Kentucky Derby, Oaks hopefuls test their stuff from coast to coast

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Firnas wins Thursday's feature at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, The Entisar. Photo by Erika Rasmussen, courtesy for Dubai Racing Club
Firnas wins Thursday's feature at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, The Entisar. Photo by Erika Rasmussen, courtesy for Dubai Racing Club

Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Would-be kings and queens of horse racing vie for attention with the working class in weekend horse racing as Kentucky Derby and Oaks hopefuls test their stuff from coast to coast and the Claiming Crown series returns to Gulfstream Park.

Two-year-olds with aspirations for greatness will be on the track at Aqueduct, Tampa Bay Downs and Los Alamitos. Others will contest races for state-breds at Laurel Park and Aqueduct. Delta Downs already has some results in the books.


The Claiming Crown, meanwhile, is for horses that have been entered to be claimed for specific prices this year or last. Saturday's 22nd renewal features nine races on both dirt and (weather permitting) turf, with purses ranging from $75,000 to $125,000 for the Claiming Crown Jewel.

The Grade I Cigar Mile at the Big A is the weekend's premier race for older horses with the Grade III Go For Wand featuring fillies and mares over the same surface. The distaff set also contests the Grade II Bayaoa on Sunday at Los Alamitos.


Internationally, the feature is the Grade 1 Champions Cup at Chukyo Racecourse in Japan. This is the former Japan Cup Dirt -- a pleasant change of nomenclature.

Question: Did Pakistan Star feel more like running in Dubai than he did in Hong Kong? Check it out in our international section.

In news and notes, also check out: "It's good to be Frankie Dettori" and "No Grandstand, No Problem."

Charging ahead:

The Road to the Roses

Saturday's $150,000 Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct hasn't exactly been a launch pad for Kentucky Derby winners recently. But you never know, so let's have a look.

Pickin' Time, a Stay Thirsty colt, finished second in the Sapling at Monmouth Park in September, then won the Smoke Glacken over the same course just three weeks later.

The Kelly Breen charge then stepped up to win the Grade III Nashua Stakes at the Big A by 2 1/4 lengths over Ten for Ten. That foe is back along with three others to tackle 1 1/8 miles.

Last year's winner, Shotski, went on to finish second in the Grade III Withers and fourth in the Grade II Fountain of Youth. He hasn't raced since but is back in training in Maryland.


Saturday's $100,000 Inaugural, 6 furlongs at Tampa Bay Downs, drew a field of six. The oddsmaker found little to separate Poppy's Pride, Arrest Me Red, Al Heybay and Gatsby.

Saturday's $75,000 Gold Rush on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course fell victim to the mandated COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

The state-bred programs have some nice purses for the juveniles in Sunday's $250,000 Great White Way Division of the New York Stallion Stakes at Aqueduct and Saturday's $100,000 Maryland Juvenile at Laurel Park.

This already in: Privet Moon got the early lead in Monday's $100,000 Jean Laffite Stakes at Delta Downs and made it stand up, winning by 1 length over a late-running Awesome Gerry. It was another 10 lengths to Generator in third.

Privet Moon, a Juddmonte Farms homebred colt by Malibu Moon, ran 7 furlongs over a fast track in 1:27.41. Diego Saenz had the ride for trainer Brad Cox. Privet Moon now is 2-for-3 and, given the connections, is one to watch.

The Road to the Kentucky Oaks

Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos has the cream of the West Coast crop -- Princess Noor, Kalypso and Varda from Bob Baffert's barn and Astute, trained by Richard Mandella. That's four-fifths of the field with Nasreddine exiting a maiden win to complete the entries.


Astute, a Speightstown filly, won her first start on the Santa Anita turf Oct. 12, then switched to the dirt to capture the Desi Arnaz Stakes at Del Mar Nov. 14 by 7 1/2 lengths. She tries two turns for the first time.

Princess Noor, a $1.35 million purchase at this year's Ocala spring sale, heads things for Baffert, who has won this race three years in a row.

The Not This Time filly won at first asking at Del Mar on Aug. 22, and then won the Grade I Del Mar Debutante and the Grade II Chandelier at Santa Anita before finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Varda, by Distorted Humor, was second in the Chandelier and skipped the Breeders' Cup. Kalypso won the Anokia Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 18 after finishing third, then second in her first two outings.

Saturday's $150,000 Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct drew a field of eight with some serious players involved. Malathaat and Traffic Lane, both trained by Todd Pletcher, drew the inside gates.

Matathaat, a Shawell Stables homebred filly by Curlin out of the outstanding race mare Dreaming of Julia, is 2-for-2 with a win in the Tempted Stakes over the track last month.


Traffic Lane, by Outwork, exits a maiden win for Repole Stable. Millefeuille, another by Curlin, also comes off a maiden win for her trainer, Bill Mott, and owner/breeder Juddmonte Farms.

Dollar Mountain failed to sell at Keeneland in both 2018 and 2019 and now comes off a maiden win for owner/breeder Brereton Jones.

