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Top Kentucky Derby candidates to run over weekend

By
Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Volcanic Sky, with Frankie Dettori riding, wins Thursday's Group 3 Nad al Sheeba in Dubai and may start on World Cup night. Photo by Erika Rasmussen, courtesy of Dubai Racing Club
Volcanic Sky, with Frankie Dettori riding, wins Thursday's Group 3 Nad al Sheeba in Dubai and may start on World Cup night. Photo by Erika Rasmussen, courtesy of Dubai Racing Club

Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Some of the top-rated heavyweights in this year's Kentucky Derby picture lace up the gloves this weekend in the long-delayed Southwest Stakes in Arkansas and hotly contested races in Florida and Kentucky.

Counting those races and some others, four winners from the 2020 Breeders' Cup World Championships at Keeneland will be in action during the weekend, along with several others who ran well without winning in those races.

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The Southwest at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs features undefeated 2-year-old champ and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Essential Quality, Jackie's Warrior and million-dollar yearling Spielberg in a powerhouse field of seven.

The Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park has Holy Bull Stakes winner Greatest Honour and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf victor Fire at Will.

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And the Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park in Kentucky offers a chance for 3-year-olds to tackle an all-weather track.

On the international front, we have results from the World Cup Carnival in Dubai plus a look at some Group 1 action in Australia and the Winter Derby in England.

There's lots more racing across the United States, too, after a relatively quiet spell made even quieter by weather woes.

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Oaklawn's includes a spate of rich graded stakes besides the Southwest, including some delayed by the earlier nasty weather. Another of November's Breeders' Cup winners, Monomoy Girl, returns to action at the Hot Springs track.

Gulfstream Park surrounds the Fountain of Youth with a whole bunch of turf stakes at a range of distances for both males and females.

Among those runners is yet another 2020 Breeders' Cup winner, Vequist, victress in the Juvenile Fillies. We hope we're not jinxing anything by saying the weather forecast in South Florida looks promising.

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Enough promising. Let's get to it.

The Road to the Roses

Saturday's $750,000 Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park has been delayed several times by weather but still retains arguably the toughest field yet among the Derby hopefuls.

At the top of the seven-horse field are Essential Quality, the undefeated 2020 juvenile champion and Breeders' Cup winner, and Jackie's Warrior, who was undefeated with two Grade I wins before he finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup. Both make their 3-year-old debut.

The Southwest also attracted Spielberg, a $1 million yearling who has underperformed for trainer Bob Baffert, winning but twice in seven starts and reporting fourth in the Grade III Robert B. Lewis in his most recent outing.

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But as Baffert is notorious for plundering Arkansas riches, you may ignore the Union Rags colt at your peril.

Baffert said he put Spielberg in the Southwest as a result of the two delays and the decision to reopen nominations.

"I really don't plan too far out," Baffert told Oaklawn publicity Tuesday. "His last race, he just never really got into it. Struggled all the way around there.

"But he came back and worked well and so I thought, 'You know what? I know it's going to be a short field and the races are sort of on top of each other.' I thought I would give him another chance."

There's nothing wrong with the other four in the Southwest. And with two of the favorites coming off layoffs and another with a spotty record, this could be an even more interesting race than the marquee names would suggest.

Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park also has a blockbuster field. Greatest Honour exits off a thundering, come-from-behind win in the Grade III Holy Bull over the same track Jan. 30.

Drain the Clock enters the Fountain with a record of four wins from five starts, the victories including the Swale Stakes on the Holy Bull undercard. His only loss came as a result of an equipment malfunction.

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Greatest Honour is the 9-5 favorite on the morning line and trainer Shug McGaughey said his colt doesn't really need a pace scenario like that of the Holy Bull.

"We'd like to see some speed ahead of him," the veteran conditioner said. "When you have a horse that comes from behind, if you have some pace in front of you, it helps you. But I'm not going to be overly worried if there isn't.

Fountain prospects Fire at Will and Tarentino are part of a recent "run on any surface" movement, both having had success on dirt and turf. Fire at Will moves back to the dirt after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.

Tarentino, second in the Holy Bull after three outings on the grass, have demonstrated talent on both courses.

