Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Brooklyn Strong moved into the Kentucky Derby picture with a victory at Aqueduct, True Timber won the Grade I Cigar Mile and Chuwa Wizard conjured up an invitation to the $20 million Saudi Cup by scoring his first Grade 1 win in Japan, all in a busy weekend of horse racing.
Fillies trained by Bob Baffert finished second and third in the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos but his biggest hope for the Kentucky Oaks, Princess Noor, was injured in the race and subsequently retired.
At Gulfstream Park, Jesus' Team prepped for the Pegasus World Cup with a victory in Saturday's Claiming Crown Jewel. Luis Saez rode five of the nine winners on the Claiming Crown program but his biggest win of the day might have come in a supporting race. What was that race? Read on ...
The Run for the Roses
Brooklyn Strong chased down pacesetting favorite Ten for Ten in the stretch run of Saturday's $150,000 Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct, then battled that rival to the wire, winning by a neck.
It was another 8 3/4 lengths to Known Agenda in third. Brooklyn Strong, a Wicked Strong colt, toured 1 1/8 miles on a sloppy track in 1:50.60 with Joel Rosario riding.
Brooklyn Strong entered the Remsen after winning the Sleepy Hollow Stakes over fellow New York-breds Oct. 24 at Belmont Park. He now has three wins and a third from four starts for trainer Daniel Velazquez.
"Today was a big showcase for him against tougher competition and I couldn't be happier," Velazquez said. "We'll come back healthy and then start picking our spots. This is a big prep for the Derby moving forward. Now, we're definitely Derby dreaming."
Brooklyn Strong earned 10 "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points and now stands in a three-way tie for third on that leaderboard.
Velazquez also pointed out owner Mark Schwartz paid $5,000 for Brooklyn Strong at the Ocala Spring Sale while Ten for Ten fetched $410,000 at the 2019 Keeneland yearling sale. As Daily Racing Form's Marty McGee is fond of saying, "It's an easy game."
In other 2-year-old action:
At Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, Poppy's Pride got off to a sizeable lead in the $100,000 Inaugural Stakes, repelled an early challenge by Gatsby and ran on to win by 2 3/4 lengths.
Al Heybay was second, 1/2 length to the good of Thealligatorhunter. Poppy's Pride, a Khozan gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.05 with Samy Camacho up, scoring his fourth straight win.
At Laurel Park, Jaxon Traveler led from the early going in the $100,000 Maryland Juvenile Futurity for state-breds and won by 3/4 length over Singlino.
Latin Spice was 3 lengths farther back in third. Jaxon Traveler, a Munnings colt, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.07 with Johan Rosado riding.
Dawn Lenert, representing Jaxon Traveler's owner, West Point Thoroughbreds, said thought will be given to the Jerome, at 1 mile. "However, Laurel just put up that Spectacular Bid going 7 furlongs in January. He proved he could go seven today. We'll see what he does next time."
Sunday at Aqueduct, Hold the Salsa was along in deep stretch to win by a neck in the $100,000 Great White Way Division of the New York Stallion Stakes. It's Gravy was second, 1 length in front of Market Alert.
The odds-on favorite, Dreamer's Disease, could not overcome a bad stumble at the start and finished sixth after being rushed into contention. Hold the Salsa, a Hold Me Back colt, got 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.70 for jockey Junior Alvarado. He now is 3-for-6.
"It's interesting," said Hold the Salsa's owner, breeder and trainer Richard Lugovich, "because if you look at his breeding, he's probably a mile-and-a-quarter horse on the grass.
"He's only a 2-year-old, so he could see that eventually. I'll see what we can do with him next year and see how he comes up. I'm in no rush with him."
The Road to the Kentucky Oaks
Trainer Bob Baffert won the battle in Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos but lost one of his top warriors. Two of the silver-haired trainer's fillies, Varda and Kalypso, finished first and second but their stablemate,
Princess Noor, the odds-on favorite, was pulled up midway through the race and, a day later, retired as a result of a soft-tissue injury.
