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Messier, Early Voting and White Abarrio win weekend Kentucky Derby preps

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
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Messier wins Sunday's Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Benoit photo, courtesy of Santa Anita
Messier wins Sunday's Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Benoit photo, courtesy of Santa Anita

Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Trainer Bob Baffert's talented stable is banned from the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, and that's becoming more and more of an issue as his horses perform better and better -- including weekend victories by Messier and Adare Manor by 15 and 13 lengths, respectively.

That was just one story line on a busy weekend of racing that also included a triumph by Hot Rod Charlie in Dubai as he prepares for the $12 million Dubai World Cup in March.

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In other top action, Express Train put in his bid to be considered in the top ranks of the older horses and Merneith upset Breeders' Cup winner and likely Eclipse Award honoree Ce Ce.

Grand Sonata and Opalina won 3-year-old turf races at warm Gulfstream Park. Shirl's Speight and Bleecker Street won grass events across the peninsula at Tampa Bay Downs.

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The Road to the Roses

In California

Messier was in a world of his own in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. The Ontario-bred Empire Maker colt set a pressured pace for the first 6 furlongs, and then got serious about things and kicked away from four rivals, winning by 15 lengths.

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It probably could have been more if he'd been asked by jockey John Velazquez. Cabo Spirit was second, Wharton third as Messier finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.89.

"He's maturing," said Baffert, who also handles Wharton. "I could tell today that he's growing, he's getting bigger. You could tell when I put the saddle on him. He looked incredible. He looked the part. There were some good horses in there. They were legitimate horses."

Messier now has three wins, also including the Grade III Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar, and two seconds, including the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity.

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The 10 points on offer to the winner of the Lewis would have put his total at 14. But, of course, he has none since he is trained by Baffert, whose horses are persona non grata, or the equine equivalent, in anything involving Churchill Downs.

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Baffert wouldn't commit Messier to the Santa Anita Derby, in part because he has so many hugely talented 3-year-olds in his barn.

"It depends on my other horses to see how [they are]," he said. "We have always gone with whoever is doing well that week gets on a plane or stays here. So right now, we will just enjoy this, and I'm just happy to have a horse like this in my barn."

For the record, the list of Baffert-trained horses who have lost qualifying Kentucky Derby points now includes Corniche, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and likely Eclipse Award winner from last year's 2-year-old crop, Rockefeller, Newgrange, Messier and Wharton.

Corniche and Newgrange, winner of the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita and the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, would lead the list for another trainer.

And for those who haven't been following the nine-month saga, Baffert is banned by Churchill Downs fiat as a result of a series of drug infractions culminating in a positive for 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit.

That case still awaits resolution by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, and Baffert is not officially suspended by any racing jurisdiction.

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Decisions must be made soon. The "Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Season," with the winners' points hiked to 50, starts in two weeks.

In New York

Early Voting had the early lead in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Withers at Aqueduct and he had the advantage at the end, too, winning unchallenged by 4 1/2 lengths.

The Gun Runner colt, with Jose Ortiz riding for trainer Chad Brown, ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:55.90 over a track rated muddy. Un Ojo came from well back to finish second at long odds, a head in front of Gilded Age.

Early Voting was a solid favorite in the Withers even though it was just the second start for the colt. He won at first asking over the same track Dec. 18 after a pace-stalking trip.

"He's a horse that's going to progress with each race," said Brown's assistant, Dan Stupp.

"Each race is going to propel him, and we've seen that in the morning with him ... He's an exciting horse and I was really ready to see him run today. I think he'll move forward nicely in his 3-year-old year."

Stupp said the Grade 2 Wood Memorial on April 9 at Aqueduct may be the next step toward Churchill Downs for Early Voting.

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In Florida

White Abarrio, who is in fact gray, also now is the proud possessor of 12 "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points thanks to a nice victory in Saturday's $250,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

The Race Day colt, with Tyler Gaffalione aboard, pressed the early pace, seized the advantage turning for home and won convincingly by 4 1/2 lengths. Simplification and the favorite, Mo Donegal, were unable to make up any ground through the stretch and finished second and third as White Abarrio got 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.80.

