1 of 2 | Flightline wins his third straight race in style in Sunday's Grade 1 Malibu at Santa Anita. Benoit photo, courtesy of Santa Anita
Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Epicenter entered the Kentucky Derby picture with a handy win Sunday at Fair Grounds while a sparkling Opening Day program at Santa Anita featured a dazzling performance by budding superstar Flightline.
Although the weekend schedule was abbreviated by a dark Christmas Day, Sunday's feast of racing was anything but leftovers.
And speaking of budding superstars, check the international section for what's up with Efforia in Japan.
For the final time of 2021, away we go ...
The Road to the Roses
It seemed only right that Epicenter drew off to an easy 6 1/2-length victory in Sunday's $100,000 Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds.
The race, a newly added attraction leading into the Louisana Derby series, is named for the star runner and now top first-crop stallion owned by Winchell Thorougbreds and trained by Steve Asmussen -- the same combination that benefits Epicenter.
All that was missing was a few genes as Epicenter was sired not by Gun Runner but by Not This Time.
Epicenter pressed the pace set by Surfer Dude, but that one had no answer when jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. prompted Epicenter, who ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.19. Tejano Twist also got by Surfer Dude late to take second.
For Epicenter, it was his second win from three starts with the earlier score coming at Churchill Downs. He earned 10 points on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" leaderboard, putting him in a second-place tie with seven others. On the tiebreaker, stakes earnings, he is at the bottom of that bunch.
"We love his tactical speed, his ability to put himself in position to do well and Brian did a great job with him today to let the speed go on, and change sides," Asmussen assistant Scott Blasi said. "He's still lightly raced, still learning, but hopefully there are some big things to come."
The next Fair Grounds race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby is the Grade III Lecomte on Jan. 22.
At Laurel Park in Maryland, Shake Em Loose certainly shook things up with a 59-1 upset win in Sunday's $100,000 Heft Stakes. The Shakin It Up gelding started last of seven, came five-wide to challenge for the lead and was up to win by 3/4 length over Last Romance.
The odds-on favorite, Life Is Great, was another 1 1/4 lengths back in third. Shake Em Loose, with Yomar Ortiz riding for trainer Rodolfo Sanchez-Salomon, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.69. He took six tries to get his first win, from which Sanchez-Salomon claimed him for $16,000. He earned $60,000 in the Heft and now has two wins in a row.
Coming up: Wednesday's $100,000 Parx Juvenile is run at 7 furlongs.
The Road to the Oaks
North County launched a staunch late bid in Sunday's $100,000 Untapable Stakes at Fair Grounds and reeled in Fanny and Freddie in the final strides, winning by a neck. It was another 1 3/4 lengths to the odds-on favorite, Cocktail Moments, in third.
North County, a Not This Time filly, scampered 1 mile and 70 yards over a fast track in 1:43.17 with Adam Beschizza in the irons. She remains undefeated after three starts with earlier wins on the turf at Indiana Grand and a sloppy track at Keeneland for trainer Brendan Walsh.
"She showed a lot of heart today which is impressive," Walsh assistant Paul Madden said. "She had been training really good and Brendan was anxious to put her in a spot like this to see if she could fit in this company, and thankfully we do.
"She's a filly that is going to get stronger as well and I think there's more to come from her. She is very talented, has a good mind and wants to win races."
Also in weekend racing:
Buy the Best was much the best as the 1-5 favorite in Sunday's $100,000 Gin Talking Stakes at Laurel Park. The Tapiture filly, with Jaime Rodriguez in the irons, tracked breakaway early leader Beneath the Stars for a while, downshifted and went by to win by 2 lengths. Moody Woman was third, 6 1/2 lengths behind Beneath the Stars.
Buy the Best ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:26.79, racking up her fourth win in a row.
At Turfway Park, Marissa's Lady battled to the lead in Sunday's $100,000 Gowell Stakes, then opened up in the stretch run to win by 2 3/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Promises to Dance was second, a nose in front of Vantarsi.