"She's a star," Princess Noor's owner, Zedan Racing, said in a statement Sunday. "She had the race and probably more Grade I's to her name. Our focus is to get her healthy and be the best mom she can be. It hurts, but we pray to God she's well and retirement is the best decision."
Princess Noor was sold for $1.35 million at the Ocala 2-year-olds in training sale this spring and won the Grade I Del Mar Debutante and Grade II Chandelier before finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Varda, a Distorted Humor filly out of the Sky Mesa mare She'll Be Right, raced last of five in the Starlet as Kalypso showed the way. Princess Noor had just taken the lead when she was pulled up by jockey Victor Espinoza.
That left Kalypso in front again, where she stayed until Varda sailed by to win by 1 1/2 lengths. The longest chance in the field, Nasreddine, ran evenly to finish third and Astute was a major disappointment, reporting fourth with no late rally.
Varda won at first asking at Del Mar in August, then finished second to Princess Noor in the Chandelier. She did not contest the Breeders' Cup.
Baffert said Varda "had been working really well and she looked like the kind of filly that the farther the better with her. So that's why we've been waiting and waiting with her."
At Aqueduct on Saturday, Malathaat rallied through the final sloppy jumps of the $150,000 Grade II Demoiselle Stakes to get by Millefeuille and win by 3/4 length.
Malibu Curl surfed in third, another 4 1/2 lengths back. Malathaat, with John Velazquez up for trainer Todd Pletcher, ran 1 1/8 miles on a sloppy track in 1:52.36. She is by Curlin out of the A.P. Indy mare Dreaming of Julia.
Malathaat, a $1 million yearling purchase racing for Shadwell Stable, improved to 3-for-3 and much is expected in 2021. "Her class is what kept her going and got her there on time," Velazquez said.
Pletcher, who also trained Dreaming of Julia, said he "will talk to the guys at Shadwell and come up with a game plan. We feel like she's an Oaks-caliber filly and we'll take her down to Florida pretty soon and start preparing for that."
In other 2-year-old filly action:
At Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, Feeling Mischief stalked the pace in the $100,000 Sandpiper Stakes, moved to the lead at mid-stretch and went on to win by 2 lengths.
Gulf Coast and Little Nesso were second and third, respectively, as Feeling Mischief got the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.73 with Jesus Castanon in the irons. She now is 2-for-3.
At Laurel Park, Street Lute swept to the lead a furlong out in the $100,000 Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship for state-breds and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Juror Number Four. Maxine's Tap Room was third.
Street Lute, a daughter of Street Magician out of the Midnight Lute mare Alottalute, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.83 for jockey Xavier Perez.
On Sunday at Aqueduct, Laobanonaprayer seized control in the stretch run of $100,000 Fifth Avenue Division of the New York Stallion Stakes, drawing off to an 8-lengths win as the even-money favorite.
Jill's a Hot Mess was best of the rest, 3 1/2 lengths in front of Shane's Pretty Lady. Laobanonaprayer, a Laoban filly, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.95 with Kendrick Carmouche riding for trainer Danny Velazquez. The race was restricted to New York-breds.
"I think she can actually go a mile and an eighth," Velazquez said. "I'm really looking forward to testing her against open company. That's where we'll really know where she is. It's fun to compete in these (state-bred) stakes, but we got to test her against open company."
After the weekend action, Varda jumped to the fourth spot on the "Road to the Kentucky Oaks" leaderboard with 14 points. Malathaat landed No. 8 with 10 points.
The Claiming Crown
Jesus' Team, stepping back from the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup wars, went to the post as the odds-on favorite in the marquee race of this year's Claiming Crown program at Gulfstream Park, the $150,000 Claiming Crown Jewel, and ran to his notices.
With Luis Saez riding, the Tapiture colt sat just back of the pacesetter, Storm Runner, challenged when prompted and prevailed by 3/4 length after a long drive. Dack Janiel's finished third.
Jesus's Team, trained by Jose D'Angelo, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:49.30. In his previous race, he finished second in the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland.
Earlier in the season, he was third in the Grade II Jim Dandy and third in the Preakness. He was eligible for the Claiming Crown thanks to a run for a $25,000 tag May 8 at Gulfstream.
