Life Is Good soars to Kentucky Derby favorite role

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Life Is Good wins Saturday's San Felipe at Santa Anita, ascending to the favorite role for the May 1 Kentucky Derby. Photo courtesy of Santa Anita
1 of 3 | Life Is Good wins Saturday's San Felipe at Santa Anita, ascending to the favorite role for the May 1 Kentucky Derby. Photo courtesy of Santa Anita

March 8 (UPI) -- Life Is Good was the life of the weekend Kentucky Derby prep party, dominating the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, while long shots won two other qualifiers for the May 1 Run for the Roses.

Idol and Hit the Road won Grade I affairs at Santa Anita, showing promise of becoming forces in the Classic and Turf Mile divisions. Micheline, who lives in a backstretch tent, won a classy edition of the Hillsborough Stakes on the Tampa Bay Downs turf.


Super Saturday in Dubai opened the door to World Cup night for some of the horses who have toiled through seven weeks of the Carnival. We have that and other worldwide action is a separate story so let's get right down to the Derby action.

The Road to the Roses

Life Is Good, indeed -- especially for the connections of the colt of that name who remained undefeated with an all-the-way, 8-lengths victory in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita.


The Into Mischief colt, trained by six-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert, was never threatened as he ran his record to 3-for-3. While he wandered a little through the stretch, jockey Mike Smith said he was just gawking at himself on the infield video board -- nothing to be concerned about.

Life Is Good is campaigned by the China Horse Club and WinStar Farm -- the same team that sent out Justify to win the 2018 Triple Crown, also with Baffert training and Smith riding.

He finished the 1 1/6 miles of the San Felipe on a fast track in 1:42.18. Baffert's No. 2 horse in the race, Medina Spirit, finished second, 2 1/4 lengths in front of Dream Shake.

"He's just so talented," Smith said. "I had a strong hold on him down to the wire, just holding onto him, making sure that he stayed straight. This horse is like that Muhammad Ali song. He floats like a butterfly, and stings like a bee."

Baffert said he hated to run Medina Spirit against Life Is Good but wasn't ready to ship either one. And he seemed well pleased with the winner's performance.


"I always thought he could be a super horse (and) 'we'll find out today'," Baffert said. "But at the quarter pole I could tell he was just still cruising, just doing it easy. I just feel fortunate that I have this horse in my barn."

Life Is Good won as the heavy favorite but Saturday's other two Kentucky Derby preps produced rather substantial upsets.

At Tampa Bay Downs, Helium came running from the back of a 12-horse field to post a 15-1 upset victory in the $400,000 Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.

The Ironicus colt, with Jose Ferrer up, got there 3/4 length in front of Hidden Stash, who also closed from the clouds to reach contention.

Moonlite Strike contested the early pace and held third with the favorite, Candy Man Rocket, tossing in the towel early, defeating only one rival. Helium finished the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.55.

While his victory was an upset, Helium did win both his previous starts last year at Woodbine for trainer Mark Casse, both by daylight margins.

The second of those was the Display Stakes. His dam is Thundering Emilia, a daughter of 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch, and Casse said he sees a path now to Louisville.


"This horse is something because he got away a little slow today and we had planned on him being closer," Casse said. "He made that big wide run on the turn, but when [Hidden Stash] rallied I was going to be happy with second.

"What was amazing is that he wasn't overly exhausted after the race. He's a beautiful horse, he's bred to run all day long and he looks like a Derby horse, so it's exciting," Casse said.

Helium was not nominated to the Triple Crown by the original deadline and would have to be supplemented at a cost of $6,000 to be eligible for the Run for the Roses.

Casse said Sunday he expects the supplement will be paid and speculated Helium might go directly to the Derby without another race even though Saturday's start was his first since October and first on the dirt.

And if the Tampa Bay race was an upset, Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct was a flat-out stunner.

Weyburn, at odds of nearly 47-1 battled down the stretch, swapping the lead with Crowded Trade and simply refusing to concede, winning by nose.

The odds-on favorite, Highly Motivated, had some early traffic issues and put in a belated run to finish third. Weyburn, a Pioneerof the Nile colt out of the A.P. Indy mare Sunday Affair, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.70. Trevor McCarthy rode for trainer James Jerkens.


Weyburn came to the Gotham straight from his maiden victory, scored in his third career start Dec. 5 at Aqueduct, going 7 furlongs.

"This is just really satisfying because it's been a tough winter and we loved him from day one," Jerkens said. "He didn't run first out and we didn't know what to think. Thank God we stuck to our guns. I think he'll end up being a decent colt."

