Essential Quality, the likely Kentucky Derby favorite, enjoys his morning bath 10/22 at Churchill Downs. Photo by Coady Photography, courtesy of Churchill Downs
April 23 (UPI) -- Churchill Downs, which was blanketed by nearly 2 inches of snow Wednesday morning, swings into action this weekend with the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby just a week away and a full schedule of rich and important stakes races on tap.
Pimlico, site of the May 15 Preakness Stakes, also opens for its annual spring meeting while Oaklawn Park winds down.
On the international front, Hong Kong celebrates one of its biggest days of the year Sunday as a strong contingent of Japanese runners challenges the best of the locals on FWD Champions Day.
In England, Stradivarius and Palace Pier make their seasonal debuts in the coming week in races that are decidedly first steps toward bigger things. In Australia, Randwick keeps calm and carries on with two more Group 1 events.
Keep calm and cast your eyes upon:
The Triple Crown
Well, maybe Bob Baffert will have two contenders after all as he shoots for a record seventh Kentucky Derby victory. Churchill Downs reported Wednesday Baffert trainee Hozier is back under consideration for the Run for the Roses despite his fading sixth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby.
Baffert said right after the race he was puzzled by Hozier's performance at Oaklawn Park and gave no indication the colt might move on to Louisville. Now, he is No. 21 on the preference list for the 20-horse maximum field after the "he's back" announcement.
Baffert also has Santa Anita Derby runner-up Medina Spirit already safely ensconced in the Derby field.
Baffert did not explain why Hozier's outlook has changed since the Arkansas Derby. At the time he said he was more disappointed by Hozier's last-place finish than by Concert Tour's third -- an outcome that prompted that colt's removal from Derby consideration.
"He got tired early," Baffert said of Hozier's effort. "Those things happen. You get beat and try to figure it out. They're still young and they're still having these races."
Hozier was among the Derby hopefuls galloping over a sloppy track Wednesday morning. While the dirt track was sloppy, the Matt Winn Turf Course was "snowy," thanks to 1.8 inches of overnight snowfall -- a Louisville record for April 21.
The long-range forecast for Derby weekend, April 30-May 1, still calls for reasonably nice weather -- partly cloudy skies with temps in the upper 60s to low 70s.
There is Triple Crown action Saturday. The $125,000 Federico Tesio Stakes for 3-year-olds at Pimlico is a place to watch for horses eyeing the "new shooter" role in the Preakness Stakes.
The favorite here is Maythehorsebwithu, winner of the Miracle Wood Stakes and second in the Spectacular Bid and Private Terms -- all local affairs. The 22-1 Private Terms upsetter, Shackled Love, also is in this field.
Saturday's $125,000 Weber City Miss at Pimlico is one to watch for the Black-Eyed Susan, the local equivalent of the Kentucky Oaks. Seven are entered and the oddsmaker found little to separate Oliviaofthedesert, Littlestitious and Fradulent Charge.
None, however, appears to be of the caliber of the fillies actually contesting the Kentucky Oaks.
Filly & Mare Turf
Keeneland wraps up the spring meeting Friday with the $150,000 Bewitch Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/2 miles on the lawn.
There's a full field with the early favorites including War Like Goddess, Kalifornia Queen, Delta's Kingdom and Dominga. War Like Goddess, a 4-year-old English Channel filly, exits a win in the Grade III Orchid at Gulfstream Park, her third victory from four starts.
Border Town and Whisper Not get the oddsmaker's nod among eight set for Saturday's $250,000 Grade III San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate Fields. Both invade from Southern California, where both have been running well enough in allowance ranks.
Entries were pending at press time for Sunday's $100,000 Singletary Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita.
Saturday's $100,000 Elusive Quality Stakes at Belmont Park looks to be quite the battle with several likely candidates. Front Run the Fed is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line in his first start since finishing sixth in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. He's followed closely by Casa Creed, Therapist and Value Proposition.
Saturday's $125,000 William Walker Stakes for 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs has an overflow field with plenty of disparate experience.
Cowan returns to the U.S. wars after finishing second in the Saudi Derby and a disappointing 10th in the UAE Derby. He has not won since his first career start just more than 11 months ago -- that at Churchill Downs.
Still, he was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint. And the Remington Springboard Mile. And the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn. He is the 7-2 choice on the morning line.
Saturday's $100,000 King T. Leatherbury Stakes at Pimlico has 12 takers with Francatelli, Carotari and Completed Pass catching the oddsmaker's eye. Francatelli, the 2-1 favorite, has four wins and two seconds from eight starts, all on the Del-Mar-Va circuit.
Entries for Sunday's $100,000 License Fee Stakes for fillies and mares at Belmont Park were not available at deadline.
As Time Goes By, Harvest Moon and Pharoah's Heart rate among the five set for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Margarita Stakes at Santa Anita.
As Time Goes By, a 4-year-old daughter of American Pharoah, was last seen finishing second to Swiss Skydiver in the Beholder Mile.
Harvest Moon, a 4-year-old Uncle Mo filly, was fourth in both the 2020 Breeders' Cup Distaff and the Beholder Mile.
