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Kentucky Derby picture heats up with weekend races in Louisiana, Florida

By
Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Wells Bayou, shown winning the 2020 Louisiana Derby, returns from a long layoff in Saturday's Louisiana Stakes over the same course. Photo courtesy of Fair Grounds
Wells Bayou, shown winning the 2020 Louisiana Derby, returns from a long layoff in Saturday's Louisiana Stakes over the same course. Photo courtesy of Fair Grounds

Jan. 15 (UPI) -- The Kentucky Derby chase heats up again this weekend with some promising candidates in action at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, while state-bred horses chase some big purses in Florida and California.

On the international front, Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin operation has another budding star in Dubai. Saturday's Magic Millions program in Australia looks for that country's up-and-coming types, while 3-year-olds are staking out their claims in Japan.

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Golden Sixty is ready for his next test in Hong Kong, and things are shaping up for a dynamite second edition of the $20 million Saudi Cup next month.

Before proceeding, we must acknowledge that racing lost one of its finest Tuesday as Prince Khalid bin Abdulah, the founder and embodiment of Juddmonte Farms, died at age 84. The notice of his death on the Juddmonte web site encapsulated what the prince meant to the sport:

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"One of the greatest-ever owner/breeders in the history of the Thoroughbred, his famous green, pink and white silks were carried by such immortals as Frankel, Dancing Brave, Arrogate and Enable. His colors were carried to victory by over 500 stakes winners, of which he bred over 440, including 118 Group/Grade 1 winners, of which he bred 102.

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"He leaves a legacy that will stand the test of time," Juddmonte CEO Douglas Erskine Crum said. "His contribution to the development of the Thoroughbred will have long-lasting effects."

It's a mark of Prince Khalid's sportsmanship that Juddmonte's latest superstar, Enable, is a fourth generation homebred and that she was allowed to race for five seasons -- unthinkable for almost any other owner but a huge benefit to racing.

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Moving on:

The Road to the Roses

The Kentucky Derby trail wends through Louisiana on Saturday in the $200,000 Grade III Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. The 1 1/16-miles event offers 10 points to the winner on the leaderboard of the Churchill Downs "Road to the Kentucky Derby."

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The morning-line favorites in a field of 11 for the Lecomte are Midnight Bourbon and Mandaloun.

Midnight Bourbon, a Tiznow colt trained by Steve Asmussen, finished second in the Grade III Iroquois at Churchill Downs in September and third in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park in October and hasn't raced since. Mandloun, an Into Mischief colt, is 2-for-2 for trainer Brad Cox.

There's plenty of room for a surprise in the Fair Grounds heat with a half-dozen or so progressive types looking to make a statement.

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At Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, eight 3-year-olds are set for the $125,000 Pasco Stakes at 7 furlongs on the main track.

The 2-1 favorite on the morning line is Nova Rags, a Union Rags colt who won at first asking at Belmont Park Oct. 10, then reported fourth in the Grade III Nashua at Aqueduct a month later. He faded badly in the final furlong of that 1-mile test, so the 7 furlongs here might suit better.

Laurel Park offers the $100,000, 7-furlongs Spectacular Bid Stakes as part of a six-stakes program Saturday.

The Road to the Oaks

Fair Grounds' recent influence on the 3-year-old filly division is evident in the names of its Oaks candidate stakes races -- the Silverbulletday and the Rachel Alexandra.

The namesakes of both races used victories in the Fair Grounds Oaks as steppingstones to winning the Kentucky Oaks and eventual enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

Saturday's $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes is a prep for the Grade II Rachel Alexandra Stakes on Feb. 13, which itself is a prep for the Fair Grounds Oaks on March 20. Nine fillies are signed on with the favorites, Sun Path and Souper Sensational, drawn No. 9 and No. 1, respectively.

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Sun Path, a Munnings filly resident in Brad Cox's barn, won her last two starts, at Churchill Downs and at Fair Grounds. We note, relative to Prince Khalid's untimely demise, that she is a Juddmonte Farms homebred. Souper Sensational, a daughter of Curlin, won both her previous starts at Woodbine for trainer Mark Casse.

Across the peninsula at Tampa Bay Downs, seven fillies are lined up for the $125,000 Gasparilla Stakes at 7 furlongs. Feeling Mischief, an Into Mischief filly trained by Mike Campbell, is the 2-1, morning-line favorite but the race looks pretty competitive.

Elsewhere around the ovals:

Fair Grounds

Saturday's program is billed as the Kentucky Derby Kickoff Weekend in reference to the 3-year-old races.

There are four other stakes events, though, including the $125,000 Grade III Louisiana Stakes for older horses going 1 1/16 miles, and three races on the turf: the $125,000 Col. E.R. Bradley Stakes, at 1 1/16 miles, the $100,000 Marie G. Krantz Memorial at the same distance for fillies and mares and the $100,000 Duncan F. Kenner at 5 1/2 furlongs.

