March 6 (UPI) -- With the Kentucky Derby lineup still very much up in the air, things will start to take shape this weekend in key prep races from New York to Florida and out to California, where perennial Derby fixure Bob Baffert sends out two of his best prospects.
The weekend schedule also features important turf races from coast to coast and the Santa Anita Handicap on the dirt track.
International action rages from South Africa to Dubai, France and Barbados.
And the Breeders' Cup World Championships in November at Keeneland get a $4 million infusion of new purse money and some new safety protocols. See "News and Notes".
Safe to say, our protocol is to start with:
The Road to the Roses
Maybe some of the tea leaves that comprise the 3-year-old picture will start to settle and form a coherent picture during three key races this weekend -- the San Felipe at Santa Anita, the Gotham at Aqueduct and the Tampa Bay Derby. Each offers 50 qualifying points to the winner -- enough to get into the Churchill Downs starting gate. Minor placings earn 20, 10 and 5 points.
So something should be settled, anyway. At any rate, here's how those races shape up:
Two potential stars from the Baffert barn face off against last year's 2-year-old champ in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita.
Baffert saddles Thousand Words, a Pioneerof the Nile colt who is undefeated in three starts including the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity and the Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes, and Authentic, a son of Into Mischief who is 2-for-2 including the Grade III Sham. Authentic is the 6-5 morning-line favorite with Thousand Words right on his heels at 9-5.
Meanwhile, 2019 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Eclipse Award winner Storm the Court finished fourth in the Grade II San Vicente in his first 3-year-old effort, a race won by the Baffert-trained Natal. He's 5-1 on the morning line.
Do we see a pattern?
The other four in the San Felipe have more to prove. There's been some buzz about Honor A.P., who comes off a front-running maiden win over the course. Wrecking Crew was eased in his 3-year-old debut after competing well last year. Fort McHenry returns after faltering out East.
And then there's Swagsational, a Washington-bred gelding by Gallant Son, who comes off three wins way, way down the class ladder at Turf Paradise after failing, often badly, in seven previous starts there and at Emerald Downs and Grants Pass. Remarkably, he was long odds in each of those Turf Paradise wins and could have been claimed for $7,500 in the first of them.
Grade III Sam F. Davis winner Sole Volante and Mucho Macho Man winner Chance it appear the cream of the crop in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. Sole Volante, a Karakontie colt, is 2-for-3 for trainer Patrick Biancone with his only loss a third behind Chance It in the Mucho Macho Man.
His first two wins came on the turf. Chance It, a Currency Swap colt trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., emerged from the Florida Sire Stakes wars to win the Mucho Macho Man in his first start against open company. He scratched from last weekend's Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.
Sole Volante is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line; Chance It, second at 5-2. Four of the other 10 in the Tampa Bay tilt are recent maiden winners. Two others, Tons of Gold and Unrighteous, remain maidens. These categories -- fair warning -- include three youngsters from Todd Pletcher's barn who are either pricey sale purchases or fancy homebreds. In other words, dangerous.
In New York
Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct drew a big field, featuring Mischevious Alex, winner of the Grade III Swale at Gulfstream Park in his 3-year-old debut on Groundhog Day. The Into Mischief Colt hasn't set any barns afire despite having three wins to his credit but does not face the toughest field here.
Trainer Daley Romans sends out Attachment Rate in the Gotham, hoping for some good news after seeing his highly touted Dennis' Moment finish last in the Fountain of Youth last weekend. The Hard Spun colt won impressively last month at Gulfstream Park in his third start.
Montauk Traffic exits a win in the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, 7 furlongs at the Big A. Flap Jack hasn't raced since winning the Arlington-Washington Futurity on the all-weather in September. And, as usually is the case in these, it would only take minor improvement for any of them to make a mark.
In the wagering
The betting: Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager opens this weekend. Holy Bull winner Tiz the Law is the 8-1 individual favorite with "All Others" still the popular choice at 9-2. Remember, if your horse doesn't start, there are no refunds. You also can have a flutter on the Kentucky Oaks.
Chares, a German-bred colt by Ivawood, made all in Wednesday's Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes on the Kempton Park all-weather course and won by 1 1/4 length over Berlin Tango. New World Tapestry, Naval Commander and Ayr Harbour completed the order of finish.
The race was the penultimate leg of the European Road to the Derby and Chares earned 20 points to take the lead in the series while remaining undefeated in four career outings. Things wrap up with the Cardinal Condition Stakes at Chelmsford City April 2 with 30 points to the winner.
A helping hand
Need some help? Check out the penetrating analysis of award-winning handicapper Jude Feld at popejude.com. Always both entertaining and enlightening.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Oaklawn Park gives us another challenging, wide-open affair in Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Honeybee. There are nine to choose among with the four morning-line favorites clustered in the inside gates. The 3-1 favorite, Motu, drew the rail.
The Paynter filly has but a single win but was second in the Golden Rod at Churchill Downs and third last month in the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay. To her outside are Shedaresthedevil, Turtle Trax and Alta's Award. Any would need to step up to merit a look at bigger things down the road.
