The New Year kicks off with a bang for American horses eyeing the Kentucky Derby or Oaks.
The Derby candidates get serious, if early, tests in New York and Florida while the 3-year-old fillies tackle the Santa Ynez on the other side of the continent at Santa Anita.
Typically for this time of year, there are plenty of other showcases for the young talent, so Derby and Oaks handicappers will need to keep an eye on other venues, too.
Internationally, New Year's Day turned up a sprinting prospect in Hong Kong. And the final international Group 1 race of the year in Japan provided a repeat performance.
With a clean slate and hopes never higher, let's get going on 2015.
The Road to the Roses
El Kabeir, winner of the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Nov. 29, heads a field of nine for Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Jerome at Aqueuct. The grey Scat Daddy colt finished second in Grade II Nashua -- albeit 5 lengths behind the highly regarded Blofeld -- at the Big A before his Churchill Downs triumph. He drew the outside gate for Friday's test at 1 mile and 70 yards. Ostrolenka won a stakes at Belmont before finishing 13th in the Grade II Remsen. Nasa, a Smarty Jones colt out of a Seattle Slew mare, rocketed to victory in the Pennsylvania Nursery at Parx in his last outing. Others have shown promise.
Nine are set to take the first step on the Florida road to Louisville in Saturday's $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park. There are no tigers although Bluegrass Singer has shown promise locally, as has Juan and Bina. Brother Bobo just missed in a minor stakes in his second career start. Ami's Flatter won at first asking at Woodbine and has been working up a storm at Palm Meadows for trainer Josie Carroll. If only because of the connections, watch out for Mawthooq, a Distorted Humor colt out of the multiple graded stakes-winning mare Ready's Gal. Mawthooq finished second and first in two starts in New York with the win by 10 1/2 lengths, albeit over a sloppy Aqueduct track. Kiaran McLaughlin trains for Shadwell Stable and John Velzaquez gets the leg up and the colt not only sheds six pounds from his last victory but also gets first-time Lasix. The outside post should be no problem in the one-turn mile.
Bluegrass Singer is cross-entered in Saturday's $100,000 Spectacular Bid at Gulfstream -- a 6-furlongs affair. It's Not Me comes off three straight wins, including the Buffalo Man at Gulfstream West, over both Brother Bobo and Bluegrass Singer. Several others exit big maiden wins at venues as diverse as Hastings Park and Keeneland. Welcome to the South Florida early winter handicapping challenge.
On Friday at Aqueduct, a quintet of newly minted 3-year-olds will tackle 6 furlongs over the inner track, with three of them well-regarded on the morning line. That trio is Majestic Affair, Joe Franklin and (the Jockey Club must have been snoozing) Ship Disturber. Majestic Affair finished second to Cinco Charlie in the James F. Lewis at Laurel Park in his last outing. Joe Franklin has won two straight races. Ship Disturber won impressively at first asking.
These days, you can't ignore grassy Derby preps. So watch Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Dania Beach Stakes at Gulfstream, carded for 7 1/2 furlongs on the green course. A field of 10 includes eight who have won either their last start or the one before that. Wayward Kitten shows as a first-time gelding as part of the effort to make that handicapping tool more readily available.
And, already run ...
Cook Some Rice rallied by the odds-on favorite, Just Kissing Buck, in the late going of Wednesday's $90,000 Louisiana Futurity for state-bred 2-year-olds at Fair Grounds and won by 3/4 length over that rival. Slowpoke Sam was another 6 lengths back in third. Cook Some Rice, a Half Ours gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:11.56 with Gerard Melancon in the irons.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Eight fillies are listed for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Old Hat Stakes at Gulfstream Park, going 6 furlongs. Fashion Alert won the Grade III Schuylerville at Saratoga back when the weather was warm. She then faded from the lead to finish sixth in the Grade I Alcibiades at Keeneland over a wet-fast track in October and hasn't run since. R Sassy Lass exits a victory in the Sandpiper at Tampa Bay Downs. Ekati's Phaeton figures to contend.
Conquest Harlanate, a graded stakes winner on both grass and all-weather at Woodbine, flopped badly in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. In Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Ynez, she will shorten up to 6 1/2 furlongs while trying dirt for the first time against eight rivals. There's plenty of competition if she's not back to her best. Seduire has won stakes at Golden Gate and Santa Rosa. Light the City is a stakes winner. Callback, Rattataptap and Lady Lake exit convincing maiden wins.
On the grass, Right On Kitten is undefeated in two starts coming into Saturday's $100,000 Ginger Brew Stakes at Gulfstream Park, with the wins coming at Indiana Grand and Retama Park. Cardinal Cove also is 2-for-2, winning at Gulfstream West and Tampa Bay Downs. The rest of the field has accomplished less but some have been competing against more prestigious company. If the race comes off the turf, consider main-track-only entrant Money'soncharlotte.
On New Year's Eve at Fair Grounds, Wind Chill Factor swept to the lead in the stretch drive of the $90,000 Louisiana Futurity for 2-year-old fillies and held off long shot Forest Lake by 3/4 length at the end of 6 furlongs. Private Promise, also at a generous price, was along for third. Wind Chill Factor, a daughter of Successful Appeal, finished in 1:12.03 with Willie Martinez up.