We're still pulling for both Spielberg and Tarentino to make it into the Churchill Downs starting gate. Maybe they could attract their Hollywood namesakes to Millionaires' Row.

Meanwhile, for expert thoughts on this race and the rest of an excellent Gulfstream Saturday card, check out analyst Jude Feld's insights at popejude.com.

A full and competitive field is on standby for Friday's $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial on the all-weather course at Turfway Park.

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The morning-line favorite, at odds of 3-1, is Gretzky the Great, a Nyquist colt trained by Mark Casse who won three in a row at Woodbine last year before finishing sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Keeneland.

The Woodbine record included a blowout victory in the Grade I Summer Stakes on the turf and a maiden win on the all-weather surface.

Trainer Wesley Ward, never to be overlooked at Turfway, fields Like the King, a Palace Malice colt whose last start was a win at the northern Kentucky track.

Kinetic Sky, a Runhappy colt trained by Brad Cox, exits a maiden win at Fair Grounds and tries the all-weather for the first time.

The Fountain of Youth earns the winner 50 points on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" leaderboard, guaranteeing a spot in the Derby starting gate.

Improbably, the Southwest and the Battaglia are deemed by Churchill Downs to be of equal value with 10 points to the winner of each. Well, maybe it's not improbable since Churchill Downs now owns Turfway.

Things really heat up on the Road to the Roses next week with the San Felipe at Santa Anita, the Gotham at Aqueduct and the Tampa Bay Derby each offering 50 points for a win.

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Additionally, there are races Wednesday and Friday in England that will give a good indication whether the "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" will produce a contender for Louisville this year.

The Road to the Oaks

Last year's champion 2-year-old filly and Breeders' Cup winner Vequist makes her 3-year-old bow in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park.

The Nyquist filly had two wins and two seconds from four starts in 2020 and has been working well at Palm Meadows since returning to training in January.

If she's not quite ready, there are a few with more recent form who could step up, among them Curlin's Catch, an easy winner in the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs Feb. 6

Friday's $65,000 Cincinnati Trophy Stakes on the Turfway Park all-weather course has an overflow field. But it does not have anything approaching a clear favorite with seven of the 13 nominees posted on the morning line at single-digit odds.

Just Read It is 3-1, but the Constitution filly's two previous starts came on the dirt at Aqueduct. Those who follow trainers will note Mark Casse has three fillies in here, including two-time Woodbine winner Dirty Dangle, while Wesley Ward is not participating.

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The returns should be worthy for those who figure this one out.

Classic / Dirt Mile

Mystic Guide and Owendale stand out among seven set for Saturday's $600,000 Grade III Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

Mystic Guide, a 4-year-old Ghostzapper colt, really came along during the second half of 2020, finishing third in the Grade III Peter Pan, winning the Grade II Jim Dandy, both at Saratoga, then finishing second in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Owendale, a 5-year-old by Into Mischief, was fifth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile and third in the Grade I Clark Stakes at Churchill Downs in his final two starts of 2020. Both make their 2021 debut.

Among the others, Hunka Burning Love exits a second in the Fifth Season Stakes over the course last month before the bad weather; Silver Prospector won last year's Southwest Stakes but has done nothing of note since, 8-year-old Rated R Superstar makes his third start in this event, looking for his first win; and Long Range Toddy seeks his first victory since the 2019 Rebel over the same course.

One does get the feeling this division is a little short at the moment, thanks to the retirements of most of last year's top 3-year-olds and the massive purses offered early in the year in the Middle East.

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The shortage extends to New York, where just five were rustled up for Saturday's $125,000 Stymie Stakes at Aqueduct at 1 mile. Mr. Buff has been a tough cookie against some pretty good rivals and finds a good spot here.

Trainer Tom Albertrani has Tintoretto back from Florida to contest this race. We're partial to Tintoretto, a 5-year-old, German-bred son of Maxios, because the name reminds us of the pivotal scene in the Jane Fonda-Lee Marvin flick Cat Ballou.

