Mandaloun, shown winning the 2021 Risen Star Stakes, faces old rival Midnight Bourbon in Saturday's Louisiana Stakes at Fair Grounds. Photo courtesy of Fair Grounds
Jan. 21 (UPI) -- The Big Easy hosts the weekend's big Kentucky Derby prep, Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, with a full field that includes the runner-up from November's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
The New Orleans oval, in fact, has the bulk of the weekend horse racing action, with six stakes races on that Saturday card, including a fascinating rematch of two of last year's top 3-year-olds, Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon.
Oaklawn Park, Aqueduct and Turfway Park join the festivities while it's a slow weekend on the West Coast.
Things heat up on the international front with the second meeting of the Dubai World Cup Carnival set for Friday evening at Meydan and superstar Golden Sixty chasing records at Sha Tin Racecourse as the Hong Kong Jockey Club again is forced by pandemic protocols to hold two Sunday Group 1 events behind closed doors.
The doors swing in, the doors swing out and we swing into action with:
The Road to the Roses
Pappacap, the official points leader on the Churchill Downs "Road to the Kentucky Derby" chart, tops a field of nine for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. The 1 1/16-mile race awards 10 Derby points to the winner with 4, 2 and 1 going to the second through fourth.
Papacap, a Rustlewood Farm homebred colt by Gun Runner, won his first two starts but earned his No. 1 spot on the Derby leaderboard through second-place finishes behind Corniche in both the Grade I American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Del Mar.
Corniche would be the leader were he not trained by Bob Baffert, who is under the Churchill Downs interdict.
"He's doing well," trainer Mark Casse said of Pappacap. "I'd rather run him and get him into a race pattern. If you do have a setback this time of year and you miss a little time, you're not behind the eight ball.
"As long as he's happy and healthy, our plan is to have him run through the series of 3-year-old races at Fair Grounds and get him as much experience as we can. I think that's a plus."
The main opposition in the Lecomte appears to be Epicenter, a Not This Time colt racing for Winchell Thoroughbreds and trainer Steve Asmussen. That's the same team that saw Gun Runner through his stellar racing career and now enjoys that horse's early success at stud.
Appropriately, Epicenter won the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds in his last start by 6 1/2 lengths, backing up his maiden win Nov. 13 at Churchill Downs.
"He's exciting," Asmussen said. "The mile from the outside draw when he broke his maiden, the racetrack played for how he ran that day.
"The Gun Runner and two turns, restrained a little bit early, the way he ran through the wire and galloped out was everything we were hoping for."
There are a few scary recent maiden winners waiting to take advantage of any letdown by the favorites.
Meanwhile, Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager opens at Friday with the mutuel field of "All Other 3-Year-Olds" as the 7-5 favorite on the morning line. Wagering runs through Sunday with win, exacta and sire wagers available.
Churchill Downs, which runs the pools, said it "assumes that horses under the care of trainers suspended from competing in the 2022 Kentucky Derby will not be under consideration." That means horses trained by Baffert, whose 3-year-old crew includes Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and likely Eclipse Award winner Corniche.
Left in the air is the question: What if Baffert's situation is resolved? What if the owners move their horses to other trainers? You'd get significantly better odds on some of those colts as individual interests than as part of the "all other" bunch in which they presumably languish now.
To illustrate, oddsmaker Mike Battaglia makes Kentucky Jockey Club winner Smile Happy the 8-1 favorite among individual interests. The aforementioned Pappacap, who as noted has finished second to Corniche in two Grade I affairs, is listed at 20-1 on the Battaglia line.
And a reminder: There are no refunds of Future Wager bets. If your horse doesn't make it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May, your ticket is a bookmark. Or if it's an online wager, perhaps a bookmark for an ebook?
The Road to the Oaks
Six fillies are signed up for Saturday's $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds, and all of them have a way to go before being taken seriously as Oaks contenders. On the flip side of that, several of them certainly seem to have the potential to make that case.
The 2-1 morning-line favorite, La Crete, is a Stonestreet homebred filly by Medaglia d'Oro out of the multiple stakes-winning Bernardini mare Cavorting.