Marissa's Lady, a Violence filly trained by William Morey, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.72 with Rafael Bejarano in the irons. She remains undefeated after three starts, winning her first two starts on the Churchill Downs dirt.
Coming up: Fair Grounds' on Monday offers the $75,000 Letellier Memorial at 6 furlongs. Wednesday, it's the $100,000 Parx Futurity at Parx Racing.
Around the world, around the clock:
Efforia emerged from Sunday's Grade 1 Arima Kinen at Nakayama Racecourse as the brightest star in the Japanese racing firmament and a potential 2021 Horse of the Year.
The 3-year-old Epiphaneia colt scored his sixth win from seven starts with the only loss a second in the Tokyo Yushun or Japanese Derby.
Sunday's win came over a deep field that included Chrono Genesis, a star 5-year-old mare making her final start. She finished third behind Efforia and long shot Deep Bond at the end of the 2,500 meters.
Efforia's triumph made it back-to-back wins over older horses after the Tenno Sho (Autumn).
"He wasn't in the same perfect condition today as in the Tenno Sho, in which he was 120%," jockey Takeshi Yokoyama said. "But his potential proved he still could give a remarkable performance even with the added distance.
"Twenty-five-hundred meters was the longest he's ever run. Unlike in the Derby, he was relaxed and positioned well and was able to show his true strength."
Two other 3-year-olds, Stella Veloce and Titleholder, finished fourth and fifth, respectively. showing promise for 2022, but winning trainer Yuichi Shikato knew all along Efforia's status would depend on his showing in the Arima Kinen.
"Since he's only 3 years old," Shikato said before the race. "He's still in the position of a challenger."
The final Grade 1 event of the year goes Tuesday at Nakayama as 15 2-year-olds tackle 2,000 meters in the Hopeful Stakes. Several of the youngsters enter off back-to-back wins and the outcome will say a lot about prospects for the 2022 Japanese Classics.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
Someday we might find out how good Flightline is. We didn't in Sunday's $300,000 Grade I Runhappy Malibu Stakes, only because for his third straight race, he had no meaningful competition and took off down the stretch to win by 11 1/2 lengths. And that was despite a slow start that saw him get away last of seven.
With Flavien Prat needing only to stay aboard, the Tapit colt out of the Indian Charlie mare Feathered finished 7 furlongs in 1:21.73. Baby Yoda and Stilleto Boy were long shot second and third, respectively, while the favorite, Dr. Schievel, a two-time Grade I winner, reported last.
"I was in cruise control the whole race, galloping freely," Prat said. "He was quite impressive."
Flightline won his first start in April by 13 1/4 lengths, got a summer respite and returned to win by 12 3/4 lengths Sept. 5. After Sunday's win, it was clear he'll need to look elsewhere -- and surely seek longer distances -- to find a real challenge. But trainer John Sadler wasn't tipping his hand.
"The next race is up to the horse. We have to be true to the horse," Sadler said. "We will chart the course from there. "This horse is so brilliant. "This is not an ordinary horse. This is a very special horse. We want to do right by the horse and all other things will fall into place. ... He'll go a distance next time."
Sadler, in fact, seems in awe of Flightline.
"There is a lot of pressure on you," Sadler said, "but it is the pressure you want. It's like the high school coach for LeBron. You know you have something special and he is much the best. This horse is there. You just don't want to screw it up."
Anyone for a shot at the $3 million Grade I Pegasus at Gulfstream Park next month against Knicks Go and Life Is Good, among others?
In Sunday's $300,000 Grade II American Oaks, an off-the-turf affair, Queen Goddess jumped out of the No. 9 gate to take the early lead and no one could catch her. After 1 1/4 miles on the fast main track, the Empire Maker filly was still out front, 2 3/4 lengths to the good of Nicest.
It was another 3 1/4 lengths to Fluffy Socks in third. Queen Goddess, with Juan Hernandez up, finished in 2:04.72.
