March 22 (UPI) -- It's not exactly the old Wide World of Sports theme, "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," but the ups and downs of the road to the Kentucky Derby were on display fully this weekend with Hot Rod Charlie in and Life Is Good suddenly out.
Hot Rod Charlie's victory in the Louisiana Derby highlighted a big day of New Orleans stakes racing on both turf and dirt. Oaklawn Park, Aqueduct and Santa Anita also contributed to weekend festivities.
On the international front, Sky Darci landed the BMW Hong Kong Derby and now has every chance to grow into Hong Kong's next superstar.
Rain washed out five Group 1 races on the Golden Slipper program in Australia, moving that agenda into competition with the Dubai World Cup card next Saturday. We've got an update on the 3-year-olds in Japan, too.
But first, the high and lows, ups and downs, peaks and valleys, euphoria and despair that comprise:
The Road to the Roses
Hot Rod Charlie jumped to the top of the Kentucky Derby standings with an impressive victory in the $1 million Grade II Louisiana Derby Saturday, only hours after another top contender, Life Is Good, went to the sidelines with an injury in California.
Hot Rod Charlie, true to his name, gunned out of the Fair Grounds gate and showed the way down the backstretch with Midnight Bourbon in close pursuit.
Midnight Bourbon tightened up Hot Rod Charlie's lead exiting the stretch turn but then couldn't go with him in the final furlong as jockey Joel Rosario booted Hot Rod Charlie home 2 lengths in front.
O Besos, gaining late along the rail, just missed snatching second from Midnight Bourbon while the favorite, Grade II Risen Star winner Mandaloun, faded from contention through the stretch run and finished sixth.
Hot Rod Charlie, an Oxbow colt out of the Indian Charlie mare Indian Miss, ran 1 3/16 miles in track-record time of 1:55.06. The distance is rarely contested at the Fair Grounds.
Hot Rod Charlie took four tries to get his first win last year as trainer Doug O'Neill tried him on both turf and dirt.
He finally broke through Oct. 2 at Santa Anita, then finished second, beaten just 3/4 length by Essential Quality, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at odds of 94-1.
In his only previous race this year, he finished third, beaten just a neck for it all, in the Grade III Robert B. Lewis at odds of 5-2.
"I wanted to get a little position," Rosario said of Hot Rod Charlie. "It didn't look like there was much speed in the race. He broke well and in the first turn I found myself on the lead.
"He handled the distance very well. Very impressive. With the horse coming on his outside, he really fought back."
O'Neill said Sunday morning that Hot Rod Charlie "looked great. He flies back to California on Tuesday. I love the spacing [six weeks] leading up to the Kentucky Derby. It's ideal. He's proven to travel well."
Trainer Brad Cox reported Sunday he could find nothing wrong with Mandaloun and will take a "wait and see" approach to his plans.
Midnight Bourbon also is headed for Louisville and O Besos's trainer, Greg Foley, said he would like to join the party, too. "We've got 25 [Derby qualifying] points. If we got second, we wouldn't have to think about it. But now we have to hope we get in. We just have to wait and see," Foley said.
The Derby waiting and seeing is over for arguably Baffert's brightest Derby hope.
Life Is Good soared to the top of the standings with a dominating win in the San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 6. But he came out of a workout Saturday morning with something amiss in his hindquarters and will be sent to Kentucky for evaluation.
"There is always a possibility every day we go to work," that something will go wrong, The Blood-Horse quoted Baffert. "But he's going to be fine. It's disappointing because he's such an exciting horse."
Baffert still has Concert Tour and Hozier, winner and runner-up in last weekend's Rebel at Oaklawn Park, Robert B. Lewis winner and San Felipe runner-up Medina Spirit, and Los Alamitos Futurity winner Spielberg all fairly safely ensconced in the Kentucky Derby field.
Hot Rod Charlie earned 100 points for his efforts, and now stands atop the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" leaderboard. Midnight Bourbon was awarded 40 points for second and now is No. 2 on the list.
Next weekend brings two 100-point races: The Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai. The Florida Derby is expecting Fountain of Youth winner Greatest Honour, multiple Grade I stakes-placed Spielberg, Known Agenda, Collaborate and Nova Rags.
The UAE Derby cast has drawn candidates from Uruguay, Japan and England as well as two of Sheik Mohammed's top 2-year-olds and a pair from the United States seeking a back door into the Run for the Roses.
The Road to the Oaks
Travel Column and Clairiere had faced off twice before Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks. It was close both times with Travel Column winning the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs last fall by 1 length and Clairiere taking the Grade II Rachel Alexandra last month by a neck.
