May 4 (UPI) -- Trainer Bob Baffert, with five Kentucky Derby victories under his belt, is the king of the first Saturday in May -- even when, because of the coronavirus, the race staged that day was in Hot Springs, Ark., rather then Louisville, Ky.
Baffert not only swept the two divisions of Saturday's $500,000 Arkansas Derby, but also did it with a pair of undefeated 3-year-olds who stood head and shoulders above some tough competition.
If the Kentucky Derby had been run on its usual date Saturday, there's no telling how the silver-haired trainer might have fared. The Arkansas winners, Charlatan and Nadal, are only part of his talented 3-year-old team.
The Arkansas Derby and Oaklawn Handicap were the headline attractions on yet another short weekend of racing due to the pandemic. Gulfstream Park contributed a pair of nice turf stakes.
On the international front, Fierement repeated as Tenno Sho (Spring) champion in Japan and Hong Kong's few stayers amused themselves at Sha Tin Racecourse in a preview of the final local Group 1 race of the seasons.
Here is how things went:
The Road to the Roses
There was not a lot to the running of the Arkansas Derby divisions as Charlatan and Nadal made it look easy.
Charlatan, a Speightstown colt making only his third career start and first in a stakes race, got away cleanly from the inside gate and the first division basically was over. He quickly was 2 lengths in front of the field and went on to win by 6 lengths in 1:48.49 under Martin Garcia.
Second and third, respectively, behind Charlatan were Basin, winner of last summer's Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga, and Gouverneur Morris, a Constitution colt who finished second in the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last fall. Both lost ground to Charlatan through the final furlong.
In the second division, Nadal wasn't quite as quick out of the gate as Wells Bayou, who fired right to the lead and showed the way down the backstretch. Jockey Joel Rosario positioned Nadal, a son of Blame, right behind that rival, moved up on the turn and was in command down the stretch, winning by 3 lengths in 1:48.34.
Tampa Bay Derby winner King Guillermo made a threatening move but settled for second. Finnick the Fierce, a 62-1 long shot, was third. Wells Bayou, after being pushed along by Nadal, faded through the final furlong to finish sixth and last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old champion, Storm the Court, continued to disappoint, reporting sixth.
"Very exciting day, to say the least," Baffert said by phone from California. "I thought both horses were going to run really well. Charlatan, what a talent he is and how fast he is. I just loved the way, third out, to ship and to do that, what he did today -- only the really good ones can do that.
"And Nadal ... he's a tough horse. There's a lot to him and he's a cool customer and I could see he's getting better and better.
"I just told Rosario to just get him running away from there and if somebody just gets ridiculous, like I thought maybe Florent (Geroux, on Wells Bayou), he would probably try to get the lead, but don't be worried about this horse sitting off a horse and he handled it well. Down the backside, I just loved the way he was.
"I figured if he was good enough, he can win from there. ... It worked out perfectly."
Oaklawn Park agreed to split the race and put up $500,000 for each division despite a dramatic drop in revenue because of its casino was closed and fans were banned in the stands.
"I just want to thank the Cella family and Oaklawn Park for the fantastic job," Baffert said. "Just fortunate and happy that they were able to split it and give everybody a chance to get some Derby points."
Nadal already was fairly comfortably set in the Kentucky Derby field before the race but Charlatan had no points on the Churchill Downs leader board.
Churchill Downs agreed to provide the full points award for each division of the Arkansas Derby, so Nadal now tops the list with 150 points and Charlatan vaulted into the No. 4 spot with 100. King Guillermo is No. 5 with 90 points and Basin is in a three-way tie for the 10th spot with 50 points.
Meanwhile, back in California, Baffert awaits a decision on whether Santa Anita will be allowed to reopen with pandemic protocols in place. If it does, Baffert has Authentic, regarded before Saturday as his best 3-year-old, awaiting the Santa Anita Derby. Azul Coast and Thousand Words still have long shot chances during the extended prep season.
Churchill Downs officials have promised to add more points-scoring races to the Derby schedule since the race itself has been postponed until Sept. 5. But with uncertainty still remaining about if and when racing might resume in major centers such as New York and California, no new races have been tabbed yet.
