April 16 (UPI) -- Two $1 million races at Oaklawn Park keep horse racing fans well occupied this weekend, while in off-the-track action, the Kentucky Derby field continues to churn toward its final formulation.
In England, the Qipco 2000 Guineas, to be run just hours before the Kentucky Derby, also continues to shape up as a strong race with Godolphin colts front and center after Wednesday's Craven Stakes.
And in Japan, that country's equivalent to the 2000 Guineas, the Satsuki Sho, looks like a competitive heat Sunday.
The Championships roll on in Australia with a rematch between Addeybb and Verry Elleegant topping four Group 1 events Saturday.
Hong Kong is in the final stages of preparation for one of its biggest weekends of the year with a powerful contingent of Japanese rivals on the ground and ready to take on the best of the locals.
From Newmarket to Randwick and points in between, here we go ...
The Road to the Roses
Saturday marks two weeks to the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby, and field continues to evolve.
This week saw two horses owned in Dubai, Panadol and Proxy, drop out of the Run for the Roses.
Weyburn also was removed from consideration. Proxy was No. 21 on the preference list for the maximum field of 20, so the defections opened up two slots in the Churchill Downs starting gate.
Rombauer, third in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, and Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Hidden Stash moved up to those.
The annual jockeying by jockeys and jockey agents for Derby rides continues, but Churchill Downs identified many of the expected assignments in a Thursday update. Here's how the Twin Spires track sees the field, in order of preference, with possible jockey and trainer:
Essential Quality (Luis Saez, Brad Cox); Hot Rod Charlie (Flavien Prat, Doug O'Neill); Super Stock (Ricardo Santana Jr., Steve Asmussen); Like the King (Drayden Van Dyke, Wesley Ward); Known Agenda (Irad Ortiz, Todd Pletcher); and Rock Your World (Umberto Rispoli, John Sadler).
Also, Bourbonic (Kendrick Carmouche, Todd Pletcher); Medina Spirit (John Velazquez, Bob Baffert); Midnight Bourbon (Mike Smith, Steve Asmussen); Mandaloun (TBA, Brad Cox); Caddo River (TBA, Brad Cox); and Helium (Julien Leparoux, Mark Casse.
Saturday's $1 million Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park drew two of the division's best, Swiss Skydiver and Monomoy Girl, with a supporting cast of four.
Monomoy Girl, a 5-year-old Tapit mare, famously missed a year and a half of a career that's easily Hall of Fame material anyway. Since her return, she has reeled off five straight wins, most recently in the Grade III Bayakoa over the Oaklawn strip.
That stretch includes the 2020 Breeders' Cup Distaff, in which Swiss Skydiver finished seventh after stumbling out of the gate.
Swiss Skydiver, a 4-year-old filly by Daredevil, rebounded from the Breeders' Cup misadventure to win the Grade I Beholder Mile at Santa Anita March 13 -- her third Grade I victory.
The other four are far from plow horses. Letruska, a 5-year-old Super Saver mare, exits a second in the Grade II Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn, behind 2020 Kentucky Oaks winner Shedaresthedevil.
Getridofwhatailsu, a 5-year-old mare by Ghostzapper, is an upwardly mobile sort who finished third in the Azeri. Another Broad and Chance to Shine perhaps have slimmer chances against the top two.
Saturday's $1 million Grade II Oaklawn Handicap presents a bit more of a handicapping challenge than the companion Apple Blossom (see above). The morning line finds four of the eight entrants sharing the spotlight at single-digit odds.
Express Train pulls into the Hot Springs depot from Southern California. The 4-year-old Union Rags colt finished second to Charlatan in the Grade I Malibu in his 2020 finale, then won the Grade II San Pasqual upon his return in January.
He most recently was second in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap and ranks as the 5-2 favorite in his first start outside California.
Fearless, a 5-year-old Ghostzapper gelding, arrives from Florida where he was last seen winning the Grade II Gulfstream Park Mile.
Owendale has been hitting the board in graded stakes from Maryland to Kentucky and from New Orleans to Arkansas for the past year while unable to break through to the winner's circle.
Warrior's Charge was second in this race last year but otherwise has a record resembling Owendale's.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Californian at Santa Anita is similarly contentious, but with a field of just five.
Independence Hall, a 4-year-old Constitution colt, is the 8-5 favorite on the morning line after finishing fifth in the aforementioned Malibu, third in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park and fourth in the also aforementioned Santa Anita Handicap.
The primary competition in the Californian would seem to be a pair of 4-year-olds from the Bob Baffert barn -- Country Grammar and Magic On Tap.
Country Grammar, a Tonalist colt, won the Grade III Peter Pan at Saratoga last summer, then finished fifth in the Grade I Travers Aug. 8 and has not competed since. His training shows promise.
Magic On Tap, a Summer Wind Equine homebred son of Tapit, makes just his fifth career start with two wins and two seconds to show for the earlier efforts.
Growth Engine and Brazilian-bred Royal Ship complete the Californian lineup.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Elkhorn at Keeneland has a stellar cast of 10 set to tackle 1 1/2 miles on the green course.