Elsewhere around the ovals -- results and previews:
Rewarding Hero came from last of nine to win the New Year's Day feature at Sha Tin -- the HK Group 3 Chinese Club Challenge Cup -- by a head over Beauty Flame and All You Wish. The 6-year-old Exceed and Excel gelding, trained by John Moore and ridden by Neil Callan, ran 1,400 meters in 1:20.99. Moore said the only step left for his victor is the Group 1 Stewards Cup. "His last run was a good one and he only had to run up to that to have a really good chance at this," the trainer said.
Tuesday's Group 1 Tokyo Dishoten at Ohi Racecourse provided a showcase for Hokko Tarumae. Last year's winner repeated with ease, clearing the field in the stretch to score by 4 lengths from Copano Rickey. That result was a 1-2 for JRA horses in the country's only international Group 1 race organized by the NRA, the association of local tracks. NRA runners, however, finished third and fourth while the lone foreign entrant, American runner Soi Phet, faded badly in the late going to finish last under Kent Desormeaux. "He was able to spend a nice time here," Desormeaux said, adding the 2,000 meters proved too much for the gelding. Hokko Tarumae, a 5-year-old by King Kamehameha, was coming off a Group 1 win in the Champions Cup just 20 days earlier. "I have a feeling that he's stepped up to the next level," said winning rider Hideaki Miyuki.
Woolfall Sovereign dropped back to last before making his winning move in the first Fast-Track Qualifier of the new year over the Fibresand at Southwell. Woolfall Sovereign, a 9-year-old, was along in time to win by a head over Dungannon, earning spot in the All-Weather Sprint event on Championship Day, April 3, at Lingfield. Katie Margarson, who assists her father, George, in training duties, said the venerable warrior likely will take up the challenge. "It would be a shame not to go for the final on Good Friday," she said. "That will be the end of the season for him. He's an all-weather horse."
Storied Lady got by Miss Da Point in the stretch run to win Wednesday's $100,000 Bay Ridge Stakes for New York-bred distaffers by 2 lengths over that rival. Macha was just 1 length farther back in third. The favored entry of Carameaway and Dreaming of Cara finished eighth and 11th. Storied Lady, a 3-year-old daughter of Read the Footnotes, ran 1 1/16 miles on the fast inner track in 1:47.05 with Jose Ortiz at the controls.
Big Business tracked the pace set by West Hills Giant in Wednesday's $100,000 Alex M. Robb Stakes for state-breds, got a narrow advantage a furlong out and survived the late threat of Beautyinthepulpit to win by a head. West Hills Giant faded to finish third. Big Business, a 6-year-old Eddington gelding, ran 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:44.33 for jockey Fernando Jara.
A competitive field of nine is set for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Gabriel Stakes for 4-year-olds and up over 1 1/8 miles on the turf. Woodbine-based Dynamic Sky invades after winning the Grade III Red Smith at Aqueduct. He ran well against top international rivals back home in 2014. His stablemate, Patrioticandproud, also has credentials. Finnegan's Wake was buried in the Breeders' Cup Turf but otherwise has performed well of late, most recently winning the Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup at Del Mar. Tom's Tribute won the Grade I Eddie Read and the Grade II Del Mar Mile this summer and posted a close third in the Grade II Seabiscuit Handicap in his last trip.
The Saturday card includes four $100,000 stakes at 6 furlongs and about 1 1/16 miles, one of each open and the other restricted to fillies and mares. Each represents a nice wagering opportunity.
Praetereo circled all eight rivals turning for home in Tuesday's $75,000 Valley Forge Stakes and forged ahead to win by a neck. Whatsthequestion was second, another neck to the good of Javerre. Praetereo, with Irad Ortiz Jr. in for the ride, got 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:26.70.
Sailor's Revenge and Adirondack King hooked up in a stretch duel in Tuesday's $75,000 Auld Lang Syne Stakes and they couldn't be separated at the end, dead heating for win and place. It was 10 lengths farther back to Yougotthatgoinforu in third. Sailor's Revenge, a 4-year-old Purge gelding, was ridden by Kendrick Carmouche; Adirondack King, a 5-year-old Lawyer Ron gelding, by John Bisono. The 1 mile and 70 yards took 1:45.16 over a fast track.
Four Tribes came from last of seven to win Wednesday's $35,000 Luke Kruytbosch Stakes for 3-year-olds by 2 1/4 lengths over Taelyns Prince. Edison was third. Four Tribes, a 4-year-old Street Cry gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a muddy track in 1:43.56 under Geovanni Franco. The race is named for the late race caller at tracks from Turf Paradise to Churchill Downs. Kruytbosch died in 2008.
News and notes
A sad note from Daily Racing Form: Jack Wilson, who called charts and was the supervisor of the Form's track and field operations during a 42-year career, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 80. He called such diverse events as Secretariat's 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes (describing it as an "outstanding performance") and the havoc wrought when an alligator wandered onto the track during a race at old Tropical Park in Florida. Wilson began calling charts for DRF April 7, 1956, and worked primarily in New York and South Florida before becoming the supervisor of the company's track and field operations. He retired in 1999. Those who have never watched a chart-caller in operation cannot appreciate the complex artistry of the job, which lies at the heart of handicapping.