The Road to the Kentucky Derby gets a bit tougher this weekend with serious tests as far afield as Louisiana, California and Dubai.
The always entertaining Sunshine Millions adds a bright note from Gulfstream Park with some excellent fields. At the other end of the meteorological spectrum, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas gets its weather-delayed season going and Aqueduct got a few additional entries for Friday's Busanda Stakes, delayed from last weekend.
The Hong Kong Classic Mile, a local Group 1 event, is on the Sunday card at Sha Tin and should provide a peek into the future of racing in that influential venue.
Let's take a closer look.
The Louisiana path to Churchill Downs stretches out to two turns at Fair Grounds in New Orleans on Saturday with the $200,000, Grade III Lecomte Stakes. The field of 11 has some really promising prospects but they all will have to prove themselves against Eagle. That Candy Ride colt, trained by Neil Howard, was gaining late in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club in November before finishing third, just 3/4 length behind leading Kentucky Derby contender El Kabeir. He makes his first start as a 3-year-old. War Story has won both his starts, at Churchill and Fair Grounds, in good times. Tiznow R J won his last outing by 13 lengths over the New Orleans oval. Four Leaf Chief adds blinkers and Savoy Stomp adds Lasix and both are dangerous. Another Lemon Drop shows promise, having run third behind Dortmund last year. Runhappy lived up to his name in his only previous start, winning by 8 1/4 lengths over the Turfway Park all-weather.
Also worth watching for potential clues to Derby 141 on May 2 is Saturday's $100,000 California Derby on the all-weather course at Golden Gate Fields. Soul Driver comes off a runner-up finish in the grassy Eddie Logan Stakes at Santa Anita and is the morning-line pick. Broughten Kitten has but a single win from four starts but has been competitive in tough assignments on the turf at Churchill Downs and on the Golden Gate all-weather, where this race is contested. The Wesley Ward trainee is the morning-line second-favorite among eight. Stand and Salute, who beat Broughten Kitten by 1/2 length in their last outing, also is well-backed.
And there are state-bred races for the sophomore set at Sam Houston in Texas and Sunland Park in New Mexico.
In Dubai: Toast of New York parlayed a victory in last year's Group 2 UAE Derby into impressive runner-up finishes in the Grade I Pacific Classic and the Breeders' Cup Classsic. The run up to this year's UAE Derby got going Thursday with the UAE Guineas Trials for both genders. Local Time was victorious in the 1,000 Guineas Trial for Godolphin and trainer Saeed bin Suroor by a short head over the Mike de Kock-trained Ad Item. Local Time now has four straight wins, over the turf at Newmarket, the all-weather at Kempton and Lingfield and the sandy Meydan dirt. De Kock runners Mubtaahij and Ajwad finished first and second in the 2,000 Guineas Trial with Bin Suroor saddling Maftool to a third-place showing. Read more -- including Renaldothewizard's reappearance in a puff of smoke -- in Richard Gross's report in Sunday's roundup.
Among the 3-year-old fillies, Promise Me Silver eked out a narrow victory as the odds-on favorite in Thursday's weather-delayed Dixie Belle Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The Silver City filly, with Cliff Berry in the irons, tracked the early pace, found herself boxed in and looking for room turning for home but finally got enough daylight to score by a neck over Sarah Sis Super Saks led most of the way and finished third. Promise Me Silver ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.45. She remains undefeated in five starts. Since winning at first asking at Lone Star Park last May, she has reeled off 6-furlong stakes wins at Churchill Downs, Retama Park and Fair Grounds before Thursday's score.
Top Decile is a pair of 1/2-length losses from perfection -- and those defeats came in the Grade I Alcibiades and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. The Congrats filly gets another chance in Saturday's $125,000 Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds going 1 mile and 70 yards against eight rivals. Mike Smith makes a worthy riding replacement for Rosie Napravnik but the task doesn't get any easier as the competition includes the likes of West Coast Belle, who IS perfect in three starts, including a win in the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs; several talented Florida-based invaders; and some promising locals. We could be looking back at this one in a few months.
The $100,000 Busanda Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, victimized by last weekend's weather, will run Friday at Aqueduct with a trio of additional starters making a field of nine distaffers to go 1 mile and 70 yards. The morning-line favorite, Overprepared, drew the rail while Hopefaithjoy drew the middle gate. Both are trained by Todd Pletcher. Overprepared comes off a third-place finish in a Maryland stakes race while Hopefaithjoy was fourth in a Churchill Downs event in her last start in October. To their outside, Bonnet Plume and Been Here Before, both bred by Darley and owned by Godolphin, are likely to attract some support. Bonnet Plume is by Bernardini; Been Here Before, by Tapit.
This series continues to evolve, opening this time around to horses bred in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York as well as Florida. In its first incarnation, it was run at both Gulfstream and Santa Anita, with runners coming from Florida and California. In any configuration, it's been entertaining and challenging and this year's version is no different.
The big race is the $250,000 Classic, with a field that includes Wildcat Red, Transparent and East Hall. Wildcat Red, winner of last year's Fountain of Youth and second to Constitution in the Florida Derby, hasn't won since last June but has been burning up the track in the morning in preparation for this. Transparent had only three starts last year -- in Dubai in January and then twice in New York in the fall. At age 5, the Godolphin-owned son of Bernardini needs to make his case. East Hall won the Grade II Indiana Derby last fall and then then won the Millions Classic Preview at Gulfstream by 2 lengths -- over Wildcat Red. Watch for Catholic Cowboy, a second-time gelding.
