There were no major surprises on the Kentucky Derby trail during the weekend but there was a bit of a shock in Dubai amid a big weekend for the home folks there.
Meanwhile, Shared Belief looked ready to take full command among older horses -- at least until we see what California Chrome can do in the World Cup.
Some tough turf races, a smattering of sprints and a little leavening of international competition spice up the weekend's tasty mix.
Let's start nibbling.
The Road to the Roses
The three favorites in the big weekend races not only won, but did so convincingly. Dortmund, El Kabeir and Carpe Diem all looked like legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders with two months to go for the big race and 2-year-old champ American Pharoah set to run this coming weekend in Arkansas.
Dortmund went right to the lead from the No. 3 gate in Saturday's $400,000, Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, turned back challenges from Sir Samson and Bolo, then kicked clear in the final sixteenth to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Prospect Park made a late run to take second and Bolo held on for third. Ocho Ocho Ocho finished eighth. Dortmund got 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:41.65 for jockey Martin Garcia and trainer Bob Baffert. The Big Brown colt is undefeated in five starts, including a big win as a 2-year-old at Churchill Downs. Neither jockey nor trainer expressed any qualms about putting Dortmund on the lead, no matter how long the race. "It looks easy because he's such a good horse and when you have a horse that good, he makes it look easy," said Garcia. "He can go any distance." Baffert added, "He's starting to fill out, getting stronger. As long as he stays healthy, the farther they go, he's just getting cranked up there at the end, so that was pretty exciting." Baffert said Dortmund will target the $1 million, Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 4. Prospect Park also will be back for that, said trainer Cliff Sise.
Carpe Diem was way too good for seven rivals in Saturday's $350,000, Grade II Tampa Bay Derby. After waiting behind an honest pace, jockey John Velazquez got the Giant's Causeway colt going as the field rounded the stretch turn and he quickly took command, winning off by 5 lengths. Ami's Flatter rallied for second and Divining Rod was third. Ocean Knight, the second favorite after winning the Sam F. Davis over the track, was never involved and finished next-last. Carpe Diem, trained by Todd Pletcher, was making his first start as a 3-year-old. Last year he won at first asking, then easily won the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland before finishing second to Texas Red in the Breeders' Cup. "When they leave their 2-year-old season behind, you hope they come out like he did," said Elliott Walden of WinStar Farm, a part owner with Stonestreet Stables. "Everyone who has watched him train said he has been training better than any horse in Florida, and it's nice to see him put it together like that. He is just a natural athlete and has a great rhythm to him." Added Pletcher, "We couldn't be more pleased." Carpe Diem and Ami's Flatter both might resurface in the Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 4.
El Kabeir started near the back of the pack in Saturday's $400,000, Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, rallied four-wide into the stretch and was 2 3/4 lengths out front at the wire. Tiz Shea D and Classy Class were second and third in a clearly outclassed field. El Kabeir, a Florida-bred Scat Daddy colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on the muddy inner track in 1:45.56 with Charles Lopez in the irons. He overcame a lot today," said winning trainer John Terranova. "It was a big jump forward. He got everything thrown at him today and he still managed to overcome it all. It was very impressive." El Kabeir has won three of his last four starts with the other a second-place finish in the Withers Stakes last month. His victories include the Grade III Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. Terranova said Sunday El Kabeir came out of the race in fine fettle and he plans to keep him in New York and run in the April 4 Wood Memorial as a final prep for Louisville. Ditto for Tiz Shea D and Classy Class.
The upset of the weekend came in the weather-delayed, $200,000, Grade III Fasig-Tipton Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park where Ready For Rye surged to the lead in the stretch and held on to upset Daredevil by 2 3/4 lengths. Senor Grits was third, followed by Bluegrass Singer, Social Request and an eased X Y Jet. Ready For Rye, a City Zip gelding, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.39. He has two wins and two seconds from four starts. Daredevil's flat performance in his first start of the year would seem to move him off of Pletcher's list of Derby contenders.
After all that action, El Kabeir leads the Churchill Downs point standings for Kentucky Derby field selection with 75 points. International Star is second with 71, followed by Dortmund with 70 and Carpe Diem with 64.
