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Churchill Downs ponders Derby timing

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Churchill Downs ponders Derby timing
Nadal wins Saturday's $1 million Rebel at Oaklawn Park, qualifying for the Kentucky Derby. Photo courtesy of Oaklawn Park

March 16 (UPI) Five-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert saw two more likely candidates for this year's Run for the Roses sparkle in weekend efforts, while Churchill Downs rang the warning bell about a potential delay of the race from its traditional first Saturday in May.

In a statement released Saturday, Churchill Downs officials clearly indicated they don't want to run the Derby without fans in attendance, noting it is "a cherished and important time for the city of Louisville and the Commonwealth of Kentucky," and that people travel from around the world to take part.

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"For these reasons, we have been working carefully and diligently with relevant health experts and authorities to ensure we make the most responsible decision regarding the timing of the 146th Kentucky Derby this year. a Churchill Downs statement said.

It added, "This is not a decision we take lightly and we expect to have an update about the Kentucky Derby and additional information on our upcoming spring meet in the coming week," the track said.

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Later in the day, Churchill Downs announced it will delay opening its barn area for two weeks, from March 17 to 31.

The Preakness Stakes, second jewel of the Triple Crown, is scheduled for May 16 at Pimlico in Baltimore. The final leg, the Belmont Stakes, is set for June 6. Churchill Downs' spring meet runs through June 27.

Whenever the races are run, it appears trainer Baffert will have a strong hand. With Authentic already safely qualified for the field and Thousand Words also in the Top 10, he sent out Nadal to win the $1 million Rebel at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas on Saturday, and then saw late-blooming Charlatan win handily in a Santa Anita allowance race.

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Field Pass captured the weekend's other Derby prep, the Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park in Kentucky but seems likely to take a pass on joining the Derby field.

The details:

Arkansas

Nadal ran very fast early in Saturday's $1 million Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park and held on gamely at the end to hold off 82-1 long shot Excession and win by 3/4 length. It was a further 7 lengths back to Basin in third. Nadal remained undefeated after three starts and earned 50 points to stand third on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leader board.

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It was a tough test for the Blame colt. He was pushed along aggressively through the early furlongs by fellow California shipper American Theorem, running the first quarter mile in 22.89 seconds and a half in 46.00 -- all over a sloppy, sealed track.

After disposing of American Theorem early on the stretch turn, Nadal got a little breather but then was back on the gas in the final furlong to secure the win, finishing 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.97 with Joel Rosario riding.

"We were hoping for that outcome," said Baffert, who won the Rebel for the seventh time. "We knew he was a good horse, but until they go two turns ... and then the way it set up, the speed duel and all. Pretty impressive when they can just keep going like that. Only the really good ones can do that."

Baffert said it's "a little early" to determine where Nadal will run next but promised one or another of his prospects "will be there" for the Arkansas Derby.

California

Baffert's chances grew even stronger Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita as Charlatan, a Speightstown colt, strode out boldly to win a 1-mile allowance race by 10 1/4 lengths, running his record to 2-for-2. He is on a schedule that would mirror that followed by Baffert's latest Triple Crown winner, Justify, but the silver-haired conditioner noted this year is going to be different.

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"We don't know if we'll run here in the Santa Anita Derby because nobody's really sure when anything is going to happen," the Blood-Horse quoted Baffert. "Churchill is saying they're not going to run the Derby without the people there, so I'm hearing maybe June or in September. I've never seen anything like this. It's kinda scary. Hopefully they can get everything under control."

Charlatan needs another race soon if only to get points toward a Kentucky Derby start. He currently has none.

Kentucky

Field Pass stalked the pace behind two rivals into the stretch run of Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park, found another gear in the final furlong and got by to score by a neck over the favorite, Invader. Fancy Liquor showed the way early and held third, another 2 lengths in arrears. Field Pass, by 1999 Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:49.43 with Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard.

It was the second straight win for the Mike Maker trainee, following a similar late-running score in the Dania Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf Feb. 1.

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"I was worried right down to the wire," Maker said. "I try to bring some of my better turf horses for the Ruby. It's paid off over the years. He ran a great race off the bench in the Dania Beach in a very competitive field and I thought he would run very well here. He's a good-sized horse. His conformation's great. Great mind on him."

Field Pass earned 20 Kentucky Derby points but it didn't sound after the race that he's likely to use them. Maker said he will discuss next steps with the owners but, "I'm guessing the American Turf on [Kentucky] Derby day."

