Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Some early favorites for the Kentucky Derby -- Thousand Words, Shotski, Tiz the Law and others -- will seek another step forward on the path to Louisville in weekend horse racing.
On the international front, Barney Roy was ultra impressive on his return to action Thursday in Dubai, a quartet of world-class jockeys this week found the new Saudi Arabian turf track well suited for its Feb. 29 debut and trainer Francis Lui finds his stable well suited for the Hong Kong Derby.
Following suit, we offer this:
The Road to the Roses
Kentucky Derby hopefuls will be on display Saturday at Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita and Aqueduct in races offering qualifying points on the 10-4-2-1 scale to the first four finishers.
The $250,000 Grade III Withers at Aqueduct is run at 1 mile and the eight-horse field looks remarkably well-matched. Shotski is the 2-1 favorite but also well regarded are the likes of Portos, Monday Morning Qb and Max Player.
Shotski, a Blame colt trained by Jeremiah O'Dwyer, is 2-for-4 and exits a win in the Grade II Dwyer over the track in December. Portos, a son of Tapit, finished fourth, then third, then second before finding the winner's circle but then did it in style, winning by 10 3/4 lengths at the Big A on New Year's Eve. Monday Morning Qb was last seen winning the Heft Stakes at Laurel Park and Max Player exits a win at Parx Racing.
O'Dwyer was cautiously optimistic about Shotski's chances in Saturday's race and the immediate future.
"We know he likes the track, and we know he can get the distance," he said. "We're very happy with his training and he's had a good series of works. Physically, he looks very strong.
"It's always in the back of your mind," O'Dwyer said of the Kentucky Derby. "It's really nice when you sit down and think about the fact that you could possibly have a nice horse for the Kentucky Derby. But it's a long road ahead. If he can step up it'll be another feather in his cap."
Seven 3-year-olds are set for Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park at 1 1/16 miles. As you'd expect at this time of the year, they all still have something to prove. Tiz the Law, however, could have less convincing left to do than the others.
Tiz the Law, a Constitution colt owned by Sackatoga Stable of Funny Cide fame, won at first asking at Saratoga, then returned to win the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park. Skipping the Breeders' Cup, he finished third in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs later in November after traffic issues in the stretch.
"A lot of people think like I do and draw a line through this race," Sackatoga's Jack Knowlton said. "Even after he lost that race he was the favorite in the first Churchill Downs futures pool and he's the lowest odds at William Hill in Vegas for the Derby."
Tiz the Law is the 3-5 favorite on the morning line. The other six are well-intended in the Holy Bull and some have shown talent. Improvement will be needed to move along that Road to the Roses.
The $150,000 Grade III Swale at Gulfstream Park is only 7 furlongs around 1 turn and does not carry qualifying points but worth is watching for a late-developing type. Green Light Go is the narrow morning-line favorite and might fit the profile. He won the Grade II Saratoga Special last summer, then finished second in the Champagne, albeit 4 lengths behind Tiz The Law. Untitled and Mischevious Alex also get some attention on the Swale morning line.
Out west, Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita drew one of the current top Kentucky Derby favorites, Thousand Words, as the odds-on favorite in a field of six. The Pioneerof the Nile colt, trained by Bob Baffert, won at first asking at Santa Anita on Oct. 26 and then won the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity Dec. 7 in his only other start.
Baffert said the Futurity effort was especially impressive as it looked like Anneau d'Or, runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, was about to pass Thousand Words in the stretch. "When he saw that horse, he just took off again. He wasn't tired or blowing or anything," the trainer added.
Baffert also fields High Velocity, a Quality Road colt who shares the No. 2 spot on the morning line with the Richard Mandella-trained Tizamagician.
Gulfstream's Saturday program also includes the $100,000 Dania Beach for 3-year-olds going about 1 mile on the turf. Eleven are entered plus two "main track only" alternates. It's a pretty wide-open affair.
Kentucky Oaks Preps
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Forward Gal at Gulfstream Park is 7 furlongs with Tonalist's Shape installed as the 1-2 favorite. The Saffie Joseph Jr. trainee, a daughter of Tonalist, is 3-for-3, most recently winning the Hut Hut Stakes over the track by 9 lengths.
