April 17 (UPI) -- There's quality in lieu of quantity in this weekend's horse racing action with two "Grade A Prime" events at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and the belated start of 2-year-old action in Florida.
In Japan, 3-year-olds are the focus in the Grade 1 Satsuki Sho, or Japanese 2000 Guineas. Royal Randwick in Australia has the All Aged Stakes and the Champagne for 2-year-olds.
Elsewhere on the international front, jurisdictions from South Africa to France, Germany, England and Ireland are cobbling together plans to return to action once COVID-19 restrictions are eased.
Most proposals involve racing without fans and substantial reductions in purse levels to account for lost revenue. All depend on approval from health officials and local governments and, in some cases, there is opposition from forces traditionally aligned against racing under any circumstances.
Sad times, too, as Shamardal has died. See News and Notes.
But here's the good news:
Saturday's program has two races that look better than many Grade I events but aren't ranked at that level. So we'll label them "Grade A Prime" until the Graded Stakes Committee catches up with the vastly elevated status of racing in Arkansas.
The $600,000 Grade III Apple Blossom -- always one of the year's premier events for fillies and mares -- attracted talent from as far afield as California to tackle 1 1/16 miles.
Ce Ce, a 4-year-old daughter of Elusive Quality, arrives from the West Coast after back-to-back wins at Santa Anita in a February allowance event and the Grade I Beholder Mile on March 14.
She was fourth in the Grade I Acorn at Belmont Park last June before a seven-months break. The luck of the draw rather rudely parks the visitor in the outside gate in a field of 14 so jockey Victor Espinoza will have his work cut out for him.
Although it's her first trip to Oaklawn, Ce Ce's family has had its way with the joint. Elusive Quality is the sire of 2004 Arkansas Derby winner Smarty Jones, out Miss Houdini, the dam of 2009 Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem.
"Plenty of pedigree," trainer Mike McCarthy said Tuesday afternoon. "Bo Hirsch [Ce Ce's breeder] is a longtime breeder, so he's cultivated that family. This is kind of, obviously, an extension of that, going back through Miss Houdini and back on through these mares that have been in either his father's racing stable, broodmare band, or his."
Come Dancing and Serengeti Empress arrive from Fair Grounds for the Apple Blossom. Come Dancing, the 3-1 favorite on the morning line, was 4-for-6 last season, winding up with a sixth-place finish as the second-favorite in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.
The Malibu Moon filly makes her 2020 debut. Serengeti Empress, last year's Kentucky Oaks winner, ventured north from New Orleans to win the Grade II Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn last month -- her first victory since the Louisville triumph. She finished third in the 2019 Breeders' Cup Distaff.
There's plenty of upset potential in the rest of the field with the likes of Cookie Dough, Go Google Yourself, Lady Apple, Street Band, Point of Honor and Ollie's Candy ready to go. All are graded stakes winners and most have good recent form.
If we can't have a lot of races, it's good to have really nice ones like the Apple Blossom.
And the day's co-feature, the $350,000 Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap, is no slouch, either.
Whitmore, the prototypical "horse for the course," is the morning-line favorite. And why not? He won this event in 2017, repeated in 2018 and finished second last year.
The 7-year old Pleasantly Perfect gelding prepped for this with a win in the Hot Springs Stakes last month. Overall, he has won eight of his 13 starts at the Arkansas spa city and finished third in the Arkansas Derby.
Flagstaff, Bobby's Wicked One and Hidden Scroll make up the primary opposition, at least in the oddsmaker's estimation, in a field of 11 set for the 6-furlongs challenge. Flagstaff, a 6-year-old Speightstown gelding, arrives from California after winning the Grade II San Carlos at Santa Anita on March 7.
Bobby's Wicked One, a 5-year-old son of Speightstown, won his last two starts, both at Fair Grounds. Hidden Scroll comes from Florida, where he won an allowance event at Gulfstream Park March 1 -- his first start since last May. The 4-year-old Hard Spun colt was sixth as the favorite in last year's Florida Derby.
As with the Apple Blossom, there are many potential upset candidates in the Count Fleet.
Friday's program features the Rainbow and Rainbow Miss -- 6-furlongs events for Arkansas-breds. Zaino Boys travels from South Florida and the Daaher colt was installed as the 8-5 morning-line favorite for the Rainbow.
Don't you know, he drew the outside gate in a field of 10. He's won three of his last five starts, including the Inaugural Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs Dec. 7 -- back when things were "normal."
The Rainbow Miss has eight Arkansas-bred fillies with Proud Victoria a narrow morning-line favorite over The Mary Rose, Sekani and Choctaw Charlie.
By this time in a "normal" year, 2-year-olds would have been getting their first taste of racing at Keeneland. But with that spring meeting abandoned in the face of the corona virus pandemic, it's fallen to Gulfstream Park to get things started -- which they did on Thursday.
In the day's second heat, seven unraced fillies lined up with Lime as the odds-on favorite. The Iqbaal filly ran like a winner until late in the 4 1/2-furlongs test, when Quinoa Tifah rolled by on her outside to win by 3/4 length. It was another 9 3/4 lengths to Pretzel in third.
