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Epicenter no shock, tops Kentucky Derby standings with Fair Grounds win

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
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Epicenter no shock, tops Kentucky Derby standings with Fair Grounds win
Epicenter jumps to top of Kentucky Derby leaderboard with a victory in the Risen Star Stakes. Hodges photo, courtesy of Fair Grounds

Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Each weekend seems to bring an earthquake to the Kentucky Derby standings, and this time around, it's Epicenter at the focus of events. The colt jumped to the top of the leaderboard for the Run for the Roses with a front-running win in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.

The weekend also saw Turnerloose move off the turf, onto the Fair Grounds main track and smack dab into the middle of Kentucky Oaks contention. The rest of the rich Fair Grounds Saturday program produced a string of upsets.

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Glass Ceiling and Cordmaker took down the graded sprints at Laurel Park. Happy Soul won the Dixie Belle Stakes for 3-year-old filly sprinters at Oaklawn Park. Miles Ahead advanced his sprinting career at Gulfstream Park.

Upsets were commonplace on the international front, too, with Golden Sixty and Waikuku both defeated in Hong Kong and Nature Strip toppled by a 3-year-old in Australia. Café Pharoah earned a Breeders' Classic invitation with a victory in the February Stakes in Japan.

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Let's go racing.

The Road to the Roses

Epicenter jumped to the top of the Kentucky Derby standings with an easy-as-you-please, 2 3/4-lengths victory in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.

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The Not This Time colt, owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds, took the lead through the first turn of the 1 1/8-miles event and was allowed to set his own pace. He opened a big advantage in the long Fair Grounds stretch and coasted home first.

Smile Happy was second, Zendon third and Pappacap, the runner-up from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, faded to get home eighth.

Epicenter, trained by Steve Asmussen, finished in a respectable 1:49.03 for jockey Joel Rosario to score his third win from five starts. He was second in his previous race, the local Grade III Lecomte Stakes, after facing more pace pressure.

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"That was really nice," Rosario said. "He looked like he was enjoying what he was doing and put in a really nice race today. We'll see going forward how far he can go."

"That's the plan," owner Ron Winchell said about the chances Epicenter will stick around New Orleans for the $1 million Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 26.

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Corey Lanerie, who rode Smile Happy, said he wasn't able to make his move when he wanted, adding, "If I had gotten out when I wanted to, I would have liked to see the outcome."

Saturday's $100,000 Miracle Wood Stakes for 3-year-olds at Laurel Park had only one Triple Crown nominee in the field of six and that one, Conclusive, went off as an odds-on favorite and finished last, beaten 14 1/2 lengths.

So the race might not be a key one for the Kentucky Derby or even the Preakness. For the record, Local Motive stalked, pounced and won off by 2 lengths over Majestic Frontier. The Divining Rod gelding ran 1 mile on a fast rack in 1:39.14.

Next week's schedule has the $1 million Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park, a 1 1/16-mile heat that affords the winner 50 Derby points.

While the Risen Star was the big Derby news of the weekend, the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" rolled on through its third session with Combustion winning the Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse on Sunday to vault to the top spot on that leaderboard.

The Godolphin homebred colt by Discreet Cat got the lead in the lane and was all out to hang on, winning by a neck over Geraldo Barows.

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Although Combustion now stands atop the leaderboard with 38 points, he is not nominated to the Triple Crown and, unless supplemented to those races, would not be eligible for the bid accorded to the winner of the series.

The nominated horse with the most points is Geraldo Barows. The 10 points he earned for the Hyacinth second, along with 2 from a third-place finish in the first leg of the "Road" put him 2 ahead of Consigliere, winner of Leg 2.

The series concludes with the Fukuryu Stakes March 26 at Nakayama Racecourse. That event offers 40 points to the winner, so the outcome remains in doubt.

The Path to the Oaks

It's little wonder Turnerloose went off a 17-1 long shot in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds.

The Nyquist filly hadn't raced since finishing last in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in November at Del Mar. All four of her starts in 2021 came on the grass. And she failed to hold the lead in deep stretch the only time she was asked to go past 1 mile.

So trainer Brad Cox and trainer Florent Geroux called an audible, letting Turnerloose ramble along on the dirt, a bit off the pace, while saving ground.

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She dropped to the rail in the stretch and had all she needed to get home first by 1/2 length over Goddess of Fire. Awake at Midnyte was third and the favorite, Hidden Connection, coughed up the lead to finish fourth as Turnerloose ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.22.

