Knicks Go warms up for Saturday's Pegasus World Cup. Photo by Lauren King, courtesy of Gulfstream Park
Jan. 28 (UPI) -- It's only January, with lots of races yet to come, but it's possible the "race of the year" could be run Saturday in the $3 million Grade I Pegasus Stakes at Gulfstream Park as speedy Breeders' Cup champions Knicks Go and Life Is Good go head-to-head.
Good as it promises to be, the Pegasus is only the centerpiece of another massive day of racing in the shadow of the hulking Gulfstream Park statue of the mythical flying horse. Seven graded stakes are up for grabs.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby continues with the $750,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park and, yes, that big purse for an early prep drew some good ones.
Also on tap this weekend is Sam Houston Race Park's biggest day with the Grade III Houston Ladies Classic as the focus. Santa Anita's back in action with graded stakes and the Aqueduct program has a potential Kentucky Oaks prep.
Internationally, the Dubai Carnival rolls on toward its halfway point, Hong Kong's BMW Derby series gets under way with the Classic Mile, and South Africa's finest line up in the Met.
There's a lot of action, especially at Gulfstream. For an insider's look at those races, see Jude Feld's thoughts at popejude.com. The Pontiff is rested and ready to rock and roll.
So are we, so here we go.
The Big One
"Off the top of my head," trainer Todd Pletcher said, "I can't think of a matchup quite like this."
Pletcher was looking forward to Saturday's showdown between his Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Life is Good and Breeders' Cup Classic winner and Pegasus World Cup defending champ Knicks Go.
It's a matchup racing fans have been anticipating since that beautiful day in November at Del Mar when the two horses ran similar races, both leading all the way to comfortable wins.
There wasn't a soul in the joint not asking, "What if they'd both gone in the Classic?" Now we'll find out.
And it looks like it will be a slugfest as neither Pletcher nor Knicks Go's trainer, Brad Cox, has indicated any plan other than speed. Who can keep going for 1 1/8 miles under pressure?
Normally, a setup like this would have the wise guys looking for a closer to pick up the pieces as both parts of a prospective speed duel would be expected to tire in the end. Somehow, that doesn't seem the most likely scenario in the Pegasus.
If it's run to script, it could be the "race of the year." While Life Is Good, a 4-year-old, is slated to run on, perhaps next in the $12 million Dubai World Cup, Knicks Go is making his final start before heading off to his second career in the breeding shed.
The Pegasus itself is the centerpiece of a massive day of racing including six other graded stakes on both turf and dirt.
The $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational has a field of with the defending champion, Colonel Liam, as the 3-1 favorite on the morning line.
The now 5-year-old son of Liam's map started a three-race winning streak in this event last year, but has not been seen since finishing eighth in the Grade I Manhattan at Belmont Park last June.
Trainer Todd Pletcher says he's ready to go. Also well backed is Never Surprised, a 4-year-old Constitution colt also trained by Pletcher. He comes off a victory in the Tropical Park Derby and has never been worse than second in seven starts.
Eleven signed on for the $500,000 Grade III Pegasus Filly & Mare Turf with Regal Glory as the morning-line pick. The 6-year-old Animal Kingdom mare, trained by Chad Brown, exits a victory in the Grade I Matriarch Stakes at Del Mar.
She faces some tough rivals, including Sweet Melania, an American Pharoah mare trained by Pletcher who won the local Suwanee River Stakes in her last outing; Nicest, an Irish-bred filly who was third in the Irish Oaks before shipping across the water and recently was second in the Grade I American Oaks at Santa Anita; and Shifty She, who is working her way back from a long injury layoff.
Always Shopping, another Pletcher charge, is the 7-5 morning-line favorite among nine fillies and mares in the $150,000 Grade III La Prevoyante for fillies and mares at 1 1/2 miles on the turf.
The 6-year-old Awesome Again mare won this last year and comes off a victory in the local Via Borghese on New Year's Eve.
A full field of 12 plus three also-eligibles is on tap for the $200,000 Grade III William L. McKnight at 1 1/2 miles on the turf. It's a pretty even bunch but it's also no surprise the 2-1 favorite, Abaan, a 5-year-old Will Take Charge gelding, is trained by the aforementioned Pletcher. He exits a win in the H. Allan Jerkens over the course on Christmas Eve.
The $150,000 Grade III Fred W. Hooper at 1 mile on the dirt drew a field of nine. The 5-2 favorite, Fearless, another from the packed Pletcher barn, got the inside gate. Speaker's Corner, Liam and Dennis's Moment all have some supporters.
The $200,000 Grade II Inside Information Stakes has a very contentious field of 10 fillies and mares set to tackle 7 furlongs on the dirt. Just One Time, a 4-year-old Not This Time filly trained by Brad Cox, is the 7-2 morning line favorite but it's wide open.
The Run for the Roses
Three-year-olds are in action from coast to coast during the weekend, but the $750,000 purse on offer for the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park draws the most interest and is the only one offering points in the Churchill Downs "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series.
A dozen are chasing the Southwest riches with Newgrange, a Violence colt trained by Bob Baffert, the 2-1 morning-line favorite. He's 2-for-2 after winning the Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on New Year's Day.
Of course, he won't be competing for the Derby points because Baffert, a powerful force in both Hot Springs and Louisville for many years, remains under the Churchill Downs interdict.
Others drawing early interest in the Southwest field include Dash Attack, a Munnings colt from Kenny McPeek's barn who is 2-for-2 with a win in the local Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 1; Barber Road, second in the Smarty Jones; and Osbourne, exiting a second in the Remington Springboard Mile. Costa Terra, a Gun Runner colt trained by Steve Asmussen, comes back from a nearly four-months layoff and could be a threat at a price.
