Jan. 17 (UPI) -- The road to the Kentucky Derby dips down to Louisiana this weekend with Scabbard favored in the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, while some heavyweights slug it out in Sunshine Millions races in Florida and California.
On the world scene, Beauty Generation tries to get back to his best -- and earn a trip to Dubai -- as the Hong Kong Jockey Club hosts a pair of Group 1 events. Already in the books, two more thrilling finishes in Dubai.
And in Saudi Arabia, the list of nominations for the Feb. 29 Saudi Cup and its undercard races reads like a "Who's Who" of international horse racing.
Here's the "what's what":
The Road to the Roses
This week's official Kentucky Derby prep is the $200,000 Grade III Lecomte at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, a 1 1/16-miles event offering 10 Derby qualifying points to the winner. The favorite on Mike Dilibero's morning line is Scabbard, a More Than Ready colt trained by Eddie Kenneally.
Scabbard, once known as Noose, won at first asking in June at Churchill Downs, and then finished second in both the Grade II Saratoga Special and the Grade III Iroquois at Churchill Downs before a fourth-place showing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita.
"He didn't care for the surface too much," Kenneally said of the Breeders' Cup effort. "He's a closer and that track wasn't playing well to closers that day."
On paper, Scabbard wouldn't seem to have much to worry about Saturday other than the layoff since the Breeders' Cup. But that's why they run the races and there are some others in the 14-horse field who could compete with a modest step forward.
And, could there be a filly on the Road to the Roses? Maybe. Trainer Brad Cox says Taraz, his Juddmonte Farms homebred daughter of Into Mischief, could take a swing at the 3-year-old males if she shows well in the Martha Washington Stakes Feb. 1 at Oaklawn Park.
"Look, she's special," Cox said this week. "Everything has to line up. Everything has to go right. The way she trains, she gives you that amount of confidence to think about things like that, bottom line."
The filly won her first two starts by 7 1/2 and 11 1/4 lengths, the latter in the Letellier Memorial at the New Orleans track. The Martha Washington is 1 mile around two turns.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Finite is a convincing 6-5 favorite on the morning line for the $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes on Saturday at Fair Grounds. The Munnings filly, trained by Steve Asmussen, broke her maiden on the Kentucky Downs turf in September, then won the Rags to Riches and the Grade III Golden Rod, both at Churchill Downs. Among the others in the Silverbulletday, Portrait, a Tapizar filly, got into the win column with a 12 1/2-lengths score at Ellis Park and was third in the Grade II Pocahontas at Churchill. The winner gets 10 points toward a start in the Kentucky Oaks with 4, 2 and 1 points to the next three.
In other U.S. weekend racing action:
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Toboggan Stakes, 7 furlongs on the main track, drew a field of nine. Mind Control, the early favorite, got gate No. 8 with the other well-regarded duo of Sunny Ridge and American Anthem parked No. 1 and No. 2 so a good break and early tactics will be important.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Louisiana Stakes at 1 1/16 miles drew some useful sorts. Among them, Silver Dust was second in last year's running and followed that with a victory in the Grade III Mineshaft Handicap; Blended Citizen won the Grade III Peter Pan at Belmont Park two years ago, fell on hard times on both dirt and turf and may be on the rebound; and former Mexican champion Kukulkan exits a 6-lengths victory at Gulfstream Park that may set him straight again. N.B. -- Silver Dust and Blended Citizen are both cross-entered in the Col. E.R. Bradley on the turf later in the same program.
Saturday's $100,000 D.F. Kenner at 6 furlongs is not graded and drew only five entries. But those include Hog Creek Hustle, a close sixth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint last time out and a Grade I winner at Belmont Park this spring, and Bobby's Wicked One, second in the Grade I Churchill Downs Stakes on Derby weekend and most recently winner of the Thanksgiving Classic over the course and distance.
Saturday's Sunshine Millions program includes the $200,000 Classic, the $150,000 Turf, the $150,000 Filly & Mare Turf and the $100,000 Sprint -- all for state-breds. The standout on the entire card is Starship Jubilee in the Filly & Mare Turf. The 7-year-old Indy Wild mare is a multiple graded stakes winner and took the Grade I E.P. Taylor at Woodbine two starts back. She, understandably, is the 3-5 favorite on the morning line. The other events are well-subscribed and competitive.
