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Arkansas Derby heads weekend racing; Churchill Downs, Santa Anita plan reopenings

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Arkansas Derby heads weekend racing; Churchill Downs, Santa Anita plan reopenings
Nadal, shown winning the Grade II Rebel, returns to Oaklawn Park on Saturday as the favorite in the tougher of two divisions of the Grade I Arkansas Derby. Photo courtesy of Oaklawn Park

May 1 (UPI) -- Conditions look a little brighter on the horse racing front this weekend with a "double your fun" Arkansas Derby on tap and a government OK for Churchill Downs to reopen for racing later this month.

Santa Anita also is making plans to resume racing, pending final word from its local health officials. But the situation remains fluid in New York, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo casting doubt on a summer season at Saratoga.

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Churchill Downs will start accepting horses May 11, using a "phased, systematic approach," and will resume racing without fans five days later. The track will run four days a week and a condition book and revised stakes schedule is expected this weekend.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, said he doubts Saratoga can conduct racing this summer but his statement indicated he might not be up to speed on plans to run without fans in attendance.

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The governor's issue, as he stated it, is, "You can't open an attraction that could bring people from across the state to that attraction and overwhelm a region."

The New York Racing Association has been developing plans to race without spectators, so Cuomo's issues is difficult to fathom. Even without on-track handle, NYRA would derive significant revenue from Saratoga's world-class racing through advance-deposit wagering, off-track betting and other sources.

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Santa Anita, meanwhile, released a condition book for racing starting May 15. The track awaits word from local health officials on its carefully crafted and broadly supported plan to resume competition and also without spectators.

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Officials said the conditional plans give owners and trainers a chance to prepare their horses for when an OK comes.

On the international front, Japanese stayers will try 2 miles in the Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Spring) on Sunday, while a few Hong Kong stayers are set for the 1 1/2-miles Group 3 Queen Mother Memorial Cup.

The weekend's main racing action, however, remains in central Arkansas, where the Grade I Arkansas Derby was split into two divisions -- like an old-style baseball doubleheader with two games for the price of one. Each division drew 11 entries, but, after scratches, only nine are expected to go in each heat.

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While there's not a whole lot of action, what there is, is hard enough to figure. For help, take a look at what ace analyst Jude Feld thinks at popejude.com.

The Road to the Roses

Trainer Bob Baffert, looking for a sixth Kentucky Derby victory, has the favorite in both divisions of the Arkansas Derby -- the undefeated Charlatan in the first heat and the undefeated Nadal in the second, which looks like the tougher challenge. Right. They both sport perfect records, albeit in limited action.

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The first division, the 11th race on a 14-race program, looks particularly lopsided. On paper and by the figures, Charlatan towers above the nine rivals he's facing. The Speightstown colt won at first asking at Santa Anita on Feb. 16 by 5 3/4 lengths.

He tackled two turns in his only other start, winning that by 10 1/4 lengths. He earned Beyer Speed Figures of 105 and 106 for those efforts, and no other horse in Saturday's field has come close to triple digits in that measurement.

As the saying goes, though, they run these races for a reason. And Charlatan still has some things to prove. For example, he faced only three rivals in his first start and four in second.

The challenges posed by the bigger field on Saturday are compounded by the fact he drew the No. 1 gate and will need to break sharply. And, of course, he shipped from California.

Still, the even-money estimate on the morning line looks about right.

Those trying to prove the favorite is (sorry!) a charlatan might look to Gouverneur Morris, a Constitution colt who exits a fourth-place finish in the Grade I Florida Derby, or Anneau d'Or, a Medaglia d'Oro colt who finished second to Court Vision in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and second to the Baffert-trained Thousand Words in the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity, but finished ninth in a division of the Risen Star at Fair Grounds in his only previous start as a 3-year-old.

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Things are tighter in the second division of the Arkansas Derby. Nadal is the narrow, 5-2 favorite after victories in the Grade II San Vicente and the Grade II Rebel -- the latter in an earlier trip to Arkansas.

The Blame colt shipped back to California after the March 14 Rebel and shipped back east after a sizzling bullet work at Santa Anita on Sunday.

Nadal faces some proven foes, including the 2019 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Storm the Court. That rival, however, hasn't shown a lot this year, finishing fourth in the San Vicente and a well-beaten third in the Grade II San Felipe. Trainer Peter Eurton gives the Court Vision colt another chance.

King Guillermo never should have been 49-1 when he won the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby March 7 (you had him, right?) and is 3-1 on Saturday's morning line. The Uncle Mo colt has won on both dirt and grass.

Wells Bayou was second in the local Grade III Southwest Stakes, and then shipped south to win the Grade II Louisiana Derby in his last start.

On form, Nadal, King Guillermo and Wells Bayou all should be near the lead on Saturday, and a pace duel could open the door to a closer like Oaklawn Stakes runner-up Farmington Road.

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Charlatan has no Kentucky Derby points and needs to get some Saturday, since there is no guarantee where or when future opportunities will arise. Storm the Court has 32 points and stands No. 13 on the leader board -- no guarantee of a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate.

Others in the two fields are likely well set for the Run for the Roses. Wells Bayou stands second with 104 points, Nadal and King Guillermo are No. 7 and No. 10, respectively, with 50 points, and Nadal ahead on earnings.

Kentucky Oaks preps

Friday's $400,000 Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park attracted a full field of 14 with British Idiom, Venetian Harbor and Swiss Skydiver as the standouts.

British Idiom, a daughter of Flashback, won all three starts as a juvenile for trainer Brad Cox, including the Grade I Alcibiades at Keeneland and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. She was second in her only previous start this season, behind Finite in the Grade II Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds.

Venetian Harbor, a Munnings filly, enters after a victory in the Grade II Las Virgenes at Santa Anita, her second straight win after finishing second in her career debut.