The Road to the Kentucky Oaks
Friday's $400,000 Grade III Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park turned into a match race between the odds-on favorite, California invader Venetian Harbor, and Florida visitor Swiss Skydiver.
Venetian Harbor led throughout, with Swiss Skydiver gradually cutting into her early lead. In the final furlong, Swiss Skydiver flew by and went on to win by 2 1/2 lengths. It was a further 10 3/4 lengths to Shedaresthedevil in third.
Last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner British Idiom was 10th, never in the mix. Swiss Skydiver, a Daredevil filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.00 with Brian Hernandez Jr. up for trainer Kenny McPeek.
Swiss Skydiver made it two straight wins. She took the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks in her previous run. Venetian Harbor, a Munnings filly, won the Grade Las Virgines Stakes in her previous start but had been working at Oaklawn since the coronavirus protocols shuttered Santa Anita.
"There really aren't a lot of options out there right now," McPeek said about Swiss Skydiver's future. "I think they will reschedule the Ashland [Grade I, Kenneland], so it sets up for the [Kentucky] Oaks. It would be a pretty good year to win the Gulfstream Park Oaks, The Fantasy, the Ashland and the Kentucky Oaks."
In other action:
By My Standards showed he belongs in the top ranks of the nation's handicap horses with a convincing win over a talented field in Saturday's $600,000 Grade II Oaklawn Handicap.
The 4-year-old Goldencents colt followed the leader, Warrior's Charge, into the stretch turn, worked by that rival and was in command down the lane, winning by 1 3/4 lengths.
The favorite, Mr Freeze, made up some ground late to be third and Tacitus, running for the first time since finishing fifth in the $20 million Saudi Cup, settled for fourth with a bit of a rough trip. By My Standards, with Gabriel Saez in the irons, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:47.80.
By My Standards won last year's Louisiana Derby and finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby. He did not race again as a 3-year-old but has won all three starts this year, including the Grade II New Orleans Classic.
"He stepped up against a great field of horses," trainer Bret Calhoun said. "Lot of depth in it. He just kind of confirmed what we've been thinking of him. It's nice for him to prove it on the racetrack ... Gabe did a great job of getting position in the first turn.
"You didn't want to be overconfident at that point and time, but I found myself feeling pretty comfortable early in the race, once he got that position away from the gate."
Man in the Can had a perfect stalking trip in Friday's $165,000 Arkansas Breeders' Championship Stakes, taking the lead from the longshot pacesetter in the lane, then holding off the favorite, K J's Nobility, to win by a neck.
Prospector Fever was third, 3 1/2 lengths farther back. Man in the Can, a 3-year-old Can the Man colt running against older rivals, got 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.25 with Joel Rosario riding.
Piece of My Heart got an easy lead in Friday's $80,000 Gardenia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, then found enough in reserve to persevere, winning by 1 1/2 lengths over Comical.
The favorite, Antoinette, was third, lacking a late rally. Piece of My Heart, a Florida-bred Flat Out filly, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.28 with Joe Talamo up.
Gufo, last of 12 through the early going, came running with a vengeance in the final furlong of Saturday's $75,000 English Channel Stakes for 3-year-olds, nailed pacesetting Proven Strategies 50 yards out and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over that one.
Summer to Remember was third. Gufo, a Declaration of War colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:39.70 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons. The Christophe Clement trainee now has three straight wins, all at Gulfstream.
"Going into this race, the only concern that we would have had is that maybe the distance would be a touch short for him," said Miguel Clement, the trainer's son and assistant.
"We're convinced that he would actually stay and go further. He's incredibly exciting. I don't know what is next because of the schedule and everything taking place in racing, but he is definitely a horse with a big future, without a doubt."
In the companion $75,000 Honey Ryder Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, Micheline got first run to the lead in the lane and easily outfinished the favorite, Highland Glory, winning by 2 1/4 lengths.
Stunning Sky was just a nose back of that one in third while the favorite, Envoutante, was fourth, another 2 lengths back. Micheline, a Godolphin homebred daughter of Bernardini, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:41.10 with Joe Bravo at the controls.