The half-sister to Clairiere, one of 2021's top 3-year-old fillies, was the easiest of winners in her career debut in November at Churchill Downs for trainer Steve Asmussen and has been working steadily if not spectacularly at Fair Grounds.
Also catching the oddsmaker's eye are Sweet as Pie, a Tapit filly trained by Todd Pletcher, and Fannie and Freddie, a daughter of Malibu Moon from Al Stall Jr.'s shedrow.
Sweet as Pie won her first start at Belmont Park on Oct. 8, and then reported fourth in the Tempted Stakes over the same track in her only other race Nov. 5. Fannie and Freddie took three tries to find the winner's circle, then finished second, beaten just a neck, in the Untappable Stakes over the New Orleans course on Boxing Day.
In Sunday's $100,000 Busanda Stakes at Aqueduct, Magic Circle and Morning Matcha will be looking to frank their Oaks credentials.
Magic Circle has plenty of stakes experience at a young age, finishing fourth in the Grade I Frizette at Belmont Park in October and second in the Tempted Stakes in November. She then led most of the way in the Grade II Demoiselle on Dec. 4 at Aqueduct before veering out in the stretch to finish third.
Morning Matcha, by contrast, started her career in restricted races but broke through in her last start, defeating open company at Parx Racing while trying two turns for the first time.
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Louisiana Stakes arguably has a better field than a lot of Grade I events these days with familiar rivals Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon making their 4-year-old debuts.
Midnight Bourbon and Mandaloun finished first and third in last year's Lecomte in that order. In their next race, the Grade II Risen Star, it was Mandaloun on top with Midnight Bourbon third. Midnight Bourbon then finished second to Hot Rod Charlie in the Louisiana Derby with Mandaloun a disappointing sixth.
But their fortunes reversed yet again in the Kentucky Derby as Mandaloun just missed, finishing second by a neck to Medina Spirit while Midnight Bourbon was eighth with a rough trip.
Mandaloun went on to win the Grade I Haskell when Hot Rod Charlie was disqualified after cutting in front of -- guess who? -- Midnight Bourbon, who lost jockey Paco Lopez just as he was making a potentially winning move.
Mandaloun has not raced since the July 17 Haskell. Midnight Bourbon was third in the Grade 1 Clark Stakes in November at Churchill Downs in his last start and trainer Steve Asmussen adds blinkers.
"As good as he's been, I think there is more there," Asmussen said of the equipment change. "It doesn't look like he's finishing it off. He's not exhausted when he comes back. I think we can get a little more out of him. ... The Louisiana Stakes is the perfect time to try it."
"He's really come to hand quick," Cox said of Mandaloun. "He looks amazing ... I think this is a race that makes a lot of sense as far as getting back racing and see how it goes."
Of note: Both get Lasix for the first time.
With Medina Spirit sadly gone and Hot Rod Charlie off to compete in the deserts of the Middle East, this rivalry has all the earmarks of one for the ages.
Two Emmys is the lukewarm favorite in a wide-open renewal Saturday of the $100,000 Colonel E.R. Bradley Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the turf.
The 6-year-old English Channel gelding was second, caught on the line, in the Grade 3 Sycamore at Keeneland in October in his last start. In August, he won the $600,000 Grade I Mr. D Stakes at Arlington, the final gasp of what used to be the Arlington Million.
Also in the 12-horse field are the first-, third- and fourth-place finishers from the Diliberto Memorial and the winner of the Woodchopper Stakes, both local turf events.
A tough field of 12 is on tap for Saturday's $100,000 Marie G. Krantz Memorial Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the turf.
The 3-1 favorite on the morning line is Abscond, a 5-year-old Blame mare making her first start in New Orleans. She was last seen finishing a good fourth in the Grade II Goldikova Stakes on the Breeders' Cup undercard at Del Mar in November.
Summer in Saratoga won the Grade III Dowager at Keeneland in October, then won the Blushing K D Stakes at Fair Grounds two months later.
Janelle Monae could be dangerous at generous odds as she makes her first U.S. start for trainer Brad Cox after going 4-for-4 in her native Brazil, including three Group 1 scores.
Just Might is the 8-5 morning-line favorite in Saturday's $100,000 Duncan F. Kenner Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf after winning his first two starts during the Fair Grounds meeting, most recently the Richard Scherer Memorial at the same conditions.