Saturday's $100,000 Sandpiper, 6 furlongs at Tampa Bay Downs, has 13 takers with Gulf Coast, Feeling Mischief, Whole Bodemeister, Hera and Briella all getting some notice on the morning line.

In the state-bred ranks there's Sunday's $250,000 Fifth Avenue Division of the New York Stallion Stakes at Aqueduct and Saturday's $100,000 Maryland Juvenile Fillies at Laurel Park.

This in the books: Littlestitious put on a big show in Tuesday's $100,000 My Trusty Cat Stakes at Delta Downs. After a three-way fight for the lead, the Ghostzapper filly quickly putt matters to rest, jetting off to a 10 1/4-lengths victory.

The favorite, Color of Dawn, beat the rest with Xtrema third. Littlestitious ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:27.35 with Diego Saenz riding for trainer Tom Amoss. After taking four tries to find the winner's circle, the filly now has two wins in a row. Don't lose track of her.


The Claiming Crown

The Claiming Crown races are a coordinated effort by the national Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association to shine a once-a-year spotlight on horses who have run to be claimed this year or last.

It's kind of a "blue-collar Breeders' Cup" that puts some money in the pockets of owners and trainers and gives fans a shot at big, competitive fields usually assembled from around the country.

This Saturday's eight races at Gulfstream park have lovely fields -- all but two of them with double-digit numbers of starters. We'll report briefly on the results in the weekly roundup.

Sprint / Mile

Firenze Fire is the marquee name among nine signed on for Saturday's $250,000 Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.

The 5-year-old son of Poseidon's Warrior finished third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in his last outing and earlier this year won the Grade II Vosburg and Grade II True North at Belmont Park and the Grade III General George at Laurel Park.

There's no shortage of competition in the Cigar Mile. King Guillermo, the upset winner of the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby back in March hasn't been seen since he finished second to Nadal in a division of the Arkansas Derby on May 2. He's been training well at Gulfstream Park. Majestic Dunhill, Snapper Sinclair and True Timber all have had their moments.


This also is a race for fans who want horses to remain in competition for extended periods. Among them, the nine entrants have 220 previous starts. And only two of the nine are geldings.

Filly & Mare Sprint

Sunday's $100,000 Garland of Roses at Aqueduct has a field of seven including the first two finishers from the Nov. 1 Pumpkin Pie Stakes at Belmont Park -- Honor Way and Pacific Gale.

None of the seven is a throw-out here and a couple return from layoffs. Lady Ninja, a force in California late last year and early in 2020, makes her first start since February and first for trainer Shug McGaughey.

Saguaro Row also returns from a 10-month vacation after a sixth-place finish in the Grade III Barbara Fritchie at Laurel Park.

Turf Sprint

Judging by the overflowing entry box for Saturday's $75,000 Pan Zaretta at Fair Grounds, a lot of trainers were eager to get going in New Orleans. A dozen plus two also-eligibles are entered with plenty of chances from Winning Envelope on the rail to Xanthique in Gate No. 12.

The 5-2 morning-line favorite, Into Mystic, had a tough time of it in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprit. Before that, the 4-year-old Into Mischief filly had a pretty good run from New Mexico to California and back, highlighted by a runner-up showing in the Grade III Buffalo Trace Franklin County at Keeneland in October. But this one is, as they say, wide open.



Nonna Madeline seeks her first graded stakes win in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Go For Wand Handicap at Aqueduct. The Candy Ride filly, trained by Todd Pletcher, was last seen finishing third in the Grade III Turnback the Alarm Handicap a month ago.

She spots the rest of the field anywhere from six to eight pounds as a result of that and victories earlier in the season in stakes races at Saratoga and Monmouth.

Among the others, if Sharp Star can repeat a breakthrough race in her last start -- a 15 3/4-lengths win over fellow state-breds -- she could be a factor.

Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Bayakoa at Los Alamitos has a field of six, most of them basically allowance types. Stellar Sound has flashed signs of ability, finishing third in the Grade II Las Virgenes last Feb. 8 before going to the sidelines.

The Tapit filly returned with a flashy win at Santa Anita Oct. 2 and looks primed for this. Message, a Warrior's Reward filly, was last seen winning the Tranquility Lake Stakes at Del Mar back in August.

Proud Emma won that race and also appears in this field after finishing fourth in the Grade II Zenyatta at Santa Anita and seventh in the Kathryn Crosby at Del Mar in the interim.


Around the world, around the clock:


Sunday's Grade 1 Champions Cup at Chukyo Racecourse, formerly known as the Japan Cup Dirt, takes on added significance this year as a "win and you're in" for the $20 million Saudi Cup in February in Riyadh.

The first- and second-place finishers in last year's Champions Cup, Chrysoberyl and Gold Dream, both went on to contest the 2020 Saudi Cup, finishing seventh and sixth, respectively, and the owners of both horses are eager to return.

The defeat at King Abdulaziz Racecourse is the only loss on Chrysoberyl's record. The 4-year-old won his first six starts and has been victorious in both races since returning from the Middle East.

Seven-year-old Gold Dream hasn't quite returned to the form that made him a multiple Grade 1 winner in 2017 but continues to perform consistently.

