Weekend racing gave a good shake to the bag of Kentucky Derby contenders with the 2-year-old champ dethroned, a European grass sprinter winning on the all-weather, a filly being eyed for the big race and a second-time starter stepping up in Florida.
In California, graded stakes put a little shape to the turf mile and sprint divisions -- at least out that way.
Internationally, the Dubai World Cup Carnival hit its midpoint with Vercingetorix and Hunter's Light sharing the stage. And South Africa continued to produce some promising runners despite onerous quarantine rules that make it difficult to showcase them elsewhere in the racing world.
And ... if there's anything good about a huge snowstorm on Feb. 1 and 2, it must be that the groundhog won't be venturing outside and thus won't be seeing any shadow. It's unclear, though, if the rodent being trapped in its burrow actually counts as a predictor of an early spring.
Let's get grounded with some results:
The Road to the Roses
Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award champ Texas Red ran well Sunday in his first start as a 3-year-old -- just not quite well enough to beat Lord Nelson. Lord Nelson, a Pulpit colt trained by Bob Baffert, sat off the pace, came wide for running room and got to the front first in the lane. Texas Red, as is his wont, came with a late run after trailing the field and fell a neck short of victory. Sir Samson, who held a brief lead early in the stretch, finished third. Lord Nelson, with Rafael Bejarano in the irons, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.15. The colt won the Speakeasy Stakes at Santa Anita in October, then finished fifth in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club in his final start as a juvenile. "We'll play it by ear," Baffert said about Lord Nelson's next race. "We're just trying to stay healthy ... But I like what he did today. Coming up to the race he was really training well. Sometimes they'll do that and won't run. But he ran like he'd been working." Texas Red's trainer, Keith Desormeaux, said other than winning, his colt got what he needed rom the race. "Oh, absolutely. It's a little disappointing, you know, because it's so close to winning. But the long-term goal is well within reach." He said the colt probably will go to the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds Feb. 21, then return for the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 4.
Ocean Knight, winner of his only start as a juvenile, wore down pacesetting Divining Rod in the final yards to win Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs by a neck over that long shot rival. My Johnny Be Good pressed the pace and finished third, 5 lengths farther back. Ocean Knight, a Curlin colt out of the Stormy Atlantic mare Ocean Goddess, got 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.74 with Irad Ortiz Jr. up for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. He was an easy winner of his first career start going 6 furlongs on the inner track at Aqueduct on Dec. 16. "Irad rode him great," said Neal McLaughlin, brother and assistant to Kiaran. "But he was wide and he had to make a couple of moves to get position. He gutted it out down the stretch. For a lightly raced young horse, it's very exciting. We hope to bring him back here March 7 for the Tampa Bay Derby. We will talk to the owners (Stonestreet Stable) and are not afraid to go anywhere with him. But if we like the surface here and can have a good experience, why not come back?"
The Great War had all guns blazing Saturday at Turfway Park and after his 7 1/4-lengths victory in the $75,000 96Rock Stakes, trainer Wesley Ward might be wishing the UAE Derby in Dubai was still run on the old Meydan all-weather course. The Great War, a War Front colt out of the Pulpit mare Guide, was bred by Claiborne Farm and is owned by the good folks at Coolmore. He finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in his first U.S. start after a so-so campaign in England and Ireland, where he scored three wins from seven starts while not testing the top levels of competition. Trainer Aidan O'Brien showed confidence in the colt, though, as he was ridden regularly by Joseph O'Brien with Ryan Moore as the fallback. Saturday, he was without meaningful competition over the Turfway all-weather in his 3-year-old debut, pushing Serious Talk through the early furlongs, then easily leaving 11 rivals to fight over the leftovers. He got 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:18.69 with Albin Jiminez up and now is a candidate for the remainder of the Turfway 3-year-old stakes program leading up to the Grade III Spiral Stakes on March 21. Two Step Temper and Serious Talk -- both sent from Florida by trainer Mike Maker -- finished second and third in the 96Rock.
Alabaster and Senor Grits were impressive winners on Saturday's program at Tampa Bay and worth noting. Alabaster, a Medaglia d'Oro colt, is owned by Godolphin Racing and trained by Eoin Harty. Senor Grits is an Elusive Quality gelding, conditioned by Ian Wilkes.
Saratoga Dreamer got by pacesetting Regal Minister in the final yards of Friday's $125,000 Rego Park Stakes for New York-breds at Aqueduct, winning by a neck. Drama King was third. Saratoga Dreamer, an Elusive Quality colt, ran 6 furlongs over the fast inner track in 1:12.83 with Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard.