Saturday's $200,000 Grade II WinStar Gulfstream Park Mile has a field of eight including the first three finishers from the Grade III Fred W. Hooper on Jan. 23 -- Performer, Eye of a Jedi and Avant Garde.

Tax, whose career so far peaked in the 2019 Triple Crown series with a fourth in the Belmont, also is in the mix with this crowd.

Distaff

Sunday's $250,000 Grade III Bayakoa at Oaklawn Park starts, and probably will end, with Monomoy Girl. The two-time Eclipse Award champion won all four starts in 2020, ending with the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Keeneland.

Overall, she has 13 wins and two seconds from 15 starts in a career that was interrupted for a year and a half by injuries. She is the even-money favorite in the Bayakoa. She has proved she can run fresh off a layoff and, assuming she's still sharp at age 6, good luck to the other five entered here.

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Filly & Mare Sprint

Saturday's $200,000 Spring Fever Stakes at Oaklawn Park has a cast of nine with Kimari and Amy's Challenge cast in the leading roles.

Kimari, a 4-year-old Munnings filly, finished second in the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup at 2020 Royal Ascot for trainer Wesley Ward, settled for third in the Music City Stakes at all-turf Kentucky Downs in September and hasn't been seen since. She's been working on both turf and dirt in Florida.

Ward said after the Spring Fever Kimari will be directed to the $300,000 Grade I Madison Stakes April 3 on the dirt at Keeneland.

"After the Madison," he said, "we'll kind of make a plan, sit down and see if maybe Royal Ascot -- we move forward again toward a race there or if we forego Royal Ascot this year."

Amy's Challenge is a fixture at Oaklawn -- winner of the 2018 Dixie Belle, winner of the 2019 Spring Fever and second in last year's renewal.

Abrogate, Windmill and Mariah's Princess top the morning line for Sunday's $150,000, 6-furlongs Dixie Belle Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Oaklawn Park.

Abrogate, an Outwork filly, is 2-for-2 with the wins at Churchill Downs and last month at Oaklawn. She is the 5-2 favorite. Windmill, by Street Sense, won at first asking over the Oaklawn strip Jan. 23.

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Mariah's Princess, a daughter of Ghostzapper, visits from New Orleans, where she ran second in the Letellier Memorial in her most recent start.

Turf

Tide of the Sea and Temple top a field of eight for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Mac Diarmida Stakes at Gulfstream Park at 1 3/8 miles on the green. They finished 1-2 in the Grade III W.L. McKnight in their last start going 1 1/2 miles so the trip should not be an issue.

Also in here, Moon Over Miami won the rich Dueling Grounds Derby last fall at Kentucky Downs, Admission Office comes off a just-missed second in the Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes and Sir Sahib was second in the Grade I Northern Dancer at Woodbine two starts back before a misfire in the McKnight.

Temple, Admission Office and Sir Sahib all have Dynaformer two generations back in their pedigree.

The rather odd mix of nine entered for Saturday's $125,000 Grade III Canadian Turf at Gulfstream Park ranges from 7-year-old Frankel gelding Monarchs Glen, a long-ago Group 3 winner in England who was claimed out of his last race for $75,000, to 4-year-old Winters Back, who makes just his sixth start.

There are lots of mixed signals in between. The morning line favorite is Olympic Runner, who won his last start by a head over Winters Back.

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A case could be made for any one of the eight 3-year-olds set for Saturday's $100,000 Palm Beach Stakes at 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream.

The field includes a pair of Triple Crown nominees, some who have won on the dirt or all-weather and some up from the optional claiming ranks.

The outside gate went to Chess's Dream, winner of the Grade III Kitten's Joy over the course Jan. 30. The oddsmaker leans toward Scarlet Sky and Annex, also recent winners.

Palazzi is the morning-line favorite among nine in for Saturday's $75,000 Black Gold Stakes for 3-year-olds at Fair Grounds. The Pioneerof the Nile colt found the winner's circle on his fourth try in December on the Fair Grounds greensward.

Trainer Mark Casse then sent him to Texas, where he won the Texas Turf Mile at Sam Houston on Jan. 31.

