Jan. 10 -- Graded stakes at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita keep things going in North American horse racing this week while global action stretches from South Africa to Hong Kong, England and Dubai.
That's a lot of ground to cover so let's get our motor runnin' and head out on the highway, starting with some high drama at Meydan.
If the rest of the Dubai World Cup Carnival is going to be as thrilling as Thursday night's Round 1 of the Al Maktoum Challenge Presented by Longines Conquest V H P, seat belts will be required.
Thundering into the final 100 meters of the Group 2 event, North America was leading but laboring after setting a blistering pace -- injuring his hoof into the bargain -- with Kimbear challenging just to his outside and Secret Ambition on that one's flank.
Heads bobbing and nostrils flaring, that trio passed under the wire virtually as a team, with Kimbear a nose in front of Secret Ambition with North America defeated another nose, finishing third. The 1,600 meters took 1:37.56 as things slowed down from the frantic early fractions.
It was a breakthrough win for Kimbear, a 6-year-old son of Temple City, trained by Doug Watson. Trained in the United States in 2017, he has raced in Dubai exclusively since, finishing sixth in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile in 2018 and fourth in the same race last year.
"We'll give him a nice break now," Watson said of Kimbear. "It's a great win for Sheikh Rashid. He bought this horse a couple years ago and last year wasn't his year. Hopefully it is this year."
North America, an 8-year-old Dubawi gelding who won the first two rounds of the 2019 Maktoum Challenge, had excuses as he was making his first start since a seventh-place finish in the 2019 Dubai World Cup.
Additionally, Richard Mullen, who rode North America, said his mount "ripped a patch of his foot and it's bleeding pretty badly. I thought he got tired, but it was his foot and it was sore. That's the down side to him -- he has bad feet. Hopefully we can patch him up and come back with him."
Benbatl visited Meydan Thursday for the first time since winning the Group 1 Dubai Turf in 2018 and showed he still likes the joint just fine. Leading from the start in the Group 2 Singspiel Stakes Sponsored by Longines Master Collection, the 6-year-old son of Dubawi shook off a challenge at the top of the lane and cruised home first by 4 3/4 lengths despite being well geared down by jockey Christophe Soumillon.
For the Top and Majestic Mambo were second and third. Benbatl, trained for Godolphin by Saeed bin Suroor, finished 1,800 meters on good turf in 1:52.18 but could have done better if asked.
Benbatl raced only twice in 2019 after finishing second behind Winx in the 2018 Group 1 Cox Plate in Australia, winning the Group 2 Shadwell Joel Stakes at Newmarket, then last of 16 in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes a Ascot over heavy going in October.
In the UAE 2000 Guineas Trial Sponsored by Longines Dolce Vita, Commanding challenged for the lead inside the 200 meters, then won a head-bob victory over a stubborn Al Modayar. Dark of Night, who virtually gave away the race at the start, stormed down the stretch to finish third, just another short head back.
Commanding, an Irish-bred colt by Commacho, ran 1,600 meters in 1:39, scoring his second straight win for trainer Satish Seemar. The colt was second in his first start in November, then a 5-lengths winner in his only other outing.
Saturday's L'Ormarins Queen's Plate and Cartier Paddock Stakes for fillies and mares at Kenilworth are Breeders' Cup Challenge races and, for the first time, that could mean something for the November World Championships.
South African horses effectively have been isolated from world competition because of onerous quarantine protocols designed to prevent the spread of infectious disease. As a result, taking the winner of a Challenge race in Cape Town to North America was a practical impossibility.
Last month, however, the European Union agreed to move forward on a process that, after years of frustrating delay, could ease the quarantine rules. There's no timetable and no guarantee. But a meaningful change could open the door to a Kenilworth winner in January moving on to a Keeneland start in November.
It would be interesting to see how South Africa's best would stack up. They have done well -- particularly in Dubai -- on the rare occasions when given a chance. And Saturday's races, particularly the Queen's Plate, drew some good ones. Among them are Do It Again, winner of the last two runnings of the Grade I Durban July, and Hawwaam, winner of his last two starts, both at Kenilworth.