She scored her third win from six starts and first graded stakes win. She was fifth in the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland in October.
"I was extremely disappointed when I heard the race was coming off the turf, said Michael McCarthy, who trains both Queen Goddess and Nicest. "All four owners decided to give it a shot on the dirt, and I can't thank them enough. We'll see what's next for both these horses."
The $300,000 La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies produced a bit of an upset. Kalypso, with John Velazquez up, blew by the pacesetting duo of Livingmybestlife and Brilliant Cut going into the stretch and kicked away to win by 4 3/4 lengths. Brilliant Cut was second, 1 1/2 lengths ahead of a tiring Livingmybestlife.
The La Brea odds-on favorite, Private Mission, was off to a rough start, never reached contention and beat only one rival, who was eased.
Kalypso, who finished 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.78, went off at odds of nearly 9-1 as doubts understandably lingered. She had been out of action since she bled and was eased in the Grade II Eight Belles at Churchill Downs on April 30. She did show a long series of fast works for trainer Bob Baffert.
"We turned her out after that Churchill Downs race," said Baffert, who also trains Private Mission. "We brought her back and she was fresh. Johnny V got her to relax. She has a tendency to go fast. She was really relaxed today and she was one happy filly."
The $200,000 Grade II San Antonio came down to a head-bobbing finish involving Express Train and the prohibitive favorite, Hot Rod Charlie, with the eye in the sky finding Express Train's nose on the line first. The pacesetter, Eight Rings, held on gamely to finish third, just 1/2 length farther back.
Express Train, a 4-year-old Union Rags colt, finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.82 while rallying three-wide from well back in the field. Hot Rod Charlie, third in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont, held a brief lead in the final yards before the dramatic finish.
"Turning for home and squeezing for the lead is when he really accelerated," said winning rider Victor Espinoza. "At that point I knew my only shot was to calculate him to win right at the wire. Sometimes things go the way we calculate turning for home, and sometimes they don't. Today, it worked out and we got it right at the wire."
Hot Rod Charlie's trainer, Doug O'Neill: "We got beat a bob. He ran great. He's fine. We are very optimistic about the next year with him."
Law Professor raced a few lengths behind pacesetting favorite Beyond Brilliant through the early furlongs of the $200,000 Grade III Santa Anita Mathis Mile for 3-year-olds, got by that rival to take a narrow lead at the top of the stretch and battled to the finish before winning by 1/2 length. Tarantino was third, 8 1/2 lengths back of Beyond Brilliant.
Law Professor, a Constitution gelding, ran 1 mile on the fast main track in 1:37.41. The race originally was carded for the turf. Law Professor was last seen winning an optional claimer at Del Mar while Beyond Brilliant won the Grade I Hollywood Derby in his previous race.
"He really hasn't put it all together yet," said Law Professor's trainer, Michael McCarthy. "When he does, I think it will be very exciting. It's great to have a horse that is as versatile as him. ... We have a lot of options at play. It's very exciting."
The San Gabriel Stakes also came off the turf, and three of the four prospective starters were scratched, but Bob and Jackie was given his first chance on the green course and made the most of it.
The 5-year-old son of Twirling Candy went right to the front under Jose Valdivia Jr. and just did hold on to win by a nose over the favorite, Friar's Road. Ready Soul prompted the pace and finished third.
Bob and Jackie ran 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track in 1:53.51. The morning-line favorite, Hit the Road, was among the scratches.
"There was no discussion [of scratching Bob and Jackie]," trainer Richard Baltas said. "We never tried him on the dirt. He has a little pedigree for the dirt, even though he looks like a grass horse. There were a couple good scratches in there and it was like, 'We have nothing to lose. We need to go.'"
Never Surprised surprised no one with a 6 1/4-length victory in Sunday's $100,000 Tropical Park Derby. Sent off the 1-2 favorite, the Constitution colt got right to the lead from the inside gate and never looked back.