Although White Abarrio was dismissed at 6-1 odds in the Holy Bull, he now is 3-for-4 with a third in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last fall.

The two points for that, plus the 10 for Saturday's win vaulted him into a tie for the third spot on the Churchill Downs leaderboard. Mo Donegal already had 10 points for winning the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in December and Saturday's addition of two has him tied with White Abarrio.

"It was a big performance," said winning trainer Saffie Davis Jr., now charged with plotting a course to the first Saturday in May in Louisville. "He trains like a horse that will handle a distance, but until they do, you never know for sure.

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"I would say off this, the ball is in our court. Why not go straight to the Florida Derby?" Joseph said. "It gives him good spacing, and it will be his third start [of the year] going in the [Kentucky] Derby. ... That would be ideal right now but we'll talk it over whether to go to the Fountain of Youth or not."

The Grade II Fountain of Youth at 1 1/16 miles is next on Gulfstream Park's 3-year-old stakes schedule March 5, followed by the Grade I Florida Derby at 1 1/8 miles April 2.

Simplification and Mo Donnegal are far from eliminated from the Triple Crown picture, according to their connections. Both broke poorly in the Holy Bull and their riders were forced to improvise from there.

Also on Saturday's Gulfstream card, My Prankster notched his second straight win with an off-the pace effort in the $100,000 Grade III Claiborne Farm Swale Stakes.

The Into Mischief colt, with Luis Saez up for trainer Todd Pletcher, raced next-last into the turn, circled rivals and won by 1/2 length from Dean Delivers. The 7 furlongs went in 1:23.12. My Prankster has yet to try two turns.

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Morello drummed up a lot of support before Sunday's $100,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct and rewarded his supporters with a 5-length victory.

Running from off the pace under Jose Lezcano, the Classic Empire Colt, trained by Steve Asmussen, hit 7 furlongs in 1:23.30 on a fast track. Life Is Great (not to be confused with Life Is Good!) was second with Beast or Famine third. Morello now is 2-for-2.

The Road to the Oaks

Baffert entered the two favorites in the original four-horse field for Sunday's $200,000 Grade III Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita but he only needed one of them to dominate the race.

Baffert scratched Eda before the Las Virgenes, and then watched his other filly, Adare Manor, scoot off to win by 13 lengths in a laugher.

Queen of Thorns, Miss Everything and Gracelund Gray completed the order of finish, watching from afar as Adare Manor crossed the wire in a hand ride by jockey John Velazquez, finishing 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.11.

The victory was the second straight and first stakes win for the Uncle Mo filly, out of the Giant Gizmo mare Brooklynsway. She would have earned 10 points toward a start in the Kentucky Oaks but didn't because of the Churchill Downs ban on everything Baffert.

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"I looked back a couple of times and I slowed it down," Velazquez said. "I looked up saw they were pretty far [back] and I backed up thinking I should save something here although she was breathing fire up front.

"I didn't want to ask her down the lane, then Bob would get mad at me. I definitely wanted to save something."

Adare Manor joins the growing list of top candidates for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks currently ineligible because of the company they keep. The Baffert ban also has wiped out Kentucky Oaks points otherwise due to Censorship, Eda and Under the Stars.

Girl With a Dream shipped in from Fair Grounds to win Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Forward Gal at Gulfstream Park by 1 length over the odds-on favorite, Radio Days. It was another 6 1/4 lengths to Last Leaf in third.

Girl With a Dream, a Practical Joke filly, ran her winning skein to three while finishing 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.42 with Luis Saez riding for trainer Brad Cox. She has yet to try anything farther than that distance.

Shotgun Hottie was away last of seven in Sunday's $100,000 Ruthless Stakes at Aqueduct, swung way wide around the turn for racing room and passed them all to win by a nose over Champagne Poetry. Early leader Lady Milagro held third.

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Shotgun Hottie, a Gun Runner filly, finished 7 furlongs on a good track in 1:24.91. Trevor McCarthy rode for trainer William Morey. It was her second win and came on the heels of a fourth in the Untappable Stakes at Fair Grounds in her previous start Dec. 26.

