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Kentucky Derby contender Independence Hall to put undefeated record on line

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
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Banbatl wins Thursday's Maktoum Challenge Round 2 at Meydan in his first race on dirt. Photo by Erika Rasmussen, courtesy of Dubai Racing Club
Banbatl wins Thursday's Maktoum Challenge Round 2 at Meydan in his first race on dirt. Photo by Erika Rasmussen, courtesy of Dubai Racing Club

Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Kentucky Derby contender Independence Hall will put his undefeated record on the line, and last year's 2-year-old champ return to action in highlights of weekend horse racing. Important turf races are slated from coast to coast.

In Dubai, Benbatl wrote another chapter in what's become an international best-seller of a career, winning his first-ever start on the dirt Thursday evening. And American runner Left Fore left his competition behind in the UAE 2000 Guineas. Benbatl becomes the focus of the $12 million Dubai World Cup and Left Fore, a prime contender for the UAE Derby.

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The selected fields are out for the $20 million Saudi Cup and its attendant races on Feb. 29.

And on the "News and Notes" front: Good news from Virginia, a serious threat to the viability of Pennsylvania racing and the Hong Kong Jockey Club hunkers down to wait out the coronavirus.

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Let's start with the Kentucky Derby, detour to Dubai and then return for the rest of North America.

The Run for the Roses

Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager opens Friday and runs through 6 p.m. EDT Sunday. "All Other 3-year-olds" is the 5-2 favorite on Mike Battaglia's morning line. And remember, there are no refunds if your brilliant, long-range handicapping produces a horse that doesn't make it to the starting gate.

RELATED Tiz the Law, Max Player, Thousands Words win Derby preps in weekend horse racing

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Independence Hall tops a field of eight for Saturday's top Derby prep and the only one offering official points on the Churchill Downs leader board -- the $250,000 Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. And when we say the Constitution colt tops the field, it's a bit of an understatement.

Independence Hall has won all three of his previous starts -- by a combined 21 lengths. He earned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure for a 12 1/4-lengths victory in the Grade III Nashua at Aqueduct in November and returned on New Year's Day to take the Jerome by 4 lengths. This is his first start in Florida but his works over the track indicate he's happy with the surface.

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The remainder of the field includes a lot of players hoping to step into the big time. Ajaaweed finished second, making up ground late, in the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct in his last outing Dec. 7 and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is high on his chances. Premier Star is 2-for-2 at Gulfstream Park and looks to have plenty of early speed while stretching out from 7 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles. Chapalu has won on the turf at Keeneland and the all-weather at Woodbine but tries dirt for the first time.

"In horse racing, there are a lot of circumstances that can come into play," said Michael Trombetta, the trainer of Independence Hall. "You have a lot of horses testing the waters to see how good they are and all of us have the same goal -- to see how far they can take us. We'd love to show up and run big and win the race. But the big picture is a little further down the line."

Last year's 2-year-old champ, Storm the Court, returns to action in Sunday's $200,000, Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita -- his first race since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. That win was only the second for the Court Vision colt, whose campaign was interrupted when he lost jockey Flavien Prat early in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity.

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And the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was scrambled when the favorite, Denis' Moment, stumbled badly at the start. So Storm the Court still has something to prove. Sunday's opposition includes California Cup Derby winner Fast Enough, Zia Park Juvenile runner-up Party Town, Ra'ad and Nadal from the Bob Baffert bottomless barn of bounty and Ginobili, seeking his first score against winners.

Saturday's $100,000 Jimmy Winkfield at Aqueduct is contested at 7 furlongs and it's tough to throw more than a couple of the seven contenders. The 2-1 favorite on the line is Quixotic, a Quality Road colt exiting a maiden win.

On the infrastructure front, despite suggestions that 20 largely unproven 3-year-olds might be too many for the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs has doubled down on its commitment to that number with a purchase of a 20-stall staring gate.

