Last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner returned to the races with a smashing win, highlighting a big weekend of racing.
Two more potential Kentucky Derby candidates surfaced -- Exit Stage Left in California and Vicar's in Trouble in New Orleans. And there are three more races of note for 3-year-olds on Monday, Martin Luther King Day.
Sunday's features in Hong Kong may have turned up a candidate for Dubai's World Cup Night while racing in Dubai favored the home team.
And this was Eclipse Award weekend. The winners largely were predictable although it was slightly odd to see two Breeders' Cup runners-up receive awards while the horses who defeated them went home empty-handed. Read more in the News and Notes section.
Meanwhile, take note of this:
The older horses
This could be an exciting year in the handicap division, with Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge poised to compete for next January's honors and some California horses starting to make noise.
Mucho Macho Man, making his first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Classic, squashed five outclassed rivals in Saturday's $400,000 Florida Sunshine Millions Classic. The 6-year-old son of Macho Uno, who failed to finish in this race last year over a sloppy track, moved to the lead for jockey Gary Stevens rounding the stretch turn and won by 14 lengths, very much geared down. Joshua's Comprise beat the others with Decaf Again finishing third. Even without urging, Mucho Macho Man finished the 9 furlongs in 1:48.76, little more than 1 second off the track record. Stevens said trainer Kathy Ritvo told him, "'We don't need to put on a show today. Don't show him off.' And he kind of did anyway, on his own. But there was no intention of trying to embarrass anybody." Mucho Macho Man could move along to the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap or pick up one more prep race before tackling the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 29. Whichever way he goes, Ritvo said the ultimate goal is to put him in a position to repeat in this fall's Breeders' Cup Classic.
Shakin It Up outfinished stablemate Governor Charlie in the final furlong to win Saturday's $200,000 Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds at Santa Anita by 2 1/4 lengths. It was another 2 1/4 lengths back to Hear the Ghost in third. The top two finishers are trained by Bob Baffert and both were sired by Midnight Lute. Shakin It Up ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:41.86. Shakin It Up came to Saturday's race off a victory in the Grade I Malibu Stakes on Boxing Day at Santa Anita -- that off a nine-month layoff. Governor Charlie was making his first start since finishing eighth in last spring's Preakness Stakes. Baffert also has a 3-year-old Midnight Lute colt, Midnight Hawk, in the thick of the West Coast's early Triple Crown preps. "Midnight Lute. I'm telling you," Baffert said. Of Shakin It Up, he added, "I was never really sure he could go two turns. Today, the way he did it, I was pretty impressed myself the way he did it ... . That other horse, Governor Charlie, ran a big race, too. He's a good horse."
Elsewhere in the handicap division:
Long River challenged pacesetting Percussion in the stretch run in Saturday's $100,000 Evening Attire Stakes at Aqueduct and inched clear, winning by 3/4 of a length over that rival. It was another 13 1/2 lengths back to Jonesy Boy in third. The favorite, Cease, ceased early and finished fourth. Long River is a 4-year-old A.P. Indy colt out of the Breeder's Cup-winning Awesome Again mare Round Pond. He ran 1 1/16 miles on the fast inner track in 1:44.71 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons. Owned by Darley Stable, Long River was on the Derby trail last year until he finished eighth in Grade III Withers on Groundhog Day. He then was put away until the fall and now has a second and then three straight wins since his return to action. "He's getting more professional," said Art Magnuson, assistant to winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "I don't know what's next. There's the Stymie here (1 1/8 miles on Feb. 15)."
Fordubai shadowed pacesetter Grand Contender into the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 Louisiana Handicap at Fair Grounds, got by and went on to win by a length over that foe despite drifting late. The favorite, Prayer for Relief, was only a neck farther back in third. Fordubai, a 4-year-old E Dubai colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.37 with Robby Albarado up. He was making his first start of the year after winding up 2013 with sixth-place finishes in the Grade II Indiana Derby and the Grade II Hawthorne Gold Cup. "I got inside and we took advantage of it," Albarado said. "I was able to save ground on both turns and when we turned for home, he ran hard."