The win likely earns him a trip back to the big leagues and a berth in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational over the same course and distance next month.
"I am very sure he's going to improve because this race worked out very good for him," said D'Angelo, a champion trainer in Venezuela who relocated to Florida in 2019. "I can give him some days off and prepare him for the Pegasus World Cup."
Saez rode five of the nine winners on the Claiming Crown program.
The other races, in the order in which they were run:
Descente rallied to the lead on the turn in the $80,000 Glass Slipper for fillies and mares and got away to win by 3 3/4 lengths over Don't Get Khozy. Sky Chaser was third.
Descente, a 4-year-old Bodemeister filly trained by Peter Walder, ran 1 mile on the dirt in 1:36.99 with Miguel Vasquez in the irons.
Krysto Skye led from the early going in the $75,000 Express and held on well to win by 1 1/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Whyruawesome was second, 4 lengths better than Combination.
Krysto Skye, an 8-year-old City Zip gelding, finished 6 furlongs in 1:10.14 with Irad Ortiz riding for trainer Carlos David.
Jakarta, the odds-on favorite, rallied from a stalking position in the $90,000 Distaff Dash, took the lead near the sixteenth pole and drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Unaquoi and Thinkin Cowtown filled out the trifecta.
Jakarta, a 5-year-old Bustin Stones mare, ran 5 furlongs on the firm turf course in 56.48 seconds for jockey Saez and trainer Mike Maker.
High Noon Rider threw a money wrench into the multi-race wagering with a 55-1 upset win in the $95,000 Emerald at 1 1/16 miles on the grass.
With Edgard Zayes up, the 8-year-old Distorted Humor gelding saved ground down the backstretch, advanced on the turn for home and came out to find room, winning by 1/2 length.
Temple also came from off the pace to finish second, dead-heating with Muggsamatic. High Noon Rider, trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., finished in 1:40.94.
Avant Garde outfinished Town Classic by 1/2 length to win the $85,000 Rapid Transit with another closer, Lookin at Roses, 1 1/4 length farther behind in third.
Avant Garde, a 3-year-old Tonalist gelding, finished 7 furlongs on the dirt in 1:21.94 with Leonel Reyes in the irons. Jesus Lander trains the winner.
Queen's Embrace ran by Sugar Fix in the final sixteenth and won the $95,000 Tiara by 2 3/4 lengths over that rival. Bienville Street was third. Queen's Embrace, a 3-year-old filly by Real Solution, ran 1 1/16 miles on the grass in 1:40.26 with Saez up for trainer Danny Gargan.
Fiya had 'em all the way in the $90,000 Canterbury at 5 furlongs on the turf. Sent right to the lead by Saez, the 3-year-old Friesan Fire gelding was never threatened and won by 1 1/2 lengths.
Fully Loaded was second and Harry's Ontheloose finished third. Fiya, trained by Tom Albertrani, got home in 55.63 seconds.
Frost Or Frippery and Bobby G were near the back of the field turning for home in the $75,000 Iron Horse but both mounted strong rallies through the stretch to finish 1-2.
Deal Driven held a late lead, but could only manage third. Frost Or Frippery, a 7-year-old gelding by Lewis Michael, ran 1 1/16 miles on the dirt in 1:44.57 with Saez aboard for trainer Brad Cox.
The spectacular performance in the Claiming Crown notwithstanding, Saez's most important winner Saturday might have come in the third race, a maiden special weight event.
In that, he piloted the Coolmore-owned Fighting Force to a convincing 2 1/2-lengths victory, going 1 mile on the turf in 1:35.55. The colt is by Air Force Blue out of the Smart Strike mare No Splits. He finished second and third in his first two starts.
Classic / Dirt Mile
True Timber rallied wide around the early speed in Saturday's $250,000 Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct and left the field in his wake, winning off by 5 1/2 lengths.
Snapper Sinclair was second, a neck in front of the odds-on favorite, Performer. True Timber, a 6-year-old son of Mineshaft, reported in 1:36.49 over a sloppy track with Kendrick Carmouche in the irons for his first Grade I win. Firenze Fire, Majestic Dunhill and Mind Control were late scratches.