On the Ruby undercard, the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes drew seven 3-year-olds whose past performance showed last races at six different tracks. But it was Vanzzy, a Verazzano colt last seen at Aqueduct, who seized the early lead and showed the others his heels, winning by 4 1/4 lengths as the favorite.

Blanket of Roses made up ground late to finish second but looked unlikely to live up to his name. Something Natural was third. Vanzzy, with Kendrick Carmouche aboard for trainer Michael Pino, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:43.89.

Vanzzy was second in the Parx Juvenile last November, albeit nearly 10 lengths adrift of the winner, Mischevious Alex, a Kentucky Derby contender. He was pulled up in the Grade III Withers at Aqueduct in his last race but Pino said he seemed okay after walking off the track -- a verdict seemingly borne out Saturday.

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Maryland

At Laurel Park, Lebda waited behind the early speed in Saturday's $100,000 Private Terms Stakes, took over smoothly when prompted by jockey Alex Cintron and ran on to win by 4 1/4 lengths. My Friends Beer was second, 1/2 length to the good of Mine Not Mine. Lebda, a Raison d'Etat colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.87.

He now is 2-for-2 this year having won the Miracle Wood over the same track in his 2020 debut for trainer Claudio Gonzalez. Lebda is not nominated to the Triple Crown and assistant trainer Troy Singh said plans call for him to remain at Laurel Park.

Also:

Shotski, winner of the Grade II Remson at Aqueduct last December, then second in the Grade III Withers and fourth in the Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, is headed to Dubai to contest the $2.5 million, Group 2 UAE Derby. That race, like his other option, the Florida Derby, offers 100-40-20-10 Kentucky Derby points.

"I think we'll be very competitive in the UAE Derby with a lot of prize money on the line and a lot of Derby points as well," trainer Jeremiah O'Dwyer said. "If we go out there and win or run big and take a step forward, then we're on the right track. I'm a big believer in finding good spots for my horses to gain confidence and win races."

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The standings:

Baffert's undefeated San Felipe Stakes winner, Authentic, remains atop the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 60 points. There's a four-way logjam after that with Nadal, Gotham winner Mischevious Alex, Risen Star winner Modernist and Tampa Bay Derby winner King Guillermo each holding 50 points. The top 10 is rounded out by Enforceable, Storm the Court, Sole Volante and Thousand Words.

Next week:

Saturday's Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds has 100 points awaiting the winner. The lukewarm morning-line favorite in a field of 14 is Enforceable, the Lecomte Stakes winner and second in the other division of the Risen Star. He already has banked 33 points. Sunday's Sunland Derby in New Mexico runs on the 50-20-10-5 scale.

In other action this weekend:

Kentucky Oaks preps

Queen of God was along late to land Saturday's $150,000 Maxim Crane Works Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway Park by 3/4 length over Pass the Plate. Impeccable Style was third, another 1 1/2 lengths in arrears, and the favorite, Laura's Light, faded from the lead to finish fourth. Queen of God, a Paynter filly, toured 1 mile on the all-weather surface in 1:37.77 with Irad Ortiz Jr. riding for trainer Mike Maker.

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"She was in great position to win," Maker said. "This was her first race on Polytrack. Very pleased with result. She's a very game, aggressive filly." He said the owners are out of the country and will be consulted about her next race. She has four wins from seven starts, including a minor stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf in her previous outing.

At Laurel Park in Maryland, Princess Cadey burst through along the rail late in Saturday's $100,000 Beyond the Wire Stakes and jetted away to win by 7 lengths.

The favorite, Naughty Thoughts, finished second, 1 1/4 lengths to the good of Bella Aurora. Princess Cadey, a Dialed In filly from the Sandpit mare Dyrce, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.24 with Angel Cruz up. After a bad bout of seconditis last season, she finally broke through in her ninth start. As a 3-year-old, she has two wins, a second and a third from four tries.

Classic

Night Ops came rolling late from the middle of the pack to win Saturday's $350,000 Essex Handicap by 1 1/4 lengths over long-time leader Snapper Sinclair. Pioneer Spirit trailed another 1/2 length in third. Night Ops, a 4-year-old Warrior's Reward colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a sloppy track in 1:44.09 with Joe Talamo in the irons.