Lake Avenue is the even-money favorite among eight in for Saturday's $250,000 Busher Invitational at Aqueduct. The Tapit filly, a Godolphin homebred trained by Bill Mott, won her final two starts of 2019, culminating in the Grade II Demoiselle over the course three months ago and makes her 3-year-old bow. Maedean, another Tapit, was second in the Demoiselle, albeit 4 lengths adrift of Lake Avenue, and also makes her first start of 2020.
Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Sana Ysabel at Santa Anita has Donna Veloce, second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and second again in the Grade I Starlet making her 3-year-old debut. Gingham was fourth in the starlet but has already raced twice this year, most recently reporting second in the Grade II Las Virgenes. The others have more modest resumes.
The defection of McKinzie and Mucho Gusto to Saudi Arabia last weekend leaves Saturday's $600,000 Grade I Santa Anita Handicap at little shorthanded. Still, the feature attracted last year's winner, Gift Box, fresh off a win in the Grade II San Antonio; Midcourt, third in the San Antonio, then winner of the Grade II San Pasqual; and Two Thirty Five and Combattant, second and third in the San Pasqual.
Watch for Endorsed, who was fourth in the Travers last summer and Saratoga, then sidelined. The beautifully bred Godolphin runner returned with a nice win at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 11 and has been working steadily at Palm Meadows. We noticed him and so did Jude Feld.
Remember King For a Day? Betcha don't. But the 4-year-old Uncle Mo colt was the winner of last year's Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park -- 1 length to the good of last week's $20 million Saudi Cup winner, Maximum Security. King For a Day went on to finish fifth in the Haskell, 12 1/2 lengths behind the winner, Maximum Security, then went to the sidelines.
He returns for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. It's not the easiest of spots with the opposition including Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes winner Admiralty Pier, Sunshine Millions Classic winner Noble Drama, promising Argentine import Sandino Ruler and some others. None of those has beaten Maximum Security, though, and King For a Day is the 2-1 favorite on the line.
Flagstaff and St. Joe Bay might be the class of a six-horse field for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Carlos at Santa Anita but it's a little hard to be sure. St. Joe Bay was second in this race in 2018 and won it a year ago -- but has not been seen in the afternoon since then. On the plus side, he has put in a strong series of works for trainer John Sadler.
Flagstaff, meanwhile, is 6 years old and makes just his 11th start. He finished second, beaten a neck, in the Grade II Palos Verdes on Jan. 25. Bob Baffert tries again with Roadster, last year's Santa Anita Derby winner who hasn't won since that race. He's been swinging back and forth between sprints and routes and did finish second to Omaha Beach in the Grade I Malibu Dec. 28. That was at 7 furlongs, the same as this race.
Mind Control and Happy Farm get the oddsmaker's nod in a field of eight for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Tom Fool Handicap at Aqueduct. Mind Control won the Grade I H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at Saratoga last summer, was given time off and returned with a victory in the Grade III Toboggan at the Big A on Jan. 18. Happy Farm, long a denizen of the claiming ranks, emerged to win the Grade III Fall Highweight in December and finished second in the Gravesend on Dec. 22 in his most recent effort.
Got Stormy ships cross-country for Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita. The Mark Casse-trained mare was second in the Breeders' Cup Mile, yielding late to Uni, then won the Grade I Matriarch. After two months off, she was fourth in the Grade III Endeavour at Tampa Bay Downs and has been training in Florida since that heat. Several return from the Grade III Thunder Road on Feb. 8, including the winner, River Boyne. Ohio won last year's Kilroe Mile and returns.
Filly & Mare Turf
Starship Jubilee shoots for her third straight win and fifth from her last six starts when she lines up for Saturday's $225,000 Grade II Hillsborough Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. The 7-year-old Indy Wind mare has accounted for the Grade II Canadian and the Grade I E.P. Taylor, the Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf and the Grade III Suwanee River during that streak.
Among the rivals: Jehozacat and Altea, 1-2 in the recent Grade III Endeavour; Magic Star, second in the Suwanee River for trainer Chad Brown; and Juliana, an Ignacio Correas III trainee imported from Peru and making her first U.S. start.
Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs drew an international cast -- or at least a cast with international credentials. Past performances of the 12 entries show running lines from France, England, Ireland.
The race also drew the second- and third-place finishers from the Grade III Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 1 -- Micheline and Ivyetsu -- and New York Groove, undefeated in four all-weather starts and trying the green stuff for the first time. The strongest hands might be two with foreign experience -- 3-1 morning-line favorite Walk in Marrakesh and Outburst. But it's an interesting puzzle.
Around the world, around the clock:
"Super Saturday" at Meydan, already hit by defections to last week's $20 million Saudi Cup and its undercard, sustained another blow Thursday as officials announced the program will be run before empty stands as part of the effort to contain the corona virus.
Here's a brief look at the program:
The $600,000 Group 1 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 normally would be the final prep for the Dubai World Cup. This year, the leading candidate for that race, Benbatl, instead went for the gold in the Saudi Cup, he finished third. That, plus other factors, leaves this field somewhat lacking with only eight runners and little in the way of star power. Matterhorn and Military Law lead the way on international markets.
