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Pappacap might pop up and win a Kentucky Derby prep

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Pappacap (green silks), shown finishing second to Corniche in the Breeders' Cup Classic, is among the favorites for Saturday's Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, a 50-point qualifier for the Kentucky Derby. Photo by John Voorhees, Eclipse Sportswire, courtesy of Breeders' Cup
1 of 2 | Pappacap (green silks), shown finishing second to Corniche in the Breeders' Cup Classic, is among the favorites for Saturday's Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, a 50-point qualifier for the Kentucky Derby. Photo by John Voorhees, Eclipse Sportswire, courtesy of Breeders' Cup

Feb. 18 (UPI) -- This is the weekend when we find out if a few highly touted Kentucky Derby prospects are big guns or just pop guns, with the likes of Pappacap and Smile Happy ready to line up in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.

The New Orleans track also has a big supporting program on grass and dirt, including the Rachel Alexandra Stakes for Oaks hopefuls.

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Laurel Park in Maryland hosts its annual Presidents Day weekend sprint stakes, plus some potentially instructive 3-year-old races. Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita and Oaklawn also chip in to a nice weekend pot of racing.

The international scene is no slouch, either.

Friday's Dubai World Cup Carnival program features the UAE Oaks. Grade 1 racing returns to Japan with a Breeders' Cup qualifying race on the dirt at Toyko Racecourse featuring the white filly Sodashi.

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Golden Sixty looks to return to the winner's enclosure in Hong Kong after his stunning last-out defeat. And Saturday's Group 1 Black Caviar Lightning Stakes at Flemington is one of Australia's -- heck, the world's -- top sprints.

As always, with so much ground and turf to cover, insightful additions to the thought process are welcome, none more so than those of The Pontiff, Jude Feld, accessible at popejude.com.

Let us commence.

The Road to the Roses

The competition gets tougher and the rewards get larger as the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" rolls into its climactic, 16-race "Championship Series" in the United States and the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" passes its third way station.

Twenty races already are in the books in the "Prep Season" of the main Churchill Downs' "Road" series. All but one of those, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, ran with a points scale of 10 for the winner and 4, 2 and 1 for horses finishing second through fourth.

The pot sweetens starting Saturday as the $400,000 Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds is the first to award points on the 50-20-10-5 scale.

That ensures the 3-year-olds finishing first and second will ascend to the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the leaderboard, assuming they're nominated to the Triple Crown, not trained by Bob Baffert and don't run on Lasix in the Risen Star.

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Nomination is required for an official spot on the listing. Baffert and Lasix are disqualifiers.

Because of the Baffert ban, Pappacap topped the "Road" leaderboard until last week, when he was displaced by Classic Causeway.

Pappacap finished second in both the Breeder's Cup Juvenile and the American Pharoah Stakes, both times behind the Baffert-trained Corniche, who would still top the leaderboard -- if he were eligible.

Pappacap, a Gun Runner colt trained by Mark Casse, won his first two starts last year but hasn't won in four subsequent appearances and enters the Risen Star off a third in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 22, behind Call Me Midnight and Epicenter. Epicenter returns for the Risen Star. Call Me Midnight does not.

Speaking of oddities in rankings and preferences, Smile Happy on Sunday closed as the second-favorite in Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, behind only "All Other 3-Year-Olds", despite not having run since winning the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs on Nov. 27.

And he's the 7-2 morning-line favorite for the Risen Star off a respectable series of works at Gulfstream Park for trainer Kenny McPeek.

"I think this is a good first step for Smile Happy," McPeek said. "He's doing super. He's done everything right. He's a very low-maintenance horse who makes our job easy. He eats good. He loves to train."

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Zandon comes to Fair Grounds off a second-place finish in the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct, just a nose behind Mo Donegal under the virtual wire. And Slow Down Andy arrives from Santa Anita after a victory in the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity on Dec. 11.

Others in the field of 10 easily could contend with just a minor improvement off recent efforts.

Saturday's $100,000 Miracle Wood Stakes at 1 mile at Laurel Racecourse in Maryland is more frequently seen as a Preakness peek than a Louisville look. The only Triple Crown nominee among the nine entries is Conclusive, a Nyquist colt who triumphed easily in his last outing in the mud.

In Japan, Sunday's Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse will shake up the standings in that chase for a bid to the Road to the Roses. We await the final entries and draw for that race, so check back to greet the new leader in the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby."

The Path to the Oaks

You know there are some serious fillies in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds when La Crete, the undefeated winner of the local Silverbulletday Stakes, and North County, undefeated winner of the local Untappable Stakes, are both posted at 8-1 on the morning line.

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The favorites in the Rachel Alexandra are Hidden Connection, a Connect filly who won the Grade III Pocahontas at Churchill Downs last autumn by 9 1/2 lengths, but was last seen fourth, beaten 13 1/2 lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, and Awake at Midnyte, a Nyquist miss whose last two starts produced runner-up finishes in the Grade III Jimmy Durante at Del Mar and the Grade II Santa Ynez at Santa Anita.