In other action:

Oaklawn Park

The nasty winter weather forced cancellation of the entire weekend card. The $250,000 Grade III Bayakoa Stakes for fillies and mares is rescheduled for the coming weekend.

Santa Anita

Express Train came barreling down the stretch in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Pasqual, rolled right by the front-runners and drew off to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Law Professor was second and pacesetting Eight Rings survived for show money.

Express Train, a 5-year-old son of Union Rags, got 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:50.99 with Victor Espinoza getting the leg up from trainer John Shirreffs.

The win makes a case for Express Train as a top contender in this year's handicap division, especially as he finished 2021 with a victory over current top Dubai World Cup contender Hot Rod Charlie in the San Antonio Stakes on Dec. 26.

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Shirreffs said he now is looking forward to keeping Express Train on the rails for the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap.

"I think this was a little more difficult for him (than the San Antonio)," Shirreffs said. "There was a lot going on early with the fast pace."

Merneith got out to a quick lead in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Monica Stakes for fillies and mares and kept running through the stretch to post a rather stunning 3-length victory over the odds-on favorite and likely Eclipse Award winner, Ce Ce. It was another 3 3/4 length to Kalypso in third.

Merneith is a 5-year-old daughter of American Pharoah, bred by China Horse Club, owned by HRH Prince Sultan Bin Mishal Al Saud and trained by the aforementioned Baffert. She missed most of last year's campaign after winning this same race, but returned Jan. 2 to finish second in the Kalookan Queen Stakes.

"Everything went well," Baffert said, "and when she's on, I've always thought very highly of her. She got to prove it today. She beat a good field of fillies."

Count Again also notched a significant upset in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Thunder Road at 1 mile on the turf. The 7-year-old Awesome Again gelding took back to next-last of six before putting in a late bid that found him out front by 1/2 length at the finish.

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The odds-on favorite, Subconscious, had a clear lead in the lane, but couldn't hold it, finishing second by 3 lengths from Ready Soul. Count Again finished in 1:34.12 with Flavien Prat riding for trainer Phil D'Amato.

Gulfstream Park

Grand Sonata needed running room early in the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Kitten's Joy Stakes for 3-year-olds on the grass, finally sprung loose and surged to the front to win by a neck Royal Spirit was second, 1 1/4 lengths better than Coinage.

Grand Sonata, with Tyler Gaffalione up, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:41.53, backing up a similar win in the 1-mile Dania Beach Stakes on New Year's Day. The Medaglia d'Oro colt, a Whisper Hill Farm homebred trained by Todd Pletcher, now is 3-for-5.

In the companion $100,000 Sweetest Chant Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, Opalina got up a head of steam turning for home, sped by rivals through the final furlong and won by 3/4 length. Ambitieuse was second, with Miss You third and Myfavoritedaughter fourth.

Opalina, an Optimizer filly, finished in 1:41.56 with Luis Saez in the ironsl for trainer Roderick Rodirguez. She was coming off a third-place finish in the local Ginger Brew Stakes in her first start of the year.

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Aqueduct

Drafted could see all four rivals early in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Toboggan Stakes, accelerated sharply around the turn for jockey Jose Ortiz to gain a big lead and coasted home first by 4 1/2 lengths.

Repo Rocks was along to finish second, 6 lengths better than the fading pacesetter and favorite, Happy Medium. Drafted ran 7 furlongs on a muddy track in 1:25.06.

The 8-year-old Field Commission gelding spent all of 2018 and 2019 in Dubai, returning to New York early in 2020 after finishing sixth in the inaugural Saudia Cup Sprint in Riyadh. The Toboggan was his first victory in nine starts since that repatriation.

Tampa Bay Downs

Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes turned out to be a battle of long shots and Shirl's Speight came running late to catch pacesetting Get Smokin, winning by 1 1/2 lengths over that rival. Floriform completed a trifecta that returned $450.10 for a 50-cent investment as backers of the favorite, L'Imperator, watched him report 10th after an awkward start.

Shirl's Speight, a Speightstown colt, finished 1 1/16 miles of firm turf in 1:41.20 with Emma-Jayne Wilson in the irons. He now owns back-to-back wins over the course.