"To be honest, I didn't know if she could handle the dirt," Cox said of Turnerloose. "She worked well enough last fall. I gave her a little bit of a break. She worked well enough here at Fair Grounds. She tries hard. Always tries hard. We saw a better version of her today than we did in California [at the Breeders' Cup]."

Cox said either the $400,000 Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks on March 26 or the $600,000 Grade I Ashland at Keeneland on April 8 would be a "logical spot" toward the Kentucky Oaks.

Saturday at Laurel Park, odds-on favorite Luna Belle dropped back to last of eight in the $100,000 Wide Country Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, came six-wide around the field and closed with a rush to win by 3 length. She Is Wisky was second, 5 1/2 lengths in front of Sandy's Garden.

Luna Belle, a daughter of Great Notion, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.71 with Denis Araujo in the irons. It was her third straight win, all at Laurel.

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Elsewhere:

Oaklawn Park

Happy Soul got by inside the early leaders on the turn in Saturday's $150,000 Dixie Belle for 3-year-old fillies, quickly seized the advantage and went on to win by 3 lengths as the even-money favorite. Verylittlecents was second, 2 1/2 lengths in front of Hypersport.

Happy Soul, a Runhappy filly trained by Wesley Ward, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.44 with John Velazquez adding a few frequent flyer miles to take the ride.

Happy Soul finished second in her first race during the 2021 spring meeting at Keeneland, then won two straight at Belmont Park. The Dixie Belle was her first race since last June.

Fair Grounds

On a day when upsets were common, Olympiad bucked the trend, stalking the pace in the $250,000 Grade III Mineshaft Stakes, then surging through the final furlong to win by 2 1/4 lengths as the even-money favorite.

Silver Prospector showed the way and held second, 1 length in front of Miles D. Olympiad, a 4-year-old Speightstown colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in course-record time of 1:42.01 with Junior Alvarado riding for trainer Bill Mott.

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Olympiad won for the fourth time in seven starts and was fourth in the Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct two starts back.

Cavalry Charge finished ninth in his last start against many of the same rivals he faced in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Fair Grounds Stakes, prompting the punters to let him go at odds of 35-1. That was then, this was now.

The 5-year-old Honor Code gelding worked to get the lead, opened up in the lane and held on to win by a head over Adhamo. Halo Again was another head back in third. Cavalry Charge, with Brian Hernandez Jr. in the irons, completed 1 1/8 miles on firm turf in 1:53.06.

She Can't Sing came from well off the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Albert M. Stall Memorial for fillies and mares and was up in the final strides to win by a neck over the favorite, Pass the Plate. Abscond was another neck back in third.

She Can't Sing, a 5-year-old Bernardini mare, went to the post at odds of 24-1 after going winless in her three previous starts. She finished 1 1/16 miles on the grass in 1:46.22 with Jareth Loveberry riding for trainer Chris Block, who is developing a reputation for springing stakes upsets in the Big Easy.

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The first stakes event of the day set the tone as Pyron rallied from last of seven to win the $100,000 Colonel Power Stakes by 1/2 length at odds of 20-1.

The odds-on favorite, Just Might, seemed to have the sprint in the bag until jockey Declan Carroll produced Pyron outside rivals and prevailed. Gray Attempt was third.

Pyron, a 6-year-old son of Candy Ride, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf in 1:04.60. He had finished third behind Just Might in each of his two previous starts.

Tampa Bay Downs

Payntdembluesaway pressed the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares, worked her way to the front and drew off to score by 3 1/4 lengths. Poseidon's Passion passed pacesetter Senora Roma in the closing strides to finish second.

Payntdembluesaway, a 6-year-old Paynter mare, got 5 furlongs on firm turf in 56.73 with Pablo Morales in the irons. She now has nine wins from 15 starts.

Chess Master didn't need any complicated gambit to win Saturday's $100,000 Turf Dash. Go right to the lead and stay there was all the plan the 6-year-old Overdriven gelding and jockey Jose Castanon needed.

At the end, the margin was 2 1/2 lengths with Xy Speed second and The Connector another 1 1/2 lengths back in third. Chess Master reported in 55.56 seconds. The Florida-bred had three victories at Canterbury Park in Minnesota in mid-2021 and now is 2-for-3 since relocating to the Sunshine State.

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Santa Anita

Sumter dictated the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds on the turf course, got clear at the top of the stretch and held off a late bid by Handy Dandy to win by 3/4 length. Crosby Beach was third.