Joining the Group 1 fray for the first time is Café Pharoah, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred colt by American Pharoah who was, for a brief time, on the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" early this year.

Any chance of a trip to Louisville went south as the pandemic swept the world. A trip to Saudi Arabia early in 2021 might be a different story.


It's a full field of 16 for the 1,800-meters race around two turns, left-handed.


Firnas won a long stretch duel over Saltarin Dubai to take Thursday night's featured The Entisar Sponsored by Hamdan bin Mohammed Cruise Terminal.

The world-famous Hong Kong import Pakistan Star faltered to finish fourth in his first start in nearly a year but did run all the way for jockey Pat Dobbs, which he failed to do on a consistent basis in Hong Kong.

Firnas, a 7-year-old Dubawi gelding, was having his second go and second win of the season for trainer Salem bin Ghadayer.

Saltarin Dubai, an 8-year-old gelding by E Dubai, started for the first time since finishing fourth in the Group 1 Maktoum Challenge Round 3 in March. Bin Ghadayer said Firnas "is a lovely horse who has won three of his four most recent starts and has been running consistently well."

Pakistan Star was a huge fan favorite in Hong Kong but, after winning two Group 1 events, ran afoul of the stewards when he twice pulled himself up mid-race and refused to budge despite the urging of his jockey.

He showed no signs of that behavior Thursday but his new trainer, Doug Watson, said he is rethinking an equipment change anyway.


"He seemed to be hanging right throughout, which is not ideal," Watson said. "We'll get him home and scope him and see if anything comes to light. But we will probably put the blinkers back on him next time."


Mighty Gurka, last seen finishing 11th in he Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint at Keeneland, returns Saturday to contest a 6-furlongs conditions race at Wolverhampton -- a Fast-Track Qualifier for the Ladbrokes Three-Year-Old Championship at Lingfield Park on All-Weather Championships Finals Day, Good Friday, April 2.

Mighty Gurka, with Holly Doyle booked to ride for trainer Archie Watson, has won both his previous starts on the all-weather, including the Group 3 Sirenia Stakes at Kempton Park in September.

Hong Kong

With a week to go before the Longines Hong Kong International Races, it appears newly tightened COVID-19 restrictions will prevent fans from attending Hong Kong's marquee event.

Currently only officials, owners with starters and their family members are being admitted to Sha Tin and Happy Valley racecourses. Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges said Wednesday it is "safe to assume" that will be the case for the four Group 1 events Dec. 12.

The HKJC also has closed all of its off-track betting operations indefinitely and will rely on electronic wagering to keep turnover turning over. The races are all good ones, with significant international competition.


Last year at this time, the Jockey Club actively discouraged attendance at the international races because of violent street demonstrations raging nearby.

Saudi Arabia

The inaugural running of the $20 million Saudi Cup in February had the subplot of introducing turf racing to King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh on a brand-new, purpose-built course. Grown in less than four months from planting, the course got rave reviews. In 2021, the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia is adding a race over the surface as it continues to elevate its international standing.

The first outing of the year over the green course will be Jan. 23, at the same 2,100 meters as the $1 million Middle Distance Turf Handicap during Saudi Cup weekend Feb. 19-20. The race is open to imported horses 4 years old and up.

"A world-class event requires world-class facilities and we were delighted with the positive feedback we received about the turf track following the inaugural Saudi Cup," said Tom Ryan, director of strategy and international racing for the JCSA.

"When constructing a racing surface, horse welfare is always the main priority and with an additional race set to be staged on turf in 2021, we could not be happier with how the surface is already looking."


Michael Prosser, regional head of racing for the East Region of The Jockey Club in England, retains his 2020 role as clerk of the course for The Saudi Cup and will be on hand for the Jan. 23 race, the JCSA said.

News and notes:

It's good to be Frankie Dettori ...

For the third straight year and fourth of the last six, Frankie Dettori wins the title of Longines World's Best Jockey. The award is based on points earned by finishing in the top three in the world's top 100 Group or Grade I races.

Dettori won five of those during 2020 -- the Gold Cup and the Al Shaqab Goodwood Cup on Stradivarius, the St James's Palace and the Prix du Haras de Fresnay-le-Buffard Jacques le Marois on Palace Pier and the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Quipo Stakes with his favorite, Enable.

Dettori and Ryan Moore have dominated the rankings, with Moore winning in 2014 and 2016 and narrowly missing this year's crown. Since 2014, the only rival to crack their hold on the award was Australian reinsman Hugh Bowman, whose 2017 season benefitted from Winx's six Group 1 wins.


No grandstand, no problem ...

If ever there were a time for a track to open its premier meeting without a grandstand, 2020 would be it. And Turfway Park is that track.

After Churchill Downs Inc. acquired the northern Kentucky track, it announced a new Tapeta synthetic racing surface and a new grandstand that would feature Historical Racing machines.

The track is in place and getting positive reviews. But the old grandstand is long gone and the new facility is on hold because of a court ruling questioning the legality of Historical Racing. Everything is in place for the horses, connections and racing officials.

There's just no place to put fans, even if the pandemic restrictions are lifted.

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