Jerkens said Weyburn could move along to the $750,000 Grade II Wood Memorial April 2. He also is not an original Triple Crown nominee but Rob Landry, general manager of the owner, Crestwood Farm, said, "If he earns his way there, he'll get to run there. There's still a long way to go."

At the end of the long weekend's action, Life Is Good earned 50 points to move into a tie for the No. 1 spot on the Churchill Downs-administered "Road to the Kentucky Derby" leaderboard.

He and Greatest Honour share the top spot. Medina Spirit earned 20 points to move into the No. 5 position. Neither Helium nor Weyburn appears on the chart as non-nominees but, should they both be supplemented, they would be No. 4 and No. 5 on the chart.


Life Is Good also closed as the 2-1 favorite in Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager -- a rarity. This is just the fourth time in the last 19 years that the pari-mutuel field of "All Other 3-Year-Olds" did not close as the March future pool favorite. "All Other 3-Year-Olds" closed Sunday at 7-1.

Next weekend brings the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. That final prep for the $1 million Arkansas Derby offers 50 points to the winner.

Baffert has another late-blooming candidate in Concert Tour, winner of the Grade II San Vicente, but there will be substantial support for the likes of last year's Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club winner Keepmeinmind and Smarty Jones Stakes victor Caddo River.

After the Rebel, most of the remaining races in the series graduate to 100 points for the winner.

The Road to the Oaks

The Equibase chart notes tell a succinct story about the performance of Will's Secret in Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park: "Slow early, fast late."

Jockey Jon Court took the Will Take Charge filly out to take charge after the first quarter mile, kept her under a snug hold while setting a comfortable pace, then let off the brakes and scooted home first, 3/4 length in front of long shot Pauline's Pearl. Sun Path was third.


Will's Secret finished the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.61. The Dallas Stewart trainee scored her third straight win, dating back to December at Fair Grounds.

"It was a great ride," Stewart said. "She loves that track. She showed a little more versatility, that she can be on the lead and finish it off and that's really good to have in a racehorse."

Search Results hooked up with in a stretch duel with the favorite, Miss Brazil, in Saturday's $250,000 Busher Invitational at Aqueduct, exchanged some light contact with that rival and finally got by in the final jumps to win by 1/2 length.

It was another 5 3/4 lengths back to the third-place finisher, The Grass Is Blue. Search Results, a Flatter filly trained by Chad Brown for Klaravich Stables, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.75 for jockey Javier Castellano. She won her only previous start Jan. 3 at Gulfstream Park

"She broke so well out of the gate. She put me in a good position to rate and I didn't want to take that away from her and take her back," Castellano said. "I just let her do what she wanted to do. She was happy and she settled fine."


The Road to the Oaks shifted to Southern California on Sunday where Baffert saddled three of the four starters in the $100,000 Santa Ysabel with Beautiful Gift coming out on top.

The Medaglia d'Oro filly waited behind the dueling pair of Kalypso, the favorite, and Moraz. When that pair had tired each other out, jockey John Velazquez sent Beautiful Gift into the fray and she won by a head over Moraz.

Kalypso finished third, 2 3/4 lengths farther back. Heels Up trailed throughout and was eased down the stretch.

Beautiful Gift was making her 3-year-old debut after winding up 2020 with a maiden win at Santa Anita in October.

Kalypso entered off a victory in the Grade II Santa Ynez and a second in the Grade II Las Virgenes while Moraz, an Empire Maker filly trained by Michael McCarthy, was third in the Las Virgenes.

Baffert was philosophical about the outcome.

"Well, Kalypso, the distance has always been a little suspect," he said. "But the other filly stayed right on top of her and didn't let her get away. I didn't think Johnny was going to get there and all of a sudden that mare kicked in and (Beautiful Gift) is really [good]. The farther the better for her.


"Heels Up really can't go that far," he added. "We're gonna keep her one turn. It's nice to get these fillies, It's all I have for the Oaks, so it's fun."


Idol broke near the back of the pack in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, rallied five-wide to challenge for the lead heading into the stretch and was up to win by 1/2 length over Express Train.

Previously undefeated Maxfield raced evenly with no late punch and finished third, another 1/2 length in arrears. Idol, a 4-year-old Curlin colt, ran 1 1/4 miles on a fast track in 2:02.46 with Joel Rosario up.

In two previous starts this year, Idol finished second in the Grade II San Antonio and third in the Grade II San Pasqual.

All three horses who finished in front of him in those races finished in his wake Saturday -- Express Train, Tizamagician, who finished fifth, and Kiss Today Goodbye, who finished sixth.

"I know he was running really hard around the turn," winning trainer Richard Baltas said. "He was wide, he was far back, but Joel said he didn't want any of the kickback in his face, so he took the wide route.