Kentucky Derby preps
Vicar's in Trouble was never in any trouble in Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. With Rosie Napravnik at the controls, the Into Mischief colt stalked the pace, took over when asked and ran on powerfully, winning by 6 3/4 lengths despite running a little erratically in the final sixteenth. Albano held second by a half length over the favorite, Gold Hawk. Vicar's in Trouble, owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey and trained by Mike Maker, got 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:42.57. It was his first start of the year, first stakes try, first route race and his first start against winners. "The horse has been improving," Napravnik said. "I think he's immature but he can move up a lot from this race." Maker assistant Joe Sharp said the ambitious placing "was something you have to try at this point in the year with a 3-year-old. He's never given us any reason he wouldn't go the distance." He is expected to continue the local trail leading to the Louisiana Derby.
Exit Stage Left set a pressured pace in Saturday's $100,000 California Derby at Golden Gate Fields, finally took charge in the stretch run and then held off a late run by the favorite, Enterprising, to win by a half length. Infosec added value to the trifecta. Harbaugh finished next-last of eight, foreshadowing the Sunday travails of his namesake, San Francisco 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh. Exit Stage Left, a New Jersey-bred Noonmark colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.07 with Russell Baze up for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Exit Stage Left has won all three career starts -- all stakes races at Golden Gate. Enterprising was coming off two straight victories in Southern California. "He's tough and he's talented," Baze said. "You have to like that combination. And, you know, he's still a work in progress."
In other weekend races for 3-year-olds:
On the Gulfstream Park grass, Storming Inti battled with We Miss Artie, swapped the lead with that rival late and then came back to win by a head. Cabo Cat finished third. Storming Inti, a Stormy Atlantic colt out of a Pulpit mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:42.43. The Chad Brown trainee now has four straight wins, including two stakes at Gulfstream. The other was an off-the-turf affair. We Miss Artie won the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland on the all-weather course during the fall meeting.
Tonalist, a Tapit colt, was an impressive allowance winner going 9 furlongs on Saturday at Gulfstream Park for trainer Christophe Clement.
There's a trio of 3-year-old races on Monday, Martin Luther King Day -- at Oaklawn Park, Aqueduct and Santa Anita. The New York and California races are 6-furlong sprints but the 1-mile Smarty Jones Stakes in Hot Springs is the first local step on the road to the Grade I Arkansas Derby.
Coastline is the likely choice but no sure thing in the Smarty Jones. The colt won the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs in the fall but was the beaten favorite in the Delta Downs Jackpot. Coming from New Orleans is Son of a Preacher, a Pulpit colt who has shown promise. "The race is so wide open," said Coastline's trainer, Bret Calhoun. "I think he'll transition well from the surface at Fair Grounds to Oaklawn." Tanzanite Cat promises to set a brisk pace. And, if last year is any guide, it would be foolish to ignore the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Unstoppable Colby, another Pulpit colt, although he is winless in three starts. Lukas won this last year with Will Take Charge -- at odds of 12-1. Jon Court rode Will Take Charge, who was 1-for-4 coming into that race, and has the mount Monday on Unstoppable Colby.
Even though it's a sprint, keep an eye on Monday's $150,000 San Pedro Stakes at Santa Anita. Indianapolis, a Medaglia d'Oro colt owned by the Coolmore folks and trained by Bob Baffert, makes his second career start after an impressive, off-the-pace win last November at Hollywood Park. Baffert also saddles Beach Hut for Juddmonte Farms but that First Defence colt needs to bounce back from two losses since his maiden win.
Hot Heir Skier is the 5-2 morning-line favorite in Monday's $100,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct with Oliver Zip the oddsmaker's second choice.
Unbridled Forever took over from Divine Beauty at the three-sixteenths pole in Saturday's $125,000 Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds and went on to a 1 1/2-length victory over that rival. Express Model finished third. Unbridled Forever, a daughter of Unbridled's Song, got 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:43.03 under Robby Albarado. Trained by Dallas Stewart, she broke her maiden in her second race during Churchill Downs' fall meeting. "She's a phenomenal filly," Albarado said. "She's got a lot of buttons to her. I don't feel like we know the depth of her yet."