The companion $175,000 Grade III Endeavour Stakes for fillies and mares also went to an upsetter -- Bleeker Street, who rallied past the favorite, Lady Speightspeare, in the final furlong to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Stunning Princess was third, another 3/4 length in arrears.

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Bleeker Street, a 4-year-old Quality Road filly, reported in 1:41.91 with Hector Diaz Jr. riding. She was sent to the post at odds of 7-1 despite being undefeated in three previous starts.

Turfway Park

Saturday's program, including the $100,000 Forego Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track, also was a victim of the winter storm.

Sunland Park

Slammed, the odds-on favorite, ran to her notices in Sunday's $100,000 La Coneja Stakes for New Mexico-bred fillies and mares, swinging six wide to get the lead late and win by 1 1/2 lengths. Tight Fittin Jeans was best of the rest, 3/4 length in front of Proofsinthepuddin.

Slammed, a 4-year-old Marking filly, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.54 with Alfredo Juarez Jr. in the irons.

Delta Downs

Here's how things went on Louisiana Bred Premier Night on Saturday:

Langs Day rallied from last of 10 with a wide bid to capture the $150,000 Championship by 1/2 length over Speaktomeoflove. Langs Day, a 5-year-old New Year's Day gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:48.23 with Ty Kennedy up.

Net a Bear also came from the back of the pack in the $125,000 Distaff, dueling between rivals late to get up for a 1/2-length win over Fort Polk. Net a Bear, a 6-year-old mare by Awesome Bet, ran 1 mile in 1:42.08 under Timothy Thornton.

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Vodka Gimlet came from off the pace to take the $100,000 Prince for 3-year-olds, drawing off to win by 2 1/4 lengths from Brian's Iron Mike. The Goldencents gelding ran 1 mile in 1:41.76 with Thomas Pompell in the irons.

Free Like a Girl won the $100,000 Starlet for 3-year-old fillies in front-running fashion, drawing off to finish 4 1/2 lengths in front of runner-up Wholelottamo in 1:42.65. Pedro Cotto Jr. rode the El Deal filly.

Bertie's Galaxy led all the way to a 3 1/2-lengths victory in the $100,000 Sprint with Wild Bert finishing second. Bertie's Galaxy, a 6-year-old Greeley's Galaxy gelding out of the Wild Rush mare Wild Bertie, completed 5 furlongs in 58.60 seconds with Jareth Loveberry at the controls. Wild Rush dead-heated with Silver Charm for the win in the 1998 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park.

Cilla drew off at the end of 5 furlongs to win the $100,000 Matron by 4 3/4 lengths over Icy Charlie. Cilla, a 5-year-old California Chrome filly out of the Into Mischief mare Sittin At the Bar, was clocked in 59.73 seconds with Pompell up.

Around the world, around the clock:

Dubai

California-based trainer Doug O'Neill brought Hot Rod Charlie to the desert early, planning to give him time to get acclimated to new surroundings before taking on the $12 million Dubai World Cup on March 26.

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Judging by the way the Oxbow colt ran in Friday night's Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2, he needn't have bothered.

Hot Rod Charlie showed 'em how it's done in his first start at Meydan Racecourse. With William Buick subbing for regular rider Flavien Prat, he turned into the stretch in what looked briefly like a battle with Al Nefud and jockey Ryan Moore.

But "briefly" is the key word there as Hot Rod Charlie suddenly fired on all cylinders, and drew off quickly to win by 5 1/4 lengths.

"I just wanted to keep it as simple as possible," Buick said. "He was the best horse in the race."

"What a ride," O'Neill said of Buick's effort. "He's a wonderful horse."

"I might have overtrained him going into his last race [second in the Grade II San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita Dec. 26], and now, with the travel and all, we undertrained him a little bit," O'Neill said.

"Now the plan is to keep him here and it's well spaced between here and the World Cup."

O'Neill, who has eight horses at the Carnival, ran four horses in Friday's fourth meeting of the event, winning twice with two seconds, so maybe the early arrival was a good ideal after all.

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In the Meydan evening's co-featured Balanchine, Creative Flair held on gamely through the final 100 meters to win by 3/4 length over Pevensey Bay.