The track has entered into an agreement with Australian-based Steriline Racing to design and build the gate and expects to tow it into position for the 146th running of the Derby on May 2. In recent years, a six-stall auxiliary gate was set up outside the main, 14-horse machine to handle the Derby. Gates of 20 or more stalls are not uncommon in Australia and some other jurisdictions.

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"We believe that a new custom-made, 20-stall starting gate will deliver a clean start for all horses and enhance safety for horses and riders in the Kentucky Derby," said Mike Ziegler, executive director of racing for Churchill Downs Inc.

There's no shortage of 3-year-olds hoping to fill those slots. Early Triple Crown nominations closed Saturday with 347 made eligible. Seven fillies are among them, including Taraz and Finite, who are legitimate prospects, if long shots, to contend for a spot in the field. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah's first crop of 3-year-olds leads the way with 15 nominations.

Thirty-five horses based outside the United States were nominated, including the winners of the first two legs of the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" series. Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien has six nominees, led by Group 2 Juddmonte Royal Lodge (GII) winner Royal Dornoch.

Dubai

Thursday evening's program at Meydan was an eye-opener with Godolphin runner Benbatl winning easily in his first try on the dirt to become an early favorite for the $12 million Dubai World Cup and American runner Left Fore surging to the fore in the UAE Derby picture with a victory brilliantly engineered by jockey William Buick.

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Benbatl, a 6-year-old son of Dubawi, already was a Group 1 winner on the grass in Australia, Germany and Dubai when he lined up for Thursday's Group 2 Maktoum Challenge Round 2 on the dirt track at Meydan. Owner Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and trainer Saeed bin Suroor were hoping the globetrotter could step into the place of Thunder Snow, who landed the last two runnings of the Dubai World Cup.

If Benbatl noticed there was nothing to eat under his feet, he didn't give any indication. After tracking the early speed in third position, jockey Christophe Soumillon tipped him outside the leaders and he willingly ran home first, two lengths to the good of Military Law. It was another 6 3/4 lengths back to Gronkowski in third.

"He was the best horse in the field by far," Soumillon said. "For sure, it was the first time on the dirt. But when the horses are really good, they can handle both surfaces."

Bin Suroor, not given to regular displays of enthusiasm, was enthusiastic.

"It's good to see him really travel well and win that easily. To see the jockey, who rode Thunder Snow to win the last two Dubai World Cups, ride him with confidence and in the last three furlongs he's still on the bridle shows his class," the trainer said.

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"Sometimes you just have to give the horses a chance (on the dirt). Some can handle both surfaces. He handled it well and Christophe kept him handy in the race, which was the plan for him. He won it well, thank God. It was a good decision."

Benbatl and Gronkowski are entered in the $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 29. It would not be a surprise to see Gronkowski, now with Saudi interests in his ownership, go on to that race while Sheik Mohammed keeps Benbatl home in an effort to pocket the winner's share of his own purse for the third straight year.

The $250,000 Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas, Sponsored by Masdar, was a belated third birthday party for Fore Left. The Twirling Candy colt, trained by Doug O'Neill, had an up-and-down juvenile season in the United States, winning the Tremont Stakes at Belmont Park in June and the Sunny Slope at Del Mar in October but failing in three graded stakes tries.

He left that all behind in his first effort at Meydan. With William Buick in the irons, Fore Left departed from the outside gate in a field of 14, showed enough speed to get over to the front and ran on gamely, leading by a big margin at mid-stretch. The gap closed in the final 100 meters but he still won by a comfortable 1 3/4 lengths.

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"It was a huge performance from the horse to get where he did, from where he did and in the manner he did," Buick said. "He got there within himself and put himself in a position after three furlongs to control the race. But it took a good horse to do it and that's what he is."

Buick said he assumes the Grade II UAE Derby on World Cup night is the target but cautioned about the added 1 1/2 furlongs. "We'll see about that," he said. O'Neill, contacted by Meydan media staff in Texas, said the race over the course "will do him a world of good." He said he will consider the $350,000 Al Bastakiya on Super Saturday as a final prep for the UAE Derby.