Watch out for Manny Wah, who was second in the Scherer in his first start in 10 months and has all kinds of back class and won this event last year.
Saturday's $150,000 American Beauty Stakes for fillies and mares has a field of nine to tackle 6 furlongs. The early picks are Li'l Tootsie and Abrogate. Li'l Tootsie, a 4-year-old daughter of Tapiture, ended 2021 with wins at Churchill Downs and Oaklawn for trainer Tom Amos. Abrogate, a 4-year-old Abrogate filly trained by Steve Asmussen, was second to Li'l Tootsie in their last start Dec. 10 over the same trip.
A nicely competitive field of seven is assembled for Saturday's $100,000 Jazil Stakes at 1 1/8 miles. First Constitution, Empty Tomb and Core Conviction top the morning line, but it's tough to dismiss any of the seven.
Saturday's $75,000 Sunshine Turf drew a field of seven to go 1 1/8 miles on the turf. The 7-5 favorite on the morning line is Shamrocket, a Tonalist 5-year-old trained by Todd Pletcher for Donnegal Racing.
Shamrocket, a versatile type, almost always is in the money and exits a win on the Gulfstream Park dirt in the Sunshine Classic Stakes just a week ago. He was second in this event last year.
Sugar Fix is the early favorite among seven set for Saturday's $75,000 Sunshine Filly & Mare Turf. The 5-year-old Treasure Beach mare, trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., finished fifth in this event last year, but comes off a victory in the Claiming Crown Tiara over the course Dec 4.
Those sworn off sugar for their New Year's resolution can look to Sister Otoole and Kelsey's Cross, both getting some attention from the oddsmaker.
Already in the books: Neige Blanche dropped back to last of five when briefly short of room in Monday's $125,000 Grade III Astra Stakes for fillies and mares, got going again for jockey Juan Hernandez when things opened up and went on to win by 1 length as the odds-on favorite.
Disappearing Act held a brief advantage in the stretch and finished second, 6 lengths in front of Scherzo. Neige Blanche, a 5-year-old, French-bred mare by Anodin, ran 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:32.27. She now has won three of her last four starts and four of her last six.
Around the world, around the clock:
The explosion of big-money stakes racing at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Saudi Arabia has rapidly increased the visibility and importance of the World Cup Carnival. With valuable prizes on offer in Riyadh in February, the early events on the Carnival card suddenly take on new, and more immediate, meaning.
Friday's program is a case in point. Although there are two Group 2 events on the seven-race card, most will be waiting for the finale, an $80,000 conditions race that marks the seasonal debut of 2021 UAE Derby winner Rebel's Romance.
The Godolphin homebred has not run since that race nearly 10 months ago and trainer Charlie Appleby said he expects him to improve from Friday's effort.
But Appleby also indicated the outcome of the race will help Godolphin decide on a course for the colt -- potentially a tilt at the $20 million Grade I Saudi Cup and/or a shot at the $12 million Group 1 Dubai World Cup.
Last year, the son of Dubawi won the UAE 2,000 Guineas Trial, then finished fourth in the Saudi Derby before dominating the UAE Derby.
This year's 3-year-olds have two races on the card. The Jumeirah Derby Trial is 1,800 meters on the turf and includes Albahr, the Godolphin runner who flipped in the starting gate before the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar, prompting a highly controversial chain of events that left some bettors fuming.
The UAE 2,000 Guineas Trial has an international cast of eight set to go 1,400 meters.
The Group 2 events are both on the turf. The Al Rashidiya at 1,800 meters, could point to the $1 million Neom Turf Cup in Saudi Arabia and/or the $5 million Group 1 Dubai Turf on World Cup night.
The Al Fahidi Fort is run at 1,400 meters and could be a prep for the $1 million 1351 Turf Sprint in Riyadh and/or the $1.5 million Al Quoz Sprint March 26 at Meydan.
There are two Group 1 events on the program Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse, but the one everyone will be watching is the Stewards' Cup, as Golden Sixty bid to tie Silent Witness's Hong Kong record of 17 straight wins.