On Saturday, Travel Column won the rubber match, and with authority. After tracking Souper Sensational into the stretch turn, the Frosted filly opened up for jockey Florent Geroux and edged clear, winning by 2 3/4 length over her old foe, whose typical late run wasn't good enough this time around. Souper Sensational held third, 2 lengths farther back.
Travel Column ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.75, scoring her third win from five starts for trainer Brad Cox.
Cox said Travel Column "responded well. When you're trying to win races like the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks you have to keep moving forward. She's a talented filly. She was an expensive yearling and it paid off."
He said he six weeks to the Kentucky Oaks "will be a good thing for her. She puts a lot in her works."
Clairiere's trainer, Steve Asmussen, said the lack of a strong pace hurt his filly but did not put him off her chances in Louisville. "We are going to stay the course," he said. "We love her at a mile and an eighth and she's run well at Churchill. If she stays healthy, we expect her to be in Kentucky for the Oaks."
Colonel Liam proved he's going to contend at the top of the Turf Division this season with a nice, stretch-running victory in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Muniz Memorial Classic at Fair Grounds.
The win backed up victories in January in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational and in December in the Tropical Park Derby, both at Gulfstream Park.
Two Emmys made the early going in the Muniz and held on for second, 1 1/2 lengths behind Colonel Liam.
"The way he galloped out around the turn gives us encouragement that he'll handle longer distances," Pletcher said, indicating that the 1 1/8-miles Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic at Churchill Downs and the 1 1/4-miles Manhattan will be on his agenda.
"If he were to handle that, I think that puts everything else in play up to 1 1/2 miles," the trainer said. "He's got such a lovely disposition -- a great mind and he's willing to relax and settle. It gives us a lot of opportunities."
On Saturday at Santa Anita, United stalked the pace in the $100,000 Grade III San Luis Rey Stakes, took the point when asked by jockey Flavien Prat and rolled home first by 3/4 length.
Say the Word was gaining late but settled for second, 1 length in front of Masteroffoxhounds. United, a 6-year-old Giant's Causeway gelding, ran 1 1/2 miles, starting on the downhill course, in 2:25.51.
United has been a reliable, top-level performer for trainer Richard Mandella in California for the past two seasons with four previous graded stakes wins to his name. He finished a fading eighth in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Keeneland in his most recent start.
"Hat's off to Mister Mandella. He had him ready to run a mile and a half today," Prat said. "He was traveling well the whole way and he responded well when I asked him to go. ... He likes the turf courses out here and with the Breeders' Cup at Del Mar, that's good. Hoping to have a good year."
Filly & Mare Turf
Summer in Saratoga, fresh off a six-month layoff, rallied from well back in the field, overcame some traffic problems and prevailed in Saturday's $150,000 Tom Benson Memorial at Fair Grounds, edging Dominga by a neck.
Winning Envelope also ran well late to finish third while the favorite, Dalika, chased the early pace and faded to finish ninth.
Summer in Saratoga, a 5-year-old Hard Spun mare who has never raced at Saratoga, finished 1 1/16 miles on good turf in 1:42.15 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons.
It was her fourth win, first in a stakes race. Before going to the bench, though, she won a nice allowance affair at the tough Kentucky Downs meeting in September.
"Obviously it's nice to have a prep but the filly was giving us all the signs she was ready especially in her last couple works," trainer Joe Sharp said.
"A filly like that with the muscle memory, when they show you they're ready, they can usually run to a top performance off a layoff like that. The professionalism she showed today has us pretty excited as far what you do with her moving forward."
Chess Chief dropped back to last running down the backstretch in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II New Orleans Classic, swung out toward the center of the track turning for home and outfinished the favorite, Owendale, by a head for the win.
Enforceable also ran late to edge pacesetting Roadster for third. Chess Chief, a 5-year-old, entire son of Into Mischief, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:49.24 with Luis Saez timing his ride perfectly and using every foot of the long Fair Grounds stretch.
Chess Chief was third in the 2020 New Orleans Classic and most recently reported third in the Grade III Mineshaft.
"He finally gave me that last shot close to the wire to let us get by," Saez said. "Everyone made a pretty early move. We tried to save ground at the rail. When we finally got clear a lot of horses in front of us were backing up."
Sir Wellington waited patiently in the second flight through the first few furlongs of Saturday's $150,000 Gazebo Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park, came 3-wide to take a big lead in the lane and held on to win by a head over Jaxon Traveler.
Game Day Play was third with the favorite, Cazadero, a non-involved fourth. Sir Wellington, a Palace colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.25 with Alex Canchari up. It was his third win from six starts.