On Friday at Gulfstream Park, Pletcher saddled Materiality to a convincing, 5 3/4-lengths victory over more heralded stablemate Stanford. The latter then was set down to last for interference. Materiality, an Afleet Alex colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.32 with John Velazquez up after shadowing Stanford into the stretch. He now is 2-for-2.
Pletcher lost Khozan as a Derby contender Friday when that undefeated colt returned lame from a morning workout. The trainer said he is being evaluated.
Dubai By Richard Gross
Super Saturday at Meydan demonstrated foreign invaders from around the racing world will face stiff opposition from hometown defending stable Godolphin when they come ashore on the Dubai beachhead on Dubai World Cup day, March 28.
The staunchest defender of his homeland soil appears to be Godolphin's African Story, who wrote a neck victory over royal stablemate Prince Bishop and captured the winner's share of $400,000 in the Group 1 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 over 2,000 meters on the dirt. Henry Clay came home with hooves of, mired 3 1/2 lengths back in third.
The winning 8-year-old gelded son of Pivotal authored a victory in last year's World Cup on the old Tapeta course, but finished seventh in his season debut and first dirt start in the Feb. 5 running of the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 won by Frankyfourfingers, who fingered fourth this time around. The winning Saeed bin Suroor trainee had a clean break and demonstrated tracking ability, and perhaps a newfound fondness for dirt, in his second chance on the new Meydan surface.
The huge Godolphin feature win was followed in the evening's closing Group 1 event by another Godolphin score in the Jebel Hatta over 1,800 meters of turf, with Hunter's Light flashing away from a decidedly overmatched field, finishing 6 1/2 lengths ahead of Trade Storm, who was a weakened short head in front of South African trainer Mike de Kock's Johann Strauss.
Godolphin's Sky Hunter earlier bagged the 2,410-meters Group 2 City of Gold on the grass by 1 3/4 lengths over Sheikhzayedroad, motoring home with a 3/4-length advantage over de Kock's Umgiyo. This is a traditional prep for the Group 1 Sheema Classic, which likely will be the landing zone on World Cup night for American turf champion Main Sequence, Hong Kong conquerer Designs on Rome, Briton Flintshire and Japan's One and Only, among others. That field could make for the highest profile race March 28 program, save for the big prize.
In all three consecutive Godolphin wins, the man who stood a tall 5 foot, 9 inches in the saddle was James Doyle, the 26-year-old Cambridge-born jockey whose riding career had once gone so far off course, he considered enrolling in a plumber's course in his native England. Following his wrenching performance for Godolphin Saturday, Doyle likely can turn off that tap and expect to stay in the saddle for some time to come.
The remarkable triple by bin Suroor, Doyle and Godolphin overshadowed other Super Saturday races, which also have meaningful implications for World Cup day.
Favored Tamarkuz prepped for a probable dash in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile by cruising to 2 3/4-lengths victory over Gold City after 1,600 dirt meters in the Group 3 Burj Nahaar, with Layl laying back by a half-length in third. The 5-year-old son of Speightstown won the Group 3 Firebreak Stakes Feb. 12. Winning rider Paul Hanagan, enjoying a wonderful Carnival season, earlier guided Versac Py to a 3 1/4-lengths win over Af Lafeh in the Group 1 Maktoum Challenge Round 3 for purebred Arabians, the traditional opening race for this card over 2,000 dirt meters. The Kahayla Classic, also for Purebred Arabians, kicks off the action on World Cup night over the same distance.
Undefeated Uruguayan star Sir Fever was supposed to be the heat in the listed Al Bastakiya over 1,900-meters of dirt after winning 10 races back home by no fewer than 2 1/2 lengths, but came up short by that margin to Mubtaahij, digging up a rare dirt win this Carnival season for de Kock after winning the UAE 2000 Guineas Trial Jan. 15 and placing in the Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas on Feb. 12. The 3-year-old Irish-bred son of Dubawi seems a sure bet to try his luck in the Group 2 UAE Derby on World Cup day.
The Group 3 Al Shimaal, run over 1,200 meters of dirt in preparation for the Group 1 Golden Shaheen, was a shocker as Shaishee shone 3/4-length brighter than United Color with Speed Hawk flying in a short head behind in third. The winner, a 5-year-old gelded son of super-speedster Indian Charlie, dashed past six higher-rated rivals in the field of nine, besting foes including Krypton Factor, who wasn't, and Cool Cowboy, the American entry finishing a chilly fourth.