Quinoa Tifah, a Gemologist filly out of the Storm Cat mare Atrea, finished in 52.13 seconds with Emisael Jaramillo in the irons. Juan Alvarado trains for Arindel Farms, which also campaigns Cookie Dough, entered for Sunday's featured Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park (see above). Wesley Ward handles Lime, also out of a Storm Cat mare -- Queen's Lady.
"She's been training so great all winter. She's not really built like a 4 1/2-furlong type filly. She's a bigger, athletic type," Arindel's Brian Cohen said of Quinoa Tifah. "We weren't really planning on running her in the first couple of races. We were pushing her works farther apart, aiming for May, June and July.
"But she's been so quick and doing everything so easily, she was reminding us of Cookie Dough, having that kind of frame to her. No one was touching her, so we said, 'Maybe we should aim her for the early races.'"
Ward and Alvarado face off again Friday, this time with 2-year-old colts. Ward sends out the 7-5 morning-line favorite, Golden Pal, by Uncle Mo, while Alvarado fields Gatsby, a son of Bretheren.
Dreamforce, Santa Ana Lane and Fierce Impact look to have top claims in Saturday's Group 1 Schweppes All Aged Stakes at Royal Randwick. The 1,400-meters dash drew a full field with 14 to go.
Dreamforce, a 7-year-old gelding by Fastnet Rock, comes off an upset victory in the Group 1 George Ryder on March 21. Santa Ana Lane, a 7-year-old Lope de Vega gelding, exits a runner-up showing behind Nature Strip in the Group 1 T J Smith April 4. And Fierce Impact, a 6-year-old, Japanese-bred son of Deep Impact, has yet to win this season but has been close enough in three runs.
Bivouac, meanwhile, needs to turn around a trend that has seen the 3-year-old Exceed and Excel colt slide from a win in the Group 1 Newmarket Handicap March 7 to a third-place showing in the Group 1 William Reid two weeks later and a sixth in the Group 1 T J Smith April 4.
The other Group 1 on the Saturday card is the Moet & Chandon Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds with 10 set to tackle 1 mile. King's Legacy enters this on the back of a 19-1 upset score in the Group 1 Inglis Sires Stakes April 4, but the Redoute's Choice colt otherwise hasn't shown consistent form. Untamed has done, with two wins and a second from three starts but steps up in class here. Watch and learn.
While Australia features "all aged" and 2-year-olds, Japan's 3-year-old prospects -- including the winners of last season's two big juvenile races -- will be on display Sunday in the Grade 1 Satsuki Sho or Japanese 2000 Guineas at Nakayama Racecourse.
Salios looked like the real deal as a 2-year-old and makes his first start of the season with the highest of hopes. The Heart's Cry colt, an early foal arriving on Jan. 23, stormed through a newcomer event, won the Grade 3 Saudi Arabia Royal Cup and then captured the Grade 1 Asai Hai Futurity before going on break.
Trainer Noriyuki Hori said the Salios "showed last time in the Asahi Hai Futurity Stakes what he's capable of." But Hori cautioned, "He's still a young horse and inexperienced and we'll have to see from now what he can do."
He'll have plenty of challenge. Conrail, a Deep Impact colt, had a record similar to Salios's as a juvenile, winning at first asking, taking a Grade 3 event and then winning the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes. The Hopeful was 2,000 meters over the Nakayama turf, giving him an experience edge over Salios, who has yet to assay more than 1 mile.
"Everything's fine with him and, while he is a little on his toes, it would seem only natural for a horse like him," said Yusaku Oka, assistant to Contrail's trainer, Yoshito Yahagi.
Among the others: Weltreisende was second to Contrail in the Hopeful and already has a start this year, finishing second; Darlington Hall exits a Grade 3 win at Tokyo in February; Satono Flag boasts three consecutive wins, most recently the newly named Grade 2 Deep Impact Kinen at Nakayama; L'Excellence is 3-for-3 with wins out to 2,200 meters but takes a big class jump.
News and Notes
Shamardal, the mainstay of Darley's Irish breeding operation, was euthanized at age 18 after suffering through health issues, according to Kildangan Stud, where he stood for more than a decade."
Shamardal, a son of multiple Group 1 winner Giant's Causeway, won six of seven starts with four of the six wins coming in Group 1 events. His only loss came when tried on the dirt in Dubai. At stud, he sired 25 individual Group 1 winners with success across the globe, including Pinatubo, Blue Point, Able Friend and Mukhadram.
Able Friend was a superstar in Hong Kong. Blue Point was a champion sprinter in Dubai and Europe. Pinatubo went undefeated in five starts as a 2-year-old in 2019 with two Group 1 wins and will be a favorite should the British Classics get off the ground this year.
"Shamardal has been the mainstay of our Irish stallion roster for many years and will be sorely missed by the team at Kildangan," Racing Post quoted Sam Bullard, director of stallions at Darley, as saying.