4 of a length in arrears as the race was run in 1:27.46. Keven Smith rode Bandini's Band; Donnie Meche, King Henry.
Turfway Park's first Derby prep, Saturday's $50,000 Turfway Prevue, went to Mac the Man, who stalked the pace, surged four-wide to the lead and drew off to score by 4 lengths over Smokinindaboysroom. Lew and Mike finished third while the favorite, Bye Bye Bernie, was shuffled back and finished fourth. Mac the Man, an El Corredor colt, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:18.31 for Norberto Arroyo Jr. The next step on Turfway's Road to the Roses is the mile WEBN Stakes Feb. 2 and winning trainer Jeff Greenhill said, "I do think he will stretch out to two turns. He'd be a little more forwardly placed, but I think he'll go two turns." Greenhill also trains Silver Tongued, who finished fifth with a late run in the Preview. Both are owned by his wife Sherri. "I may have to start looking at dodging one another," the trainer said. "This will be the first time I nominate two to the Triple Crown."
Princess of Sylmar raced right on by the early leaders in Saturday's $100,000 Busanda Stakes at Aqueduct and drew off down the stretch, winning by 7 1/2 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Ruby Lips finished second but was disqualified to third behind Asiya for impeding that rival in the lane. Princess of Sylmar, a Pennsylvania-bred Majestic Warrior filly, ran the 1 mile and 70 yards on the fast inner track in 1:41.27 with Christopher DeCarlo up. She now has won three straight, starting with a 19-length score in a maiden event at Penn National Nov. 8. "This is a nice filly," said Mike McCarthy, assistant to winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "We've always had high hopes for her ... . Obviously you're surprised when they break their maiden by 19 lengths, but she had trained like a nice filly. I am hoping she'll stay here."
Dancinginthecircle was doing just that after Friday night's $100,000 By the Light Stakes at Delta Downs. The odds-on favorite, with Terry Thompson at the controls, romped home a 9-length winner while running 7 furlongs in 1:25.01. Hometown Gossip was along for second, 6 lengths ahead of Portales. Dancinginthecircle, a Kentucky-bred Divine Park filly, is trained by Larry Jones. She came into the race off a second-place finish at Churchill Downs to eventual Grade I Hollywood Starlet winner Pure Fun.
Coil caught pacesetting Ultimate Eagle inside the furlong marker in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II San Pasqual Stakes and battled to the wire with that one, winning by a head in what trainer Bob Baffert later said was his final start. It was another 6 1/4 lengths back to John Scott in third. Coil, a 5-year-old son of Point Given, finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.52 with Martin Garcia riding. He was bouncing back from a third-place showing in the Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct in November and before that was seventh in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. "That was it," Baffert said. "He'll be retired to stud. He's had some issues. I'd have to run him sparingly. He's very healthy right now but it's time to send him to stud." Coil earned more than $1.15 million with seven wins from 14 starts.
Breeders' Cup winner Mizdirection caught pacesetting Kindle nearing the wire to win Sunday's $150,000, Grade II Monrovia Stakes for fillies and mares by a half length. Givine finished third. Mizdirection, a 5-year-old mare by Mizzen Mast, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course in 1:11.94 with Mike Smith up. She now has won six of her last seven starts, including the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint over the same course last November, and has never been worse than third in 13 starts. Trainer Mike Puype credited Smith with keeping Mizdirection closer to the pace than normal in Sunday's race. "Any other rider doesn't win that race today, no way, because that mare [Kindle] ran great at Hollywood when she was the lone speed and she's gotten better," Puype said. "Mike and I both feel she'll get a mile now and we're planning on running in the Buena Vista," a Grade II Feb. 18.
Hard Not to Like and Channel Lady both moved toward the lead entering the stretch run in Saturday's $100,000 Marshua's River Stakes for fillies and mares. In tight quarters along the rail, it was Hard Not to Like surviving the ensuing battle by a half length. Leading Astray was along for third as the favorite. Hard Not to Like, a 4-year-old Hard Spun filly, finished 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:41.70 under Joe Rocco Jr. It was her first start since a sixth-place finish in last spring's Kentucky Oaks and her fourth win overall. She came out of the Oaks with a chip in her knee. "She's a delight to train," winning trainer Michael Matz said. "She loves to train. She does everything the way you'd like. She trains like a stakes winner."
Tampa Bay Downs
Great Attack has finished fourth and fifth in the last two runnings of the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint but, after Saturday's triumph, has won the last two editions of the $75,000 Turf Dash. The 6-year-old son of Greatness, with Angel Serpa in the irons subbing for Joel Rosario, came five-wide down the stretch to take the lead and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Silver Cloud. Hold On Smokey was third. Great Attack ran 5 furlongs on turf rated good in 56.13 seconds. Dennis Ward, who handled the horse for his trainer son, Wesley, said Serpa "rode him perfect. Wesley told Angel what to do, and I think he did it to perfection. He told him when he got in the clear, just hang on and steer. That's all you have to do. If I was a little lighter, I could have rode him myself today."
Lovely Vin rallied by pacesetting Sunday's Child with ease in Saturday's $60,000 Dixie Poker Ace Stakes for Louisiana-breds and kicked clear, winning by 5 1/4 lengths over that rival. Sadie's Soldier came from well back to take third, just another nose in arrears, and it was another neck to Heavenville in fourth. Lovely Vin, a 4-year-old Vindication gelding, finished "about" 1 mile of yielding turf in 1:39.76 with Rosie Napravnik riding.
Forest Mouse squeeked by the leaders in the stretch run of Sunday's $50,000 Winsham Lad Handicap and went on to win by 3 lengths. Tap the Gold was second and Hurricane Lake got home third. Forest Mouse, the favorite, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:39.01 with Ry Eikleberry in the irons. The winner is a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Teton Forest.
E Z Kitty scored an easy win in Saturday's $35,000 Kachina Handicap for fillies and mares, leading all the way and finishing first by 4 3/4 lengths. Carrie Rose was second, 10 1/4 lengths ahead of Racing for Gold in third. E Z Kitty, a 5-year-old mare by He's Tops, raced the mile on a fast track in 1:35.86 for jockey Scott Stevens.
News and Notes
Gary Stevens returned to race riding Sunday after a seven-year absence with a close, third-place finish aboard Jebrica in the sixth race at Santa Anita. Stevens had retired with bad knees and tried his hand at acting, television commentary and as a jockey agent before finally deciding to return to his Hall of Fame career. For a brief time, it appeared he would come back a winner as he worked to the lead in the stretch but he couldn't hold the advantage and finished a neck and a nose back. "I thought, 'This is going to be a storybook comeback,'" Stevens said. "But it was close enough." He added, "I feel good."
The finalists for "Horse of the Year" honors are Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I'll Have Another and versatile Breeders' Cup Mile winner Wise Dan. The winner, and the winners of other 2012 Eclipse Awards, will be announced Jan. 19 at dinner at Gulfstream Park.
On the international front, there's an end to the quarantine at the Cologne, Germany, training grounds that trapped 300 horses and prevented Danedream from running in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and the Japan Cup. Tests conducted last week all proved negative for equine infectious anemia, or swamp fever, that prompted the quarantine back in October. Trainer Peter Schiergen, who has retired Danedream, said he plans to ship five horses to Meydan for the Dubai Carnival. "We are now looking forward to 2013," he said.