Filly & Mare Turf

Got Stormy makes her 6-year-old debut in Saturday's $125,000 Grade III Honey Fox Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

The multiple Grade I-winning daughter of Get Stormy has not been seen since finishing fifth, beaten just 2 lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint last November.

There are some options in the nine-filly field going 1 mile after a short run to the first turn. Zofelle comes off a win in the Grade III Marshua's River over the course and distance last month.

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And Ricetta, a 4-year-old Juddmonte Farms homebred filly by Camelot, makes her second U.S. start for trainer Bill Mott. Formerly handled by John Gosden, she has not raced since finishing fifth in the Saratoga Oaks last August. Good works have green lights flashing.

They don't get much more competitive than the 11 entered for Saturday's $125,000 Grade III The Very One Stakes at 1 3/16 miles on the Gulfstream greensward.

There's not a whole lot to sort them out so have a gander at Kalifornia Queen, a German-bred, 4-year-old filly who competed in a few nice races last year in Europe.

This is her first start for trainer Chad Brown, whose record with this type of horse speaks loudly for itself. Also, War Like Goddess has won both previous starts and trainer Bill Mott is rocking and rolling.

There are some really promising types among the eight 3-year-old fillies entered for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Spanish Loveaffair, a Karakontie filly, is 2-for-2 over the course, finished second behind the classy Aunt Pearl in the Grade II Jessamine at Keeneland and then was a decent sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf -- won by Aunt Pearl.

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Con Lima, by Commissioner, has not been worse than second in seven starts and already has two stakes wins on the Gulfstream green this year.

Toby's Heart, 2-for-2 last year including a stakes win at Saratoga, makes her first start since August and stretches out around two turns for the first time.

Turf Mile

There's a diverse field of six for Saturday's $100,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita, including everything from a recent first-try maiden winner to some graded stakes veterans. Red Flag broke his maiden on the turf at Santa Anita, then went on to win the Grade III Bob Hope at Del Mar and finish fourth in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity, both on the dirt. Trainer John Sherriffs puts him back on the course he can eat. Cathkin Peak, an Irish-bred colt, won twice in California last year, ending with the Eddie Logan Stakes at Santa Anita on Boxing Day.

Turf Sprint

Tampa Bay Downs finally had firm turf Wednesday to stage a pair of turf sprints, twice delayed by wet weather.

The Critical Way battled for the lead in the $100,000 Turf Dash, edged clear in the stretch and held on to win by 1/2 length from the favorite, Imprimis.

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The Connector was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. The Critical Way, with Samy Camacho riding, covered 5 furlongs on firm turf in 53.30 seconds.

The 7-year-old Tizway gelding has three wins, a second and a third from his last five starts. Owner Randal Gindi, who claimed The Critical Way for $30,000 some 13 months ago, credited trainer Jose Delgado for moving him up the class ladder.

"I'm very excited about this horse because of his speed and ability to get tactical position," Gindi said.

Two races later, the speedy early leaders gave way in the stretch run of the $100,000 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares, opening the way for late-running Miss Auramet to pounce and win by 1/2 length over Ode to Joy.

Sethamee Street came from last to finish third. Miss Auramet, a 5-year-old daughter of Uncaptured, got home in the identical time of 55:30 seconds with Roberto Alvarado Jr. in the irons. Seldom out of the frame, she scored her eighth win from 19 starts.

"I knew she is a good breaker," Alvarado said. "There was a lot of speed in the race, but I knew I was going to be close and when she was ready, I just let her roll.

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"Other horses were coming late but she kept digging in so I wasn't too worried. She's an honest horse who always tries hard, on dirt and turf."

Around the world, around the clock:

Dubai

The five Thoroughbred races on Thursday's program at Meydan Racecourse had relatively small fields and the Godolphin home team took the opportunity to dominate.

So much so that Godolphin runners finished first through fourth in one of the features and 1-2 in three other races. In all, the blue silks returned to the winner's enclosure in all save one of the evening's Thoroughbred races.

The dominance was nowhere more evident than in the Group 3 Nad al Sheeba, a 2,810-meters turf feature. Volcanic Sky, with Frankie Dettori riding, took the lead early in the stretch run and held off Global Heat to win by a short head with Brilliant Light third.