Red Knight, drawn outside, and Cross Border, on the rail, are among the morning-line favorites with Say the Word and Tide of the Sea also getting early support.
Trainer Ignacio "Nacho Quatro" Correas IV saddles Fantasioso, a 6-year-old who was a consistent graded stakes performer in his native Argentina and makes his first U.S. start.
Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Kona Gold at Santa Anita has only four entries. Brickyard Ride comes off a win in the Grade II San Carlos.
Ax Man won the Santana Mile in his last outing and seeks his first graded stakes victory.
Cezanne, a 4-year-old Curlin colt, makes just his fourth start and first since last August.
Fight On, who finished fourth in the Bosselman Pump and Pantry/Gus Fonner Stakes at Fonner Park last year, rounds out the field.
Around the world, around the clock:
The Championships roll on at Royal Randwick on Saturday.
Addeybb and Verry Elleegant are back at it in the Longines Queen Elizabeth stakes at 2,000 meters. This is a rematch of the Group 1 Ranvet Stakes on March 27, won by Verry Ellegant with Addeybb 1 length back in second. Sir Dragonet, fourth in the Ranvet, also reappears in this.
It's a big field with lots of legitimate chances for the Schweppes Sydney Cup, run at the true stayers distance of 3,200 meters.
Probabeel looms the likely heavy favorite in the Moet & Chandon Queen of the Turf at 1,600 meters.
The 4-year-old Savabeel filly won two in a row before flopping on soft ground in the All-Star Mile in her last start. She will have to contend with Colette, winner of the Grade I Apollo Stakes in February, but also a disappointment in intervening starts.
Ten are set to lineup for The Star Australian Oaks and the 2,400-meters test shapes up a "you pick 'em". Montefilia, Amarelinha, Hungry Heart and Harmony Rose all draw significant antepost support but it would be hard to mortgage the back 40 to back any of them.
Charlie Appleby won't be regretting the decision to keep Rebel's Romance out of the May 1 Kentucky Derby. If Thursday's action at Newmarket is any indication, he'll have his hands full right at home that day with some of the top contenders for the Group 1 Qipco 2000 Guineas.
That's how it looked, anyway, as Master of the Seas led a 1-2 finish for the Godolphin trainer in the Group 3 bet365 Craven Stakes -- a key prelim for the Guineas.
With William Buick up, the Dubawi colt had to sort things out through some traffic on both ends of the "dip", then collared stablemate Barrosa to win by 3/4 length.
Both could be candidates for the Guineas but with Appleby also handling the highly regarded One Ruler, lineups for the next month remain in flux.
Buick said he reckons after the Craven that Master of the Seas is a legitimate candidate for the May 1 showdown despite a surprising loss at the hands of another stablemate, Naval Crown, in his only previous 2021 race, that in Dubai.
On any given day, Buick rides the pick of the Godolphin litter -- including Naval Crown, who was second on his return Wednesday in a Newmarket handicap. Appleby indicated the rider seems spoilt for choice in the Guineas.
"He's got match fitness on his side," Appleby said of Master of the Seas's chances relative to One Ruler, "and the Craven is a fantastic trial into the Guineas. "But, as usual, we'll sit down, chunter away and try and come up with the right horses."
Not real sure what "chunter" means but Appleby's results over the past several years speak for themselves.
Before Sheik Mohammed makes more room in this trophy case, though, it's worth noting Coolmore and Aidan O'Brien haven't yet dusted off their Guineas contenders, including Group 1 Darley Dewhurst winner and runner-up St Mark's Basilica and Wembley, and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up Battleground.
Sunday's Grade 1 Satsuki Sho or Japanese 2000 Guineas at Nakayama Racecourse is the first race in that nation's Triple Crown series and there is plenty of shaking out to be done among the participants.
Danon the Kid finished an undefeated 2-year-old season with a victory in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes but then finished third March 7 in his 3-year-old debut, the Hochi Hai Yayoi Sho Deep Impact Kinen.
Titleholder returns for the Satsuki Sho after winning that March 7 heat but he was only 1-for-3 last year and finished fourth in the Hopeful.
Otthoclase was second in the Hopeful, but has not been in action since then. Efforia and Gratias are both undefeated coming into the Satsuki Sho, but they are facing the top competition for the first time.
The race is 2,000 meters once around the Nakayama inner turf loop. It's followed by the Tokyo Yushun or Japanese Derby May 30 and the Kikuka Sho or Japanese St. Leger on Oct. 24.
Last year's Satsuki Sho was won by Contrail, who went on to sweep the Triple Crown series while undefeated and finished second to Almond Eye in the Japan Cup at year's end.
The Japanese raiders arrived in Hong Kong Thursday and early Friday for their assignments on FWD Champions Day April 25 at Sha Tin Racecourse.
The heavyweight of the three international Group 1 events is the FWD QE II Cup, which drew Daring Tact, Kiseki, Glory Vase and Loves Only You from Japan to face Exultant and Furore.
Hong Kong's current top horse, Golden Sixty, faces only local opposition in the Group 1 Champions Mile and Japan's Danon Smash is the sole international participant -- and likely favorite -- in the Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize.
Tune in again next week when we'll have much more about these races.