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Swiss Skydiver, a daughter of Daredevil, was third in the Rachel Alexandra, but then won the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks by 3 1/4 lengths, leading from the start.

The Gulfstream victory landed Swiss Skydiver No. 1 on the Churchill Downs leaderboard for a spot in the Kentucky Oaks with 110 points. British Idiom is seventh with 50 and Venetian Harbor, at No. 20 with 10 points, stands in need of improvement.

Otherwise:

Oaklawn Park

The Arkansas Derby is far from the only action in Arkansas this weekend. Sandwiched between the two divisions of that race is the $600,000 Grade II Oaklawn Handicap with a full field of 14 and lots of possibilities.

The puzzle is complex enough that Combatant is the favorite on the morning line at odds of 4-1. He arrives from California off a victory in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap March 7 -- his only graded stakes win.

It's worth noting, though, that two years ago he was second in the Southwest, third in the Rebel and fourth in the Arkansas Derby over the Oaklawn oval.

If that's too risky, how about Tacitus, making his first start since finishing fifth in the $20 million Saudi Cup Feb. 28 in Riyadh? He finished second in last year's Grade I Belmont, Grade II Jim Dandy and Grade I Travers. Tacitus and By My Standards are co-second on the line.

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The latter might have a five-race winning streak going if he hadn't been wiped out at the start in the Kentucky Derby, where he then reported 12th. He comes off a win in the Grade II New Orleans Classic on March 21.

Baffert doesn't get a break between the Arkansas Derby divisions, saddling Improbable in the Oaklawn Handicap. The City Zip colt was victimized by some tough trips late last year but finished second in the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby last season. He got no favors in the draw for Saturday's race and jockey Martin Garcia starts him from the No. 14 slot.

Trainer Dale Romans has Mr. Freeze, who finished second to Mucho Gusto in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Jan. 25, then won the Grade II Gulfstream Park Mile in his most recent start on Leap Day.

Warrior's Charge looks likely to go for the lead and won the Grade III Razorback that way in his last outing on Feb. 17, beating the talented Bankit by a head. Trainer Chris Block escapes the gloom of Illinois racing with Captivating Moon, who was second to By My Standards at Fair Grounds last month.

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Also on Friday, 11 state-breds are lined up for Friday's $165,000 Arkansas Breeders' Championship Stakes. The favorite, K J's Nobility, seeks his third straight win at the track, where he finished second in this race a year ago.

Gulfstream Park

Saturday's program at the South Florida track has a pair of 1 1/16-miles turf races for 3-year-olds.

The Honey Ryder Stakes for fillies has an overflow field with the 8-5 morning-line favorite, Envoutante, stuck on the rail. The Uncle Mo filly, trained by Kenny McPeek, took three tries to get to the winner's circle, accomplishing the feat in her last start on April 2 -- by 6 1/2 lengths.

That was on the dirt, however, so we shall see. Among the others, Highland Glory comes off a win in the Sanibel Island Stakes and Mimina's Team exits a maiden win on the Gulfstream grass.

The companion English Channel Stakes also has a full starting gate and several logical contenders. Among those catching the oddsmaker's eye are Gufo, Summer to Remember, South Bend, Proven Strategies and Island Commish. Gufo, a Declaration of War colt, has two straight wins over the course, both by narrow margins.

Over the ocean:

Japan

Last year's winner, Fierement, seeks a repeat in Sunday's Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Spring), the Emperor's Cup, at Kyoto Racecourse. The race is contested at 3,200 meters, about 2 miles, over the outer turf course and provides one of Japan's sternest tests of stamina.

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Fierement, a 5-year-old son of Deep Impact, won the Grade 1 Kikuka Sho, or Japanese St. Leger, in 2018 but has raced sparingly since then. The Tenno Sho will be only his 10th career start.

He traveled to France last fall to continue Japan's frustrating quest to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomph, finishing 12th over unsuitable heavy ground. He was fourth in the Arima Kinen in December and has not run since.

You Can Smile, fifth in last November's Japan Cup, enters off a victory in the Grade 2 Hanshin Daishoten over 3,000 meters March 22 -- one of the primary preps for this race. The 5-year-old son of King Kamehameha is tested at the distance, having won the Grade 3 Diamond Stakes at 3,400 meters some 14 months ago at Tokyo Racecourse.

Six-year-old Mikki Swallow won the other main prep race, the Grade II Nikkeo Sho over 2,500 meters at Nakayama in March. The son of Tosen Homaribashi -- and thus a grandson of Deep Impact -- has not tried Grade 1 company since December of 2018, when he finished 12th in the Arima Kinen. He has never been close at this level.

The relatively wide-open field could be an opportunity for Kiseki, who won the 2017 Kikuka Sho but since has been second three times and once third in Grade 1 events without winning.

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Hong Kong

Sunday's feature at Sha Tin Racecourse is the Group 3 Queen Mother Memorial Cup Handicap at 2,400 meters. Helene Leadingstar looks to land his third straight win -- a turnaround after 14 failures that came to an end in March.

The 5-year-old Wanted gelding, trained by Tony Cruz, won the Group 1 South Australian Derby going 2,500 meters in his final start before being shipped to Hong Kong. He was third in this race last year.

"He's got a big chance," said Cruz, who won the Queen Mother Memorial in 2018 with Exultant. "He's won two races already and I'm very happy with him leading into this. I was really pleased with his barrier trial and I expect him to show us his ability over the mile and a half. He'll see out the distance easily."

It's a short field for the longish race as Hong Kong's horse population is not oversupplied with stayers. The only four rivals for Helene Leadingstar are all John Moore charges: Eagle Way, Helene Charisma, Chefano and Savvy Nine. All finished behind Helene Leadingstar in that one's last victory.

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