With Saturday's $500,000 Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita postponed indefinitely while officials assess track safety issues, the weekend's Kentucky Derby fever centers on Florida, New York and Kentucky.
The "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" neared its conclusion this week, with a winner yet to be decided.
We also have a look at Kentucky Oaks prep races, the Kentucky Derby's third early wagering pool and next week's prospects. It's a one-stop-shop.
Here's how Saturday's races shape up and how the European races turned out:
Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct features an undefeated Instagrand, Grade I Hopeful Stakes winner Mind Control and a seeking-redemption Knicks Go
Instagrand, a chestnut son of Into Mischief, won his career opener last June at Los Alamitos, then was off for three months before winning the Grade II Best Pal at Del Mar by 10 1/4 lengths, ridden out. He has not run since and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer shipped him across the continent from his Santa Anita training base for this engagement after a Tuesday morning workout came off without incident. "The workout went very nice. He went a very nice half-mile with a good gallop out. We think we have him prepared," said Hollendorfer.
Knicks Go, a Paynter colt, won the Grade I Claiborne Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last fall by 5 1/2 lengths at odds of 70-1, then finished second to Game Winner in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But he subsequently reported 11th in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs and was equally unimpressive in his first start of 2019, finishing a fading fifth, beaten 13 lengths, in the Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs.
"I think he did need that last race, especially on that Tampa track which can be a little tiring at times," said Knicks Go's trainer, Ben Colebrook. "Maybe now that he's in a race where he's not the favorite, like the last two, maybe he'll go back to the old Knicks Go."
Mind Control, by Stay Thirsty, edged heavily favored Mucho in the Hopeful at the end of the Saratoga meet, then was seventh in the Breeders cup and returned to the winner's circle after the Jerome Stakes over the Aqueduct oval on New Year's Day. "Our horse is going to have to improve, but we're expecting an effort like the Jerome," said trainer Greg Sacco. "He's going into this race better than he went into the Jerome in terms of maturity and filling out."
Not That Brady comes off a second-place finish in the Grade III Withers. Baffert ships in Much Better, a Pioneerof the Nile colt who won his start at Santa Anita and Mike Smith visits to ride. And any of the others could jump up to play a role in the Gotham.
Win Win Win, who set a Tampa Bay Downs 7-furlong track record of 1:20.89 in winning the Pasco Stakes Jan. 19, has been established as the 5-2 morning line favorite in a field of 11 for Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. Win Win Win is a Florida-bred colt by the Japanese-bred sire Hat Trick, who in turn is by 1989 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence. The second choice at 7-2 is Well Defined, another Florida-bred who won the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes over the course and distance Feb. 9. Third choice on the morning line at 4-1 is Dream Maker, one of two entrants trained by Mark Casse, along with Sir Winston.
Well Defined's trainer, Kathleen O'Connell, said her colt is "coming up to the race just as good or better than last time. I couldn't be happier with how he's doing and I'm happy with the post position." But O'Connell agreed Well Defined, like all those in the Tampa Bay Derby, "need to run a big race Saturday" to say on the Road to the Roses.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park has a cast of 11, including a pair of versatile surface-switchers in Somelikeithotbrown and Skywire.
Somelikeithotbrown, a Big Brown colt trained by Mike Maker, won the Battaglia Memorial over the Turfway Polytrack but broke his maiden on the grass at Saratoga. He was third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and is listed as the 8-5 favorite on the Turfway morning line. "I don't think there's anything he wouldn't be eligible for, both dirt and turf," said part-owner Harvey Diamond. "We wanted to see if he could run on the Polytrack and I think (the Battaglia) proved he could."
Skywire, by Afleet Alex, is undefeated in two starts, one on the Tapeta at Woodbine and the second on the dirt at Gulfstream Park, the latter taken off the turf. Trainer Mark Casse, discussing the decision to go on the main track, said, "I think the key to all that is -- and anyone who tells you differently, that they know, is lying -- you've got to give a horse a try (on dirt) because you never know. You just never know."