"He's got a big lovely long stride so that's why we were thinking a mile and a quarter for sure. We needed all of Joel Rosario's power in the stretch to get him home."

At Tampa Bay Downs, Last Judgment obviously was in need of some class relief after finishing up the track in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup in his last start. He got just that in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Michelob Ultra Challenger Stakes and responded with a front-running, 2 1/4-length score.

Modernist was second and War Stopper third as Last Judgment, a 5-year-old Congrats gelding, stopped the timer at 1:41.98 for 1 1/16 miles on a fast track. Daniel Centeno had the mount. Claimed twice in 2020, most recently for $62,500, Last Judgment also won the $75,000 Sunshine Classic two starts back.

Distaff / Filly & Mare Sprint

Lake Avenue surged to the lead early in the stretch run in Saturday's $125,000 Heavenly Prize Invitational at Aqueduct, opened up a big lead and coasted home a winner by 6 3/4 lengths.

Portal Creek set the early pace and finished second, 2 3/4 lengths better than Flashdynamite. Lake Avenue, a 4-year-old Godolphin homebred filly by Tapit, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.25 and could have done better if asked by jockey Manny Franco.


It was her second in a row after a long drought that extended back to the Grade II Demoiselle in 2019.

"They just left it up to me and I think she's a different filly right now," said Franco. "She grew up and [trainer Bill] Mott is doing a great job with his horses. She is just very kind right now. I put her wherever she wants. I broke well and was able to rate her a little bit because I knew the pace was quick in front of me."

Farsighted was far out front at the end of Saturday's $75,000 Any Limit Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park.

The Bernardini filly tracked the early pace under jockey Jose Ortiz, took over the lead when prompted and rolled away to win by 4 1/4 lengths. Shop Girl was second, Feeling Mischief third. Farsighted ran 6 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:10.95.


Brickyard Ride blasted out of the gate in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Carlos at Santa Anita and never looked back. Leading all the way, the 4-year-old Clubhouse Ride colt won by 4 lengths with Tigre De Slugo second and Exaulted a nose behind him in third.


With Alexis Centeno in the irons, Brickyard Ride covered the one-turn 7 furlongs in 1:21.51 on a fast track. It was his fourth win from his last five starts while taking a major jump in class from state-bred and optional claiming races.

"Well, speed kills and he killed today with his speed," trainer Craig Lewis said of Brickyard Ride. He's blessed with a lot of natural speed, obviously.

"He's learning how to relax. He's maturing. He's a big powerful horse. He reached for ground like a horse that could run forever. He's starting to look like he could be the goods."

Chateau got out to a clear lead in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Tom Fool Handicap at Aqueduct, extended the advantage and then rolled home first by 3 1/2 lengths.

Wendell Fong was best of the rest, 3 1/4 lengths ahead of Speed Pass. The favorite, Pete's Play Call, had too little too late and finished fourth with a little late run.

Chateau, a 6-year-old Flat Out gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.12 with Kendrick Carmouche at the controls. He had to make 16 starts to claim his first win and was making his first graded stakes start.


"We had a plan -- obviously it was no secret," said Chateau's trainer, Rob Atras. "He put away that horse and was controlling the race and got a little separation. When they turned for home, it didn't look like anyone was coming and Kendrick still had some horse. It was an amazing performance."

He said the Grade I Carter at 7 furlongs April 3 is a potential target. "Off this race, anything is possible."

On Saturday at Gulfstream Park, Willy Boi battled to the lead in the $75,000 Hutcheson Stakes for 3-year-olds, assumed command nearing the quarter pole and inched away from five rivals, eventually winning by 1 3/4 lengths.

Ultimate Badger was second, followed by Lauda Speed. Willy Boi, an Uncaptured gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:10.93 with Corey Lanerie riding.


Winfromwithin battled to the early lead in Saturday's $75,000 Columbia Stakes for 3-year-olds at Tampa Bay Downs and was in charge the rest of the way, winning by 4 lengths from Crew Dragon. Boras was third, another 1 length behind.

Winfromwithin, an Into Mischief colt trained by Todd Pletcher, finished 1 mile on firm going in a course-record 1:33.72 with Luis Saez riding. He broke his maiden in his fourth race Jan. 2 when Pletcher put him on the turf for the first time.


An earlier effort fizzled when the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga was rained off the grass and he finished last of fourth behind the winner, Fire at Will.

Turf Mile

Hit the Road made it four straight wins with a stretch-running score in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita.