The Medaglia d'Oro gelding has been beaten only once in 20 previous local starts and also is closing in on the earnings record of another, more recent, Hong Kong superstar, Beauty Generation.
Trained by Francis Lui, Golden Sixty could be sent overseas, likely to Japan, for an ultimate test later in the season.
First, though, he has to do what's expected Sunday and defeat six familiar rivals in the 1,600-meters Stewards Cup -- More Than This, Waikuku, Russian Emperor, Sky Darci, Healthy Happy and King's Shield.
More Than This comes off a second behind the champ in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile in December and needs to find 1 3/4 lengths to bridge the gap. The others need still more improvement.
More Than This's rider, Derek Leung, didn't sound optimistic about his chances, telling the Hong Kong Jockey Club's Declan Schuster, "I'm sure with a smooth run he will get some prize money. We have the Horse of the Year [Golden Sixty] in the race, but my horse is fitter now. He's only had two runs this season, so his fitness is getting better, and in the mornings, he's slightly improved."
The Group 1 Sprint Cup has some of Hong Kong's top sprinters including Wellington, Sky Field and Hot King Prawn.
Because of newly tightened government pandemic restrictions, fans again are barred from Hong Kong's racetracks. That measure extends through the first week in February, meaning the wildly popular Chinese New Year racing festival will be run in front of empty stands.
Saturday's Coral Winter Oaks Saturday at Lingfield Park features Umm Hurair as a solid favorite off three straight wins and Virgin Snow as high weight, thanks to group race placings in 2020.
Four-year-old Umm Hurair will be the first runner for Harry & Roger Charlton's new training partnership. Ryan Moore is set to ride the filly who had three straight wins at Wolverhampton during December over the extended mile - a string that may have exended her career.
"When we sent her up to Wolverhampton in early December," Roger Charlton said, "the plan at that stage was to win a little race and then probably go to stud. She has just improved and improved, and I think winning three in quick succession was a bonus.
"Then a valuable race like this comes along and we thought we would give it one more shot. We are going up a furlong and a bit from Wolverhampton and we hope that will be no problem."
Virgin Snow is a 5-year-old daughter of Gleneagles out of the great racemare Snow Fairy. She was handy enough at age 3, placed in group races on both turf and all-weather, but then missed most of her 4-year-old season, returning in December to finish fifth on the Southwell all-weather.
In other all-weather news:
Nine-year-old Rainbow Dreamer upped his all-weather record to 50 percent -- seven for 14 -- with a late-running, 1 1/2-lengths victory Monday in the Betway Conditions Stakes at Wolverhampton. The race was a Fast-Track Qualifier for the Betway All-Weather Marathon Championships on Good Friday.
With Hollie Doyle riding for trainer Alan King, Rainbow Dreamer raced second behind stablemate Coeur De Leon until 3 furlongs out. When Doyly asked for run, the old guy provided it, taking the lead and holding safe Earlofthecotswolds. Clap Your Hands was another 4 1/2 lengths back in third.
"I've been riding him since I was a five-pound claimer, Doyle said of Rainbow Dreamer. "I remember riding him to win around Southwell and he has come on leaps and bounds since then ... For a horse that stays this far [2 miles on Monday], he actually has a few gears, which is what you want for the all-weather."
Speaking of the all-weather, 24 entries were announced this week for the Group 3 Betway Winter Derby at Lingfield Park on Feb. 26.
Should Lord North accept the engagement, it would be a coup for the program as the John and Thady Gosden charge would be making his first start since winning the Group 1 Dubai Turf on World Cup night last March.
The Gosdens also entered defending Winter Derby hero Forest of Dean. The elder Gosden also won the race in 2019 with Wissahickon and 2020 with Dubai Warrior.
Alenquer, runner-up in the Grade I Juddmonte international, heads a trio for trainer William Haggis, who said the race could be a tune up for Alenquer for the Group 1 Sheema Classic in Dubai. His other two, he said, might detour to Saudi Arabia.
Joseph O'Brien entered Baron Samedi, who was third in the Group 1 Irish St Leger at the Curragh in September. Recent all-weather winners including Al Zaraqaan and Fox Tai also are expected to take their place in the Winter Derby.