Kentucky Derby heats up; Baffert suddenly has two more contenders

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Candy Man Rocket wins Saturday's Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs to enter Kentucky Derby picture. Photo courtesy of Tampa Bay Downs
1 of 2 | Candy Man Rocket wins Saturday's Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs to enter Kentucky Derby picture. Photo courtesy of Tampa Bay Downs

Feb. 8 (UPI) -- The Kentucky Derby wars are starting to heat up in earnest with the first 50-point qualifying race this coming weekend, but in the meantime, Risk Taking and Candy Man Rocket already have added their names to the list with victories and six-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert has pulled two more rabbits out of his hat.

Risk Taking won the Withers at Aqueduct and Candy Man Rocket took the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs, both moving into the top rank on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby." Baffert's magic trick came in the 7-furlongs San Vicente at Santa Anita.


Also in weekend racing, Curlin's Catch and Moonlight d'Oro advanced along the road to the Kentucky Oaks. Counterparty Risk, Masteroffoxhounds and Get Smokin made some noise on the turf.

On the international front, the expected fields are on the record for the $20 million Saudi Cup and its undercard races despite some troubling travel wrinkles; the World Cup Carnival enters its second half in Dubai; and we have some interesting 3-year-old action in Japan and a Group 1 result from Australia.


Step right up and read all about it.

The Road to the Roses

Risk Taking, the favorite, traveled comfortably behind the early speed in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Withers at Aqueduct, came three-wide, and then four-wide around rivals and got clear in the final furlong to win by 3 3/4 lengths.

Overtook started last of nine but overtook seven of them to finish second, 1 1/4 lengths better than pacesetting Capo Kane. Risk Taking, a Medaglia d'Oro colt trained by Chad Brown, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:51.91.

The Withers was Risk Taking's 3-year-old debut. Last year he showed little in one start on the dirt and another on a yielding turf course. He broke through when equipped with blinkers for the first time Dec. 13 at Aqueduct.

Asked whether Risk Taking will be a candidate for New York's premier Kentucky Derby prep, the $750,000 Grade II Wood Memorial April 3, Brown sounded a positive note.

"We'll nominate him to everything," Brown said. "But my first reaction would be not to take him out of New York. He's thriving there right now, so leave it be.

"I would not cut the horse back in distance from here to the [Kentucky] Derby under any circumstances. The most logical spot would be to train him up to the Wood."


At Tampa Bay Downs, Candy Man Rocket stalked the pace while three-wide in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes, made his move for jockey Junior Alvarado turning for home and held sway through the stretch, winning by 1 length.

Nova Rags, a stablemate in Bill Mott's barn, was second with Hidden Stash third and the favorite in a wide-open heat, Known Agenda, settling for fifth with a late bid. Candy Man Rocket, a Candy Ride colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.30.

Candy Man Rocket finished seventh in his only start last year but now is 2-for-2 as a 3-year-old. The earlier win came Jan. 9 at Gulfstream Park -- by 9 1/4 lengths.

"Obviously he has some tactical speed and he put Junior in a great spot," assistant trainer Riley Mott said of Candy Man Rocket.

"He got into a real nice comfort zone down the backside and Junior let him out a notch going to the three-eighths pole and at that point there wasn't a whole lot coming from behind. ... He passed the two-turn test."

Mott said Nova Rags "is a quality horse and he sat a good trip, too, and has some speed himself." But he was noncommittal as to plans for the 1-2 finishers. "We have to see how they come back," he said.


Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Vicente at 7 furlongs was not part of the official Kentucky Derby prep series. Nonetheless, six-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert sent out the first two finishers, Concert Tour and Freedom Fighter.

Concert Tour, a Street Sense colt from a Tapit mare, challenged his pacesetting stablemate in the stretch and the two duked it out with Concert Tour prevailing by 1/2 length in 1:24.06.

Concert Tour now is 2-for-2 and Freedom Fighter has a win and a second from two starts. It was clear from his post-race comments that Baffert does not feel either is out of the Derby picture.

"That's why we have these races," Baffert said. "Now they go to where I can stretch them out. This horse [Concert Tour] has two races under his belt, but those were two really good horses.

