Kentucky Derby, Breeders' Cup preps overseas mark weekend horse racing

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Alain Barows wins the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun at Kawasaki Racecourse on Wednesday, seizing the lead in the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby." Photo courtesy of Katsumi Saito
Alain Barows wins the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun at Kawasaki Racecourse on Wednesday, seizing the lead in the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby." Photo courtesy of Katsumi Saito

Dec. 18 (UPI) -- This week's horse racing previews 2021 with a decidedly international flair, as qualifying races for next year's Kentucky Derby run in Japan, Oklahoma and California, and Argentina hosts the first "Win and You're In" event for next year's Breeders' Cup World Championships.

Gulfstream Park, Aqueduct and Fair Grounds all contribute important U.S. stakes, while Japan's top 2-year-olds mix it up.


It's a relatively light week, so we'll catch up on a few issues including February's Saudi Cup, the suddenly more interesting jockey premiership race in Hong Kong and a few other matters.

Let's roll.

The Road to the Roses

Six signed on for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity -- a field that includes Red Flag, winner of the Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar and Spielberg, a $1 million colt who so far has underperformed for trainer Bob Baffert.


Spielberg, a Union Rags colt, has just a single win from five starts. He was second in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity and third in the Grade I American Pharoah, but then fourth in the Bob Hope on Nov. 15.

Red Flag, a Tamarkuz colt, took two tries to graduate, then went immediately to the Bob Hope, where he won by 7 1/4 lengths after waiting behind the speed battle involving Spielberg.

It might be noteworthy that Flavien Prat takes the reins from Abel Cedillo aboard Spielberg for the Los Al Futurity.

Among the others, Weston won the Grade II Best Pal at Del Mar in August, but then was third in the Del Mar Futurity and fifth in the Bob Hope. The others will have to improve.

This is a stop on the Churchill Downs-approved "Road to the Kentucky Derby" with the first four finishers getting points on the 10-4-2-1 scale.

Moving back east, roughly in the direction of U.S. 66: Steve Asmussen, Wesley Ward and Brad Cox are among trainers shipping into Oklahoma in quest of Kentucky Derby points in Friday's $200,000 Remington Springboard Mile. Eleven are entered.


Asmussen brings a pair: Cowan, a Kantharos colt who finished second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf in his last start and tries the brown track for the second time; and Saffa's Day, by Carpe Diem.

Ward has Outadore, an Outwork colt who was third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and tries the dirt for the first time. Cox' representative is Joe Frazier, a Distorted Humor colt based at Churchill Downs, where he was third in an allowance last time out.

Bret Calhoun saddles Game Day Pass, winner of the Clever Trevor over the Remington Park track.

Like the Los Alamitos tilt, the Springboard Mile is worth 10 Kentucky Derby points to the winner with second through fourth getting four, two and one points.

Saturday's $75,000 Sugar Bowl Stakes at Fair Grounds is 6 furlongs and a few of the seven entrants, including morning-line favorite Quick Tempo, still have to prove they can get even that far.

A few who wouldn't seem troubled by more distance are Tate, a Quality Road colt racing for Godolphin, and Gagetown, an Exaggerator colt. Both add Lasix for the first time, too -- an angle to watch closely as some tracks give the medication a thumbs-up while an increasing number are eliminating it.


While the North American contenders battle it out, the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" reached its halfway point Wednesday at Kawasaki Racecourse with Alain Barows, a Henny Hughes colt, scoring a 5-lengths victory in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun to take the series lead.

Alain Barows, who remains undefeated after five starts, earned 20 points for the win, topping Lemon Pop on the leaderboard. Lemon Pop, a Kentucky-bred colt by Lemon Drop Kid, won the first leg in the series, the Cattleya Sho, on Japan Cup weekend in November.

None of the participants in the series has announced yet whether the Kentucky Derby would be a possibility for their contender and no Japanese horse contested this year's pandemic-delayed Run for the Roses. The "Japan Road" is separate from the U.S.-based competition.

The series returns to Tokyo for the Hyacinth Stakes in February with a 30-12-6-3 points offering, and concludes the following month at Nakayama Racecourse, where the winner of the Fukuryu Stakes gets 40 points and the minor placings are awarded 16, eight, and four.

The Road to the Oaks

Friday's $60,000 Trapeze Stakes at Remington Park attracted 11 fillies with several out-of-towners among them. Oliviaofthedesert, a Bernardini filly, has been battling on the Kentucky circuit and finally won for the second time Nov. 28 at Churchill Downs for Kenny McPeek.


She's the favorite here, closely followed on the morning line by the Brad Cox-trained Cecile's Chapter and Tiz Splendid News, conditioned by Wesley Ward. Simply Sovereign, from the Steve Asmussen empire, is locally based and undefeated in two starts.

Saturday's $75,000 Letellier Memorial at Fair Grounds has a very competitive field of seven going six furlongs.

The 6-5 favorite on the morning line, Joy's Rocket, comes off a win at the Songbird Stakes at Keeneland and the Steve Asmussen trainee looks like she might go a bit farther.

Others last raced in Kentucky, West Virginia, New Mexico and Indiana. Only Mariah's Princess has local experience, winning a maiden race three weeks ago over the course.