Spellbound came from last of seven to upset Sunday's $200,000, Grade II La Canada Stakes for 4-year-old fillies at Santa Anita, winning by a neck over Let Faith Arise and another neck over Ondine. The favorite, Broken Sword, set the pace and then faded to finish a thoroughly beaten fifth. Spellbound, a Bernardini filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.14 with Victor Espinoza up. The victory was a nice rebound from a sixth-place finish in her last start, the Grade II Bayakoa Stakes at Hollywood Park. Before that, she had been idle for eight months. "She's always been a talented filly," winning trainer Richard Mandella said. "But she was a little backwards early. Rough in the gate, just not doing things right. Little by little, she's come around."
Don't Tell Sophia overcame an awkward start in Saturday's $100,000 Pippin Stakes at Oaklawn Park, passed all five rivals and won by 1 1/2 lengths over pacesetting long shot Fully Living. Sister Ginger got show money. Don't Tell Sophia, a 6-year-old Congaree mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.30 with Channing Hill in the irons. She also won this race last year en route to a highly successful campaign that included a victory in the Grade II Chilukki Stakes at Churchill Downs. "She's all class," Hill said. "That wasn't much more than a workout for her." Trainer and part-owner Phil Sims added, "We can't wait to move forward with her."
On the turf
Daddy Nose Best roared up the middle of the track in the final yards of Saturday's $125,000, Grade III Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap at Fair Grounds and won by a neck from Adios Nardo. Speaking of Which also rallied late to take third and String Guitar settled for fourth. Daddy Nose Best, a 5-year-old son of Scat Daddy, ran about 1 1/16 miles on yielding turf in 1:46.54 with Rosie Napravnik up for trainer Steve Asmussen. He now has five wins from his last six starts. "I was very, very blocked at the top of the stretch," Napravnik said. "He had a lot to do in the lane but he finished really nicely for me."
Ladies on the lawn
Eden Prairie rated just off the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Marie G. Krantz Memorial Handicap at Fairgrounds, moved to the lead in the stretch when asked and edged clear to win by a length over pacesetting long shot Masquerade. The favorite, Star Struck, got going too late and finished third, 2 lengths farther in arrears. Eden Prairie, a 4-year-old Mizzen Mast filly, ran about 1 1/16 miles on yielding turf while toting Rosie Napravnik, who won three of the day's five stakes and finished second and third in the others. Eden Prairie finished second in the Grade II Lexus Raven Run Stakes at Keeneland in October and now has two straight stakes wins in New Orleans. "When she relaxes, she can compete with almost anybody," said winning trainer Neil Pessen. Napravnik said Eden Prairie "could have laid off or gone to the lead. She really finished strong and showed her class."
In other action:
(By RICHARD GROSS)
Nostrils flaring, ears pinned back and eyes wide open, United Color shot across the Meydan finish line a neck in advance of Irish invader Russian Soul to gain an upset win in the 1,200-meter feature Dubawi Stakes listed sprint Thursday evening on the all-weather Tapeta at Meydan.
Jockey James Doyle grabbed the lead at the 800-meter mark and hung on gamely as Russian Soul under Shane Foley was able to make up all but a neck in the final 400 meters in his first test on the all-weather. It was the ninth win in 23 starts for the 5-year-old son of legendary American Hall-of-Fame Champion Ghostzapper.
"We were drawn wide and nobody really wanted to go on," Doyle explained about his decision to overtake early leader Farmleigh House. "He was going so strongly I was happy to let him track the early leader before we quickened well."
It was an impressive score for local trainer Dhruba Selvaratnam, whose charges usually run under the radar at Jebel Ali, the local racecourse built in 1990 by winning owner Sheik Ahmed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. The victory came against a packed field that included Reynaldothewizard and Krypton Factor, respective winners of the 2013 and 2012 running of the Group 1 Golden Shaheen on Dubai World Cup day.
The surprising feature result nearly overshadowed a fine night for the royal blue silks of hometown heavyweight Godolphin. Trainer Charlie Appleby teamed with jockey Mickael Barzalona to snare wins in the first two races of the evening and miss by only a half length in the third.
Cat O'Mountain went the long way 'round the all-weather, winning the opening 2,200-meters handicap by 2 lengths over Haafaguinea. "He is unbeaten on the all-weather in Britain and has been training very well out here," said a pleased Appleby. "He was very impressive this evening."
Irish lass Wedding Ring then denied nine suitors over 1,400 meters on the all-weather, besting Magrooma by 1 1/4 lengths in the UAE 1000 Guineas Trial. Trainer and jockey came up just short of a personal hat trick when Safety Check checked in a half length behind stablemate Emirates Flyer in the 1,400-meters UAE 2000 Guineas Trial, but the win still gave Godolphin three on the evening's card.