"I think the timing is perfect. I think from here you can take that big jump that you want to take. He's going to have to really step it up now but now he's ready for it."

Freedom Fighter, he said, is "going to improve off that, also."

Baffert also has Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Medina Spirit sitting No. 4 on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" leaderboard and Sham Stakes winner Life Is Good at No. 16. Another of his, Spielberg, is No. 5 on the list but has not progressed lately.


Candy Man Rocket and Risk Taking each earned 10 points on leaderboard for their weekend wins.

They join seven others with the same total but, by virtue of the tie-breaking formula, Risk Taking is No. 11 on the list and Candy Man Rocket is No. 12. Undefeated 2-year-old champion and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Essential Quality, a Godolphin homebred colt by Tapit, tops the leaderboard with 30 points.

Next weekend has three points races, headed by the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, which offers 50 points to the first one home. The El Camino Real Derby on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course and Monday's Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park are 10-point affairs.

Trainer Brad Cox has indicated the Southwest is a likely spot for Essential Quality's first start as a 3-year-old although he could walk over from his Fair Grounds barn for the Risen Star.

Keepmeinmind, a late-running son of Loaban who has been based at Oaklawn since late December, also is a candidate for either race. He hasn't raced since breaking his maiden in the $200,000 Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 28 at Churchill Downs.

It's always a chess match to get the right 3-year-olds into the right races on the right schedule. But this year should be a piece of cake compared to 2020, when no one knew for sure which races would be canceled or postponed or when the Kentucky Derby would be run.


The Road to the Oaks

Curlin's Catch went by the early leaders with a furlong and a half to run in Saturday's $150,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and showed her heels, winning by 4 1/2 lengths as the solid favorite.

Be Sneaky made the early going and held second, 1/2 length better than Malocchio. Curlin's Catch, a daughter of Curlin from the A.P. Indy mare Catch the Thrill, ran 1 mile and 40 yards on a fast track in 1:40.89 for jockey Antonio Gallardo.

Curlin's Catch finished second in her career debut Oct. 11, then finished fifth in the Princess Elizabeth Stakes -- both on the Woodbine all-weather. She started her 3-year-old campaign with a front-running, 2 3/4-lengths win at Gulfstream Park Jan. 3.

Winning trainer Mark Casse did not discourage suggestions Curlin's Catch will pursue a path toward the Kentucky Oaks, commenting, "Every piece is a step, like a puzzle, and you never know how they are going to react to the next level of competition.

"I don't think we could ask her to do much better than she did today. She comes from a wonderful family and I think we have to think a little about some bigger things down the road."


In Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Las Virgenes at 1 mile on the Santa Anita dirt track, Moonlight d'Oro rallied from last of five, got by pacesetting Kalypso at the top of the stretch and ran on to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Kalypso held second, 1 3/4 lengths in front of Moraz. Moonlight d'Oro, a Medaglia d'Oro filly, finished in 1:38.01 with Flavien Prat riding for trainer Richard Mandella. The winner finished second, third and first in three starts in 2020 and was making her 3-year-old debut.

The winner is owned by Spendthrift Farm and, who last year were part-owners of Authentic. "How can you do any better than they have done?" Mandella asked, rhetorically. "Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup."

Turf / Turf Mile

As suggested here Friday, Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Marcos Stakes at Santa Anita didn't include a whole lot of good recent form, opening the door for the relatively lightly raced Masteroffoxhounds.

The 4-year-old War Front colt did, in fact, take advantage, stalking the pace made by the favorite, Acclimate, then running by in the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

Starting Over was another 1 1/2 lengths back in third. Masteroffoxhounds, with Joel Rosario up for trainer Richard Baltas, ran 1 1/4 miles starting on the downhill course in 2:01.39.


Masteroffoxhounds arrived in California late last year after racing in Ireland and won on his second go at Del Mar on Nov. 28. The San Marcos marked his 2021 debut.

"It was a big jump from one event to a stake but he's got a lot of credibility," Baltas said of Masteroffoxhounds. "He's trained forwardly and we're very fortunate to have him."

Get Smokin tracked the early pace in Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes, then got goin' in the lane to open a 3-lengths lead. He needed a good chunk of that to hold off Eons, who came with a late run to finish second, 3/4 lengths short of the winner.