Gulfstream Park

Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Mr. Prospector, 7 furlongs, gets the snowbird competition seriously under way with rivals from Kentucky and the East Coast all very much involved.

Firenze Fire and Mind Control, for example, get this as a substitute for the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct -- they were scratched when the track came up sloppy. Firenze Fire was last seen finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Keeneland.

Last year's Mr. Prospector winner, Diamond Oops, is back off a sixth in the Breeders' Cup. Others last raced at Monmouth and Belmont Park.


Of special note: Haikal was on the 2019 Triple Crown trail, winning the Grade III Gotham and finishing third in the Grade II Wood Memorial, and then dropped off the map. He made two starts early in 2020, reporting fifth in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Mile on Feb. 28 and disappeared again. He's back now with Todd Pletcher taking over for Kiaran McLaughlin.

Saturday's $100,000 Via Borghese for fillies and mares, 1 3/16 miles on the turf, has nine takers with some talented distaffers arriving from the frozen north.

Court Return was last seen finishing second, beaten just a neck in the Grade I E.P. Taylor at Woodbine in October. Traipsing just failed to hold the lead in the Grade III Long Island at Aqueduct in her last start, finishing second.

Florida-based Always Shopping went to Keeneland for her last start, finishing second by a head in the Grade III Dowager. And trainer Chad Brown contests the Via Borghese with Great Island, a 4-year-old Scat Daddy filly making just her fourth start.

Fair Grounds

In addition to the Sugar Bowl, five other $75,000 stakes grace the Saturday program with some interesting entries.


Among them, Maxfield, whose physical misfortunes kept him out of the 2020 Triple Crown picture, returns from a layoff in the day's finale. He's undefeated in three starts including the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in October 2019 and the Grade III Matt Winn at Churchill Downs in May. It would be nice to have him back in top form.

Around the world, around the clock:


Sunday's Grade I Asahi Hai Futurity at Hanshin Racecourse should go a ways toward sorting out a promising and seemingly well-matched crop of Japanese 2-year-olds. There's a field of 16, all colts, to tackle 1,600 meters and there aren't many pretenders.

The top two likely will be Red Belle Aube, a Deep Impact colt who enters the Futurity off a victory in the Grade 2 Daily Hai Nisai Stakes over the same course and distance. That was his second straight win.

Stella Veloce, a Bago colt, won at first asking at 1,600 meters at Hanshin July 5, then was idle until Oct. 10 when he jumped up to win the Saudi Arabia Royal Cup (G3) at Tokyo Racecourse -- by 3 lengths.

After those, there's a long list of youngsters who have won or run well in Grade 2 and Grade 3 events. Some are tackling the distance for the first time and others are stepping well up in company. But by the end of the day, there will be at least a compass direction for the 2021 Classics.



Saturday's Group 1 Gran Premio International Carlos Pellegrini at San Isidro in Argentina will be the first Breeders' Cup Challenge Series automatic qualifying race of the 2021 season. The winner will earn a free berth into the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf on Nov. 6 at Del Mar.

Hong Kong

Only a few weeks ago, it appeared Joao Moreira was running away with the jockey premiership, extending his lead over reigning champ Zac Purton by more than 20 winners.

Now Purton, with some suspension time behind him and some better barrier draws, has come roaring back with a vengeance.

After three wins during the International Jockeys' Championship, two more during the Longines Hong Kong International Races meeting and four more at Wednesday night's races at Happy Valley, the score now stands: Moreira 51, Purton 37.

Purton said his biggest issue during the first half of the season was the luck of the draw.

"I just had so many wide barriers. You can't believe you just go months and months and months just being on the outside all the time," Purton said. "Every time I came to the races, I was on the outside. It was making it really hard."

Purton, an Australian with a fondness for American baseball team caps, explained how a wide draw translates to running a race.


"You ask your horses to take a position, it takes an effort and they're empty in the end. Or you go back and give them too much of a start," he said.

As to whether he can continue to make up ground and add to championships he earned in four previous seasons, Purton said, "I need some luck. Give me some good barriers and it makes all the difference."

Saudi Arabia

It's only two months out from the second Saudi Cup at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, and already the lineups for the big $20 million Cup and its undercard are taking shape.

Last weekend at Nakayama Racecourse in Japan, Justin earned a spot in the $1.5 million Riyadh Dirt Sprint by winning the Grade 3 Capella Stakes. Trainer Yoshito Yahagi said the signs are good that the son of Orfevre will make the trip to the Middle East.

"I will talk to the owner about future plans, Yahagi said. "When I had a little chat with him soon after the race, we shared the feeling that The Riyadh Dirt Sprint is a suitable race for Justin."

A week earlier, Chuwa Wizard earned a spot in the Saudi Cup itself with a victory in the Grade 1 Champions Cup.


The winners of next month's Grade I Pegasus Cup races at Gulfstream Park also will be accorded guaranteed spots in the Riyadh starting gates.

"We are committed to building relationships with key races and events around the world and following a successful meeting for the Japanese this year. We hope to welcome a number of Japanese horses in February," said Tom Ryan, director of strategy and international racing for the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia.

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