Jan. 29 (UPI) Kentucky Derby preliminaries at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita highlight a weekend horse racing program that includes the biggest weekend of the year at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas.
The favorites in the Derby preps, improbably, include Speilberg and Tarentino.
On the international front, Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin forces had a massive evening Thursday in Dubai with 3-year-old filly Soft Whisper showing enough talent to leave jockey Frankie Dettori gushing praise.
And ... the Eclipse Awards honoring 2020's best were announced Thursday night in a virtual ceremony. Authentic, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, was named Horse of the Year and 3-year-old male champion -- no surprise.
See the complete list of winners in News and Notes below.
First, the racing:
The Road to the Roses
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park awards 10 Kentucky Derby points to the winner. But, much more than that, it will go a ways toward deciding which of the eight colts and one gelding will move forward on the testing trail to Louisville. Many are very promising and some were expensive but none has stood up and shouted, "Me! Me!"
Accordingly, the morning-line favorite, Greatest Honor, a Tapit colt, took four tries to get to the winner's circle for trainer Shug McGaughey, finally getting the job done Dec. 26 at Gulfstream at the same 1 1/16-miles distance as the Holy Bull.
Right behind him in the oddsmaker's estimation is Prime Factor, a Quality Road colt trained by Todd Pletcher. He won his only previous start by 8 3/4 lengths at 6 furlongs over the Gulfsteam dirt.
Amount and Tarantino also could figure in the Holy Bull with a bit of improvement. And Papetu showed little last summer at Saratoga, but returned to finish second in the Mucho Macho Man Jan. 2.
It would be fun to see Tarantino do well because:
At Santa Anita, trainer Bob Baffert's duo of Spielberg and Medina Spirit didn't chase anyone away from Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes as six others signed on for the 1 1/16 miles, a key prep for the Santa Anita Derby and another 10-points race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
And the Baffert charges actually need a good race to prove they belong.
Spielberg, a $1 million yearling purchase at Keeneland, was thrown into deep waters early. He was second in his debut, then finished second and third in a pair of Grade I races before breaking his maiden in his fourth start at Del Mar.
The Union Rags colt then was fourth in the Grade III Bob Hope before winning the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity Dec. 19. Medina Spirit, a Protonico colt, won at first asking then finished second behind stablemate and top Kentucky Derby prospect Life Is Good in his only other start.
The others certainly are no dogs. Hot Rod Charlie was a gaining second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Keeneland. Parnelli and Wipe the Slate promise to use their early speed, setting some tactical hurdles for the others.
Spielberg versus Tarantino on May 1 at Churchill Downs? Now, that would be fun --almost the stuff of motion pictures.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park is 7 furlongs and thus subordinate to the Holy Bull for Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Still, it's a chance for a late-developing one to get going and By George fits that bill perfectly.
The Christophe Clement trainee has made only one start, winning a 6-furlongs tilt at Aqueduct with ease Dec. 19. He's by Into Mischief, which certainly gives him the scope to handle any distance.
Among the rest, Drain the Clock, Poppy's Pride and Likeable all look promising at this distance. The latter was 13th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Sunday's $100,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct has six candidates going 7 furlongs. It takes a stretch of the imagination to see any of them making an impression on the Triple Crown.
The Road to the Oaks
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Forward Gal at Gulfstream Park is contested at 7 furlongs and features Zaajel, a very promising Shadwell homebred daughter of Street Sense.
Zaajel, the 7-5 favorite on the morning line, won at first asking at the same trip over the same course Dec. 20 and has been training steadily at Palm Beach Downs for Todd Pletcher.
For those not liking her, there's at least something to recommend most of the other seven fillies.
Coach is the 7-5 favorite in a nice field of six for Saturday's $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
The Commissioner filly, trained by Brad Cox, won her first three races, then was third in the Grade III Golden Rod at Churchill Downs to end her 2-year-old campaign.
The main competition in the 1-mile event appears to be Joy's Rocket, an Anthony's Cross filly from the Steve Asmussen operation. She won the Songbird Stakes at Keeneland and the Letellier Memorial at Fair Grounds late in 2020 and makes her 3-year-old debut.
King Guillermo invades from Florida to take on four local runners going 1 1/8 miles in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Pascual at Santa Anita.
King Guillermo, winner of last year's Grade II Tampa Bay Derby and second in a division of the Grade I Arkansas Derby, returned from a seven-months absence to finish fourth in the Grade I Cigar Mile Dec. 5 at Aqueduct.
The locals are Express Train, second to Saudi Arabia-bound Charlatan in the Grade I Malibu Dec. 26; Idol, second in the Grade II San Antonio Dec. 26; Tizamagician, second in the Grade III Tokyo City Cup two starts back; and Zestful, more an allowance type.
