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Horse racing 2020 gets underway with Kentucky Derby preps

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
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Horse racing 2020 gets underway with Kentucky Derby preps
Bast (No. 6),  shown finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, is the favorite for Saturday's Grade II Santa Ynez at Santa Anita, a Kentucky Oaks prep. Photo courtesy of Breeders' Cup

Jan. 3 (UPI) -- Because last year in horse racing was so much fun, let's do it all over again -- perhaps with new protocols ensuring safer racing everywhere and a clean trip for everyone, preferably over a fast track, in the Kentucky Derby.

And, speaking of the Kentucky Derby, we're off and running on the road to the 146th running of the Run for the Roses, set for May 2 under the Churchill Downs Twin Spires. The first qualifying race of the year is in the books with another set for Saturday. Bast is the class of the weekend's biggest test for 3-year-old fillies, the Sana Ynez a Santa Anita.

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With the cold-weather areas of North America deep into winter, much of the racing attention focuses on Florida and California, where Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita have graded stakes on both turf and dirt.

On the world scene, the Dubai World Cup Carnival got under way Thursday at Meydan. Godolphin won the Carnival's first race, to the surprise of none. And some new shooters are emerging in Hong Kong as the first race in that jurisdiction's Derby series is just weeks away.

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We can see it all clearly (with 20-20 vision?), so let's get going:

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The Road to the Roses

The first small step on the road to the 2020 Kentucky Derby went to Independence Hall -- winner of Wednesday's $150,000 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct and the 10 qualifying points that go with the victory.

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It was a race the placing judges didn't need on New Year's Day and handicappers might have a hard time judging. Independence Hall, a Constitution colt from the Cape Town mare Kalahari Cat, pressed the early pace, then won off by 4 lengths over Prince of Pharoahs and Bourbon Bay, who dead-heated for second and third. It was another 11 1/4 lengths to Celtic Striker in fourth. Independence Hall, with Jose Ortiz up, ran 1 mile on a good track in 1:37.27.

The 50-cent trifecta returned $2.07 one way and $2.30 the other so the mutuel clerks probably got a lot of very small tips.

Independence Hall remains undefeated after three starts. The previous wins came at Parx Racing in September and the Grade III Nashua at the Big A on Nov. 3, so he is not being over-raced by trainer Mike Trombetta.

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"Everyone knows what our goals are and we're trying to get there one step at a time," Trombetta said. "I'll talk to the partners but I think the plan will be next week to head down to Tampa and train down there and get out of this weather and get him ready for the next step. It could be the Sam F. Davis -- it's on the radar in five weeks (Feb. 8). But the intent was after today was to head south."

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On Saturday at Santa Anita, the $100,000, Grade III Sham Stakes also offers 10 Derby points to the winner. With six to start, two of the three favorites on the morning line are both from Bob Baffert's barn. The 8-5 favorite, Authentic, by Into Mischief, won his only previous start at Del Mar. Azul Coast, by Super Saver, also won at first asking but at Los Alamitos. He and the Richard Baltas-trained Taishan, are both posted at 5-2 on the line. The latter, by Twirling Candy, is 1-for-2.

And, while it's not a Derby qualifying race, Saturday's $100,000 Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream Park is a 1-mile test for 3-year-old worth a long look. Chance It, a Currency Swap colt, steps into open company as the 5-2 morning-line favorite after taking two of the three Florida Sire Stakes races for 2-year-olds. Also with early support are As Seen On Tv, with juvenile wins at Monmouth Park and Gulfstream, and South Bend, an Algorithms colt who was undefeated until he finished sixth in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club on Nov. 30 while trying two turns for the first time.

Kentucky Oaks preps


Bast is back in action in Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Ynez at Santa Anita. The Uncle Mo filly, trained by Bob Baffert, won the Grade I Del Mar Debutante and the Grade I Chandelier at Santa Anita before finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. She returned from that to win the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos on Dec. 7. None of the others in the seven-filly field has that kind of resume although K P Dreamin was third in both the Chandelier and the Starlet.

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Santa Anita

Texas Wedge rallied to the lead three-wide at mid-stretch in Wednesday's $100,000 Grade II Joe Hernandez Stakes and then held off Double Touch, winning by 3/4 length. Pacesetter Bay Muzik was third, just another head behind. Texas Wedge, a 5-year-old Colonel John gelding, got 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:02.47 with Flavien Prat riding for trainer Peter Miller. It was his 10th in-the-money finish from 13 starts.

"We broke sharp and he was a little tough with me on the backside," Prat said. "But once I got him covered up, he dropped the bit and relaxed beautifully. He's a very consistent horse and at this distance he's really tough."

Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Gabriel for 4-year-olds and up at 9 furlongs on the turf drew a field of seven with little to choose among them. The oddsmakers settled on Cleopatra's Strike as the 2-1 favorite. The 7-year-old Smart Strike gelding won the Grade II John Henry Turf Championship over the course last September. But feel free to employ the hatpin-program-stab handicapping technique on this one.