Taraz is the even-money favorite among five entries for Saturday's $150,000 Martha Washington at Oaklawn Park. The Into Mischief filly, trained by Brad Cox, is 2-for-2. She won her first start at Churchill Downs in November and returned Dec. 21 at Fair Grounds with a "Wow!" effort in the Letellier Memorial, winning by 11 1/4 lengths. She is a Juddmonte Farms homebred out of the Empire Maker mare Silk Route. It's not necessarily walkover, though. Princesinha Julie has won three straight at Remington Park and Shedaresthedevil invades from California after facing some tough ones.
Seven are in for Sunday's $100,000 Busanda at Aqueduct. The two-turn test attracted early-career rivals Persisto and Harvey's Lil Goil, each seeing a first win since breaking her maiden. This is another of those "watch and learn" opportunities.
Moral Reasoning is the 9-5 morning-line pick for Saturday's $100,000 Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park, at about 1 mile on the grass. The More Than Ready filly, conditioned by Chad Brown, has a win and two seconds in three starts.
Eight are in for Saturday's $125,000 American Beauty Stakes for fillies and mares at 6 furlongs. Amy's Challenge, a 5-year-old Artie Schiller mare is the 2-1 favorite despite making her first start since finishing third in the Grade I Human Distaff at Churchill Downs in May. Irish Mischief and Mt. Brave also caught the oddsmaker's eye.
United, Cleopatra's Strike and Oscar Dominguez are all bunched atop the morning line for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Marcos, a 1 1/4-miles test on the grass. United, a 5-year-old Giant's Causeway gelding, was second in the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf in November, only a head behind eventual Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar, and second again in the Hollywood Turf Cup in November, a race won by Oscar Dominguez. Cleopatra's Strike, a 7-year-old gelding by Smart Strike, was fourth in the Hollywood Turf Cup and more recently second in the Grade II San Gabriel.
Ten are set for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Pasqual at 1 1/8 miles on the dirt. The 2-1 favorite, Roadster, drew the rail as he tries to go one better on his runner-up showing in the Grade I Malibu in December where he was beaten only by Omaha Beach. The 2019 Santa Anita Derby winner is trained by Bob Baffert. "I got the damn rail again," Baffert said Thursday morning.
Around the world, around the clock:
Barney Roy dominated some tough competition Thursday night at Meydan in the $250,000 Group 2 Al Rashidiya, a preview for the $6 million Group 1 Dubai Turf on World Cup night. After waiting behind the leaders, the Excelebration gelding followed last year's winner, Dream Castle, into the straight, then quickly took the measure of that one and won by 2 1/4 lengths. It was another 6 1/4 lengths back to Mountain Hunter in third.
It was the first run of the year for the winner of the 2017 St. James's Palace at Royal Ascot and followed an abbreviated 2019 campaign that resulted from an failed "second career."
Despite the timing, the Godolphin runner, trained by Charlie Appleby and ridden by William Buick, looked every bit the part of a potential winner on World Cup night. But Appleby was coy about which race.
"Visually, from what we've seen there, you'd be quite happy to step up to 10 furlongs," Appleby said. "He was just touched off in the Juddmonte (in 2017, going 10 1/2 furlongs at York) and is a class animal. It's just nice to see him back to his winning ways this evening. Hopefully he'll gain a bit of confidence there and we can tiptoe toward Super Saturday."
The March 7 Super Saturday date likely is the Group 1 Jebel Hatta.
Thursday's companion feature, the $200,000 Group 3 Al Shindagha Sprint at 1,200 meters on the dirt went to Gladiator King, who ran down Truck Salesman in the final yards to win by 1 length. Malik and Drafted finished third and fourth in that order, both of them making up ground at the end. Gladiator King, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred colt by Curlin, won last year's Grade III Hutcheson at Gulfstream Park. He was making his second start in the desert for trainer Satish Seemar.
"Things went differently than how we expected, but he still ran a great race," said Gladiator King's rider, Mickael Barzalona. "We were very pleased with the way he did it today. He has some natural speed. If he would be in front, it wouldn't be a problem for him. He's a lovely horse. He's easy to ride and hopefully there's more to come."