Winning trainer Mac Robertson acknowledged a bit of good fortune in the outcome, noting Jaxon Traveler "got in a little trouble and ran out of real estate. We'll take it. He [Sir Wellington] has run two good races here. I don't see any reason not to run him back here" in the $200,000 Bachelor Stakes April 24.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Pacific Gale took charge in the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Hurricane Bertie at Gulfstream Park and drew off to win by 3 1/2 lengths.
Sound Machine held a brief lead and finished second, 1 1/2 lengths better than Saguaro Row. Pacific Gale, a 6-year-old Flat Out mare, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:15.93 for jockey Junior Alvarado. She also won the Grade II Inside Information Stakes earlier in the Gulfstream meeting.
Just Read It pressed the pace made by the favorite, Save, in Saturday's $100,000 Cicada at Aqueduct, went by that one and then held off the late bid of Exogen to win by a head.
Save salvaged third with Salt Plage completing the order of finish. Just Read It, a Constitution filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.81 with Dylan Davis in the irons.
Warrior's Pride sprinted out to a big early lead in Saturday's $75,000 Texas Glitter Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park and held well enough to win by 3/4 length over Kasim, who put a nose in front of the favorite, Field Day, for second.
Warrior's Pride, a Poseidon's Warrior colt, ran 5 furlongs on firm turf in 55.37 seconds with Junior Alvarado riding.
Wink was on the lead in the blink of an eye in Saturday's $75,000 Melody of Colors Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park, led every step of the way and won by 3/4 length.
Lionessofbrittany finished second, 1 length to the good of Can't Buy Love. Wink, a Midshipman filly, finished the 5 furlongs on good turf in 55.26 seconds under Javier Castellano.
Who took the money? The fans who made Who Took the Money the odds-on favorite in Saturday's $100,000 Crescent City Derby for Louisiana-breds, that's who.
But they had to sweat a bit for it as the Street Boss gelding started to shorten stride after taking the lead in the stretch and just did hold on to win by a neck over Highland Creek. Unanimously was another 1 length back in third.
Who Took the Money, with Gabriel Saez up, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.73, remaining undefeated after three trips to the track.
Australasia was the day's banker. Sent off the heavy favorite in the first race on the card, the $100,000 Crescent City Oaks, the daughter of Sky Kingdom did not disappoint, chasing the early leader, assuming command with a quarter mile to run and winning by 2 3/4 lengths.
Pacesetter Winning Romance finished second, 3 3/4 lengths to the good of Big Time. Australasia, with Florent Geroux in the irons, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:42.72.
Classy John and X Clown dueled for the lead right through to the finish in Saturday's $100,000 Costa Rising Stakes for Louisiana-breds at Fair Grounds with Classy John winning by a head.
Monte Man was along for third, just in front of the odds-on favorite, No Parole, who broke a step slowly. Classy John, a 5-year-old Songandaprayer gelding, got 5 1/2 furlongs on good turf in 1:03.17 under Colby Hernandez.
Seven stakes races for state-breds Saturday, each worth $100,000.
Gunnerscelesticman tracked the early leader in the 6-furlongs Spirit of Texas, got by that one and went on to win by 2 lengths. The 5-year-old son of Celestic Night finished in 1:11.01 with Ernesto Valdez-Jiminez up.
In the Yellow Rose Stakes for fillies and mares, Ima Discreet Lady took the lead in the stretch and survived the late challenge to win by a neck. Ry Eikleberry rode, finishing in 1:10.94
Direct Dial took charge in the stretch run to win the 1-mile Star of Texas by 1 1/4 lengths over Kenai Bob. With Stewart Elliot up, the 6-year-old son of Too Much Bling got home in 1:38.35.
Silence d'Oro led most of the way to a 1 1/2-lengths score in the 6-furlongs Groovy Stakes for 3-year-olds, finishing in 1:10.99 with Jose Alvarez aboard.
In the Bara Lass Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, Happy Sailor sailed down the stretch to win by 6 1/2 lengths. The Midshipman filly ran 6 furlongs in 1:11.90 with Iram Diego in the irons.
Sunlit Song broke through the gate before the start of the Richard King Turf Stakes, stumbled at the actual start and still rallied late to win by 3/4 length.
The My Golden Song gelding toured 1 1/8 miles of firm turf in 1:51.51 with Lindy Wade in the irons. In the San Jacinto Turf Stakes for fillies and mares, Discreet Smile led the way and held on to win by a head.
The 5-year-old Discreet Cat mare ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.66 with Sophie Doyle riding.
Tivis grabbed the lead in the lane in Saturday's $75,000 Southern Park Stakes for Ohio-bred 3-year-old fillies and rolled home first, 4 lengths in front of the odds-on favorite, Esplanade.
Rock Star Lady was another 2 lengths back in third. Tivis, a daughter of Tale of Ekati, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.48 with Christian Pilares in the irons.