State-breds take center stage Saturday at The Great Race Place, too. The Gulfstream program is complemented by the $150,000 Sunshine Millions Filly/Mare Sprint. Also on the card are the $200,000 California Cup Derby on the dirt and $200,000 California Cup Oaks on the turf (I know, what?) as well as the $200,000 Unusual Heat Turf Classic and the $150,000 California Cup Sprint.
There are a couple in the Derby who could move up to open company with a good showing, notably Big Returns, a Mr. Big colt making his first start after moving to Doug O'Neil's barn, and Bettor Trip Nick, making his first start on dirt after going 4-for-5 on the Golden Gate all-weather. Check back to see what happens in this one.
Sunday it's the $100,000 Grade III Astra Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/2 miles on the turf.
On the international scene:
The thrilling finishes just keep coming in the Dubai World Cup Carnival. In Thursday's chapter, it was Magic Lily, under James Doyle, edging Nisreen and Pierre-Charles Boudot by a short head after a rather desperate stretch run in the Group 2 Cape Verdi. Beyond Reason was a somewhat unlucky third, another 2 1/2 lengths back. Magic Lily, after saving ground early, launched a bid early in the stretch run and took every step of the way to get the job done, finishing the 1 mile on good turf in course-record time of 1:34.84.
"I had my head down to ride and didn't think we'd got up," Doyle said. "But she's tough and very game. It didn't go entirely our way. The plan was to lead or, if not, be very close, which is what happened. When (Dubai Blue) went by me, it sort of set her alight. She was over-racing a little bit. She'll definitely be better going another furlong. We think she's a nine or ten-furlong filly."
Magic Lily, a 5-year-old New Approach mare racing for Godolphin, was coming off a sixth-place finish on the Lingfield all-weather course in England but, prior to that, made the frame in three turf affairs. Among those was a third, beaten only 1/2 length behind Laurens and September, in the Group 1 bet365 Fillies Mile at Newmarket in October. Magical was fourth in that race, after which Magic Lily went to the sidelines for just short of two years with injuries.
Suedois, making his second start in two weeks, also eked out a narrow win in Thursday night's finale, a 1-mile handicap on the grass, emerging from the pack to score by a nose over Epic Hero. The 9-year-old son of Le Havre, reported in 1:35.54 with Daniel Tudhope in the kip.
Suedois was third in his seasonal debut at Meydan Jan. 2 -- his first race since a third-place finish in the Grade I Shadwell Turf mile at Keeneland in October.
A pair of Group 1 races on Sunday's program at Sha Tin will help determine the future course of some of Hong Kong's stars, including two-time Horse of the Year Beauty Generation.
Beauty Generation, after three straight third-place finishes, faces the question whether he is over the hill at age 7. If so, his career could wind down over the next few months. But if he steps up again in Sunday's 1,600-meters Stewards' Cup -- well, he is entered for the Group 1 Dubai Turf on the World Cup program March 25 at Meydan.
Trainer John Moore, citing a successful barrier trial a week ago under Zac Purton and a nice gallop Thursday, said Beauty Generation seems to have at least some of his mojo back.
"He's jumping out of his skin at the present moment so that's a good sign," the trainer said. "We've changed a few things -- work patterns and the like -- so taking into consideration the barrier trial last week and the feedback after the trial from Zac, we're pleased."
The other six in the Stewards' Cup include Furore, who cuts back from a fourth-place finish in the 2,000-meters Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup, and Waikuku, who was second behind Japanese victor Admire Mars and Beauty Generation in the Longines Hong Kong Mile.
The other Group 1 heat on Sunday, the Centenary Sprint Cup, finds old foes Beat the Clock and Mr Stunning at each other again over 1,200 meters. Last month, Beat the Clock denied Mr Stunning a third consecutive victory in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint. Beat he Clock also beat Mr Stunning in last year's Centenary Sprint Cup.
Trainer Frankie Lor said this week he thinks his 7-year-old Exceed and Excel gelding still has what it takes to turn the tables on Beat the Clock now that he's fully recovered from a hairline fracture in his shoulder. "We'll see him close to his best in this race," Lor said. "I think he can win."