Admission Office came from even farther back to finish third. Get Smokin, a 4-year-old Get Stormy gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:40.75 with Junior Alvarado riding.

The victory was Get Smokin's third from 12 starts to go with three seconds and two thirds. He finished fourth in the Grade I Hollywood Derby at Del Mar to finish out his 3-year-old season.

"Our horse was coming into it great," said trainer Tom Bush. "We gave him a little freshening after California and he has really responded since he got to Florida.


"He's been in the feed tub and we were really hoping he would run this race and he did. We're probably going to hold off on him and hopefully he will be ready for Keeneland."

Hit the Road emerged three-wide from a pace-stalking trip in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Thunder Road Stakes at Santa Anita and swept by the leaders to win by 3 3/4 lengths.

The favorite, Bob and Jackie, was second with Border Town third. Hit the Road, a 4-year-old More Than Ready colt, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.35 with Umberto Rispoli in the kip, scoring his third straight win. "He looks like he's headed in the right direction," the rider said.

Filly & Mare Turf

Counterparty Risk saved ground just behind the early speed in Saturday's $175,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, got through an opening early in the stretch run and outfinished New York Girl for a 1-length victory.

Margaret's Joy came from last of six to get show money. Counterparty Risk, a 4-year-old, Irish-bred daughter of Australia, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:43.20. John Velazquez had the mount for trainer Chad Brown.


Counterparty Risk won for the first time wound up her 2020 season with a trip west that produced a second-place finish in the Lady of Shamrock Stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 26.

"She's a real exciting prospect for us moving forward," Brown said. She has had some injuries, none serious, but always inconveniencing and requiring patience.

"She ran super today and got a terrific ride from Johnny V, which is what you expect from a Hall of Famer. She shot through the opening and showed a great turn of foot. We are very grateful for her ability and my team's preparation."

Saturday's $100,000 Suwannee River Stakes at Gulfstram Park came off the turf onto the sloppy main track with two scratches. Great Island, after stumbling at the start and trailing, came with a late rush to catch pacesetting Drop a Hint in the final strides and win by a head.

Mylastfirstkiss was third. Great Island, a 5-year-old Scat Daddy mare out of the Rahy mare Voyage, ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:52 with Irad Ortiz Jr. riding for trainer Chad Brown. She has three wins, a second and a third from five starts.

"It's hard to overcome after that in the first part of the race," Ortiz said. "She just stumbled, big-time, twice.


"After that, I said, 'Let me just see what she can do.' I just let her settle and by the backside she started moving really good so I didn't want to take too much hold of her after what happened in the beginning. I just let her roll and find her stride."


Boldor ran by the early leaders in the stretch to win Saturday's $150,000 King Cotton Stakes at Oaklawn Park by 1 length. Seven Nation Army pressed the pace and finished second, a neck in front of Mr. Jagermeister.

The favorite, Flagstaff, came with a late run from the back of the field but could only manage fourth, a neck farther back. Boldor, a 5-year-old Munnings gelding, finished 6 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:09.86 under David Cabrera.

Boldor, trained by Steve Asmussen, notched his second straight win following the Sam's Town Stakes at Delta Downs on Jan. 4.

"I thought I was going to be a little bit more off of it," Cabrera said. "He broke really sharp. I just let him get comfortable. Pick a spot. He responded to me really good down the lane."

Flagstaff came into the race off a second-place finish in the Grade II Santa Anita Sprint Championship. He was making his first start over anything other than a fast track and second outside California.


"I just couldn't get him going," jockey Florent Geroux said of Flagstaff. "He was just out-paced. I don't know if he didn't like the track. I just couldn't get him going. He was lost and I was riding really hard. Made a nice finish at the end, but just had too much to do."

Turf Sprint

Lady's Island apparently didn't care that Saturday's $100,000 Ladies' Sprint Handicap came off the Gulfstream Park turf. The 7-year-old Greatness mare shot right to the lead, glided over the sloppy main track and won by 3/4 length over Miss Auramet.