All three are trained by Saeed bin Suroor for Godolphin. Ispolini, trained by Charlie Appleby, made it a top-four sweep for Sheik Mohammed's crew.

Volcanic Sky, a 6-year-old Street Cry gelding, improved on a second-place finish in his previous start Feb. 4, also at Meydan, and bin Suroor said he now is under consideration for World Cup night March 27 -- likely for the Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup.

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"He is a tough horse and he always tries very hard," bin Suroor said of Volcanic Sky. "He is a big, strong horse and he always improves after his first race. Frankie was in a nice position all through the race and at the last two furlongs I felt he had a chance to win."

The night's second feature, the Group 3 Dubai Millennium Stakes,went to the international favorite, Star Safari, with William Buick up for Appleby, over the bin Suroor-trained Bedouin's Story and Dettori.

"He is a pretty lightly raced horse and I really liked what he did tonight," Buick said of Star Safari's performance. "It was a very straightforward win for him and he kept fighting all the way to the line.

"It might not be the best Group 3 around, but they are pretty well-seasoned horses and it was a good performance. He has had three runs this winter here, so I guess they might have one eye on the Carnival next winter."

Also on the card:

Bright Melody and jockey James Doyle won the getthat Handicap at 1,800 meters on the turf by 1 3/4 lengths over Dubai Mirage (and Frankie Dettori, both toting Godolphin silks.

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Appleby saddled the 1-2 finishers in the 1,600-meter Meydan Classic. Naval Crown, under Mickael Barzalona, got home 1 3/4 lengths to the good of Master of the Seas (IRE) and Buick.

The only non-Godolpin winner in the Thoroughbred portion of the card was Zainhom, a 7-year-old Street Cry gelding who won the final race for jockey Dane O'Neill. Zainholm is owned by Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum.

Australia

Saturday's Group 1 TAB Chipping Norton Stakes at Royal Randwick has nine takers including Verry Elleegant, who looks to bounce back from a disappointing third in her last start, the Group 2 Apollo Stakes.

That was her first-up after a break following the Melbourne Cup, where she was seventh. The Apollo was 1,400 meters and this is 1,600. The first two finishers in the Apollo -- Colette and Kolding -- return for another try.

Saturday's Kennedy Australian Guineas at Flemington boasts three triple-digit ratings in Ole Kirk, Tagaloa and Aysar. Tagaloa and Aysar exit first- and second-place finishes in the Group 3 C S Hayes Stakes.

Ole Kirk, a Group 1 winner as a juvenile, finished next-last when pitted against older rivals in the Group 1 Melbourne Futurity in his last start but is back with contemporaries for this. On the flip side, he was slapped with the No. 15 in the barrier draw.

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England

The snow is melting, days are getting longer and Saturday's Group 3 Betway Winter Derby at Lingfield Park is not only a tantalizing race in its own right, but also a sign that, before long, the flat turf season will reclaim our attention.

Meanwhile, the 1 1/4-miles Winter Derby has Father of Jazz as the antepost favorite, with the likes of Felix and Forest of Dean in the mix. Father of Jazz, a 4-year-old Kingman colt trained by Roger Varian, is undefeated on all-weather surfaces and exits a handicap win over course and distance Feb. 5.

Felix and Forest of Dean are familiar rivals. They most recently faced off Feb. 6 in the Betway Winter Derby Trial, finishing second and third, a head apart, behind Bangkok, who went on to finish eighth in the $20 million Saudi Cup last weekend.

On Jan. 11 at Wolverhampton, Felix got home first with Bangkok and Forest of Dean behind in another close finish.

The Winter Derby is a Fast-Track Qualifier for the Betway Easter Classic at Lingfield Park on All-Weather Championships Finals Day, Good Friday, April 2.

Earlier on Saturday's card, Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes third Moss Gill is set to line up for the Betway Hever Sprint as a test to see whether he will try the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on Dubai World Cup Night.

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Ed Bethell, who has taken over the training license from his father, James, said, "If he wins on Saturday, he probably warrants his place in Dubai whereas, if he doesn't, at least we haven't wasted a trip."

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