And, bringing this back to the Kentucky Derby theme, the UAE Derby is worth 100 points for the winner on the Churchill Downs leaderboard -- plenty to ensure a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate. Last year's UAE Derby winner, Plus Que Parfait, did go on to the Run for the Roses, where he finished ninth, placed eighth.

Also on Thursday at Meydan, Rusumaat ground out the win in the $175,000 Dubai Sprint, a prep for the $2 million Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night. And undefeated Uruguayan filly Bella Power powered to victory in the $100,000 Meydan Classic Trial at 1,400 meters on turf.

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Kentucky Oaks preps

Venetian Harbor is the 2-5 favorite on the morning line for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita. The Munnings filly makes her 3-year-old debut after going 1-for-2 at 2 with the win being a 10 3/4-lengths romp going 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita on Dec. 29.

Bob Baffert gives Mike Smith a leg up on Stellar Bound, and Drayden Van Dyke the ride on Gingham. Stellar Bound was fifth in the Grade I Del Mar Debuante and third in the Desi Arnaz Stakes -- both at Del Mar. Her works indicate she might like her first run over the Santa Anita track.

Gingham has posted three wins, two seconds and a fourth from six starts with the fourth coming in the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos. Cholula Lips exits state-bred company. The only other entrant, Go Big Blue Nation, had to drop into the claiming ranks to break her maiden in her last start, was taken for $75,000 by trainer Michael McCarthy and bounces right back here.

Embossed, Motu and Comical are among the likely ones in a nine-filly field for Saturday's $150,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Embossed, a Medaglia d'Oro filly toting the Goldolphin blue, already has two wins this season at Tampa, one on the dirt and one on the green and the Suncoast should determine her direction.

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Motu, by Paynter, makes her first start since finishing a close second to Finite in the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs Nov. 30. Comical was second, just a neck back of Bast, in the Grade I Chandelier at Santa Anita in September but then was never a factor in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in her most recent start.

Elsewhere around North American racing:

Turf

Starship Jubilee, a $16,000 claim three years ago, is the headliner for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Suwannee River Stakes for fillies and mares at Gulfstream Park. The 7-year-old mare has gone on from that claim to win eight stakes, including five graded stakes, and more than $1 million.

The wins include the $600,000 Grade I E.P. Taylor at Woodbine on Oct. 12. Saturday she faces some tough ones in Magic Star, winner of the recent Grade III Marshua's River, and Tapit Today, in the top two in each of her last five starts. A field of seven is entered.

Ten are set for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Thunder Road Stakes at 1 mile over the Santa Anita grass. True Valor, Frontier Market, Majestic Eagle and River Boyne are bunched at the top of the morning line for this. Bob Baffert makes a rare turf appearance with Kingly, who won his first turf start, the Grade III La Jolla Handicap, in August but has struggled in four subsequent Grade II efforts on the greensward.

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Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes for fillies and mares at Tampa Bay Downs features Got Stormy. The 5-year-old was an Eclipse Award finalist for her 2019 campaign after finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Mile, and then winning the Grade I Matriarch. However, she goes a sixteenth farther than her best distance of 1 mile so have a close look at the others, especially closer Andina Del Sur.

March to the Arch looks to run to his second straight win in Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes at 1 1/16 miles out of the infield chute. The 5-year-old Arch gelding rallied stoutly in the late going to win the Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream Park in his last outing.

Before that, he was a late-running fifth, beaten just 1 length, in the cavalry charge that was the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland in October. Caribou Club makes his 6-year-old debut after a decent second half of 2019. And Chad Brown takes over French-bred Devamani and starts him off with his first U.S. stakes challenge. Hembree could be dangerous off a long layoff.

