War of Will can sweep the Louisiana Road to the Kentucky Derby with a victory in Saturday's $1 million Grade II TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.
The $800,000 Grade III Sunland Derby in New Mexico, meanwhile, attracted Mucho Gusto, another of trainer Bob Baffert's top hopes for the Run for the Roses.
The remainder of weekend action in North America centers around the Fair Grounds undercard, with graded stakes on both turf and dirt.
Internationally, Winx is featured on Golden Slipper Day in Australia. Grade 1 turf racing returns in Japan with the 6-furlongs Takamatsunomiya Kinen. And the Hong Kong Jockey Club stages its first-ever races at the plus new Conghua Racecourse on the Chinese mainland.
Starting at the start:
The Road to the Roses
War of Will already perches atop the Road to the Kentucky Derby points standings after victories in the Le Comte and Risen Star Stakes over the Fair Grounds track. He's the clear favorite in Saturday's Louisiana Derby and the 100 points awarded to the winner of that fray would lock him in as the top contender for the Run for the Roses.
War of Will, a War Front colt trained by Mark Casse for owner Gary Barber, has not lost since he finished fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Casse moved him to the dirt after that race and he has not looked back.
"Our main concern his him, we just want to keep him happy and healthy," Casse assistant David Carroll said after the colt's workout last weekend. "As long as we can do that, then it's up to him after that. There are bigger races ahead but distance-wise he shouldn't have any issues moving forward. He's out of a Sadler's Wells mare so he should be able to go all day."
The last horse to sweep the Fair Grounds series of Kentucky Derby qualifiers was International Star in 2015. He did not contest the Run for the Roses.
Country House and Roiland, the second-and third-place finishers in the Risen Star, are back for another try but will need to find a bit more. Roiland was making up ground from far back in the 1 1/16-miles Risen Star and might benefit from the extra half furlong in the Derby.
Sueno shipped from California to finish second in the Grade III Southwest at Oaklawn Park in February and racks up some more frequent flyer miles. If he continues the improvement he has shown from race-to-race, he could play a role, too.
At Sunland Park in New Mexico, Mucho Gusto is the 8-5 morning-line favorite for the $800,000 Grade III Sunland Park Derby. Mucho Gusto, a Mucho Macho Man colt trained by Bob Baffert, was second behind stablemate Improbable in the Grade I Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity last year and returned to win the Grade III Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in his 3-year-old debut on Groundhog Day.
The opposition includes Anothertwistafate, a Scat Daddy colt who has won three straight, all on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course. Hustle Up, a New Mexico-bred, comes off two straight wins at Sunland.
Saturday's Group II UAE Derby at Meydan in Dubai is part of the main Churchill Downs "Road to the Roses" series, with 100 points to the winner. The prospective field includes four American-based colts, none trained by Bob Baffert, but the favorite may be a promising filly named Divine Image, who may be pointed for the Kentucky Oaks. A Japanese runner, Derma Louvre, has placed in two of the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" races and Van Beethoven has raced in the European series. We'll be there, so more on this next week.
The Florida Derby also is Saturday and should sort out the prospects down thataway. The winner gets 100 points in this, too. Again, stay tuned for more.
And the "Japan Road" winds up Sunday with the Fukuryu Stakes at Nakayama. The way this series has played out, the winner of this race gets first dibs on the Derby spot reserved for a Japanese 3-year-old.
The Road to the Kentucky Oaks
Two of the top Oaks contenders are entered for weekend races -- Breeders' Cup winner Serengeti Empress in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks and West Coast star Bellafina in Sunday's $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks.
Serengeti Empress looks tough to play against in New Orleans. So, too, would Bellafina should trainer Simon Callaghan contest that race as an option to holding off for Santa Anita to resume operations.
Saturday is a big day at Rosehill Gardens with five Group 1 events, including the AUS$3.5 million Golden Slipper for 2-year-olds. But the big story, as it is wherever she goes, is Winx.
The super mare, presumably marching toward an imminent retirement, has eight rivals in the Group 1 George Ryder Stakes. Their only hope would be a slight advantage over a likely wet track. But a "slight" advantage isn't much when facing Winx, who seeks her 32nd straight win.
"It'll take bad luck or a very good horse to beat her," trainer Chris Waller told Australian media Friday.
Seven-year-old veteran Lets Go Donki takes on some younger challengers in Sunday's Grade 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen at Chukyo Racecourse March 25, with the Sprinters Stakes in the fall one of the country's two top grass sprints.
Lets Go Donki, a daughter of King Kamehameha, finished second in this race in both 2017 and 2018. She has not won in some time but has continued to perform in top company.
Newcomers include Danon Smash, a 4-year-old colt who has won three of four starts since being shortened up to the 1,200-meters of the Takamatsunomia Kinen, and Mozu Superflare, a Kentucky-bred 4-year-old filly by 2004 Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Speightstown, who won her first two starts of the season.
Several of the others have question marks, including the layout of the Chukyo turf course. The race is run left-handed and the run through the straight is an uphill climb.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club Conghua Racetrack will host five demonstration races Saturday -- marking the first official competition at the facility on the China Mainland.
The races themselves are well down the Hong Kong class list. But the purpose of the day is less to showcase equine talent than it is to feature the facility itself. HKJC's CEO, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, portrays the Conghua Racetrack as a potential new cornerstone of a world center for horse sports with the potential to draw competitors, fans and tourists to the area and spark economic growth.
Conghua is located in a mountainous, hot-springs area about 3 1/2 hours by highway from Hong Kong -- a largely rural tourist destination in a country where the population increasingly lives in massive cities. Engelbrecht-bresges has offered to make tours and equine promotion at Conghua a further attraction. Occasional racing could be a further enhancement of the tourism industry.
As wagering on horse racing is illegal on the Chinese mainland, there will be no wagering on the demonstration races and the HKJC is taking extensive measures to prevent any clandestine betting. There will be no live broadcast and publication of results will be delayed.
Back in North America and around the ovals
The undercard for the Louisiana Derby and Oaks is a classy one, indeed.
Last year's Louisiana Derby winner, Noble Indy, is back to contest the $400,000 Grade II New Orleans Handicap.
Synchrony is 4-for-4 over the New Orleans turf but in the $300,000 Grade II Muniz Memorial he will have to defeat Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf winner Bricks and Mortar to advance that record.
Also on tap are the Crescent City Derby and Crescent City Oaks for state-bred horses.
Saturday's program features the $100,000 Grade III Hutcheson Stakes for 3-year-olds going 6 furlongs and the $75,000 Any Limit for 3-year-old fillies at the same distance.
Saturday in Arkansas finds 3-year-old sprinters tackling the 6 furlongs of the Gazebo Stakes.