Letruska arrives from Florida to find herself the even-money favorite on the morning line for Sunday's $300,000 Grade III Houston Ladies Classic at Sam Houston.
The 5-year-old Super Saver mare, winner of the Grade III Rampart Stakes at Gulfstream Park in her last start, drew the outside gate in a field of seven for the 1 1/16 miles race.
Also in town for the festivities are Fair Grounds-based Lady Apple, Delta Downs-based Shes Our Fastest and Figure It Out, whose last official work was at Oaklawn Park.
Motion Emotion, who has raced from coast to coast for trainer Steve Asmussen, has been training at the Houston track for a month.
Five turned out for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Toboggan at Aqueduct and three of them -- Share the Ride, Pete's Play Call and Stan the Man -- get the bulk of the oddsmaker's love.
Share the Ride, a consistent, 6-year-old Candy Ride gelding, won the Grade III Fall Highweight Handicap two starts back. Pete's Play Call, claimed for $40,000 at Saratoga last summer, worked his way up to a victory in the Gravesend Stakes at Aqueduct on Jan. 2. Stan the Man was second in both the Fall Highweight and the Gravesend.
Sunday's $75,000 Stonerside Sprint at Sam Houston, 6 furlongs, has a field of nine with the favorite, Nitrous, drawn on the inside. The 5-year-old son of Tapit comes off a win in the Thanksgiving Classic at Fair Grounds.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Frank's Rockette and Amy's Challenge top a field of nine entered for Saturday's $150,000, 6-furlongs American Beauty Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Frank's Rockette, a 4-year-old Into Mischief filly, won four straight races last year before finishing 11th in the Breeders' Cup Sprint against males.
Amy's Challenge, a 6-year-old Artie Schiller mare, won the McConnell Springs Stakes in her last start during Breeders' Cup weekend at Keeneland.
Sunday's $75,000 Jersey Lilly Turf Stakes at Sam Houston drew 11 distaffers to tackle 1 1/16 miles. Catch a Bid, the 7-5 favorite on the morning line, got the No. 1 gate. The 5-year-old Real Solution mare makes her first start since summer at the spa in Saratoga Springs.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Marcos at Santa Anita, 1 1/2 miles on the turf, has been postponed to Feb. 6 because of heavy rain predicted for the Los Angeles area this weekend.
On paper, Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Kitten's Joy Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park is a match race between Never Surprised, 2-for-2 in New York before taking the snowbird route, and Kentucky Pharoah, 2-for-2 since being moved to the turf.
Those two drew the outside gates in a field of seven and will have to use some of their natural speed to get position in the short run to the first turn. So "on paper" may be the key element here.
Spooky Joy is the 5-2 favorite on the morning line for Sunday's $200,000 Grade III John B. Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston.
The 6-year-old English Channel gelding was last seen finishing fourth in the Grade II Fort Lauderdale at Gulfstream Park. Tut's Revenge enters the 1 1/2-miles Connally with six wins and a second from his last seven starts -- all at Canterbury Park and Remington Park.
Winfromwithin and Fighting Force are the lukewarm favorites in an overflow field for Sunday's $200,000 Texas Turf Mile for 3-year-olds at Sam Houston.
Winfromwithin, an Into Mischief colt, exits a victory in a maiden race at Gulfstream Park. Fighting Force, by Air Force Blue, also is in from Florida after finishing second in the Dania Beach Stakes Jan. 2.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park, 1 mile on the turf, attracted a field of eight 3-year-old fillies with Con Lima and Honey Pants as the morning-line favorites.
Con Lima, by Commissioner, has won her last two starts over the Gulfstream greensward for trainer Todd Pletcher. Honey Pants, a daughter of Cairo Prince, was second to Con Lima in the Ginger Brew Stakes Jan. 2. The others are recent maiden winners or allowance contenders.
Sunday's $100,000 Pulse Power Turf Sprint at Sam Houston has a field of 12 and the 5-furlongs dash looks like a real "you pick 'em" event.
Around the world, around the clock:
There were five Thoroughbred races on the program for the second night of the World Cup Carnival Thursday and Godolphin runners took out four of them, in one case finishing first through sixth.
And the star of the whole shebang was Soft Whisper, a Godolphin homebred fully by Dubawi, who was so impressive in winning the UAE 1,000 Guineas that jockey Frankie Dettori found himself comparing her to the legendary Dubai Millennium.
Soft Whisper, trained by Saeed in Suoroor, tracked the early pace and found no rivals as she took the lead turning for home. She won by 7 lengths, geared down through the final 50 meters. The Doug Watson-trained pair of Mnasek and Super Chianti finished second and third.
