Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Saturday's $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park, a key bridge from the Breeders' Cup Classic to next month's Saudi Cup and the Dubai World Cup in March, tops the weekend horse racing agenda.
Also on tap: Oaklawn Park returns to action with a Kentucky Derby prep race right out of the chute; Santa Anita and Aqueduct chip in stakes events; and Hong Kong has one of its big weekends with two Group 1 races and the first of its Derby series.
We also have results from the first evening of the Dubai World Cup Carnival.
But, as a snowstorm barrels toward us here in the Chicago area, this weekend also brings a harbinger of spring in the form of Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia has undefeated Sham Stakes winner Life Is Good as the individual favorite, after "all others."
The pool opens Friday evening and closes Sunday at 6 p.m. EST -- less than an hour after Oaklawn Park kicks off its stakes season with the 1-mile Smarty Jones for 3-year-olds. Welcome back to the Hot Springs track, which did such yeoman's work last season to keep things going in the depths of the pandemic.
And Saturday is the deadline for early nominations to the Triple Crown. If you like your 3-year-old, act now for the low, low price of $600. The secondary nomination period has a price tag of $6,000.
After that phase, ending March 29, nominations are on a race-by-race basis: $200,000 for the Derby, $100,000 for the Preakness and $50,000 for the Belmont Stakes.
We, personally, don't have a 3-year-old worth $600, much less a $600 nomination fee. So lets get on with our business.
The Pegasus World Cup Invitational
Despite the rash of retirements, especially from last year's Triple Crown races, the $3 million Pegasus itself has a dozen top American dirt contenders and it's a very competitive field.
Last year's Pegasus winner, Mucho Gusto, was retired after a recent training injury. Last year's runner-up, Mr. Freeze, is back but he has only a single win in seven intervening starts.
That leaves as the morning-line favorite Knicks Go, the Korean-owned winner of November's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland -- only the second graded stakes win of his career.
Jesus' Team enters the Pegasus after finishing second at Keeneland and winning the Claiming Crown Jewel at Gulfstream Park last month. His eligibility for that last race hinged on his entry to be claimed for $25,000 last May at Gulfstream.
Several of the entries in the invitational race are based on last-time-out success: Sleepy Eyes Todd in the Grade III Mr. Prospector at Gulfstream, Kiss Today Goodbye in the Grade II San Antonio at Santa Anita, Tax in the Grade III Harlan's Holiday at Gulfstream, Harper's First Ride in the Native Dancer at Laurel Park, and Code of Honor, second in the Grade I Clark at Churchill Downs.
Those are impressive credentials in their own right. And remember, the winner gets an automatic "in" for the $20 million Saudi World Cup in February.
Meanwhile, we can say for sure the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf has a dozen entries. Beyond that, not much is sure about this 1 3/16-miles event. The runners come from various points of the compass and some have shown promise on the dirt.
The uncertainty is reflected in the fact that morning-line favorite Colonel Liam is listed at relatively generous 7-2 odds. The Liam's Map 4-year-old notched just his second win last time out in the Tropical Park Derby.
Largent has won six of nine starts and jumped up the class ladder last time out to take the Grade II Fort Lauderdale over the Gulfstream Park turf.
Anothertwistafate was last seen winning the Grade II San Gabriel at Santa Anita. Cross Border is in from New Orleans where he was second in the Diliberto Memorial in his last outing. Social Paranoia has won his last two -- five months apart.
North Dakota won the Grade III Red Smith at Aqueduct in his last effort. And Storm the Court, winner of the 2019 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, tries for the ninth time to get back to the winner's circle.
Also on the stakes-studded Saturday Gulfstream card:
Three of the top four finishers from last month's Sugar Swirl Stakes return for the $200,000 Grade II Inside Information for fillies and mares at 7 furlongs on the dirt.
Sugar Swirl winner Lady's Island is not in the mix but Bronx Beauty, Cinnabunny and Sound Machine, the third- through fourth-place finishers, are. Cinnabunny, a 6-year-old Liaison mare, is the 3-1 favorite on the morning line.
There's not a whole lot to inspire confidence in any of the 11 entries for the $150,000 Grade III William L. McKnight at 1 1/2 miles on the turf.
Given the recent lack of success by most of the field, the oddsmaker turns to the back class of Sadler's Joy, an 8-year-old son of Kitten's Joy, and Channel Cat, a 6-year-old son of English Channel.