Sumter, a War Front colt from Richard Mandella's barn, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:34.77 for jockey Flavien Prat. The colt took three tries to get his first win and now has two consecutive victories.

"He's always shown a lot of talent and I thought he might do well on the dirt, but he surely didn't," Mandella said. "Today, he was on the lead, but he was pretty relaxed doing it and that's always the key."

Laurel Park

Glass Ceiling stalked the pace laid down by Jakarta in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Barbara Fritchie Stakes for fillies and mares, got to terms with that one at mid-stretch and won a duel to the wire by 1/2 length.

It was just 1/2 length more to Fille d'Esprit in third. Glass Ceiling, a 5-year-old mare by Constitution, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.82 under Dylan Davis. Claimed for $40,000 last May at Belmont Park, she now has four win from her last five starts and earned $150,00 for Saturday's win alone.

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"The distance was the main thing why we came here. I was looking for a graded stake while she was running good and this was the obvious race," winning trainer Charlton Baker said. "It was close. She's a fighter so I was confident."

Cordmaker chased down pacesetting long shot War Tocsin in the stretch drive in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III General George and won by 3/4 length over that rival. Sir Alfred James was another 3 1/2 lengths back in third.

Cordmaker, a 7-year-old Curlin gelding, ran 7 furlongs in 1:23.58 with Victor Carrasco up. It was his fourth straight win and fifth from the last six starts, but made official only after stewards dismissed an objection by War Tocsin's rider.

"When I came back and they showed the replay, I said, 'There's not going to be a change,' because I was pretty much in front of him," Carrasco said. "The jockey on [War Tocsin], he never steadied or stopped riding or anything. He just kept running with me, and then he decided to duck in."

Kiss the Girl outfinished Artful Splatter to win Saturday's $100,000 Into Mischief Stakes for fillies and mares by 1 1/4 lengths with the odds-on favorite, Miss Leslie, another 4 lengths back in third.

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Kiss the Girl, a 5-year-old mare by Into Mischief, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.60 with Carrasco in the irons.

Galerio moved to the lead in the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 John B. Campbell Stakes, and then had to fend off a late bid by Forewarned to complete the deal by a nose. Gentleman Joe was third with the favorite, Workin On a Dream, beating only one rival.

Galerio, a 6-year-old Jump Start gelding, was clocked in 1:43.67 for 1 1/16 miles on the main track.

Gulfstream Park

Miles Ahead launched a determined rally through the stretch in Saturday's $150,000 Gulfstream Park Sprint and was up just in time to catch the favorite, Drain the Clock, and win by a neck. Diamond Oops was third, 4 1/4 lengths farther back.

Miles Ahead, a 5-year-old gelding by Competitive Edge, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.88 with Paco Lopez at the controls. It was his third straight win, dating back to the Claiming Crown Rapid Transit in December but he also won the Grade III Smile Sprint Invitational last July.

Winning trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said Miles Ahead has "just gotten better and better. Each race, he just seems to go forward. I felt real confident going into this race that it was going to take an exceptional effort by somebody to beat him."

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Please added, "He's found his niche and we're taking advantage of it. Who knows what the future holds? But it makes you think about a lot of things."

Turfway Park

Beatbox was off awkwardly in Saturday's $100,000 Dust Commander Stakes, got going outside rivals around the stretch turn and rolled home first by 2 3/4 lengths. Mr Dumas ran evenly to be second and Spectacular Gem rallied from last of seven to finish third.

Beatbox, a 4-year-old Pioneerof the Nile colt, finished 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:42.82 with Rafael Bejarano in the irons.

Sam Houston Race Park

Chief Brady got through to the lead on the turn and went on to win Saturday's $75,000 Jim's Orbit Stakes for Texas-bred 3-year-old colts and geldings by 3 lengths over Pinky Ring Bling. The Bradester gelding ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.30 with Jansen Melancon in the irons.

Texas Thunder led throughout the $75,000 Two Altazano Stakes for state-bred 3-year-old fillies and had just enough to preserve victory by a head-bob nose over Eagle Express. Texas Thunder, with Ernesto Valdez-Jiminez in the irons, reported in 1:13.04.

Singapore Flash had to fight off two challengers before securing victory in Saturday's $75,000 Houston Turf Stakes for state-breds by a neck over Sunlit Song. By Shanghai Bobby, the 6-year-old gelding ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:44.22 for jockey Lane Luzzi.