Saturday's $100,000 Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park was expected to be a relatively easy start for last year's Juvenile Fillies champ Take Charge Brandi. Instead, she found herself all out in the final yards to hold off Sarah Sis, winning by a head while drifting late. Indian Annie was well back in third. Take Charge Brandi, with Jon Court in the irons for the first time, covered 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.66. "It was a comeback race," said winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "It gives us something to build on." Court said he heard Sarah Sis coming in the final sixteenth and that Take Charge Brandi "actually engaged again, just enough to hold on." The Giant's Causeway filly won three straight graded stakes to complete her 2-year-old campaign, following the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies upset with victories in the Grade III Delta Downs Princess and the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos. Sarah Sis, who started a step slow and endured a wide trip into mid-stretch, was coming off a very similar runner-up showing in the local Dixie Belle. Despite the close call, owner Willis Horton said he and Lukas still have lofty ambitions for Take Charge Brandi. "Well, you may get to see it in the Arkansas Derby, but let's take it one race at a time," Horton said. "Our big goal is the Kentucky Oaks. If things work out, we may run in the Arkansas Derby and possibly the Kentucky Derby with her because Wayne is good with fillies and he's won the Derby with fillies before." Well, with one, anyway. Lukas saddled Winning Colors in 1988 -- the most recent of only three filly winners of the Run for the Roses.
Callback went to the lead in Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Las Virgenes at Santa Anita and never looked back. After leading all the way, she opened a clear lead turning for home, turned back a challenge from Light the City and won by 1/2 length over that one. Achiever's Legacy finished third and the favorite, Maybellene, faded badly, eventually beating only one rival. Callback, a Street Sense filly, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.92 with Martin Garcia riding. It was her second career win with the victories sandwiching a second-place finish behind Seduire in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez last month. "We've always been pretty high on her," said winning trainer Bob Baffert, who also conditions Maybellene for his wife, Jill. "They were high on her when they sent her in. I wanted to run one-two. My other filly, she just didn't kick today." He said he would expect to point Callback to the $400,000, Grade I Santa Anita Oaks on April 4 "unless the earth moves or something."
Include Betty, fresh from her maiden win, circled the field in the late going to take Saturday's $100,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs by a neck over Huasca. Ancient Goddess finished third and the favorite, Whimsicality, lost interest late and finished fifth. Include Betty, a daughter of Include, ran 1 mile and 40 yards on a fast track in 1:41.49 with Rosemary Homeister Jr. in the irons for trainer Tom Proctor. "Wasn't she just wonderful?" Homeister gushed. "They had me over to work her the other morning so I knew that she would be able to relax and then run when I asked. That work and what Mr. Proctor and his people told me about what she likes and doesn't like made all the difference."
Hard to Stay Notgo didn't stick around after the gate opened in Sunday's $125,000 Franklin Square Stakes for New York-bred fillies at Aqueduct, jumping out to a big lead and coasting home first by 5 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Golden Gem. Graeme Crackers finished third. Hard to Stay Notgo, a More Than Ready filly, ran 6 furlongs over the fast inner track in 1:12.30 with Angel Arroyo up.
Conquest Two Step took another big step forward in the sprint division with an off-the-pace victory in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II PalosVerdes Stakes at Santa Anita. With Joe Talamo riding, the 4-year-old Two Step Salsa colt came three-wide into the stretch and cleared, winning by 1 1/4 lengths. Secret Circle, winner of the 2013 Breeders' Cup Sprint and second in that heat this past fall, led in the straight and held on for second. Wild Dude was up for third and the pacesetting favorite, Distinctiv Passion, faded under pressure and finished fourth. Conquest Two Step ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.10. In his final start last year for trainer Mark Casse, the colt finished second to Shared Belief in the Grade I Malibu -- his graded stakes debut. "I was smiling pretty big down the backstretch, watching those three go at it," Casse said of the early pace battle. He added he hasn't picked out a next race yet.
Avanzare pressed the pace in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Arcadia Stakes, surged to the lead turning for home and easily outfinished Za Approval to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Home Run Kitten was third and the favorite, Kaigun, finished fourth. Avanzare, a 5-year-old Grand Reward gelding, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.17 with Gary Stevens up. He has not finished worse than fourth in 12 career starts -- a stretch that saw him rise from the optional claiming ranks. Last summer, he won the Grade III Washington Park Handicap on the Arlington Park all-weather course. "He's a great turf horse and he's still improving," Stevens said. He said when he worked Avanzare last week, he thought he had gone in 1:01 "and he actually went in 59. Usually when they do that, they're doing awfully well." Trainer Tom Proctor had no comment.
It figures Dynaformer wouldn't be too far back in the pedigree of a 2-mile grass winner like Unitarian, winner of Saturday's $75,000 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at those conditions. The 5-year-old son of Pulpit is out of Minimalist, a Dynaformer mare. With Javier Castellano up, Unitarian sat behind the pace, came wide to the lead on the fourth turn and kicked away to win by 3 1/2 lengths. Arctic North led briefly late but finished second. The pacesetter, Reflecting, held on pretty well to get show money. Unitarian finished in 3:23.22 over firm turf.