Around the world, around the clock:
"Magic" was the key word surrounding Sunday's BMW Hong Kong Derby. Winning trainer Caspar Fownes called it a "magic day" and credited the "Magic Man," Hong Kong's leading rider Joao Moreira, with securing the victory for Sky Darci.
Coming into the race, the key word might have been "uncertainty" as none of Hong Kong's 4-year-olds had been able to assert in the first two legs of the Derby series -- least of all Sky Darci, who finished sixth and seventh in those, albeit with some excuses.
With all of that no doubt firmly in mind, Moreira took things into his own hands. Posting Sky Darci well back of the early leaders, he saved ground around the stretch turn and kicked out three-wide turning for home.
Sky Darci responded perfectly and opened just enough of a lead with 200 meters to go that he could hold on by a head over the onrushing Russian Emperor, a Camelot colt who was a Group 3 winner in England last season. Panfield, a Chilean-bred son of Lookin at Lucky, was third.
"It was such a smooth run," said Moreira, whose three wins on the day put him over the 100 mark for the 2020-21 season.
"He jumped out well and immediately I just grabbed hold of him and tried to put him to sleep. I had to angle my way out but once I got into the straight, I had taken the lead a little bit too early but I knew I was on the best horse in the race and I had a lot of confidence in the horse."
Fownes' confidence was being put to the test.
"It was the longest 200 meters I've ever seen in a race, that's for sure," he said. "It felt like an eternity there and I'm glad he stuck his neck out and got the winning result."
Fownes said he will wait to see how Sky Darci exits the race before deciding his future. His desperate search for the finish in the Derby, however, might indicate shorter distances will be primary targets.
While Hong Kong racing has become a major player on the world stage and Group 1 races have proliferated at Sha Tin, the Derby still is the one that racing members of the Hong Kong Jockey Club most want to win.
"All in all, it's a magic day -- massive satisfaction," Fownes said. "This horse with the owners [the Kwan family], it's magic."
Following the 3-year-olds, including a rather substantial upset from Saturday:
Victipharus came flying home through the final 100 meters to win Sunday's Grade 2 Fuji TV Sho Spring Stakes, just catching Asamano Itazura in the final stride.
The favorite, Boden, was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third at the end of the 1,800 meters, run on yielding turf at Nakayama Racecourse.
Victipharus, a Heart's Cry colt out of the Galileo mare Virginia, started from the No. 14 gate in a field of 15 and was wide through most of the trip. He swung into the stretch out near the middle of the course, but found a bit of lightning in the late going, making up a big margin for the victory.
Victipharus was making just his third start. He won at first asking last November, then finished second in the Kyodo News Hai Tokinominoru Kinen in his 3-year-old debut Feb. 14.
Saturday at Chukyo Racecourse, Rook's Nest gunned right to the front from the inside gate in the Grade 3 Chunichi Sports Sho Falcon Stakes, held his ground and then gamely turned back a stern challenge from the favorite, Grenadier Guards, winning by a head.
Mondreise put in a bid midway down the lane but stalled out to finish third. Rook's Nest, a Maurice colt, finished 1,400 meters in 1:20.1 under Hideaki Miyuki. He finished second in his first start of the year in January going 1,600 meters at Chukyo.
More had been expected of Grenadier Guards, a Frankel colt out of the Harlington Mare Wavell Avenue, who races with the red, black and yellow silks of Sunday Racing.
He was having his first go of the season after closing out 2020 with a victory in the Grade 1 Asahi Hai Futurity at Hanshin. Mondreise, by contrast, improved from a 10th-place finish in that race after two wins and two seconds in four earlier starts.
At Nakayama, Ho O Ixelles skimmed the rail in Saturday's Grade 3 Flower Cup for 3-year-old fillies, split rivals into the stretch and kicked away to a 1 1/4-lengths victory.
Enthusiasm finished with enthusiasm to get second, a nose in front of the favorite, Uberleben. Ho O Ixelles, a daughter of Rulership, got the 1,800 meters in 1:49.2 with Kyosuke Maruta riding.
She improved on a second-place finish in the Grade 3 Fairy Stakes over the same course going 1,600 meters in January.
Saturday's races at Rosehill, including the signature Golden Slipper for 2-year-olds, were put off a week after drenching rains made the course unfit for racing on Saturday.
Entries for the other races were reopened, potentially adding more drama to what had loomed a showdown between Verry Elleegant and British invader Addeybb. Cox Plate winner Sir Dragonet, Toffee Tongue and Colette, all with confirmed form on off going, now are possible additions.
The postponement also puts the classy program's five Group 1 races on the same day as the Dubai World Cup card. But, given the time difference, it's an addition rather than a conflict.