True Timber was second in the 2018 Cigar Mile and third last year, but had gone winless in 13 starts since taking an allowance race at Belmont Park Sept. 16, 2018.
He failed to draw into the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile field off the also-eligible list, and trainer Jack Sisterton mused, "I think everything works out for a reason." He said he will consult with the owners to plan next steps, adding True Timber is "beautiful to look at and, physically, he's great."
Distaff / Dirt Mile
Proud Emma outfinished Message to take Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Bayakoa Stakes at Los Alamitos by 1/2 length with Stellar Sound third, another 6 lengths in arrears.
Proud Emma, a 4-year-old Include filly, rallied four-wide to reach contention from the back of the field, made light contact with Message in the stretch run and found just enough. She was coming off a seventh-place finish in the Kathryn Crosby Stakes at Del Mar.
"She ran great," said Proud Emma's owner, Tom Kagele. "We've been trying to get a graded stakes with her and she finally did it for us today. She likes to sit off it and it set up very nicely for her. We were confident she would come running. The plan is to keep her in training in 2021."
Sharp Starr ran second behind Portal Creek into the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Go For Wand Handicap at Aqueduct, gradually reached contention and wore that rival down inside the sixteenth pole to win by a neck.
The favorite, Nonna Madeline, was third, another 12 lengths up the sloppy track. Sharp Starr, a 3-year-old Munnings filly, splashed 1 mile in 1:36.76 with Jose Ortiz up. Sharp Star scored her third win from nine starts and first in a stakes race.
"Obviously, she likes the one-turn mile so we'll keep finding races that suit that distance," trainer Horacio De Paz said.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Honor Way had only one rival beaten turning into the stretch run in Sunday's $100,000 Garland of Roses Handicap at Aqueduct but passed the others en route to the finish, winning by 1 1/2 lengths.
The early leader, Honey I'm Good, finished second with Pacific Gale third. Honor Way, a 6-year-old Caleb's Posse mare, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.09 with Jose Lezcano up.
Trainer Charlton Baker said Honor Way "is at the top of her game right now" and suggested the $100,000 Interborough on Jan. 18 might be her next target.
Elle Z took an early lead in Saturday's $75,000 Pan Zaretta Stakes for fillies and mares at Fair Grounds, turned back one challenge and then survived a late bid by the favorite, Into Mystic, winning by 1 length.
Winning Envelope came running late to finish third, a neck farther back. Elle Z, a 3-year-old City Zip filly, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on good turf in 1:03.13 with Mitchell Murrill in the irons.
Around the world, around the clock:
Chuwa Wizard finally broke through at the top level Sunday, winning the Grade 1 Champions Cup at Chukyo Racecourse and a guaranteed spot in the $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 20.
The 5-year-old by King Kamehameha had been running competitively against top competition and had even been set to contest the Group 1 Dubai World Cup in March before that race fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. But his most successful runs had come at National Association of Racing tracks -- effectively Japan's minor leagues.
All of that was shrugged off as jockey Keita Tosaki urged Chuwa Wizard to the lead inside the 200-meters mark in Sunday's race. The rest of the crowd couldn't go with him and he won by 2 1/2 lengths.
Last year's runner-up, Gold Dream, finished second with Inti third and last year's winner, Chrysoberyl, fourth. Promising 3-year-old Café Pharoah, a Kentucky-bred colt by American Pharoah, was fifth.
"The horse was in very good condition and felt really good," Tosaki said. "With Chrysoberyl traveling in front, I was able to feel his response while marking the race favorite. As it takes time for him to accelerate, I urged him to go early and the horse responded with great strength."
After the 2019 Champions Cup, both Gold Dream and Chrysoberyl traveled to the inaugural Saudi Cup at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, finishing sixth and seventh, respectively.
The Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia subsequently designated the Champions Cup, along with the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park as automatic qualifying races for the 2021 Saudi Cup.
"With Dubai being cancelled earlier this year, his racing got going a bit late, but he's improved with his races so far, and he looks good now," trainer Ryuji Okubo said during the barrier draw for the Champions Cup.