Tampa Bay Downs
Hard Not to Like got an emphatic dislike from the stewards after Satuday's $150,000, Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes for fillies and mares. Hard Not to Like got home first by 3/4 length, but veered sharply into the path of the favorite, Testa Rossi, who was awarded the win. Hard Not to Like kept place money and long shot pacesetter Lots o' Lex held on for third, a neck farther back. Testa Rossi, a 4-year-old, French-bred filly by Dr Fong, was ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr. She won the Florida Oaks in her first start last year over the same course but then made only two more starts, without impact. John Velazquez was at the controls of Hard Not to Like. Ortiz was delighted with Testa Rossi's performance. "Even after we got pushed out and off stride, she put in another run," he said. "(Trainer Chad Brown) told me she was ready to run and that I should just let her settle and wait for the field to come back to us. We were inside every step saving ground, and she was relaxed and ready. She took off and I thought we were going to win it big. But when we were bumped and carried out, she had to show how brave she is."
Sam Houston Race Park
I Am Jane Dough rallied from far back to get the dough in Saturday's $50,000 Tombull Stakes for Texas-bred fillies and mares. The 4-year-old daughter of My Golden Song came five-wide to catch pacesetting Molly's Honour in the final yards and win by 1/2 length. Wampas Kitty also showed late foot but settled for third, another neck in arrears. I Am Jane Dough, with Deshawn Parker in the irons, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:44.67.
Dubai (By Richard Gross)
The green, green grass of Meydan seemed once again like home Thursday to trainer Mike de Kock as Vercingetorix captured the featured Group 2, 1,800-meters Al Rashidiya by 2 lengths over True Story to give the South African saddler his fourth consecutive win and seventh overall in this race. Mr. Pommeroy was 2 1/2 lengths back in third, while two other de Kock horses, Sanshaawes and Mujaarib, rounded out the top five finishers. "Vercingetorix is moving a lot better," said a pleased de Kock, noting "His soundness and his well-being are very good and he looks really well." The original Vercingetorix was a Gallic chieftain who revolted against Rome and fought Julius Caesar's legions. This one is a 6-year-old son of Silvano.
While de Kock picked up the evening's big prize, Godolphin tripled and two other trainers picked up doubles on the evening's card.
In the co-feature, Cladocera came home a winner for Germany and trainer Alain De Royer-Dupre in the Group 2 Cape Verdi for fillies and mares over 1,600 meters of turf. Zurigha was 2 lengths off in second with Anahita third by the same margin. "She is a nice filly," said Royer-Dupre of his 4-year-old fraulein. "We will bring her back in a few weeks but Super Saturday and Dubai World Cup nights are hopefully her main targets."
The evening was stellar for Belgian rider Christophe Soumillon, who piloted the winners of both the Al Rashidiya and the Cape Verdi. One Man Band beat Filfil by a short head for trainer Doug Watson in the 1,600-meters Billet Trophy dirt handicap with Lanark just a length back. Watson scored his double when Muaanid zeroed in on Encipher by a neck in the 1,400-meters dirt Casthouse Trophy handicap with United Color just a shade back in third.
Godolphin's lead conditioner, Saeed bin Suroor, kicked off the evening's card sponsored by Global Aluminum with I'm Back proving his mettle by finishing 2 3/4 lengths forward of Tiz Now Tiz Then in the opening 1,900-meters dirt handicap. Artigiano was 1/2 length farther back in third.
Bin Suroor bookended his double when Hunter's Light closed the Meydan lights with a 1 1/4-length advantage over Elleval in the 2,000-meters Potlines turf handicap with Pilote flying a half-length back in third. "I think Hunter's Light is definitely capable of going back to Group-race company," said a pleased bin Suroor. "We are intending to go for the Dubai Millennium Stakes next month (Feb. 19)." The 7-year-old entire son of Dubawi was a Group 1 winner in Italy in 2012. In 2013 he won Round 2 and Round 3 of the Maktoum Challenge at Meydan before finishing seventh in the World Cup. He subsequently surfaced in Munich, Chicago, Singapore and Ascot before failing to make much impression in the 2014 Carnival races.
Ahtoug brought attention to trainer Charlie Appleby and gave Godolphin a hat trick on the evening, spearing Lancelot Du Lac by a mere head in the 1,000-meters Excellence turf handicap with Sir Maximilian a less-than-regal third by 3/4 length.
Next Thursday's Carnival program marks the midpoint of the season and features the $250,000, Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 as competition heats up for Super Saturday, March 7 and Dubai World Cup night, March 28.
Futura, a close third behind Legislate in last year's Durban July, unleashed a devastating turn of foot in the final few hundred meters to win Saturday's Grade I J & B Met at Kenilworth by just over 2 lengths. Gold Onyx was second and Helderberg Blue faded to get home third. Futura scored his seventh win from 11 starts and third Grade I victory.
Ertijaal was in charge all the way in Saturday's Grade I Investec Cape Derby and won easily, running his record to 4-for-4. The heavy favorite, Act of War, barely held on for second. Ertijaal, an Australian-bred Hard Spun colt, is trained by Mike de Kock for Sheik Hamdan bin Rasheed Al Maktoum.
Careful with those headlines! We did a double-take when reading that Bayern was scheduled to compete Tuesday in Hong Kong -- until we realized it's Bayern Munich, the soccer team. In psychology, that's called a "perceptual set."