Sheikhzayedroad, named for the famous local freeway, sped across the finish line over grass instead of asphalt for trainer David Simcock with jockey Martin Lane at the wheel, passing Aussie Reigns for a 1 1/4-length win in the 2,000-meter turf handicap. "He was obviously named in the hope he might end up here and he has delivered on the international stage," Lane said of the win.
The evening's final race was an unexpected gift for Emerati trainer Ali Rashid Al Raihe as Zain Shamardal outlasted a crowded field of 15 other competitors over 1,600 meters in the all-weather Finest Surprise handicap.
The big guns were spiked in Sunday's HK Group 1 Stewards Cup at Sha Tin, leaving a clear path for Blazing Speed to live up to his name in the final 100 yards and snatch the win. Dan Excel looked to have the race under control after edging clear from Helene Spirit in deep stretch. But he couldn't hold the lead as Blazing Speed rallied to his outside. Helene Spirit held third and, after a slow early pace, Glorious Days and Gold-Fun, the 1-2 finishers in December's Group 1 Hong Kong Mile, were never a factor. Military Attack was the best of the more fancied, finishing fourth. "He's a horse that we haven't seen the best of yet," trainer Tony Cruz said of Blazing Speed, a 5-year-old Dylan Thomas gelding. "I believe he's still improving and I have big expectations for the future. He'll be entered in Dubai and Singapore and maybe England, as well."
In the co-featured HK Group 1 Hong Kong Classic Mile, Able Friend got to the front 300 meters from home after chasing a runaway leader, then outfinished stablemate Designs on Rome for a half-length triumph. The Shamardal gelding finished in 1:33.43 and winning trainer John Moore predicted big things to come from him, too. "This is the best Classic Mile field I've seen since I've been in Hong Kong," Moore said. "From that point of view, I think I've got the real deal on my hands. I believe he'll be one of Hong Kong's leading lights in the future." Dibayni was third and As You Wish finished fourth. All are possibles for the HK Group 1 BMW Hong Kong Derby.
Mucho Macho Man's easy victory in the Classic was just the icing on the cake that was Saturday's Florida Sunshine Millions Day. In other action for the Florida-breds, with the main track fast and the turf firm:
Ribo Bobo took the lead when asked in the $150,000 Sprint and worked clear to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Happy My Way. Star Harbour finished third. Ribo Bobo, a 6-year-old Louis Quatorze gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.16 with Paco Lopez in the irons.
Star Channel was up late to win the $150,000 Turf by a head over Old Time Hockey. The favorite, Bad Debt, made a late run to get show money, a half length farther back. Star Channel, with Jose Lezcano up, ran 9 furlongs on the green in 1:47.64.
Ullapool led from gate to wire in the $150,000 Filly & Mare Sprint and won by 1 1/4 lengths from the favorite, My Pal Chrisy. Salamera finished third. Ullapool, a 5-year-old Langfuhr mare, got the 6 furlongs in 1:10.41 with Lezcano riding.
Parranda took over in the stretch run to win the $150,000 Filly & Mare Turf by 3 lengths over E B Ryder. Nikki Starshine was third and the odds-on favorite, Wishing Gate, faded late and barely held on to fifth place. Parranda, a 5-year-old daughter of English Channel out of the Rahy mare Dynamic Feature, ran 9 furlongs on the turf in 1:47.94, also under Lezcano.
Sweet N Discreet stalked the pace set by Devil's Cave in the $300,000 Distaff, took over late and won by 1 1/2 lengths over that one. It was another 6 lengths to Toasting in third. Sweet N Discreet, a 4-year-old Discreet Cat filly, ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.21 with Joe Bravo up for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Dancingtothestars tracked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Megahertz Stakes for fillies and mares, then went on to win by 3/4 of a length over Fanticola. Gulsary was a head back in third. Dancingtothestars, a 6-year-old mare by Good Journey, got the mile on the firm turf in 1:33.77 under Mario Gutierrez.
Zivo came from last of seven to score in Sunday's $75,000 Whodam Stakes for New York-breds. With Jose Ortiz in the irons, the 5-year-old son of True Distinction outfinished the favorite, Saratoga Snacks, to win by a head. Awesome Vision finished third. Zivo got the mile on the fast inner track in 1:37.12.