Lor said Hugh Bowman, who jets in from Australia to ride Mr Stunning in his Group 1 races, also sees a rosy picture. "Hugh said after his last race that he was much better than his first run, he was happy with him and said he'd be happy to ride him this time," Lor said.
Eight are set to go in the Centenary Sprint Cup.
Rainbow Dreamer extended his all-weather record to four wins from four starts with a dominant display in the Betway Conditions Stakes at Wolverhampton Monday. The exended 2-miles affair was a Fast-Traqck qualifier for the Betway All-Weather Marathon Championship at Lingfield Park on Good Friday, April 10.
Rainbow Dreamer tracked pacesetter Raymond Tusk to the half-mile marker, surged to the lead and was well in command. Funny Kid mounted a challenge but settled for second, 3 1/2 lengths in arrears. Deal A Dollar ran third with Raymond Tusk fading to report fourth.
Trained by Alan King and ridden by Hollie Doyle, the 7-year-old now has victories on all three UK all-weather surfaces, earlier scoring at Kempton Park and Southwell.
"That was great," Doyle said after Monday's effort. "Rainbow Dreamer is going the right way and seems to love the All-Weather.
Shortly after the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia announced the creation of the Saudi Cup as the world's richest horse race, American trainer Bob Baffert mused, "If you put up $20 million, you'll get good horses in your starting gate."
The list of nominations to the Feb. 29 race, released Tuesday, proved him right as 143 horses were nominated to the 12-horse field, including Baffert's own McKinzie. The list also includes, as expected, Grade 1-winning mare Midnight Bisou, trained by Steve Asmussen, and Grade I Cigar Mile (G1) winner and four-time Grade I star, Maximum Security, conditioned by Jason Servis.
While the big names are American, the 143 nominations to the Saudi Cup represent more than 60 trainers from 16 countries spread over four continents. Only 14 will be chosen to run in the first edition of the race with $10 million going to the winner.
The winner of the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park in Florida Jan. 25 also gains automatic entry to the Saudi Cup. And there is an opportunity for supplemental nominations -- at a cost of $200,000 -- on Feb 18. Original entries were free.
The undercard races at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, including three to be run on a new turf course, drew an equally powerful contingent, with representation from around the globe including Investec Derby and Melbourne Cup winners.
The featured turf event is the $2.5 million Neom Turf Cup, to be run at 10 1/2 furlongs or just more than 1 1/4 miles. The entries for that include 2019 Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck and Magic Wand. Both are trained in Ireland by Aidan O'Brien and the latter, a confirmed globetrotter, captured the Group 1 Mackinnon Stakes in Australia in November.
The Neom Turf Cup also attracted Japanese star Deirdre, winner of the Group 1 Nassau Stakes at Goodwood last year. Benbatl, representing Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum, is cross-entered in the Neom Turf Cup and The Saudi Cup.
The $2.5 million Red Sea Turf Handicap for stayers at 1 7/8 miles drew 2018 Melbourne Cup winner, Cross Counter, also from Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin operation, as well as Prince of Arran and O'Brien's Kew Gardens.
"The response to the Saudi Cup from the international racing community has been fantastic," said Tom Ryan, Director of Strategy and International Racing for the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia. "We couldn't be happier with the entries that we've received and we are now fully focused on putting on a spectacular first Saudi Cup race day to live up to the caliber of these entries."
Entries will now be whittled down to final fields based on ratings allocated by former British Horseracing Authority senior handicapper Phil Smith.
News and notes:
The fatal injury sustained by Mongolian Groom in the 2019 Breeders' Cup Classic resulted from pre-existing conditions in both hind legs which escaped notice despite extensive new safety protocols, according to a report released Wednesday by Breeders' Cup's Board of Directors.
The report, compiled by Dr. Larry Bramlage, said pre-existing stress fractures to both hind legs compromised the horse and led to his break down but were so minor that it is understandable the were overlooked pre-race. He said, however, more can be done to prevent future injuries and Breeders' Cup pledged to look into that.
The report also said drug use was not a factor in the breakdown.