"She has a bright future," Dettori said. "Saeed mentioned everything -- Saudi [Derby], UAE Oaks, UAE Derby -- who knows? When you win so impressively, you get excited and you think of big plans.
"I was just saying to Saeed that the last time I won a race this easily was probably Dubai Millennium in 2000. It took me 21 years to find one just as easy."
Bin Suroor said Soft Whisper also is a candidate for the Kentucky Oaks and the European Classics. "She is a filly for the future," he said.
Also on the second Carnival night:
Althiqa rallied from last midway around the turn in the Cape Verdi Presented by Longines, ran by the field and won by 2 1/4 lengths despite drifting in late.
The Godolphin homebred 4-year-old Dark Angel filly, making her first start since last September, was impressive enough to have jockey James Doyle excited about her moving from Thursday's 1,600 meters up to the 1,800 meters of the Feb. 18 Balanchine Stakes.
"She's galloped through the line very well today," Doyle said of Althiqa. "So I think since there isn't anything else for her it's worth a crack at going to the nine furlongs in the Balanchine where they might not go as quick as they were today."
Godolphin runners filled the first six positions in the Zabeel Turf Presented by Longines with Ya Hayati getting there first. The 4-year-old Dubawi gelding, with Mickael Barzalona up, rallied outside rivals and won by 1 1/4 lengths.
Bright Melody and Star Safari completed the top three, all trained by Charlie Appleby. The 2,000 meters went in 2:00.93 over good turf.
The only Thoroughbred event on the evening not won by Sheikh Mohammed's team was the Al Bastakiya Trial Presented by Longines for 3-year-olds on the dirt course.
Uruguayan-bred El Patriota overcame a wide trip and a Southern Hemisphere weight penalty to win by 2 lengths. Speight'spercomete, a Speightstown colt trained by Doug Watson for owner/breeder Charles Fipke, was second.
Dettori closed out the night with a victory aboard Bedouin's Story (GB), a 6-year-old Farhh (GB) gelding trained for Godolphin by bin Suroor, in the 1,600-meter Longines Spirit Collection Trophy.
While the race wasn't the evening's feature, it was the most exciting with 12 of the 16 finishing with less than 2 lengths separating them and a dead heat for 10th and 11th into the bargain.
Saturday's Group 1 Cape Town Met at Kenilworth reflects the economic beatdown that has been the lot of South African racing in recent years.
The former Sun Met, and before that the J&B Met, has seen its purse slashed from a handsome 5 million Rand to 1 million as sponsorship disappeared and this year's field, despite including many of the nation's best older horses, numbers only 11.
There are lots of reasons for the decline, not least among them the internationally mandated export protocols that severely restrict the movement of horses out of South Africa, drying up foreign investment. Internal issues, including labor strife, have contributed and the COVID-19 pandemic has made everything that much worse.
Nonetheless, Saturday's field includes such recognizable names as two-time Group1 Vodacom Durban July winner Do It Again, Rainbow Bridge, Belgarion and African Night Sky. Trainer Mike de Kock brings recent Paddock Stakes winner Queen Supreme.
Mighty Gurkha, proving a mighty force on the all-weather surfaces, posted another gutsy win Monday in the Unibet 3 Uniboosts A Day Conditions Stakes at Kempton Park. The win earned the Sepoy colt a guaranteed spot in the Ladbrokes All-Weather Three-Year-Old Championship at Lingfield Park on finals day, Good Friday, April 2.
With Hollie Doyle riding for trainer Archie Watson, Mighty Gurkha made the early going in the 6-furlongs event, only to be headed by the favorite, Zamaani, near the furlong marker.
Doyle got her mount going again and he put a neck in front under the wire. Mighty Gurkha now has three wins and a second from four appearances on the all-weather.
"I felt I would take all the beating once I had the position to control the race, and he has shown a great attitude to get his head back in front," Doyle said. "If anything, I think being headed probably helped me out because if he had been in front the whole way, he may have wandered around."
News and Notes:
All the winners of the 2020 Eclipse Awards:
Horse of the Year: Authentic
2-year-old male: Essential Quality
2-year-old filly: Vequist
3-year-old male: Authentic
3-year-old filly: Swiss Skydiver
Older dirt male: Improbable
Older dirt female: Monomoy Girl
Male sprinter: Whitmore
Female sprinter: Gamine
Male turf horse: Channel Maker
Female turf horse: Rushing Fall
Steeplechase horse: Moscato
Owner: Godolphin LLC
Breeder: WinStar Farm LLC
Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.
Apprentice jockey: Alexander Crispin
Trainer: Brad Cox