Creative Flair, a Dubawi filly, was making her first start for Godolphin and trainer Charlie Appleby since finishing fourth in the Jockey Club Oaks Invitational at Belmont Park last Sept. 18.

Before that, she was third in the Grade III Saratoga Oaks Invitational. The Balanchine was her first win at the group level.

"She has good form in the book from the UK and she ran some good races in America as well, said winning rider William Buick. "It's nice to get a group win next to her name."

Sovereign Prince upset the Godolphin applecart a bit -- or perhaps rearranged the contents -- by winning the Jumeirah Classic at 1,600 meters on the turf.

The Dubawi gelding was a relative longshot alongside the likes of stablemate New Science, who is considered a European Classics candidate but could only finish third in Friday's effort. Sovereign Prince, as a gelding, is barred from the likes of the Guineas and the Derby.

Hypothetical, a 5-year-old son of Lope de Vega who finished fourth in last year's Dubai World Cup, led throughout Friday's Group 3 Firebreak Stakes at 1 mile on the dirt and drew off in the end to win by 3 1/2 lengths over the O'Neill-trained Strongconstitution.

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Hong Kong

When Zac Purton was seriously injured in a fall in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint in December, it appeared his chances of holding off archrival Joao Moreira for the jockey premiership were up in smoke.

Not so fast.

With Moreira serving a six-meeting suspension and not returning until Feb. 27, Purton is making up for lost time and the lead he relinquished to Moreira even as he regains strength.

After booting home five winners (not to mention three seconds and two thirds) on Sunday's program at Happy Valley he has reduced Moreira's lead to 13 -- 74 wins to 61.

"It's nice to be riding a few winners again and hopefully things start to roll along a little bit more," Purton said

"I'll just turn up, every meeting, every race and try and give my horses their chances and hopefully they can get it done for me. ... We've got a long way to go and I've got to build myself back to where I was before, as well. I'll just keep working at it."

Purton accepted the suspension for failing to ride out his mount to the end of a race Jan. 19. He and Moreira have four Hong Kong riding titles apiece.

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England

There was all kinds of all-weather action Saturday as the Winter Derby and the Good Friday finals of the All-Weather Championships creep ever closer.

At Kempton Park, Sleeping Lion was much the best in the Unibet Conditions Stakes, a Fast-Track Qualifier for the All-Weather Marathon Championships.

The 7-year-old Teofilo gelding raced at midfield, slowly worked his way into gear to seize the lead a furlong out in the 2-miles event and eased off to a 1 1/4-lengths victory. Roberto Escobarr was best of the rest. The favorite, Nayeff Road, could only manage fourth.

"We have got the final at Newcastle on our minds now," Sleeping Lion's co-owner Harry Charlton said. "If the final was still at Lingfield, we wouldn't be going there as it isn't his track. But he ran a nice race at Newcastle for [former trainer James] Fanshawe back in the day. He is on the improve and I feel it should suit him."

Lingfield Park had two important events on its program.

Spycatcher overcame a challenging start to take the lead close to the wire in the Betway Kachy Stakes, winning by a neck over Lord of the Lodge. Spycatcher, a 4-year-old Vadamos colt, earned a Fast-Track Qualifier spot in the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championship on Good Friday.

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"I wasn't the quickest out of the stalls and got wiped out a bit," said winning rider Clifford Lee. "But I knew there was a lot of pace in the race and Spycatcher is a big finisher. I am glad it has worked out and his performance bodes well for Finals Day because the straight track at Newcastle should play to his strengths."

Earlier on the Lingfield card, Fancy Man teed himself up for bigger targets later this month with an impressive comeback in the Listed Betway Winter Derby Trial for Richard Hannon and Sean Levey.

"That was Fancy Man's first run for a long time and he would have needed it," Hannon said. "We took him to Kempton last week and he worked very well so we decided to give him a run here to hopefully build him up for either the Winter Derby or the Amir Trophy in Qatar.

"The Winter Derby will be a very good race with good sponsorship from Betway and I would love to tell them that we are running there," he added. "But I think Qatar is more likely at this stage."

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