Pharoah's Heart, another American Pharoah 4-year-old, steps up from the allowance ranks and Harvest Moon
Six 3-year-olds are entered for Saturday's $200,000 Bachelor Stakes at Oaklawn Park. It's a "you pick 'em" with Jaxon Traveler the 5-2 favorite on the morning line and Bob's Edge the longest chance at 6-1.
Around the world, around the clock:
Hong Kong racing is inching out of the shadow of nearly two years of travail occasioned by social unrest, street demonstrations and COVID-19 pandemic restrictions with limited numbers of fans allowed back in the Sha Tin Racecourse for Sunday's FWD Champions
The Hong Kong Jockey Club welcomed the move back toward "normal" conditions but also noted the races have carried on throughout, maintaining Hong Kong's tradition of top international competition.
This year's international component in Sunday's three Group 1 events is entirely Japanese. But those raiders are good enough that the races are more than noteworthy.
The HK$25 million (about US$3.2 million) FWD QE II Cup (G1) is the primary target for the visiting squad, which makes up more than half the seven-horse field for the 2,000 meters.
Loves Only You and Daring Tact are the cream of that crop. The former exits a dramatic and closely fought third-place finish in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic on World Cup night.
The latter was the 2020 Japanese 3-year-old filly champ and finished third in the Group 1 Japan Cup. Glory Vase, winner of the 2019 Longines Hong Kong Vase, also is entered but is on a watch list with a leg issue. Kiseki completes the quartet.
They have to contend in the QE II with Exultant, last year's winner and the reigning Hong Kong Horse of the Year.
"The Japanese look very strong," said trainer Tony Cruz, who will saddle Exultant and expected pace factor Time Warp. "Exultant is in tip-top form and Time Warp will run very well. But the Japanese are very impressive."
Each of the other two races features a star.
The entire field for the HK$18 million (about US$2.3 million) Chairman's Sprint Prize (G1), save only one, is local. But the visitor, Danon Smash (Japan) is one of the day's top contenders and a force internationally.
Danon Smash is the only foreign runner in the HK$18 million (about US$2.3 million) Chairman's Sprint Parize. But 6-year-old son of Lord Kanaloa is a force all by himself.
His sire twice won the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint and Danon Smash added his name to that event's winner's lists in December before returning home to win the Grade 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen in March.
Leading Hong Kong rider Joao Moreira takes over riding duties on Danon Smash and even he was surprised by trainer Takayuki Yasuda's proclamation this week that Danon Smash now is the equal of his sire.
"Lord Kanaloa is the best sprinter I have seen turn up here in Hong Kong," Moreira said. "So I am very surprised Mr. Yasuda has put Danon Smash on his level. But I am very pleased to be riding him."
The HK$20 million (about US$2.6 million) Champions Mile is an all-Hong Kong affair with Golden Sixty standing head and shoulders atop only six set to face the starter.
The 5-year-old is looking for his 14th straight win and fourth Group 1 victory. His toughest competition looks to be Southern Legend, who missed upsetting Golden Sixty by just a head three starts back in the Group 1 Stewards' Cup.
"FWD Champions Day is a celebration of all things great about Hong Kong racing," HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges said.
"The Club has wholeheartedly embraced Government policy over the past year with an unstinting intention to ensure the health and safety of all of customers and employees and I am hopeful many more of our loyal fans can eventually follow suit and also return to the races."
Randwick's Group 1 fest continues Saturday with an "All-Aged" and a 2-year-old event.
The Schweppes All-Aged Stakes at 1,400 meters lives up to its name with contenders ranging from 3 to 8 years old.
Masked Crusader, a 4-year-old by Toronado, looks likely after finishing second in the Group 1 T J Smith Stakes a bit more than two weeks ago. He also won the Group 1 William Reid in the start before that.
After him, there's support for several, including Dreamforce, Cascadian and Savatiano.
The Moet & Chandon Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds at 1,600 has a field of 14 with most of the attention to Hilal and Captivant. Hilal, by Fastnet Rock, exits a second in the Group 1 ATC Sires Stakes on April 9.
Captivant, by Capitalist, was third in that race. Neither has been exactly a win machine so caution is the watchword.
The big guns are being prepped this weekend for the summer-season wars with Palace Pier and Stradivarius making their first starts of 2021 -- both for the new training team of John Gosden and son Thady that looks to continue its blazing-hot start to 2021. Frankie Dettori has the usual role, too.
Palace Pier takes to the Sandown course for Friday's Group 2 bet365 Mile. The 4-year-old Kingman colt was defeated for the first time in his 2020 finale, finishing third after five straight wins stretching back to 2019.
Those included the Group 1 St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Group 1 Jacques le Morais at Deauville.
Palace Pier's opposition is an interesting mix if only because it includes Khuzaam, a Kitten's Joy gelding who spent the winter on the English all-weather surfaces and exits a 5-lengths victory in the Bombardier All-Weather Mile Championships on April 2. Khyzaam, a Shadwell homebred, is 0-for-2 on turf.