The 1,000-meters Group 3 Meydan Sprint on the turf also was a surprise as Sir Maximilian prepped for the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint, catching the attention of Ahtoug by a short head, with Caspar Netscher a ghostly third by a head. Highly favored Sole Power vanished altogether, finishing 12th in the full field of 16 runners.
Invaders from around the world, including American Eclipse Award winners California Chrome and Main Sequence, are expected to hit the front lines on March 28, significantly upping the level of competition. But, if Super Saturday was a preview, there may be more than a few battles ending with a surprise victor on Dubai World Cup day.
Toast of New York, who won last year's UAE Derby and finished second in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic, is out of the World Cup with a soft tissue injury, according to trainer Jamie Osborne. And, in California, trainer Bob Baffert said Breeders' Cup Classic winner and challenger Hoppertunity both will pass up the World Cup in favor of a late-season campaign in the United States. But he said Secret Circle, winner of the 2013 Breeders' Cup Sprint and second last year, will travel to contest the Golden Shaheen.
Back in the U S of A:
Kentucky Oaks preps
Sarah Sis opened a gaping lead in the stretch run in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Honeybee at Oaklawn Park and then held on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Oceanwave. Pangburn got home third. Jockey Julio Felix let Super Sax jet off to the early lead, figuring he'd be able to rally behind the sharp pace. Sarah Sis, a daughter of Sharp Humor, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:46.94 with Julio Felix up. She now has three wins and three seconds from six career starts and lost by only a head to division leader Take Charge Brandi in her previous start.
Quality Rocks turned the tables on Consumer Credit in Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs, getting first run to the lead in the stretch and holding off that rival by 3/4 length. The early leader, Lismore, got show money. Quality Rocks, a Rock Hard Ten filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:43.39 with Jose Lezcano in the irons. She finished second to Consumer Credit in their last start, the Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park.
The 'Big Cap'
Shared Belief wasn't facing the "A team" in Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Santa Anita Handicap but the way he ran, he wouldn't have minded if he were. With Mike Smith at the controls, the 4-year-old Candy Ride gelding sat off the pace, swung around the leaders turning for home and dominated in the lane, winning by 4 1/4 lengths, ridden out. Moreno led the way early and held on for second in his best showing in a while. Catch a Flight finished third in his third U.S. start after shipping in from Brazil. But the race was all about Shared Belief, who finished 1 1/4 miles on a fast track in 2:00.67 without being asked for his best. "Not to take away anything from the competition but I geared him down a few times and he still won like that," Smith said. "I was watching the TV from the quarter pole to the wire and I feel bad to say this, but I was trying to not win by so far." Of all the great mounts of his stellar career, Smith said, "It's Zenyatta, Holy Bull and then Shared Belief for me." Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer added, "I'm just so grateful to have a horse like this. You never expect it so I'm very pleased to have this horse and hope that we can keep him racing well like he has been." He said Sunday Shared Belief will be pointed to the $1.5 million Met Mile on Belmont Stakes day in New York.
Ring Weekend rallied wide from far back to win Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita by 1 length over the favorite, Summer Front. Home Run Kitten was up late for third. Ring Weekend, a 4-year-old Tapit gelding, got home in 1:32.98 over firm turf with Drayden Van Dyke in the irons for his first Grade I win. He was making his first start since finishing a close sixth in the Twilight Derby last Hallowe'en and had two nice starts before that in New York.
Honor Code was last of six for the first half mile in Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap, then rallied by pacesetting favorite Private Zone in the lane to win by 1/2 length. Valid, who bumped repeatedly with Private Zone in the stretch run, finished third. Honor Code, a 4-year-old A.P. Indy ridgling, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:36.37 with Javier Castellano up. Winning trainer Shug McGaughey said he will give Honor Code some time to recover and then consider the Met Mile in New York.
Eh Cumpari rallied from last of nine to post a mild upset win in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Palm Beach Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park. Felifran was second, a neck in arrears, and Dividero finished third. Eh Cumpari, an Elusive Quality colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:40.96 under Jose Caraballo.