Point Finish finished perfectly in Saturday's $60,000 Forego Stakes, winning by a neck with a perfectly timed rally under Dean Sarvis. Ghost Is Clear looked briefly like a winner but couldn't hold on. Pacesetting long shot Buster Rose persevered for third. Point Finish, a 5-year-old Point Given gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:16.64.
Aces N Jacks was right on the lead in Saturday's $50,000 Groovy Stakes for Texas-bred 3-year-olds, shot out to a big lead in the lane and coasted home first by 4 1/2 lengths over Circustown Flyer. Me Commanche was third and the favorite, Time Iz Flyin, faded badly to finish fifth. Aces N Jacks, a Jet Phone gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.39 with Larry Taylor piloting.
Triumph and Song led all the way in Saturday's $50,000 Spirit of Texas Stakes for Texas-breds 4 years old and up and won by 2 1/4 lengths over Solar Charge with Wagson third. Triumph and Song, a 5-year-old My Golden Song gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.06 under Junior Chacaltana.
Texas Air rallied to the lead three-wide turning for home in Saturday's $50,000 Star of Texas Stakes for older, state-bred grass runners and kicked clear to a 2 3/4-length victory. Safe Range and Wampas Kitty filled the trifecta. Texas Air, a 6-year-old Texas City gelding, got the mile on firm turf in 1:39.46 with Dakota Wood in the irons.
Quiet Acceleration accelerated quickly to the lead in the stretch run in Saturday's $50,000 Richard King Stakes for 4-year-old and upward Texans, then held on to win by a length over Valid Message. Wild Slew showed the way and held third. Quiet Acceleration, a 5-year-old Silent Picture gelding, finished 9 furlongs on the firm grass course in 1:52.69 with Roman Chapa up.
Reaper harvested pacesetting Infinite Bull in the final sixteenth to win Saturday's $85,000 Pepsi Cola Stakes for New Mexico-bred 3-year-olds by a half length. D E Lover was 1 1/2 lengths farther back in third. Reaper, an Attila's Storm gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.10 with Irwin Rosendo riding.
FireWith Fire got to the front along the rail at the top of the lane in Saturday's $75,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile and held gamely, winning by a neck over Az Ridge and another neck over Hammers Terror. Fire With Fire, a 6-year-old Distorted Humor gelding out of the Capote mare Cosmic Fire, finished in 1:35.81 over firm going with Julien Couton in the irons.
News and notes:
It was no surprise that Breeders' Cup Mile winner Wise Dan, for the second straight year, took home the Eclipse Awards for Horse of the Year, older male and male turf horse at Saturday night's ceremony at Gulfstream Park.
In fact, there were few surprises. But it is odd that two horses who won Breeders' Cup races got no award while the horses they beat did receive statuettes. Mucho Macho Man was shut out despite his narrow victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic over Will Take Charge, who won the 3-year-old male Eclipse Award. And She's a Tiger, who was set down to second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, got the award over Ria Antonia, who won the race via that disqualification. It all makes sense. But it is odd.
Other Eclipse results:
Javier Castellano won his first Eclipse as the year's top jockey.
Victor Carrasco was named top apprentice jockey.
Shared Belief, winner of three straight races late in the year, was named top 2-year-old male despite skipping the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Beholder, last year's 2-year-old filly Eclipse Award winner, took home the 3-year-old filly statue this time around.
Todd Pletcher, who saddled 48 graded stakes winners in 2013, received his sixth Eclipse Award as the year's top trainer.
Ken and Sarah Ramsey won Eclipse Awards as both top owner and top breeder -- largely on the strength of their faith in their stallion, Kitten's Joy, and his progeny.
Points Offthebench, who suffered a fatal training accident a week before the Breeders' Cup, was honored posthumously as the year's top male sprinter.
Groupie Doll won the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint for her second straight year and that was good enough for a second straight Eclipse Award in the division.
Royal Delta received the Eclipse Award as top older female. She won that award last year, too, and was the 3-year-old filly winner two years ago.
Dank, who came from England to win the Beverly D. at Arlington Park, then returned to win the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, also won the Eclipse Award as top turf female.