The internationalization of Thoroughbred racing is on full display this weekend with Kentucky Derby hopefuls from as far afield as Japan, England and Ireland competing in Dubai, other Japanese contenders battling at home and U.S. prospects in the Florida Derby.
It's complicated but much will become clear by Sunday evening when the dust settles.
Saturday's $2.5 million Group 2 UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse brings together 3-year-olds who earlier competed in the European and Japanese Kentucky Derby prep series, plus three U.S.-based hopefuls and a local contingent including a filly already qualified for the Kentucky Oaks.
The locals look most likely, starting with Divine Image, a Scat Daddy filly who won the UAE Oaks, earning enough points to start in the Kentucky Oaks, then demolished a field of male rivals in the Al Bastakiya. A victory in the UAE Derby is worth 100 points toward a Kentucky Derby start but Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby said Divine Image likely will put off a U.S. appearance until summer, when Belmont Park offers a rich series on the turf.
The other promising locals are Swift Rose, another representing Godolphin and second a neck in the UAE Oaks; Walking Thunder, Superior and Golden Jaguar, all representing the new ownership group Phoenix Ladies Syndicate, and Razeena, third in the Oaks.
The Aidan O'Brien-trained Van Beethoven and William Haggas' Jahbath both earned points in the European Road to the Kentucky Derby and Derma Louvre scored in the Japan series. None of them will win those competitions and they would need a first- or second-place finish to make the Louisville starting gate through the main Road to the Kentucky Derby.
Ditto the American runners -- Plus Que Parfait, Gray Magician and Stubbins -- all of whom are long shots.
Saturday's $1 million Grade I Xpressbet Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park drew the first two finishers from the Grade II Fountain of Youth -- Code of Honor and Bourbon War. Normally, victory in the Fountain would be a pretty sure indicator for the Florida Derby. This year, however, those two face some late-developing rivals.
Hidden Scroll, trained by Bill Mott, blew the socks off observers in winning his first start by 14 lengths Jan. 26. But the Hard Spun colt faded to finish fourth, albeit beaten only 3 lengths, in the Fountain and could benefit from a different pace scenario. Harvey Wallbanger jumped up at odds of almost 30-1 to win the Grade III Holy Bull in his last start. Maximum Security is 3-for-3, all by huge margins, but stretches out to two turns for the first time while taking the massive class jump.
The winner gets 100 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, where Code of Honor already holds the No. 3 position and a lock on a spot in the Louisville starting gate.
Jumping around the globe, there's a Kentucky Derby spot open Sunday at Nakayama Racecourse in Japan, too. Because Derma Louve was detoured to Dubai, the winner of this race is assured first dibs on the Derby spot reserved for the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" champion.
Of the eight entrants, Master Fencer is the current points leader, at least among Triple Crown nominees. The Daiwa Major colt has three straight wins, including a victory over Derma Louvre in his last outing. Tune in again Monday for more on this.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks drew only seven but one of those is Cookie Dough, a Brethren filly who won the final two legs of the local Florida Sire Series last season and debuted as a 3-year-old win a nice second in the Grade II Davona Dale. Point of Honor is 2-for-2 after jumping up to win the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in her second outing. Bella Ciao has had her moments and the others are looking for big improvement here.
Next weekend is the big one for Kentucky Derby hopefuls. After the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Santa Anita Derby, only the Arkansas Derby and the last-gasp Lexington at Keeneland remain on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" schedule.
The Lexington is a "last gasp" as it awards only 20 points to the winner -- giving a contender on the bubble a chance to earn his way into the Derby field.