The Louisiana Stakes marks a comeback for 2020 Louisiana Derby winner Wells Bayou. The Brad Cox trainee followed that victory with a fading, fifth-place finish in a division of the Arkansas Derby, but then was sidelined with what Cox describes as "young horse stuff -- you know, wear and tear."

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He hasn't raced since the Hot Springs effort but a good return would be welcome in a division somewhat lacking in star power.

Gulfstream Park

Four Sunshine Millions races for Florida-breds highlight Saturday's program -- sprints and 1 1/16-miles events on both turf and dirt for males and fillies and mares.

Santa Anita

A vestige of the old "Sunshine Millions" concept remains in the form of Saturday's $150,000 Sunshine Millions Filly/Mare Turf Sprint. While the old concept pitted California-breds against Florida-breds at both Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park, this race is purely for the locals.

Also on the Saturday program are the California Cup Derby, Oaks and Sprint -- all for California-breds.

Aqueduct

The weekend feature is Sunday's $100,000 Ladies Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles. Seven are set for this one.

Saturday's card has the $100,000 Franklin Square Stakes for New York-bred 3-year-old fillies at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Golden Gate Fields

The Bay-area track resumes racing Friday after a two-month, pandemic-related shutdown. The eight races drawn on Tuesday attracted 86 horses.

Delta Downs

Standing Perfect pressed the pace in Monday's $75,000 Louisiana Legacy Stakes for state-bred 3-year-olds, took over after a half mile and coasted home first by 3 lengths. Wise Anchor was up for second, 1 1/2 lengths better than Drewhustle.

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Standing Perfect, a Half Ours colt, ran 7 1/2 furlongs on a wet-fast track in 1:35.65 with Ashley Broussard in the irons.

In Tuesday's companion $75,000 Louisiana Jewel Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, Australasia moved to the lead at the top of the lane and drew off to win by 6 lengths as the odds-on favorite.

Inawic was best of the rest, 3 1/4 lengths ahead of Tecate Time in third. Australasia, a daughter of Sky Kingdom, ran 7 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:34.35 with Diego Saenz riding.

Saints N Muskets patiently tracked pacesetting Sarah's Passion until the final yards of Tuesday's $75,000 Magnolia Stakes for Louisiana-bred fillies and mares, and then eased past that rival to win by a neck.

Smok'n Rita was well back in third. Saints N Muskets, a 6-year-old daughter of Musket Man, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:41.80 for jockey Joe Stokes.

Around the world, around the clock:

Dubai

Rebel's Romance showed heart and stamina winning Thursday's UAE 2000 Guineas Trial at Meydan Racecourse, moving right into the Derby picture. Or, should we say Derby Pictures, plural?

The Godolphin homebred gelding by Dubawi improved to 3-for-3 while finishing the 1,600 in 1:37.55 with William Buick aboard. He took the lead some 200 meters out and held off a determined challenge by Mouheeb to win by a head. The closest pursuers were another 7 lengths back.

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Rebel's Romance won both his previous starts over all-weather tracks in England.

Al Murqab was a non-runner in the Trial as pandemic-related restrictions continue to wreak havoc at trainer Doug Watson's yard. Thirteen Watson-trained horses were scratched from the seven-race card despite earlier hopes they would be cleared to run.

"That was a perfect first experience on dirt and he will have learned a lot," winning trainer Charlie Appleby said. "He was a bit slowly away as we expected, but he has traveled strongly and picked up well.

"It looked close at the end. But when you watch it back, William has really looked after him and given him a nice education with the UAE 2000 Guineas in mind."

The Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas is Feb. 4, and the Group 2 UAE Derby Sponsored by Emirates NBD follows on March 27.

While the Trial win puts Rebel's Romance squarely in the picture for UAE Derby, it could mean much more as that race is part of the Churchill Downs-sponsored "Road to the Kentucky Derby" with 100 points awarded the winner.

Australia

Saturday's Magic Millions program on the Gold Coast includes two AUS$2 million races. The Star Gold Coast Magic Millions 2-year-old Classic and the Gold Coast Magic Millions 3-year-old Guineas both have full fields.

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The likely ones among the 2-year-olds -- at least according to the down-under pundits -- include She's All Class, Swift Witness and Shaquero. Isotope and Away Game are attracting support among the 3-year-olds.

England

Venturous and Bless Him, proving again that "old guys rule," nailed down places for All-Weather Championships Finals Day with victories Tuesday in Fast-Track Qualifiers at Newcastle.

Venturous rallied through the final furlong to score by 1 1/2 lengths as the favorite in the Betway Conditions Stakes and earned a spot in the 6-furlongs Betway All-Weather Sprint Championship on April 2 at Lingfield Park.