Both have competed at the highest level with some distinction but few wins and should find this task lots easier. Then there's Doswell, a 6-year-old Giant's Causeway gelding who made one start in England in 2017, then was not seen for more than a year and one-half, when he resurfaced on U.S. shores. He has two wins and five seconds from just eight starts.
The $125,000 Grade III Prevoyante for fillies and mares at 1 1/2 miles on the turf looks like a wide-open affair unless Always Shopping can continue her recent purple patch and/or Heavenly Curlin can transport to the Florida turf the form that found her winning her last three starts on the Woodbine all-weather. This looks like a great wagering opportunity (translation: tough handicapping puzzle).
Ten fillies and mares are signed on for the $125,000 Grade III Marshua's River at 1 mile on the turf. There are no Hall of Fame prospects but Vigilante's Way comes off a win in the Tropical Park Oaks, Evil Lyn missed by a nose in the Pago Hop at Fair Grounds in her last start and Sweet Bye and Bye comes off a short break.
The $125,000 Grade III Fred W. Hooper at 1 mile on the dirt has a field of eight with Performer catching the oddsmaker's eye. The 5-year-old son of Speightstown makes just his eighth start.
A five-race win streak ended in his last start as he reported third in the Grade I Cigar Mile. Performer is trained by Shug McGaughey for Calumet Farm and his breeder, Phipps Stable.
Also of note -- last year's winner, Phat Man, and Shivaree, who has yet to deliver on the promise he showed with a second-place finish behind Tiz the Law in the 2020 Florida Derby.
The Run for the Roses
Friday's $100,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at 1 mile brings together seven colts, all with promise and all needing to take another step forward along the Triple Crown trail. The morning-line favorites are Cowan at 9-5 and Cado River at 5-2.
Cowan, a Kantharos colt, comes to Arkansas with just one win from six starts -- a deceptive figure given his last three outings resulted in runner-up finishes in the Indian Summer Stakes at Keeneland, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint and the Remington Springboard Mile. Cado River, a Hard Spun colt trained by Brad Cox who scored his first win in his third start Nov. 13 at Churchill Downs.
The penny dropped that day as Cado River won by 9 1/2 lengths after finishing second at both Saratoga and Belmont Park.
Asmussen also saddles Big Thorn, a Florida-bred colt by The Big Beast, who scored twice at Gulfstream Park West before coming up empty in the Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 2.
Others in the Smarty Jones are Illinois invaders Lawlessness, trained by Ingrid Mason and Martini Bleu, from the McLean Robertson barn; Hardly Swayed, winner of his last two at Mahoning Valley; and Moonlight Strike, winner of his last two in South Florida.
Also on the opening weekend at the Hot Springs track:
Combatant, Night Ops and Silver State held a slate of seven for Saturday's $150,000 Fifth Season, 1 mile on the dirt. Combatant, a 6-year-old Scat Daddy ridgling, ships in from Southern California after running third in his last two starts, both Grade III affairs.
Night Ops, a 5-year-old by Warrior's Reward, has not raced since winning the Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows July 5. Silver State currently trains at Fair Grounds but won his last two starts, at Keeneland and Churchill Downs.
Welcome to the handicapping mixing bowl that is Oaklawn in late winter!
A dozen fillies and mares are set to contest Saturday's $150,000 Pippin Stakes, also at 1 mile on the dirt. Topping the morning line are Wicked Whisper and Istan Council, both proven stakes types.
Wicked Whisper, a 4-year-old Liam's Map filly, is a two-time graded stakes winner with the 2019 Grade I Frizette among her trophies.
Bella Aurora, at odds of 37-1, came from last of six to win Monday's $100,000 Interborough Stakes for fillies and mares by 1 length.
Needs Supervision and Saguaro Row got home second and third, a neck apart. The favorite, Portal Creek, contested the early pace and finished fourth.
Bella Aurora, a 4-year-old daughter of Carpe Diem, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.63 with Jorge Vargas Jr. up.
Five horses make up the field for Saturday's $100,000 Jazil Stakes, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt, and the three veterans are bunched at the top of the morning line.
Backsideofthemoon, a 9-year-old gelding by Malibu Moon, is the 7-5 favorite with 7-year-old Mr. Buff at 9-5 and 6-year-old Musical Heart at 2-1 on the line. As the aforementioned Jude Feld would say, "Old guys rule." The other two are 4 and one is named Tenderfoot.