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"He handled [the slop] fine," The Blood-Horse quoted Talamo. "He was getting over it really well. I had a lot of horse the whole way, so it was just a matter of getting out when I could. He's one of those horses, definitely have to ride him. He doesn't give it to you easy. But when he does, he gives you everything he's got."

Night Ops now has won two of his three starts at the Oaklawn meeting with a third-place finish in the other -- the Fifth Season Stakes.

At Turfway Park, Nun the Less made up ground around the stretch turn in Saturday's $150,000 TwinSpires Kentucky Cup Classic, took command down the stretch and won by 4 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Somelikeithotbrown. Signalman rallied from far back to finish third. Nun the Less, an 8-year-old Candy Ride gelding, ran 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:48.80 with Rodney Prescott riding.

"The horse couldn't be doing any better," Prescott said of Nun the Less, who also won the event last year. "He does like this track and he had a great trip. I couldn't have asked for anything better today."

At Laurel Park, Senior Investment set a pressured pace through the early furlongs of Saturday's $100,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial, then found another gear down the stretch, pulling away to win by 5 lengths for his third straight win.

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Name Changer was second with the favorite, Alwaysmining, third after pressing the winner early. Senior Investment, a 6-year-old son of Discreetly Mine, got 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.96 with Emmanuel Esquivel in the irons. At this time last year, he was in Dubai, finishing fourth in the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2.

It's more a marathon, at least by American terms, but: Sky Promise and Campaign were so far back of the leaders entering the final turn of Friday's $125,000 Temperence Hill at Oaklawn Park that they could have been contesting the next race.

But an early pace battle in the 1 1/12-miles affair took its toll and the last became first -- and second. Sky Promise, under Orlando Mojica, took an inside route, split rivals and held the lead through the final sixteenth. Campaign, going overland, was closing with every stride but fell a neck short. Remembering Rita had enough left after contesting the pace to salvage third. Sky Promise, a 5-year-old son of Sky Mesa, finished in 2:33.00 over a sloppy track.

Distaff

Ce Ce cruised right by the pacesetting favorite, Hard Not to Love, exiting the second turn in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Beholder Mile at Santa Anita and ran on smoothly to win by 3 1/4 lengths over that rival. It was another 3 3/4 lengths back to Ollie's Candy in third.

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Ce Ce, a 4-year-old daughter of Elusive Quality, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.33 with Victor Espinoza at the controls. She had a long break after finishing fourth in last year's Grade I Acorn at Belmont Park, then returned to win an allowance event at Santa Anita on Feb. 1 in preparation for the Beholder Mile.

"I've always thought she was really good," trainer Michael McCarthy said of Ce Ce. "Last spring, I thought she could be any kind. Unfortunately, she got hurt after the Acorn which made us take a step back and take some time off. She has come back and hasn't missed a beat. I kind of wanted to wait for Keeneland, but I'm glad we didn't after today's result."

Last year's Kentucky Oaks winner, Serengeti Empress, strutted her stuff in Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park, leading all the way to a 6 1/4-lengths win, ridden out by Joe Talamo. Mylady Curlin was second, 3/4 length in front of Saracosa. Serengeti Empress, an Alternation filly, finished 1 1/16 miles on a sloppy, sealed track in 1:44.46.

Serengeti Empress had not won since the Kentucky Oaks score, but had finished second and third in top-graded stakes. She also was second in her 4-year-old debut, the Grade III Houston Ladies Classic, in her most recent start.

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"I really felt like the Sam Houston race was a missed opportunity," said Serengeti Empress' trainer, Tom Amoss. "There was no secret what the plan was going to be today. We took it to them early and she set such a blistering pace. It's the kind of pace that a lot of people would not think she could withstand, or a racehorse could withstand. But she's a little different."

He said the $1 million Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn on April 18 is the next target.

At Turfway Park, Rogue Too went quickly to the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Latonia Stakes, increased the advantage as the furlongs ticked off and won by 5 3/4 lengths. Speedy Solution was second-best, 4 lengths in front of Harmless. Rogue Too, a 4-year-old First Dude filly, ran 1 mile on the all-weather track in 1:36.94 for jockey Rogelio Miranda.

Arrifana put a nose in front of Horologist to secure victory as the odds-on favorite in Saturday's $100,000 Nellie Morse Stakes at Laurel Park. It was another 9 1/2 lengths back to Needs Supervision in third. Arrifana, a 4-year-old Curlin filly, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.95 with Julien Pimentel in the irons.