Saturday's $60,000 Shantel Lanerie Memorial for 3-year-old fillies on the Fair Grounds turf is notable in part because Alms, a Godolphin-owned filly, puts a three-race win streak on the line. Two of those were graded stakes wins. We also note it would be a natural to pair Alms with her rival Pass the Plate in an exacta box here. Pass the Plate is a cleverly, somewhat subtly, named daughter of Temple City out of Pocket Gift.

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Sprint

Whitmore, Wilbo and Share the Upside are the best-fancied on the morning line for Saturday's $125,000 King Cotton Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The 6-furlongs dash drew a field of eight. Whitmore, who finished third in the 2016 Arkansas Derby, has been well nigh unbeatable at the Hot Springs oval since he turned back in distance, posting six wins and a second from seven starts.

His only local loss in that span was a second in last year's Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap, behind Mitole. Wilbo won the 2018 King Cotton and finished fifth last year. Share the Upside is 3-for-4 at Oaklawn but steps up in class. This is a proverbial Jude Feld "Old Guys Rule" race with Whitmore age 7 and Wilbo one of three 8-year-olds in the field.

Nine entries turned up for Saturday's $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup at Turf Paradise with Chief Cicatriz the even-money favorite. The 7-year-old comes off four straight wins, three of them in New Mexico, and won the Phoenix Gold Cup in both 2017 and 2018. He is a graded stakes winner at Churchill Downs, too, and overall has 14 wins from 21 starts.

Louisiana Downs

Saturday is Louisiana Premier Night, filled with six-figure purses for state-breds, including the Prince and Starlet for 3-year-olds.

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News and notes

Colonial Downs, after a successful return to live action in 2019, will expand its schedule by three days to 18 live dates for 2020. The races will run Thursday, Friday and Saturday from July 23 through Aug. 29 with general admission and parking free. The track will offer some $500,000 in daily purses and more than $2.8 million in total stakes.

"We are looking forward to an expanded race meet this year, offering one of the highest purse structures in the country," said Jill Byrne, vice president of racing. "The 2019 season was a very successful return to live racing at Colonial Downs and incredible support from horsemen and women and fans and patrons from around the country."

In Pennsylvania

The budget submitted Tuesday by Gov. Tom Wolf proposes raiding the Race Horse Development Fund, supposedly immune from such depredation, of some $204 million for a new college scholarship program. Wolf's address to the legislature urged lawmakers to "bet on our kids, rather than bankrolling racehorse owners ..." He didn't mention the thousands of suppliers, farriers, mutuel clerks and others that his plan would throw out of work.

Bill Finley reports in Thoroughbred Daily News the diversion from the RHDF, which is funded by slot machine revenue, would devastate the racing and breeding industries since slots money makes up 88 percent of total purses. Racing interests immediately cried foul and began lobbying to protect the RHDF.

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The money was put into the supposedly inviolable trust fund via legislation passed in 2017. In the Illinois State Capitol, savvy lawmakers seeking support from their colleagues know to ask for "the all-day promise" -- a stipulation their Harrisburg colleagues apparently forgot.

Hong Kong

The Hong Kong Jockey Club, in support of government efforts to slow the spread of the 2018-nCor V, Tuesday ordered the immediate closing of all 101 off-course betting locations and shut down all but one of its Telebet operations. The Club also said it is considering tightening even further restrictions on attendance at live racing at Sha Tin and Happy Valley racecourses, which has been limited primarily to critical staff and owners.

The HKJC said the actions are taken for an indefinite period but, on a hopeful note, added: "We understand from the Government that the next two weeks will be critical in terms of containing the disease and preventing a community outbreak."

The Jockey Club went to great lengths to ensure participation in the four Group 1 Longines Hong Kong International Races in December in face of violent street protests. Now, it looks forward to ameliorating the coronavirus situation in time to entice foreigners to the FWD QE II Cup, FWD Champions Mile and Chairman's Sprint Prize -- all international Group 1 events -- set for April 26.

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