Hear My Prayer was another 1/2 length in arrears in third. Lady's Island, with Emisail Jaramillo up, ran 5 furlongs in 58.87 seconds. The race was Lady's Island's last as she is entered in next week's Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Winter Mixed Sale.

Earl's Rock trailed most of the field early in Friday's $75,000 Baffle Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita, made up all the difference and outfinished Beer Can Man for the win.

Mac Daddy Too disputed the early pace and finished third. Earl's Rock, an Irish-bred colt by Fascinating Rock, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on firm going in 1:16.15. Flavien Prat had the ride for trainer Phil D'Amato.


Around the world, around the clock:

The Saudi Cup

The 2020 Saudi Cup snuck in under the wire as the COVID-19 pandemic set in. This year's renewal is fighting what everyone hopes is the end of the worldwide scourge, which this week found Saudi health authorities banning visitors from 20 nations, including the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland.

Despite all that, the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia Thursday announced a "likely" field for the $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 20 that would pit American runners Charlatan, Knicks Go and others against solid international competition.

"The entire team are working incredibly hard to deliver a world-class event where the health and safety of all participants is paramount," said Tom Ryan, the JCSA director of strategy and international racing.

"It has obviously been a difficult year for everyone and we are glad that we are able to put on this meeting for racing fans all over the world to enjoy."

If all the expected runners show up, the programs Feb. 19 and 20 at King Abdulaziz Racecourse will include 77 overseas contenders from 13 countries with 24 Group 1 or Grade 1 wins among them.

The anticipated field for the Saudi Cup itself includes American stars Knicks Go, winner of the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile and the Pegasus World Cup Invitational; Charlatan, winner of the RUNHAPPY Malibu Stakes; Tacitus, fifth in the 2020 Saudi Cup; Max Player, who contested all of the 2020 U.S. Triple Crown races; and Sleepy Eyes Todd, most recently fourth in the Pegasus.


From elsewhere around the globe come the likes of Chuwa Wizard, winner of the Group 1 Champions Cup on the Chukyo Racecourse dirt in his last start Dec. 6, and Mishriff, who was second in the Al Rajhi Bank Saudi Derby a year ago and returned to win the Group 1 French Derby in July.

The field also is set to welcome Bangkok, who prepped for the race with an easy-peasy victory Saturday in the Winter Derby Trial on the Lingfield Racecourse all-weather track in England (see below), and Simsir and Global Giant, the top two from the Bahrain International Trophy last November.

U.S. runners are prominent in a couple other runners with Channel Maker set for the $1 million Neom Turf Cup at 2,100 meters and Cowan set for Saudi Derby.

The two-day program also includes a jockey challenge with some of the sport's top names and a new venture, the $500,000 Al Rajhi Bank International Handicap on the turf, open to horses trained in International Federation of Horseracing Authorities Part II and Part III Countries.

That race, designed to shine world attention on those jurisdictions and show Saudi leadership in the sport, drew entries from Bahrain, Spain, the Czech Republic and Greece, as well as Saudi Arabia.



Thursday's fourth session of the World Cup Carnival at Meydan Racecourse has the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 at 1 3/16 miles on the dirt and the Group 2 Al Rashidiya at 1 mile on the grass.

The advance of the Maktoum Challenge from 1 mile in Round 1 means contenders are more likely to be looking for a way into the Dubai World Cup itself. However, Military Law, winner of Round 1, is listed as a likely runner for the $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 20.

The Al Rashidiya leads to the Group 1 Jebel Hatta on Super Saturday and the $4 million Group 1 Dubai Turf at 1,800 meters on World Cup night.

We'll have Thursday's results along with the weekend preview.


Keeping up with the 3-year-old crop, Lagom held on to win Sunday's Grade 3 Kisaragi Sho at Chukyo Racecourse but the connections of runner-up Yoho Lake must be encouraged and Land of Liberty's folks must be frustrated and perplexed.

First, the winner: Lagom, an Orfevre colt, emerged from just behind the leaders to take a big lead midway down the stretch in the 2,000-meters event, then held on to win by a rapidly diminishing neck from Yoho Lake with Land of Liberty third.


It was Lagom's first start of the year after a juvenile season that comprised a win and two seconds.