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Sprint

Bango tracked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Mayers Electric Company Animal Kingdom Stakes for 3-year-olds at Turfway Park, responded when jockey Rafael Bejarano got after him at mid-stretch and kicked clear, winning by 2 1/2 lengths. The early leader, My Man Flintstone, finished second, a head in front of the favorite, Merchants of Cool, who blew the start. Bango, a Congrats colt, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:16.50.

Filly and Mare Sprint

Sally's Curlin rallied seven-wide from last of nine to post the upset win in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Hurricane Bertie at 7 furlongs over a fast Gulfstream Park track. Wildwood's Beauty tracked right behind the winner from the back of the pack to finish second, 2 3/4 lengths back and 1 lengths in front of Pauseforthecause, who paid the price for contesting a hot early pace. Sally's Curlin, a 4-year-old Curlin filly, finished in 1:22.84, winning for the fifth time in her last seven starts.

"We saw what she was made of at the end of last year," trainer Dale Romans said of Sally's Curlin. "We knew this was going to be her year ...With this performance, the sky's the limit. The way she ran today, I didn't know she was going to run that big. It might change things. We might have to look for some bigger stuff."

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At Aqueduct on Saturday, Piedi Bianchi prevailed in a four-way photo at the end of Saturday's $100,000 Correction Stakes at Aqueduct. The 5-year-old Overanalyze mare got there a head in front of Slimey with Kept True unable to hold a late lead, finishing third, another head back.

Bridlewood Cat recovered from a stumbling start to get home fourth, just a neck farther in arrears. Piedi Bianchi, with Jorge Vargas Jr. in the irons, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:13.51. She now owns a two-race winning streak and trainer Carlos Martin said she could stretch out to 1 mile in the $250,000 Grade II Ruffian May 3 at Belmont Park.

In other action:

Fair Grounds

Net a Bear took back to last in Saturday's $60,000 Red Camilia Stakes for Louisiana-bred fillies and mares, then made up all the ground to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Is Too held a big early lead and salvaged second, 1 length ahead of Tap Dance Star. The favorite, Room to Finish, beat only one rival. Net a Bear, a 4-year-old Awesome Bet filly, ran about 1 mile on firm turf in 1:39.69. Timothy Thornton rode.

Aqueduct

Dream Bigger dueled to the lead in Sunday's $100,000 Damon Runyon Stakes for New York-bred 3-year-olds and kicked away sharply to win by 7 3/4 lengths. More Graytful was second, 3/4 length in front of Bourbon Bay. Dream Bigger, a Mission Impazible colt, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.89 with Junior Alvarado up.

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Sunland Park

Restrainedvengeance battled down the stretch with Gato Guapo before inching clear to win Sunday's $75,000 Curribot Handicap by 3/4 length over that rival. It was another 6 lengths to Raagheb in third. Restrainedvengeance, a 5-year-old Hold Me Back gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.32 under Francisco Arrieta.

Around the world, around the clock:

We don't usually concern ourselves with horses jumping over things or pulling things behind themselves. But here's a brief exception for Friday's Group 1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Al Boum Photo and Santini were virtually side-by-side at the final jump but it was Al Boum Photo finding just enough to score by a neck -- his second straight win in the extended 3 1/4-miles race. The 8-year-old son of Buck's Boum, ridden by Paul Townend, becomes the first back-to-back winner of jump racing's top prize since Best Mate's threepeat in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

Trainer Willie Mullins gave Al Boum Photo the same prep as in 2019 -- one start, and that a win in the Group 3 Savills Chase at Tramore on New Year's Day. "We just decided not to break winning formula and just take in the same preparation as he did last year. Don't break a winning formula when it works and it's paid off, thankfully," Mullins said.

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By the way, the COVID-19 crisis wasn't enough to keep British racing fans away from the important jumps meet. The four-day event drew a record 251,684 fans, with 60,664 on hand Friday. Those figures are down slightly from 2019, but 2019 attendance was at record levels.

Australia

Con Te Partiro, after failing to get into foal during the Southern Hemisphere breeding cycle, came out of retirement to win Saturday's Group 1 Coolmore Classic at Rosehill. The 6-year-old Scat Daddy mare, winner of the 2017 Sandringham Handicap for former trainer Wesley Ward, now will move along to another Group 1 target at Randwick as the season heads toward winter.

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