The $300,000 Al Bastakiya for 3-year-olds drew a field of 16. Down On Da Bayou, the filly who won the UAE Oaks, likely would have been in this had she not run in the Saudi Derby last weekend -- fading from contention late. This leads directly to the Group 3 UAE Derby, which effectively provides at clear path to the Kentucky Derby for the winner and runner-up. On the ratings, UAE 1000 Guineas winner Dubai Love and Al Bastakiya Trial winner Laser Show -- a pair of Godolphin runners -- should be in the mix.
Some heavy hitters, including 10-year-old Heavy Metal, report for the $350,000 Group 3 Burj Nahaar, a prelude to the Group 2 Godolphin Mile. Kimbear, Secret Ambition and Blitzkreig also are included in the 12-horse mix.
The $350,000 Group 3 Mahab Al Shimaal is 6 furlongs on the dirt and leads up to the Group 1 Golden Shaheen on World Cup night. It's another full field but one without a single Godolphin contestant. Early wagering on international markets focuses on Bochart, Ibn Malik and Switzerland.
Eleven are entered for the $350,000 Group 2 Dubai City of Gold, at 2,400 meters on the turf. This leads to the Group 1 Longines Dubai Sheema Classic. Last year's Group 1 Coronation Cup winner Defoe is in this one along with last year's Group 1 Pattison International winner Desert Encounter.
Godolphin fields five of the 13 set for the $400,000 Group 1 Jebel Hatta at 1,800 meters on the turf. This one is a preview of the Group 1 Dubai Turf on World Cup night. Prominent among the blue-clad bunch is Barney Roy, already a winner earlier in the Carnival program.
Space Blues returns to action for first time since last August in the $350,000 Group 3 Nad Al Sheeba Turf Sprint, a 6-furlong dash down the straight that previews the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint three weeks hence. Space Blues, one of three in the field from Godolphin, was second and third in Group 1 races in France last summer before going to the bench.
We Go remained undefeated on all-weather surfaces with a 1 1/2-lengths victory in Tuesday's Prix Anabaa at Chantilly, the last of three Fast-Track Qualifiers in France for this season's All-Weather Championships. We go earned a start in the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championships on Finals Day on April 10.
After racing from off the pace, the 4-year-old son of No Nay Never advanced between rivals inside the furlong marker to take the lead and was clearly best. Syrtis was second while the favorite, Spinning Memories, reported sixth. Pierre-Charles Boudot had the winning ride for trainer Henri-Alex Pantall.
The race has been a springboard. City Light won in 2018, went on to victory on Finals Day at Lingfield, then just missed in the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot, finishing a short head shy of Coolmore's Merchant Navy.
Saturday is Classic Day at Turffontine Racecourse with a pair of Grade 1 events at 1,800 meters for 3-year-olds.
Ikigai, riding a three-race winning streak, is prominent in the usual big field for the South African Classic. The Sean Tarry trainee, a son of Vercingetorix, steps up to Grade 1 for the first time with some authority. Frosted Gold and Shango also get support. Shango, by Captain of All, steps up in class with two straight wins to his credit. Frosted Gold finished second to Ikigai and Shango, respectively in his last two starts.
Summer Pudding puts her 4-for-4 mark on the line in the South African Fillies Classic. The Silvano filly, trained by Paul Peter, narrowly defeated Rio's Winter in the Gauteng Fillies Guineas in her most recent start and faces that rival again.
Saturday's Sandy Lane Gold Cup features Renaisance Frolic, recently imported to the Caribbean island by Sir David Seale, president of the Barbados Turf Club, and Rising Star, a competitor in last year's Queen's Plate.
This year's edition also will include the runner-up from December's Pitons Cup at Saint Lucia -- Colonel's Pride. He will be ridden by Chen Li, whose presence brings full circle a cooperative effort between the Barbados Turf Club and the China Horse Club, the driving force behind the expansion of racing in Saint Lucia. Chen Li was one of two Chinese jockeys sent to Barbados in 2017 to gain experience.
"Win or lose, it is a fantastic story and demonstrates the value of collaboration," CHC Vice President Eden Harrington said. "Win or lose, it is a fantastic story and demonstrates the value of collaboration."
The CHC also will field Run Bayou in the Gold Cup with James Chau booked to ride.
Trinidad is represented by Trini Aviator, who recently finished second in the Sians Gold Sprint on New Year's Day at Arima. Trinidad has taken home the Gold Cup on three previous occasions.
News and notes
The Breeders' Cup Board this week approved added safety measures and $4 million in purse increases for the Nov. 6-7 at Keeneland. The safety measures follow suggestions by renowned veterinarian Larry Bramlage and involve closer monitoring and testing before the races.
The purse hikes bring the two-day total for the World Championships to $35 million and the allocation will be rejiggered to pay down to the 10th position from the current 8th.
The Longines Breeders' Cup Classic gets a $1 million bump to $7 million, the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf purse goes up $2 million to $6 millon and the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile is hiked from $1 million to $2 million.
"These purse increases reflect the Breeders' Cup's mission to conduct the World Championships at the highest levels of quality and to keep our races competitive on the international stage," Breeders' Cup President and CEO Drew Fleming said.