Filly & Mare Turf
Stephanie's Kitten, making her first start since running second to Dayatthespa in the Breeders' Cup, outfinished Ball Dancing to take Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Hillsborough Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs by 1 1/2 lengths. Speed Seeker dueled for the lead, led briefly at 60-1 odds and then held on for third. Stephanie's Kitten, a 6-year-old Kitten's Joy mare, ran about 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:49.05 with John Velazquez up. Chad Brown, who trains the top two finishers, said, "It's hard to run them against each other .... They'll both go on to do great things, I'm sure."
Despite missing some training during the recent bad weather, Salutos Amigos continues to make his case in this division -- enough that he might get a detour to Dubai. In Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Tom Fool Handicap in the Aqueduct mud, he gave weight to all six rivals and still won easily, drawing off to score by 4 lengths over pacesetter Dads Caps. Green Gratto finished third. Salutos Amigos, a 5-year-old Salute the Sarge gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.61 with Cornelio Velasquez at the controls. He's won four straight races since finishing seventh in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Asked about a potential trip to Dubai later this month, trainer David Jacobson said, "We were really concentrating on this race, and now that we have this one behind us, now I will take it a lot more serious."
Wild Dude dueled to the lead in Saturday's $250,000, Grade II San Carlos at Santa Anita and held on gamely to win by 3/4 length from Kobe's Back, who rallied from last. The odds-on favorite, Conquest Two Step, was in the mix all the way and lost second in the final jumps. Wild Dude, a 5-year-old son of Wildcat Heir, got 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.91 with Rafael Bejarano riding. He had finished third behind Conquest Two Step in his last start, the Grade II Palos Verdes, going 1 furlong shorter, but had not won a race in 15 months.
Gentlemen's Bet shadowed the favorite, Ivan Fallunovalot, through most of Saturday's $100,000 Hot Springs Stakes at Oaklawn Park, wore that ond down in the lane and went on to score by 1 1/4 lengths. Apprehender was third. Gentelemen's Bet, a 6-year-old son of Half Ours, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.67 with Ramon Vazquez in the irons. He has made only 11 starts and never run a bad race. He finished third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint last fall. Trainer Ron Moquett said Gentlemen's Bet may get a chance to improve on last year's third-place showing in the Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap when that fixture is renewed on April 9.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Harlington's Rose rallied from off the pace to post a minor upset win in Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Las Flores Stakes at Santa Anita. With Joe Talamo up, the 4-year-old Harlington filly outfinished Meinertzhageni by 3/4 length. It was another head back to Global Hottie in third. Harlington's Rose finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.64.
Cats Up tracked pacesetting Sharon's Boy into the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 Pelican Stakes for Louisiana-bred 3-year-olds, battled to the lead in the late going and then held off a furious run by the favorite, Four Leaf Chief, before winning by a nose. Charlie's Affair was up for third. Cats Up, a Discreet Cat gelding, ran 7 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:34.22 under Carlos Nieto.
Mizz Money was just up in time to get the money in Saturday's $60,000 Allen LaCombe Memorial for 3-year-old fillies, winning by a head over the favorite, Divine Dawn. Happy to Go was third. Mizz Money, a daughter of Mizzen Mast, ran about 7 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:29.82 with Francisco Torres riding.
Singing Kitty stalked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 China Doll Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, took the lead turning for home and edged clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths. The even-money favorite, Curlin's Fox, finished second, a nose in front of pacesetter She's a Big Winner. Singing Kitty, a daughter of Ministers Wild Cat, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.09 with Aaron Gryder up.
Ackeret jumped to the lead in the stretch run in Sunday's $100,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes for 3-year-olds and the favorite, Majestic Affair, could do no more than trail him home, 2 1/4 lengths back in second. Possessed rallied from last of six to finish third. Ackeret, a Mach Ride ridgling, ran 6 furlongs on the persistently muddy inner track in 1:11.13 with Jose Ortiz at the controls.
Shayjolie hooked up in a tight stretch duel with Holiday's Jewel in Saturday's $100,000 Cat Cay Stakes for fillies and mares and won by 3/4 length over that rival. Storied Lady was well back in third. Shayjolie, a 4-year-old Indian Charlie filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a muddy track in 1:47.19 with Sheldon Russell up.
Tampa Bay Downs
General a Rod cleared late in Saturday's $60,000 Challenger Stakes, winning off by 6 1/4 lengths over Old Time Hockey with Neck 'n Neck a neck farther back in third. General a Rod, a 4-year-old Roman Ruler colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.89 with John Velazquez riding.