Skywire is intended for the Queen's Plate at Woodbine in early summer but Casse said that wouldn't necessarily preclude a swing at the U.S. 3-year-old classics. "If he runs really well Saturday he could end up in the Blue Grass. He's 1-for-1 on the dirt and he's 1-for-1 on the Tapeta."
"European Road to the Derby"
Jahbath, a Mukhadram colt owned by Sheik Hamdan, was the easiest of winners as the odds-on favorite in Wednesday's "Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions Stakes" at 1 mile on the Kempton Polytrack. After tracking the early pace, jockey Jim Crowley sent Jahbath to the lead scored by 2 lengths from Getchagetchagetcha.
Jahbath, trained by William Haggas, now boasts four straight wins on all-weather surfaces after opening his account with a second on the turf at Salisbury last October, beaten just a neck. He is not an early nominee to the U.S. Triple Crown but is in for the UAE Derby at Meydan, where a win could earn him a spot in the Run for the Roses.
Wednesday's resecheduled BetVictor Patton Stakes, 1 mile on Polytrack at Dundalk in Ireland went to Playa del Puente, an Elzaam colt who edged the nearly even-money favorite, Western Australia, after the later was soundly bumped and hampered in deep stretch. Western Australia nonetheless finished second with Numerian edging Van Beethoven for third.
Playa del Puente, out of a Galileo mare, has won all three of his starts over the Dundalk all-weather after finishing third over turf in his career opener.
Western Australia, Numerian and Van Beethoven all are from the Ballydoyle-Coolmore juggernaut and all are considered potential players in the Group 2 UAE Derby on World Cup night and/or the Kentucky Derby. Western Australia finished third in the Group 1 Vertem Futurity Trophy (formerly the Racing Post Trophy) last fall and is the only contender with more than one placing in the European series to date.
The series concludes with the Cardinal Condition Stakes at Chelmsford City April 11. That race offers 30 points to the winner, enough to finish atop the standings and earn the bid to the Kentucky Derby.
The only race on next weekend's "Road to the Kentucky Derby" is the $1 million Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park. Oaklawn officials Wednesday announced that, in light of the postponement of the San Felipe, they would keep entries open until this Saturday and -- if at least 20 horses are entered -- will split the race into two $750,000 divisions. With trainer Bob Baffert's top two Derby contenders -- Game Winner and Improbable -- left high and dry by the Santa Anita issues, anything's possible.
Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Futures wager opens for business this weekend. We'll see how the San Felipe cancelation affects the odds of Game Winner and Improbable, who were the morning-line favorites among individual interests in that pool. Remember, if you bet one of the 23 individual contenders and that horse doesn't start in the Derby, you lose. The 24th option, "All Others", almost always in the favorite.
The "original Derby" preps
And, just as an aside, the entries were announced Tuesday for the Qipco 2000 Guineas, prelude to the Investec Derby at Epsom. Among the 58 entries is The Mackem Bullet, owed by Japanese interests and trained in the United States by Wesley Ward. The filly was second in the Group 1 Juddmonte Cheveley Park Stakes Sept. 29 and finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf before being turned over to Ward.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Ten fillies are entered for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Honeybee at Oaklawn Park with Motion Emotion tagged as the 3-1 favorite on the morning line. The Take Charge Indy filly has won both her starts this season at the Hot Springs track, most recently by 6 3/4 lengths when sent around two turns for the first time. Chocolate Kisses and Japanese-bred Power Gal also get some love from the Oaklawn oddsmaker.
A dozen are in for Saturday's $250,000 Busher Invitational at Aqueduct and the 1-mile event is another tossup. Please Flatter Me, a Munnings filly, is the 3-1 morning-line favorite as winner of all three starts as a 2-year-old. Always Shopping was first home in the Busanda in her last start, also her first-ever win. Filly Joel was second in the Busanda and, before that, third in the Grade II Demoiselle.
Another evenly matched bunch, this time comprising a dozen, will face the starter for Saturday's $100,000 Bourbonette Oaks on the Turfway Park all-weather. The field comes from as far afield as Louisiana and Florida. A real toss-up with some nice wagering potential.
Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Santa Ysabel at Santa Anita was another victim of the temporary shutdown.