Reporting Star, Manchurian High, Bad Debt and Iron Power highlight the $100,000 Turf. The $100,000 Filly & Mare Turf got 11 entries, including Dame Dorothy, more likely for the Distaff. Absent that one, the race is quite wide-open.
Dame Dorothy would make a baker's dozen for the $150,000 Distaff. The Bobby Flay-owned, Todd Pletcher-trained Bernardini filly has four wins from five starts, with a third in the Grade III Comely at Aqueduct in her last outing. There are plenty of prospects behind her, including Swinger's Party, Devil's Cave, Flutterby, My Pal Chrisy, Toasting, Tapit's World and Wildcat Lily, all veteran graded stakes performers.
Weekend Hideaway and Happy My Way both struggled at the end of 2014 but a return to their mid-season form could be plenty in the $100,000 Sprint. Also of interest here is Yogi Berra -- the horse -- who is undefeated in two starts against possibly easier foes at Tampa Bay Downs and makes his first start for trainer Ralph Nicks.
And if you can't make it to Gulfstream, tune in to live coverage from Florida on the Horse Racing Radio Network, via your local affiliate or on Sirius 92/XM 92. Sunshine through your speakers!
Seven are entered for Saturday's $100,000 Interborough Stakes for filly and mare sprinters. Willet, with four on-the-board finishes in her last five starts, is the oddsmaker's early choice. Aireofdistinction returns after a four-month break following a win in the Open Mind Stakes at Churchill Downs. Expression and Stormy Novel also have claims here.
Sunday's $100,000 Hollie Hughes for state-breds also attracted seven, including Big Business, Captain Serious and Jeter -- the horse. They will go 6 furlongs.
Villandry heads the list for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap at about 1 1/16 miles on the grass. He will tote 120 pounds after dominating the Grade III River City Handicap at Churchill Downs in November. Among the rivals in a balanced field are Golden Soul, who has been tough on the grass of late; String King, who may be better against state-breds; Highball, who could move up a needed notch in his first 4-year-old start for conditioner Wayne Catalano; and would-be first-time turfer Grand Contender, who may be more likely for the Louisiana Handicap in the preceeding race.
Saturday's Marie G. Krantz Memorial for distaffers on the lawn drew a field of 11 including Kitten's Dumplings, making her first start since a ninth-place finish in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Before that, the Kitten's Joy mare won the Grade I QE II Cup at Keeneland, the Grade II Lake George at Saratoga and the Grade III Regret at Churchill Downs. If trainer Mike Maker has her gassed up, she should be unbeatable.
A half dozen are entered for Saturday's $75,000 Louisiana Handicap. Grand Contender, Nate's Mineshaft and Fordubai look likely but the field is pretty evenly matched.
Lexie Lou, winner of last year's Queen's Plate and second to California Chrome in the Grade I Hollywood Derby in her last start, makes he first try on the dirt in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II La Canada for 4-year-old fillies. The Sligo Bay filly, winner of seven of her 16 starts, has earned more than $1.4 million and seemed to handle the Santa Anita dirt just fine in two recent works. Sam's Sister is the big gun among three Jerry Hollendorfer runners. The Brother Derek filly has won four of five career starts, including the Grade I La Brea over the same course. Her only loss came in a lone effort on the grass. Hollendorfer also has Thegirlinthatsong and Fleet of Gold. Jojo Warrior stubbed her toe in the La Brea but raced well earlier in 2014 against good company.
Carve is the headline attraction in Friday's $100,000 Fifth Season Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the main track. The 5-year-old First Samurai gelding struggled at the end of 2014 but raced well mid-year, landing the Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker and the West Virginia Governor's Stakes before finishing second in the Grade II Ack Ack at Churchill Downs. Code West and Zee Bros are worth holding close in a field of nine.
Trainer Mark Casse makes his expanded Arkansas presence felt in Saturday's 100,000 Pippin Stakes for fillies and mares with Spring In the Air, a multiple graded stakes-placed runner during the past two years. Her eight rivals include Honey's Ryan, who has won five of eight career starts including the She's All In Handicap at Remington Park in her last outing.
Sunday's HK Group 1 Classic Mile is the first leg of the local 4-year-old series leading to the BMW Hong Kong Derby. Eleven are set, including some of the budding stars at Sha Tin. Divine Calling and Giant Treasure, a matched set of greys, won their local debuts before tasting defeat in their encore races. Either or both could be ready to take off here. Beauty Only formerly raced in Italy with some success. Gonna Run won his first three races in France before finishing fifth in the Group 1 Prix du Jockey Club. The race also features winners from Australia, Ireland and England. John Moore saddles the relatively untested trio of Arpinati, Savvy Nature and Helene Happy Star. This should be the bunch that will generate a new generation to defend the local honor in Hong Kong's newly expanded international Group 1 race schedule.
Godolphin landed its sixth qualifier for the Good Friday finale of the All-Weather Championships when Hawksbury took Wednesday's 6-furlong preliminary at Kempton Park. With Adam Kirby up for Charlie Appleby, went to the lead a furlong out and was eased at the end, winning by 2 1/2 lengths from Merdon Castle. Appleby said the Shamardal gelding "has his quirks and was gelded after his last start of 2014 ... the more experience he gets, the better." Appleby now has two qualified for the 150,000-pounds Unibet Three-Year-Old Sprint on finals day. Portamento won an earlier Fast-Track qualifier at Wolverhampton. He also intends to get Wentworth Falls into the race.
News and Notes
The Group 1 Dubai Duty Free, one of the world's top grass races, will be renamed the Dubai Turf for this year's running under the new sponsorship of marine container terminal operator DP World and with a US$1 million purse increase to $6 million. That brings the total purses for the Thoroughbred races on World Cup night to an even US$30 million.