Sunday's $100,000 Busanda for 3-year-old fillies, 1 mile on the dirt, has a field of five but the only two with stakes experience are Traffic Lane, fifth in the Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct on Dec. 5, and The Grass Is Blue, third in the Anne Arundel County Stakes at Laurel Park.
Mucho Unusual ran second through most of Monday's $100,000 Grade III Megahertz Stakes, worked to the lead a furlong out and went on to win by 3/4 length.
Sedamar was second, followed by Brooke and Colonial Creed. Even though there were only four horses in the race, it was a messy affair and Brook was set down to fourth for interfering with Colonial Creed in the late going.
Mucho Unusual, a 5-year-old Mucho Macho Man mare, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.89 with Joel Rosario up.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Palos Verdes, 6 furlongs on the dirt, has a field of eight. Topping the morning line are Take the One O One, Shashashakemeup and Ax Man.
Around the world, around the clock:
The Dubai World Cup Carnival set sail Thursday evening at Meydan, the first of seven nights of racing leading up to Dubai World Cup night.
The Carnival is designed to sort things out for the rich races in the March finale, but Thursday's results didn't clarify that much as favorites went down to defeat in the two featured races.
In the Group 2 Singspiel Stakes on the turf, Lord Gitters was last of 11 turning for home, sliced through his rivals and rolled home first by 3 lengths.
Godolphin runners Zakouski, Dream Castle and Art Du Val finished second through fourth but Military March, the favorite in the international wagering -- there is none in Dubai -- hit the wall early in the stretch run and finished eighth.
"It probably did not go totally to plan because we missed he break a bit," winning jockey Adrie de Vries said. "But after that, it all went smoothly. I just took my time and, in the straight, he just powered home in the style of the very good horse we know he is."
In the evening's featured dirt race, Military Law stalked the pace, found an inviting gap between rivals at the top of the stretch and went on to win the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 by 1 1/4 lengths.
Thegreatcollection was second with Salute the Soldier third. The favorite in the international markets, Cappezano, showed the way early and faded through the lane to finish next-last of eight.
Military Law, a 6-year-old Dubawi gelding, finished second in both Round 2 and Round 3 of the 2020 Maktoum Challenge before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancelation of the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline and now is an early candidate for this year's renewal.
"This is just a lovely horse," rider Antonio Fresu said of Military Law. "We only ran him four times last season and he was progressive over further. But we thought they would go quick here, which would bring his stamina into play. Luckily, that proved the case."
Trainer Doug Watson, whose powerhouse stable has been unable to race for weeks during a COVID-19-related quarantine, was allowed to send horses back on track with the runners transferred from Watson's staff to substitute handlers -- a scheme paid immediate dividends.
The Watson-trained Golden Goal roared home a 3 1/2-length winner in the 1,400-meter handicap that opened the night's program. Watson also conditions Thegreatcollection, second in the Al Maktoum Challenge and Waady, second in the Dubawi Stakes.
Three big races highlight one of Hong Kong's most important days Jan. 24 -- two Group 1 events and the first leg of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series that leads to the BMW Hong Kong Derby.
The big name is Golden Sixty, the 5-year-old, Australian-bred gelding by Medaglia d'Oro who has taken Hong Kong by storm. Winner of last year's Derby, Golden Sixty seeks his 12th straight win in the Group 1 Stewards' Cup after taking out a top international field last month in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile.
In the Stewards' Cup, Golden Sixty will face a similar lineup to the one he handled in December with Southern Legend, Waikuku, Mighty Giant and Ka Ying Star all returning. The fresh faces include Rise High, a promising sort who returns from a 13-months injury absence.
In the Group 1 Centenary Sprint Cup, Hot King Prawn looks to bounce back from his seventh-place finish in December's Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint. He, too, faces some familiar company.
While the Group 1 races have significant international import, the Hong Kong Classic Mile is the day's biggest event for the locals as the first leg of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series. The Derby still is the race most local owners covet and the Mile starts the progression that build toward that race.
The highest rated in the 14-horse field is Sky Darci, a New Zealand-bred gelding by Darci Brahma who has progressed nicely for trainer Caspar Fownes and jockey Moreira. After winning his first three starts of the campaign, he finished a good second second behind 5-year-old Champions Way in a Group 3 event last time out.
"Sky Darci has the rating to say he's going to be very hard to beat," Fownes said. "He's proven at the distance, he's got the class, he's got everything to say he's going to run a big race and it will come down to the draw."