The win continued a purple patch for the 8-year-old, following victories late last year at Doncaster, Newcastle and Wolverhampton.

"Whatever has clicked in him I am not sure, but [trainer] David [Griffiths] has obviously done a great job bringing him to fore at this age," winning rider Tom Marquand said.

"He is improving and given he is now in for Good Friday, hopefully he can continue in this vein of form ... He would need things to fall his way but if he continues on the trend that he is following at the moment, he should be on for a big run."

The 1-mile Bombardier Conditions Stakes came down to a duel between Bless Him and Count of Amazonia with the former prevailing by 1/2 length for jockey Jamie Spencer. The nearly even-money favorite, Ummalnar, led much of the way but faded to report last of five.

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Bless Him earned a spot in the Bombardier All-Weather Mile Championship on Finals Day.

Spencer said Bless Him, who has considerable back class, requires careful handling by trainer David Simcock but isn't done yet in his seventh year.

"He is moving really well at the moment," Spencer said. "He only runs a handful times a year and it is good to get him to win on his first start because he generally improves a good bit for a run. There is still plenty of life in him."

Japan

Some early-season action involving the 3-year-olds fills in the gaps between Grade 1 events in Japan. Meanwhile, the government again has imposed COVID-19 restrictions that force the closing of Tokyo-area tracks and wagering facilities to all spectators.

On Monday at Nakayama, Fine Rouge came from well back to win the Grade 3 Fairy Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 2 1/2 lengths. Ho O Ixelles was second, a length in front of Bella Nova.

Fine Rouge, a Kizuna filly out of the Boston Harbor mare Passion Rouge, ran 1,600 meters in 1:34.4 with Christophe Lemaire in the irons. She finished second in her career debut Aug. 23, then won at Tokyo Racecourse on Oct. 24.

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Sunday at Nakayama, the Grade 3 Keisei Hai Stakes 3-year-olds has 12 entries to race 2,000 meters on the grass.

There's not a lot to go on but it's worth noting leading rider Christophe Lemaire is booked to ride Gratias, a Heart's Cry colt who won his only previous start. That was last October, also going 2,000 meters, at Tokyo Racecourse. Black Lotus, an American Pharoah colt, also comes off a first-start win.

Hong Kong

With Hong Kong's next round of Group 1 races just over the horizon, Golden Sixty showed Tuesday's he's ready to further his run to glory.

The 5-year-old son of Medaglia d'Oro showed no untoward effects from his victory last month in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile as he ticked all the boxes in a barrier trial at Sha Tin Racecourse.

Never one to waste top effort in the morning, Golden Sixty ran smoothly outside rivals, finishing fourth in the trial -- just what trainer Francis Lui was seeking as he preps for the Group 1 Stewards' Cup Jan. 24.

"I'm happy with his trial," Lui said. "In the trial you can relax him. He doesn't show much. He never does."

Golden Sixty will seek his 12th straight win in the Stewards' Cup and Lui said if that goes to plan, his star could stretch out again to 2,000 meters to tackle next month's Group 1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup.

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There, he could face reigning Hong Kong Horse of the Year Exultant, who would be cutting back in distance.

As to potential overseas challenges for Golden Sixty, the trainer said, "Not this season. But that's another plan."

News and Notes

Hoping to wait out the effects of the pandemic, Woodbine has scheduled the 162nd running of the Queen's Plate for Aug. 22 -- two months later than its traditional slot as the opening leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. The 2020 Plate was run with fans Sept. 12 because of pandemic restrictions.

"While it is clear the impact of COVID-19 will continue to be felt into the new year, we are optimistic that this timing for the Queen's Plate could give us the best opportunity to welcome guests back at Woodbine Racetrack," said Jim Lawson, president and CEO of Woodbine Entertainment.

Also ...

Sibylle Vogt's career has reached new heights since her history-making victory in the 2020 International Jockeys' Challenge attendant to the Saudi Cup. So it's no surprise Vogt is happy to be asked back.

Vogt, 25, defeated the likes of Frankie Dettori, Yutake Take, Mike Smith and Olivier Peslier, to win last year's competition and she is the first confirmed participant for this year's renewal.

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Her victory in the first leg of the 2020 competition represented the first race won by a female jockey in Saudi Arabia, furthering the organizer's ambitions to change international perceptions of the Kingdom.

The Swiss rider continued her 2020 campaign successfully in Germany and has been named second jockey for Arc de Triomphe-winning trainer Peter Schiergen this season.

"The victory in the Jockeys' Challenge helped my career a lot as my name was often in the media and people saw that women could also be successful," Vogt said.

The Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia this week announced a massive entry list for the Saudi Cup and its attendant races. The roster includes many of the world's top horses including most of the older U.S. stars.

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