Also in a really tough field are Dream Lith, winner of the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs in her last start in November; Turnerloose, another by Nyquist who makes her first start on dirt after four on the grass; and Goddess of Fire, who just missed in the Gasparilla Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in her first start of the year.

Saturday's $100,000 Wide Country at Laurel Park attracted eight 3-year-old fillies. The favorite, Luna Belle, has won two straight and looks poised to make a statement. New York invader Sandy's Garden could step up to play a role.

Saturday's $150,000 Dixie Belle at Oaklawn Park is only 6 furlongs but, given the quality of horses on the grounds in Arkansas, it's worth watching.

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Actual Oaks candidates are more likely to wait another week for the $300,000 Grade III Honeybee at 1 1/16 miles, a prep for the $600,000 Grade III Fantasy on the Arkansas Derby undercard April 2.

Elsewhere:

Fair Grounds

The favorites for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Fair Grounds Stakes will start their 1 1/8 miles turf journey from the outside gates in a field of 11. Two Emmys, posted at 3-1, captured the Grade I Mr. D. at Arlington Park last August, then was second in the Grade III Sycamore at Keeneland and a close third in the local Colonel E.R. Bradley on Jan. 22.

Just to his inside is Largent. He finished second, just a neck behind Colonel Liam, in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf in January of 2021, and then wasn't seen again until six weeks ago when he ran evenly to finish fourth in the Grade III Tropical Turf at Gulfstream Park.

Don't overlook last year's Fair Grounds Stakes winner, Captivating Moon, a warhorse for trainer Chris Block, or Adhamo, who makes his first U.S. start for Chad Brown after a very respectable 3-year-old season in France with Freddie Head.

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Santin, a Godolphin colt by Distorted Humor, makes just his fourth start and would be undefeated but for finishing second by a neck in the Grade I Hollywood Derby.

Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Mineshaft Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the main track didn't draw the classiest field in Fair Grounds history but the 11 runners it did get certainly are a competitive bunch.

The morning-line picks are Olympiad, a Speightstown colt, and Miles D, a Curlin colt. Both are 4, they sport identical records of three wins, one second and one third from six starts and both come off wins. Miles D has the distinction of finishing third behind Essential Quality and Midnight Bourbon in the 2021 Travers.

Saturday's $100,000 Albert M. Stall Memorial for fillies and mares, 1 1/16 miles on the turf, has a field of 10 with Pass the Plate as the 3-1 morning-line favorite. The Temple City mare, trained by Paul McGee, exits a victory in the local Marie Krantz Memorial, but will have to overcome the rail draw.

Just Might has won six of his last seven starts and certainly is the solid favorite for Saturday's $100,000 Colonel Power Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf. The Justin Phillip gelding won this by a neck in 2020 and by 5 lengths in last year's off-the-turf edition.

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Those looking for a better potential ROI could eye Toro Strike, a 5-year-old son of Toronado, who makes his first U.S. start for Todd Pletcher. He wrapped up his 2021 season in England with some fairly lofty Timeform numbers.

Gulfstream Park

Drain the Clock rates a narrow favorite among six entered for Saturday's $150,000, 6-furlongs Gulfstream Park Sprint. The 4-year-old Maclean's Music colt was a multiple graded-stakes winner in 2021 and finished with a win at Gulfstream Park in December. It's a close call, with Diamond Oops, Miles Ahead and Gatsby all worthy of notice.

Laurel Park

Saturday's $250,000 Grade III General George Stakes is 7 furlongs with seven entries. The morning-line pick is Cordmaker, a 7-year-old Curlin gelding who has won three straight and four of five.

Note, though, that he's only 2-for-8 lifetime at this specialty distance. Sir Alfred James, also well-held on the morning line, has won two of three starts at the distance, but comes off dismal efforts on the Fair Grounds turf and Turfway Park all-weather. Maybe Cordmaker's not so bad, after all.

The companion $250,000 Grade III Barbara Fritchie Stakes for fillies and mares attracted eight, with Glass Ceiling and Jakarta as credible favorites. Glass Ceiling, a 5-year-old Constitution mare, seems to be at peak form with three wins from her last four starts, all on the New York circuit.

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Workin On a Dream will be workin' on improving from two straight runner-up finishes when he lines up against six rivals in Saturday's $100,000 John B. Campbell Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. Galerio also has been short on the win end but consistently in the money.

Miss Leslie and Kiss the Girl are the favorites for Saturday's $100,000 Barbara Fritchie at 1 1/16 miles. Godolphin's lightly raced 4-year-old Frost Point shouldn't be dismissed after a romping victory at the course and distance in her last.

Santa Anita

Saturday's $100,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds, 1 mile on the turf, drew 11 entries, many of them with legitimate chances. The morning-line favorite, Sumter, a War Front colt, has been rested since breaking his maiden in his fourth start Nov. 14 at Del Mar.