Gulfstream Park

Nine are entered for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Kitten's Joy for 3-year-olds at 7 1/2 furlongs on the turf. Ken and Sarah Ramsey will try for their third win in the race named for the superstar stallion they produced as Bless the Kitten takes his place in the gate. After getting his first win over the Churchill Downs grass in his last start, he's one of the top three on the morning line.

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Saturday's $100,000 Ginger Brew Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 7 1/2 furlongs on the turf drew a full slate of 12 nominees. The 9-5 favorite going in is Abscond, a Blame filly who won the Grade 1 Natalma Stakes on the Woodbine greensward before getting home seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita. Moral Reasoning, a Chad Brown-trained More Than Ready filly, comes off her first win at Aqueduct two months ago.

For the Florida-breds who turned 3 on Wednesday, there's the $75,000 Limehouse Stakes at 6 furlongs and the $75,000 Glitter Woman for fillies at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Turfway Park

Peekacho tracked the early pace in Tuesday's $75,000 Prairie Bayou Stakes, surged to the lead three-wide early in the stretch run and held off Royal Mesa in the final strides, winning by a neck. Guest Suite was third and the favorite, Big Dollar Bill, beat only one rival while never a factor. Peekacho, a 4-year-old Hold Me Back gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:45.49. The win was his fifth from his last seven starts. "I really was just a passenger," said winning rider John McKee. "We had the pace in front of us and when I called on him at the top of the lane he gave me another couple gears that I needed."

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Around the world, around the clock:

Dubai

The first race of the 2020 Dubai World Cup Carnival was won by -- any guesses? -- Godolphin. The home team's homebred Dark Angel filly, Final Song, unleashed a powerful run in the final 200 meters of Thursday's UAE 1000 Guineas Trial Sponsored by Emirates NBD Business Banking and won by 1 3/4 lengths over Down On Da Bayou. Rio Angie was third as Final Song posted a final time of 1:24.44. She won at first asking at Ascot in May but then missed in three intervening starts, all in England, for trainer Saeed bin Suroor.

"The way she won, she's going to be a nice filly in the future, even going farther," bin Suroor said. "No problem for the mile, maybe further. She could get to 9 (furlongs), no problem."

Three races later, Sheik Mohammed's blue-clad legions struck again as Major Partnership landed the Meydan Challenge Sponsored by Emirates NBD Asset Management. After saving ground, the Irish-bred Iffraaj gelding found room along the fence 400 meters and steady progress found him in front by 1 1/2 lengths at the finish. Zainhom was second and Suedois, making his first start since October at Keeneland, settled for third. Major Partnership reported in 1:23.33 over good turf.

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Gladiator King, making his first start in the desert for his new connections, edged Ibn Malik by a neck in the Dubawi Stakes Sponsored by Emirates NBD Private Banking with Drafted finishing third. Gladiator King, a 4-year-old Curlin colt, took the lead near the top of the stretch and held well through to the line. Walking Thunder, a hot prospect a year ago for the Phoenix Ladies Syndicate, tired to finish next-last of nine as the 1,200 meters went in 1:11.29. Previously trained in Florida and now racing for Sheik Rashid bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, Gladiator King peaked with a victory in the Grade III Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park last March.

"You know, when you first get a horse, there's always a little worry and a little doubt," said winning trainer Satih Seemar. "But this horse was training so well and really coming around. It feels great to get a win for Sheikh Rashid."

All three top finishers are likely to meet again in four weeks' time in the Group 3 Al Shindagha Sprint over the same trip.

Hong Kong

Golden Sixty easily dispatched seven rivals, including some proven Group 1 talent, in Wednesday's Group 3 Chinese Club Challenge Cup at Sha Tin, opening the door to the Four-Year-Old Classic Series.

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With Vincent Ho aboard for trainer Francis Lui, the Australian-bred Medaglia d'Oro gelding saved ground near the rear of the field down the backstretch, came wide to find room between rivals and was in command for the final 200 of the 1,400-meters sprint. He won by 2 lengths from Fat Turtle with Champions Way third. Golden Sixty now is 4-for-4 on the season and none of the wins was by less than 1 1/4 lengths.

First in the series that leads to the 2,000-meters BMW Hong Kong Derby is the Hong Kong Classic Mile, 3 1/2 weeks distant. "The mile will definitely be in his scope. He's ready," Ho said of Golden Sixty.

Lui also has More Than This, undefeated in three starts this season, prepped for the Classic Mile.

"Both horses will go to the Classic Mile and More Than this will also go to the Hong Kong Derby," Lui said. But as for Golden Sixty, "I'll have to see how he goes in the Classic Mile. The 4-year-olds aim to the Derby but I have to look at the Classic Mile first."

The second race in the series, the Hong Kong Classic Cup at 1,800 meters, is Feb. 23. The Derby is March 22.

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