Yoho Lake, a Deep Impact colt, won his first two starts as a 2-year-old, then finished third in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes. Sunday's race was his 3-year-old debut and a promising one at that.

Then there's Land of Liberty. He also is by Deep Impact, with the added element that his dam, Dubawi Heights, is by Godolphin's pre-eminent sire Dubawi.

And he races for Teryuda Yoshida, a dominant force in Japanese racing. The colt won his first two starts but then, leading around the stretch turn in the Hopeful, he bolted to the outside rail, ejected his rider and did not finish.

Sunday, Land of Liberty had plenty of excuse for trailing most of the field early after being bumped from both sides and squeezed back at the start.

But then he appeared rank through the first half of the race, tossing his head and looking thoroughly uncomfortable. Once jockey Kosei Miura got him under control around the turn, Land of Liberty was all business, closing quickly but without any hope of catching the top two.

Stay tuned.


As noted above, Bangkok is headed to the Saudi Cup after getting an easy-enough trip to victory in Saturday's Betway Winter Derby Trial at Lingfield Park. With Ryan Moore riding for the first time, Bangkok got home 1/2 length to the good of Felix with Forest of Dean a close-up third.


Bangkok earned a guaranteed start in the Betway Easter Classic on Good Friday, April 2, but trainer Andrew Balding has bigger fish to fry in the meantime.

"That was just what we wanted because we have accepted an invitation for the Saudi Cup in a fortnight's time," Balding said. "So we were hoping he could get the race won without having too hard a race.

"Running on the dirt will obviously be an experiment and we won't know until we try. But I have always thought strongly run races like that would suit him well. As long as he comes out today's race well, he will be going there in perfect condition."

Also Saturday at Lingfield, Exalted Angel wore down pacesetting Fizzy Feet in the late going to land the Betway Kachy Stakes, a 6-furlongs affair that earned the winner a spot in the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championship on Good Friday. The winning margin was a neck.

This was a first attempt over six furlongs for shot Exalted Angel, who finished fourth in a Fast-Track Qualifier at Newcastle on Jan. 12 and started as a long shot in Saturday's race

"We always knew he had ability and up in trip today he has obviously loved it," said winning rider Clifford Lee. "He is normally quite slow out of the gates whereas today he was very quick out of them and being able to get that nice position early doors has helped us."


At Kempton Park, Rainbow Dream improved his record over that course to 4-for-4 with a front-running score in the Unibet Conditions Stakes. With Hollie Doyle up for trainer Alan King, the 8-year-old won by 1/2 length over Ocean Wind with Prince of Arran third.

The victory earned a spot in the Betway All-Weather Marathon Championship on Finals Day.

"Rainbow Dreamer is a legend," Doyle said. "It makes your life a lot easier when you ride horses as straightforward as him. ... It would be great to get him there on Finals Day this year. I'd love to ride him!"


His connections were trying to sneak in a Group 1 victory for Sir Dragonet in Saturday's Neds C.F. Orr Stakes at Caulfield, going the shortest trip of his career. It didn't work out as the 2020 Cox Plate winner beat only two rivals while finishing seventh in the 1,400-meters test.

Streets of Avalon got there first, 1/2 length ahead of Imaging with Crosshaven third. Streets of Avalon, a 6-year-old Magnus gelding, made it two straight wins for only the second time in his 54-race career, backing up a victory Jan. 22 in the Group 2 Ladbrokes Australia Stakes.


The Orr represented the first Group 1 win for jockey Zac Spain and a disappointment for Sir Dragonet's rider, Glen Boss.

"I was surprised. When the sprint came on, he came off the bridle a bit," Boss told's Andrew Hawkins. "He was very dour with me. But we've learned a valuable lesson today. ... We just found that he hasn't got the speed to win over seven (furlongs)."

Also Saturday at Caulfield, Probabeel looked like the class of the Group 3 Jeoffrey Bellmaine Stakes and ran to his notices, winning by 1 1/4 lengths. Paul's Regret and Snapdancer filled out the top three.

Probabeel, a 4-year-old Savabeel mare, won last season's Group 1 TAB Epsom, then finished the year with a seventh-place finish in the Cox Plate behind Sir Dragonet. The Bellmaine was her first start since then.

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