She was second in the Grade III Sweetest Chant Stakes at Gulfstream before finishing seventh in the Grade 3 Florida Oaks over the Tampa Bay Downs greensward in her most recent start.
"I talked to Bravo yesterday, we talked about the race, and I just said she just needs to get a better trip than she got last time with some speed to run at," winning trainer Mike Stidham said. "He gave her a perfect inside trip, got her out turning for home and she made her kick that we know she's got. It was sweet."
In Saturday's third stakes event, odds-on favorite Network Effect found running room along the rail early in the stretch drive of the $100,000 Big Drama Stakes, shot through and pulled away, winning by 2 lengths.
Noble Drama made a dramatic, last-to-first move to take a late lead, but only could salvage second after Network Effect sailed by. Last Judgment was third. Network Effect, a 4-year-old colt by Mark Valeski, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.79 with Ortiz riding.
"I had horse the whole time," Ortiz said. "At the three-eighths pole I asked him a little bit and he jumped on the heels of the horse on front of me, so I said, 'Let me just leave him here,' and I knew when something opened he was going to be there for me."
Sunday's Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Spring) is run at 2 miles and the defending champion, Fierement, needed every step of that distance to get a repeat victory. He also added a bit to the distance, circling most of the field turning for home.
With Christophe Lemaire up, the 5-year-old son of Deep Impact raced well back through the first mile over the Kyoto Racecourse turf, edged a little closer during the second run down the backstretch and was making his move through the final turn.
In the final 200 meters, pacesetting Kiseki had enough and began fading, leaving the lead for long shot Stiffelio, who looked to have a major upset in the bag. But Fierement found just enough, ranging up on his outside to put his nose on the wire first. Mikki Swallow finished third as Fierement finished in 3:16.5 over firm turf.
"The pace was ideal and I was almost sure it would be an easy win for us," Lemaire said. "But he wasn't focused at times, so as it turned out we had to fight hard to the line. But in spite of the long distance and the wide draw, he was unhurried earlier in the race and had the strength left to charge home the way he did. Everything went well.
"I'm thankful to the fans rooting for us at home. I look forward to seeing them in the stands very soon," Lemaire added, referring to the eerie sight of empty Japanese grandstands thanks to coronavirus protocols.
Fierement did not start as a 2-year-old, then made four starts in 2018 and five last year, returning from a 12th place finish in the Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe to finish fourth in the Grade 1 Arima Kinen on Dec 22.
Trainer Takahisa Tezuka said before the Tenno Sho the break had helped Fierement recover from his overseas exertions.
"He's completely refreshed after last year's Arima Kinen, and he's just how I think he should be going into this race," Tezuka said.
The only remaining Group 1 event on this season's Hong Kong schedule is the Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup on May 24, the second top-level staying race of the year after the Longines Hong Kong Vase. Normally, these 1 1/2-miles events draw significant international competition as Hong Kong's horse population is not exactly stuffed with stayers.
That situation was on full display Sunday in the Grade 3 Queen Mother Memorial Cup as only five faced the starter.
It turned into an exciting race, though. Chefano, one of four from the John Moore barn, set a leisurely early pace. He was joined at the end of the backstretch run by Eagle Way and the favorite, Helene Leadingstar. That trio raced side by side around the turn.
Chefano, with Matthew Chadwick in the kip, put away those two rivals with 250 meters left and carried on nicely, winning by 2 1/4 lengths. Savvy Nine and Helene Charisma picked up the pieces to finish second and third.
"I said he'd stay all day," Moore said of Chefano. "He's by a sire, Silvano, who went over a mile and a half and he was off a light weight, so from that point of view I had no worries about getting the distance."
Silvano won the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Sha Tin in 2001 and went on to take the Grade I Arlington Million five months later. He has produced a slew of stakes winners in South Africa, where Chefano was bred and started his racing career.
Moore said all four of his Sunday runners will be considered for the Champions & Chater Cup. But, with travel restrictions effectively barring foreign entries, the way seems clear for Exultant, Hong Kong's pre-eminent stayer, to dominate the domestic rivals and build his case for Horse of the Year honors.