Three of the five candidates for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita, 7 furlongs on the main track, are trained by Baffert. Pinehurst, McLaren Vale and Doppelganger.
Pinehurst won the Grade I Del Mar Futurity at 7 furlongs on the Del Mar dirt but then was a fading fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The other two are recent maiden winners. Forbidden Kingdom was last seen finishing second in the Grade III Bob Hope at Del Mar. What In Blazes, another recent maiden winner, completes the field.
Also worth a look for potential contenders: Saturday's $100,000 Spectacular Bid at Laurel Park and Sunday's $100,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct, both at 7 furlongs, and Sunday's $100,000 Riley Allison Derby at Sunland Park, a 1-mile affair.
The Run for the Oaks
Saturday's $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park has six candidates and three of them are closely matched. The 9-5 morning-line favorite, Optionality, a Gun Runner filly trained by Steve Asmussen, has won three straight at three different tracks.
Secret Oath, a daughter of Arrogate, exits a local win for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Como Square, by Into Mischief, is 2-for-2 and trained by Brad Cox.
Saturday's $100,000 Xtra Heat Stakes at Laurel Park has six fillies to go 6 furlongs. None looks like Oaks caliber, but it's a nice race with some good wagering options.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Palos Verdes, 6 furlongs, attracted six starters. Among them, Cezanne and Essential Wager, both from trainer Baffert, show promise as lightly raced 4-year-olds.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Megahertz Stakes for fillies and mares, 1 mile on the turf, has a field of eight. Bodhicitta has been consistently in the mix in top company and comes off a second in the Grade III Robert J. Frankel on New Year's Day.
Sunday's $225,000 Grade II San Marcos drew a contentious field of six to try 1 1/4 miles on the turf. Acclimate, Say the Word, Friar's Road and Bob and Jackie all have realistic chances.
Sam Houston Race Park
Pauline's Pearl, who has been plundering races like this around the Midwest and Southwest for trainer Stave Asmussen, is the 6-5 favorite on the morning line for Sunday's $400,000 Grade III Houston Ladies Classic, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt.
She was last seen finishing winning the Zia Park Oaks in New Mexico in November, and has six rivals Sunday.
Sunday's $200,000 Grade III John B. Connally Turf Cup, 1 1/2 miles, has a full field and looks totally wide open. The morning-line pick, at 7-2, is Ajourneytofreedom, is a 5-year-old Hard Spun gelding trained by Mike Maker. He finished second in this a year ago.
Sunday's $200,000 Bob Bork Texas Turf Mile for 3-year-olds has 11 runners without much to separate them. Lots of wagering opportunities for the sharp handicapper here.
It's a similar story in Sunday's $100,000 Pulse Power Turf Sprint but Bad Beat Bryan ships in from Florida for Mike Maker and looks like the one to beat off the Gulfstream Park form.
Around the world, around the clock:
The third session of the Dubai World Cup Carnival on Friday at Meydan Racecourse features the UAE 1,000 Guineas and a couple of turf races that could lead to the Saudi Cup or back to World Cup night.
Six are in the Guineas with Shahama the likely pick to prevail after 1600 meters. The Munnings filly already is 2-for-2 this season at the massive Dubai course with both wins coming at 1,400 meters. The winners here will eye the Feb. 18 UAE Oaks -- or bigger if they run well enough.
The Group 2 Zabeel Mile on the turf could point in several directions including Saudi Arabia. The Godolphin home team is on full display with Real World leading a three-horse contingent.
Real World ended his 2021 European campaign with a four-race winning streak culminating in the Group 2 Qatar Prix Daniel Wildenstein at Longchamp on Oct. 2, and trainer Saeed bin Suroor is high on his potential for the year.
The Dubai Sprint Presented by Dubai Creek Harbour by Emaar is 1,200 meters, and can be a prep for the Group 3 Nad Al Sheba Turf Sprint on Super Saturday, the $1.5 million Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night or the Saudi turf sprint.
The Hong Kong Classic Mile is the first of three races in the 4-Year-Old Classic series that culminates in the BMW Hong Kong Derby, arguably the most prestigious race of the year for the local racing establishment.
The distances get longer as the series progresses so early success is not necessarily a promise of future performance, as they say.
Many of the runners come into the Classic Mile with winning streaks but they're all asked to move up in class and/or distance here so the outcome is well in doubt.
If history is any indication, the winner will be earmarked for big things, as was Golden Sixty a few years back when he won this race en route to a series sweep and superstardom.
Many of the recent regulars face off again Saturday in The World Sports Betting Cape Town Met at Kenilworth . The notable absentee is Rainbow Bridge, who has been retired after suffering an injury in the Jan. 8 Queen's Plate in his last start.
Trainer Justin Snaith has four of the 11 declared runners -- Do It Again, Jet Dark, Double Superlative and Hoedspruit. Jet Dark, a son of Trippi, won the Queen's Plate by 2 1/2 lengths over Kommetdieding, who returns for this.
The Queen's Plate was run at 1 mile. The Met requires an additional 1/4 mile on top of that effort.
Kaboo scored his third win without a loss on all-weather surfaces Monday at Kempton Park, winning the Unibet Conditions Stakes and earning a "Fast-Track Qualifier" spot in the Coral All-Weather Three-Year-Old Championships on Good Friday.
Dispatched as the odds-on favourite in the 6-furlong test, Kaboo broke well under Clifford Lee and shared the early lead inside of Resilience. The son of More Than drew off to a daylight lead leaving the backstretch and wasn't challenged thereafter. The win came on the back of novice races at Wolverhampton and Newcastle.
Trainer Karl Burke said he pre-race plan was to go straight to the All-Weather Championship finals. But, he said, Kaboo "was having a right blow today and is a stuffy horse. Ideally, you would want another run between now and then, but there aren't a lot of options."