The 4-year-old More Than Ready colt, with Florent Geroux in the irons, bided his time through the first half mile, got through a tight gap and and outfinished the favorite, Smooth Like Strait, winning by a neck.

Count Again came with a rush from the back of the 10-horse field to get third. Hit the Road, trained by Dan Blacker, finished in 1:34.48 over firm going.

Hit the Road split the field in the 2019 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, only to be demoted to last. He then was fourth in the Grade III Cecil B. DeMille at Del Mar in November. His three wins earlier this year included the Grade III Thunder Road over the same 1 mile Feb. 6.

"The trip made the difference," Geroux said. "We got very lucky with the trip. It opened up at the right time, and the horse got the job done. It was all heart. Sometimes when you have to go through a tight spot the horse doesn't necessarily cooperate. But he did great and did everything I asked him to."


Michael McCarthy, who trains Smooth Like Strait, said, "He will win more of these than he will lose. We are still on track for the Breeders' Cup at Del Mar."

Filly & Mare Turf

Going in, Saturday's $225,000 Grade II Hillsborough Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs looked like one of the classiest and most competitive races of the weekend. And that's how it played out, with five rivals all within 1 length of each other at the end, including a dead heat for fourth.

Micheline was the best of the lot, though, drafting behind the early speed, challenging between rivals to get the late lead and winning by 3/4 length from Morning Molly.

New York Girl was third, with the favorite, Magic Attitude, seventh with a late bid and still less than 2 lengths short of the winner. Micheline, a 4-year-old Godolphin homebred filly by Bernardini, got 1 1/8 miles on firm turf in 1:47.19 with Luis Saez riding for trainer Michael Stidham.

The Hillsborough was Micheline's first graded stakes win although she was second, beaten only 3/4 length by Harvey's Lil Goil, in the Grade I QE II Cup at Keeneland in October and won the rich Dueling Ground Oaks at Kentucky Downs in September.


"She is kind of a silly filly," said Brad Trask, Stidham's alter ego at Tampa Bay. "She's a bad stall walker, so she lives in a little tent behind the barn. She is definitely a unique filly with a lot of talent.

"I was a little concerned with the outside post today and whether she would overcome it but Luis put her in a great spot the whole time and when he called on her, she was there."

On the same program at Tampa Bay, Domain Expertise put a nose in front of pacesetting favorite Jouster at the finish to win the $200,000 Grade III Florida Oaks.

Oyster Box was third as Domain Expertise finished 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:41.12 with Antonio Gallardo up. The winner, a Kitten's Joy filly trained by Chad Brown, won for just the second time in five starts. She was third in the Grade III Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park in her previous start.

Going Global came around rivals into the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 China Doll Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita and was along in time to win by 3/4 length over Closing Remarks -- her second win in as many U.S. starts.


Quattrolle was third as Going Global and jockey Flavien Pratt finished the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.32. The Irish-bred Mehmas filly struggled in three starts on the turf in Ireland last year, then finally won when put on the all-weather at Dundalk in her last start before heading for California.

On Saturday at Fair Grounds, New Boss was an all-the-way winner in the $75,000 Allen Black Cat LaCombe Memorial for 3-year-old fillies.

The Street Boss filly dueled one rival into submission, opened a big advantage and easily held off the favorite, Saranya, to win by 2 3/4 lengths. With Adam Beschizza up, New Boss covered about 1 mile on firm turf in 1:38.94.

Turf Sprint

Saturday's $75,000 Captiva Island Stakes for fillies and mares was washed off the Gulfstream Park turf but A Bit of Both didn't seem to mind the switch to the sloppy main track a bit.

After trailing most of the field, jockey Jose Lopez sent the 5-year-old Paynter mare around the field and onward to a 1/2-length victory. Miss Auramet and Tracy Ann's Legacy each held the lead briefly, then settled for second and third, respectively. A Bit of Both finished 5 furlongs in 58.93 seconds.


Fair Grounds

Offspring sprang into action in the stretch run in Saturday's $60,000 Red Camelia Stakes for Louisiana-bred fillies and mares, taking the lead and carrying on to a 1 3/4-lengths victory.

Net a Bear was second with Marywood another 1/2 length back in third. Offspring, a 5-year-old daughter of Into Mischief, ran about 1 mile on firm turf in 1:39.80 with Brian Hernandez Jr. in the irons.


Espresso Shot tracked pacesetting Love and Love into the stretch in Sunday's $100,000 Biogio's Rose Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares, eyeballed that one at the sixteenth pole and went by to win by 2 lengths.

It was virtually a match race with Critical Value getting show money 11 lengths farther behind. Espresso Shot, a 5-year-old mare by Mission Impazible, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.12 with Eric Cancel up.

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