With Luis Saez at the controls, Never Surprised steadily increased his margin to win by 6 1/4 lengths after 1 1/16 miles over firm turf in a snappy 1:40.39. Yes This Time came with a late rush to finish second, a nose in front of Safe Conduct.
Bipartisanship rallied from well back in a nine-filly field, overcame some traffic issues and went on to win Sunday's $100,000 Tropical Park Oaks by 1/2 length. Stunning Princess was second, a neck in front of pacesetting favorite Lady Speightspeare.
Bipartisanship, a British-bred filly by Bated Breath, ran 1 1/16 miles on the grass course in 1:40.61 with Paco Lopez aboard.
Abaan was in front at the start of Friday's $100,000 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes and, after 2 mile of firm turf, was still in front -- by a comfortable 4 1/2-lengths margin. Ajourneytofreedom was second all the way and held on to that spot at the finish, 3 1/4 lengths in front of Fantasioso.
Abaan, a 4-year-old Will Take Charge gelding, finished in 3:21.60 with Luis Saez up for trainer Todd Pletcher. He winds up 2021 with three wins and two seconds from five starts.
Halo Again led all the way in Sunday's $75,000 Buddy Diliberto Memorial, turned back a series of challenges and won by 1/2 length over the late-running Pixelate. Monarch's Glen came from last of nine to finish third.
Halo Again, a 4-year-old Speightstown colt trained by Steve Asmussen, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:43.22 with Reylu Gutierrez up.
Summer in Saratoga rallied five-wide from the back of the field and was up just in time to nip Bellagamba by a neck in $75,000 Blushing K.D. Stakes for fillies and mares. Catch a Bid was third.
Summer in Saratoga, a 5-year-old daughter of Hard Spun, got 1 1/16 miles on the green course in 1:42.54 for jockey Corey Lanerie. The win backed up a victory in the Grade III Dowager at Keeneland. Fun fact: Summer in Saratoga has never raced at Saratoga.
Just Might in fact did in Sunday's $75,000 Richard L Scherer Memorial. The 5-year-old Justin Phillip gelding led throughout the 5 1/2-furlongs turf dash and won by a comfortable 1 1/4 lengths in 1:04.12 under Colby Hernandez. Manny Wah was second, a head better than Pyron.
On the main track, Chess Chief outfinished Happy American by a nose at the end of a long stretch battle in the $100,000 Tenacious Stakes. The early leader, Pirate's Punch, wa third, another 1 1/2 lengths back.
Chess Chief, a 5-year-old son of Into Mischief, got 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.39 with Gutierrez riding.
Kaylasaurus started last of five in Sunday's $100,000 Willa On the Move Stakes for fillies and mares, circled her rivals and ran on to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Princess Kokachin was second with the odds-on favorite, Hello Beautiful, giving way late to finish last.
Kaylasaurus, a 5-year-old Munnings mare, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.74 for jockey Horacio Karamanos.
Threes Over Deuces held the winning hand in Sunday's $100,000 Dave's Friend Stakes. The 6-year-old Flat Out gelding, with Victor Rosales up, surged from the back of the field to hook Penguin Power in a stretch duel, winning that by a head. Youngest of Five came from last to finish third, just a nose back of Penguin Power. Threes Over Deuces ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.94.
Miss Leslie overcame the outside post and a wide trip to win Sunday's $100,000 Carousel Stakes for fillies and mares by 3 3/4 lengths with a smart stretch effort. Artful Splatter was second after holding a brief lead and Kiss the Girl finished third.
Miss Leslie, a 3-year-old Paynter filly, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:52.21 with Angel Cruz in the irons.
Cordmaker stalked the pace in Sunday's $100,000 Robert T. Manfusco Stakes, eased out for running room in the stretch and got home first by 3 1/2 lengths. Workin On a Dream was second.
Cordmaker, a 6-year-old Curlin gelding, finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.22 under Victor Carrasco.