Do It Again's Trainer, Justin Snaith, and Hawwaam's, Mike de Kock, are both internationally minded and hoping a rules change will open doors for them. Perhaps one of the doors will be on Versailles Road on the west side of Lexington, Ky.
Trainer Francis Lui is holding a hot hand these days. Moving into the Four-Year-Old Classic Series the culminates in the BMW Hong Kong Derby with prime contenders More Than This and Golden Sixty, Lui turned his sites to other prizes as 6-year-old Doctor Geoff captured the Group 3 January Cup Handicap Wednesday night at Happy Valley.
Doctor Geoff, a non-factor in the 4-year-old series in 2018, settled in a tracking spot outside pacesetting Time Warp, worked to the lead on the final turn and kicked on for a 1 1/2-lengths win. Harmony Valley was up for third and Macau visitor Sacred Capital was third.
Doctor Geoff benefitted from a nice weight break -- 115 pounds, getting 10 from Time Warp. And while he sees a future for Doctor Geoff, Lui said he worries about the prospect of more weight.
"He struggles with bigger weights," Lui said. "It will be difficult now. I'll have to check the program."
Good Effort and Another Touch earned spots in the All-Weather Championships Finals Day program with Fast-Track Qualifier wins Wednesday over the Newcastle course.
Good Effort, with a front-running ride by Ben Curtis, took the 5-furlongs Betway Conditions Stakes by a neck over Royal Birth, earning a spot in the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championship at Lingfield on Good Friday, April 10.
"We went a nice gallop the whole way and he was just playing with them at the end," Curtis said. "He should be all right around Lingfield as he showed a lot of speed there, which he will need on Finals Day.
Another Touch came from off the pace for a 3/4-lengths score in the Bombardier Golden Beer Conditions stakes at 1 mile, earning a slot in the All-Weather Mile Championship.
"He is going through his races a lot better now," said winning rider Barry McHugh. "He is really travelling and is like a little motorbike. He is very uncomplicated and makes a jockey's life very easy.
"He would have a fair shout around Lingfield with a good pace on and is a grand little horse."
And now a look at the coming weekend in the United States:
Andina Del Sur is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Marshua's River Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. The 5-year-old Giant's Causeway mare exits a win in the Forever Together at Aqueduct Nov. 29 and Saturday's foes include Sweet Bye and Bye, who finished a close third in that heat. The remainder of the field has even more to prove.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Tropical Turf, 1 mile on the grass, attracted 10 entries. A Thread of Blue is the 5-2 favorite on the morning line and the odds might have been shorter had the race been longer. The 4-year-old Hard Spun colt won last year's $1 million Saratoga Derby Invitational at 1 3/16 miles and has not contested the mile since finishing sixth in the Penn Mile at Penn National last June. Also, he makes his first start in more than three months. On the flip side, none of the other nine looks any more attractive.
Spiced Perfection is the featured attraction in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III La Canada for fillies and mares, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt. The 5-year-old Smiling Tiger mare was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint in November and won the Grade III Go For Wand Handicap at 1 mile at Aqueduct in her most recent start. She is a multiple Grade I winner who has been most successful at 7 furlongs. The primary opposition would seem to be Queen Bee To You and Zusha, the 1-2 finishers from the Grade III Bayakoa at Los Alamitos in their last start. Message, a 4-year-old Warrior's Reward filly, may have awakened in her last start -- a 9-lengths victory at Los Al -- and Mike Smith takes the call for Bob Baffert.
Only five fillies and mares signed on for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III La Cienegas at 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf and the local punters won't be recognizing the morning-line favorite. That would be Jolie Olimpica, making her first North American start. She finished 2019 with a Group 1 win in her native Brazil in just her third career trip. The locals will, however, recognize her sire, trainer and jockey -- 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Drosselmeyer, Richard Mandella and Mike Smith. None of the other four has been creating much of a stir lately so we'll see what the new Fox Hill Farms acquisition can do.
The weekend at the Big A features state-breds with Saturday's $100,000 Say Florida Sandy Stakes for 4-year-olds and up at 7 furlongs and Sunday's $100,000 Rego Park for 3-year-olds going 6 1/2 furlongs.