Truck Salesman, campaigned by Doug O'Neill, was having his first start in Dubai. He left for Dubai after finishing last of eight in Santa Anita allowance/optional claiming event Jan. 4.
Four of the world's top jockeys flew into Riyadh this week to test the new turf course at King Abdulaziz Racecourse -- a surface that was seeded only in early November and will host three races worth an aggregate $4.5 million Feb. 29. They approved.
Frankie Dettori, William Buick, James Doyle and Daniel Tudhope all rode local horses for the trial as Newmarket Racecourse Clerk of the Course Mike Prosser oversaw the proceedings.
"The ground is perfect," Dettori said. "We want to have it like this race day. Today the test went with flying colors. We really tested the track. We went a good gallop and went as fast as we could round the turn, which was the biggest test we wanted to do."
Added Buick: "It was a trial run at a decent pace over a mile and a quarter we got a fair reading of the new track. The turns rode well and I would call it genuine good to firm. There'd be no complaints. It was very positive what we just did there."
The turf races support the inaugural running of the $20 million Saudi Cup on the King Abdulaziz main track on the final day of February.
After the first leg of the Hong Kong Derby series, trainer Francis Lui appears to be holding a strong hand. Lui on Monday watched Golden Sixty run home first in the Hong Kong Classic Mile -- an accomplishment made even sweeter by the fact his even more highly regarded Derby contender, More Than This, was running strongly at the end and, while not threatening his stablemate this time around, giving promise of better as the distances get longer.
Meanwhile, in the co-feature on the Chinese New Year's card at Sha Tin Racecourse, local champion stayer Exultant soldiered on to win the Group 3 Centenary Vase while conceding as much as 20 pounds to his rivals, likely earning a trip to Dubai.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club severely limited attendance to prevent potential spread of the China-based coronavirus. Similar restrictions were in place for Wednesday's meeting at Happy Valley.
Golden Sixty, a Medaglia d'Oro gelding raced well back in the Classic Mile field under jockey Vincent Ho, began making up ground on the turn, and the outcome was decided 200 meters before the finish. More Than This, a Dutch Art gelding, put in a late run for rider Ryan Moore and was making up ground but fell 1 1/4 lengths short.
The outcome may have presaged the rest of the series -- the 1,800-meters Hong Kong Classic Cup on Feb. 23 and the 2,000-meters BMW Hong Kong Derby on March 22 -- as Golden Sixty has been regarded as a miler despite his pedigree and More Than This is seen as a more legitimate Derby threat,.
"I don't know," Lui said of the path to the Derby -- Hong Kong's most revered race for locals. "I think More Than This can handle the Derby distance, and Golden Sixty, the next race is the Classic Cup, so I'll take it step by step but the main target for both is the Derby."
In the Centenary Vase, Exultant won by 1 1/2 lengths over Glorious Dragon despite carrying 133 pounds to that rival's 113 and going far less than his preferred distance. The three-time Group 1 winner at 1 1/2 miles likely did enough to stay on course for the Dubai Sheema Classic on World Cup night.
"Next race will be the Hong Kong Gold Cup and then we'll decide whether we go to Dubai or not," said trainer Tony Cruz. "I'm expecting to go because he's not getting any younger ... I believe he can do something in Dubai. I believe he can prove himself and win that race."
Lingfield Park on Saturday hosts two Fast-Track Qualifiers for the All-Weather Championships, one featuring last year's star, Kachy.
Kachy, now 7, makes a late debut in the all-weather season in the Betway Cleves Stakes at 6 furlongs. He won that the last two years running and last year's performance was part of a three-race sweep culminating in the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championship.
Kachy has not raced since finishing third behind Blue Point in the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot last June but owner David Lowe said he is "firmly on course" for the return.
"The plan was always to come back for the All-Weather because he loves it around those turns. People have suggested we should send him abroad and that sort of thing, but we absolutely love him to bits and the endgame for us is to breed from him. He won't be sold to anyone."
All being well, the race on Finals Day will be Kachy's last, Lowe said.
The second qualifier is the Betway Winter Derby Trial at 1 1/2 miles. The Andrew Balding-trained Bangkok and Global Giant, featuring the trainer-rider duo of John Gosden and Frankie Dettori, feature in the entries for that.