Sunday's $100,000 Grade III San Simeon, 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course, has a contentious field of eight with the likes of Beer Can Man, Barraza, Chaos Theory, Bombard and Bran. A $1 trifecta box on all the "B" names would cost $24.

Tampa Bay Downs

Saturday's $100,000 Turf Dash, 5 furlongs on the lush Florida lawn, has a field of 11 that could shrink with the morning-line favorite, Diamond Oops, cross-entered in a similar heat across the peninsula. Backtohisroots, Bad Beat Bryan and Xy Speed are next up on the morning line.

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The companion $100,000 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares drew 12 with Payntdembluesaway as the 5-2 favorite. She was fourth in this race last year and Saturday's renewal looks like a pretty wide-open affair.

Around the world, around the clock:

Dubai

Friday's Dubai World Cup Carnival program at Meydan Racecourse features the Group 3 UAE Oaks with the undefeated Munnings filly Shahama as a heavy favorite. Two group races on the turf also could point to events on the March 26 World Cup card.

Shahama won at first asking Dec. 9 -- by 9 lengths. Trainer Fawzi Nass wheeled her back on New Year's in the UAE 1000 Guineas Trial where she overcame an unusual sloppy track and some traffic to win by 2 1/2. She went on to win the UAE 1000 Guineas itself Jan. 28.

"That was pretty straightforward," jockey Adrie de Vries said after the Guineas score. "She took me there easily and then quickened nicely. She is a smart filly and I guess will be aimed at the UAE Oaks now and hopefully then the Derby."

The other six in the Oaks include Minwah, a Cupid filly who has finished second to Shahama twice and fifth in the Guineas Trial.

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The Group 2 Blue Point Sprint, contested at 5 furlongs down the Meydan straight, has nine takers has Godolphin's Lazuli, second in the Dubai Sprint Jan. 28 at 6 furlongs. The 5-year-old Dubawi gelding finished his 2021 season at Saratoga, reporting seventh in the Grade III Troy Stakes.

Also in the field is Acklam Express, a 4-year-old Mehmas gelding who finished third in last year's Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint, won by Extravagant Kid.

The Group 3 Nad Al Sheba Trophy is run at 2,810 meters and could open the door to the Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup at 3,200 meters on World Cup night.

One to watch in the big field is Manobo, trained by Charlie Appleby for Godolphin. He was unraced at, 2 but won all four starts in 2021, ending with the Group 2 Qatar Prix Chaudenay at Longchamp Oct. 2.

Japan

Several of Japan's top dirt runners are on their way to the Middle East to compete in the big-money events in Saudi Arabi and Dubai, opening the door for others in Sunday's Grade 1 February Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse.

Reigning Japanese dirt champ T O Keynes, Chuwa Wizard and Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Marche Lorraine all are seeing glory overseas. But last year's February Stakes winner, Café Pharoah, white filly Sodashi and Red le Zelle are poised to step up.

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Café Pharoah, a son of American Pharoah, and Sodashi, by Kurofune, both need a turnaround from their form in late 2021. Red le Zelle, a 6-year-old son of superstar sprinter Lord Kanaloa, would seem to need only a return to the form that saw him second in last year's Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen.

Australia

Nature Strip, by any measure one of the globe's best sprinters, is a solid favorite among nine in for Saturday's Group 1 Black Caviar Lightning Stakes at Flemington.

The 7-year-old Nicconi gelding comes off five wins and two seconds from his last seven starts. The wins include the TAB Everest and last year's edition of the Lightning.

Eduardo, who upset the favorite by 1/2 length last September in the Group 2 Shorts over the Flemington course could be the main threat again. He was third in the Everest.

Hong Kong

Golden Sixty, his 16-race winning streak history, will look to start a new skein Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse as he lines up for the Group 1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup. It will be just his third time at the 2,000-meter distance but jockey Vincent Ho, pointing out the Medaglia d'Oro gelding has won both previous starts at the trip, says not to worry.

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"To ride a horse like him, I'm always happy," Ho said. There are no concerns about 2,000 meters. We have done that before. He'll be fine."

Golden Sixty, more often seen at a mile, won at the 2,000 meters in last year's Gold Cup and in the 2020 BMW Hong Kong Derby.

Golden Sixty's win streak went down the drain when he was, arguably anyway, victimized by the draw and the pace in the Group 1 Stewards' Cup Jan. 23. He wound up chasing Waikuku through the final 150 meters, gaining ground, but ran out of track, finishing second.

He won't have to worry about Waikuku Sunday. That rival is backing down in distance in the co-feature, the Group 1 Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup at 1,400 meters.

The excellent program is hampered by restrictions imposed as a new wave of the pandemic sweeps Hong Kong. All but essential personnel are barred from the track, off-track betting locations are shuttered and telebet service is discontinued. Even owners with runners and racing media are excluded from the premises.

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