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Mr Money Bags chased the early speed in the $75,000 H-Town Stakes for Texas-breds, took the lead three-wide around the turn and won off by 2 3/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. The 6-year-old Silver City gelding ran 7 furlongs on the fast main track in 1:24.40 with Valdez-Jiminez up.

No Mas Tequila drew off in the stretch to upset the $75,000 Miss Bluebonnet Turf Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares, winning by 6 1/4 lengths over Tahitian Breeze. The 5-year-old Northern Afleet mare ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:38.14 with Leandro Golcalves in the kip.

Aqueduct

Wudda You Think Now, the odds-on favorite, turned in virtually a gate-to-wire score in Saturday's $100,000 Hollie Hughes Stakes for New York-breds.

The 5-year-old Fast Anna gelding quickly disposed of his only early challenger and ran on to win by 4 1/2 lengths, finishing 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.17 with Trevor McCarthy in the irons. My Boy Tate and Jemography filled out the trifecta.

Golden Gate Fields

Bettor Trip Nick led all the way to a 3/4-length score in Saturday's $75,000 El Dorado Shooter Stakes for California-breds. Riding With Dyno was best of the rest with Psycho Dar third. Bettor Trip Nick, a 5-year-old Boat Trip gelding, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.46 with Brayan Pena up.

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Around the world, around the clock:

Dubai

Shahama hasn't found any meaningful opposition in four starts in Dubai this season so the stories circulating about the half-sister to Lookin at Lucky now center on the UAE Derby and even the Kentucky Oaks.

The Munnings filly maintained her unbeaten record with a 2-lengths victory Friday evening in the UAE Oaks, overcoming a slow start that jockey Adrie de Vries blamed on her gawking at the infield video board and music from the grandstand.

She has had problems of one kind or another in each of her starts but prevailed through them all and has yet to be tested seriously.

"She's a jockey's dream," de Vries said. "She gets you out of trouble from any position. She did that easily enough, pricking her ears. I gave her a slap when she started jumping shadows."

Winning trainer Fawzi Nass was not available to discuss plans, but de Vries, with a smile, told Dubai Racing Channel commentators, "I've heard some rumors."

Godolphin, trainer Charlie Appleby and jockey William Buick combined efforts to win three races on the six-race card and came up just short in a fourth. The winners came at 1,000, 1,600 and 2,810 meters and hold much promise for the rest of the Dubai season and back home in England.

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Lazuli, a 5-year-old Dubawi gelding, took out the Blue Point Sprint, working to the lead from a stands-side start and drawing off to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Acklam Express.

Buick said he can see no issue with pushing the gelding back to 6 furlongs, which could make him a candidate for the $1.5 million Grade I Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night.

Appleby, however, indicated a plane trip back to Newmarket and a shot at the Group 1 King's Stand at Royal Ascot in June is a more likely course.

The local program will be better served by Manobo, a 4-year-old Sea the Stars gelding who won the Group 3 Nad Al Sheba Trophy and remains undefeated after five starts.

He could be a candidate for the $1 million Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup at 3,200 meters on World Cup night or the $6 million Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic at 2,400 meters.

The issue for Appleby -- and a good problem it is -- is that he also has Yibir, winner of the 2021 Breeders' Cup Turf, waiting to run in the Sheema Classic if he rounds back into racing form in time. Wherever he winds up, Appleby said, Manobo "is a class horse at anything from a mile and a half to 2 miles."

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Appleby and Buick landed the evening's finale, a one-mile handicap on the grass, with Valiant Prince and just missed a quartet of victories when Wild Place, another Godolphin runner but trained by Saeed bin Suroor, edged Appleby's Silent Speech in the Al Waasi Stakes for 3-year-olds.

Japan

If it's Tokyo Racecourse, it must be Café Pharoah. The 5-year-old son of American Pharoah ran his record to 4-for-4 over the Tokyo dirt course with a late-running victory in Sunday's Grade 1 February Stakes, earning a "Win and You're In" bid to the Breeders' Cup Classic in the process.

With Yuichi Fukunaga up, Café Pharoah raced comfortably behind the early speed in the 1,600-meters race, contested over a muddy track. He came wide around rivals to take the lead inside the 200-meters mark and won off by 2 1/2 lengths.

T M South Dan made the early pace and finished second with the popular white filly Sodashi turning in a good effort to finish third.

The winning connections did not address the chances of pursuing a Breeders' Cup trip and Café Pharoah has struggled in the past when asked to go the 1 1/4 miles of the Classic. All of his best efforts, in fact, have come at Tokyo Racecourse.

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Fukunaga said he and the trainer "went over the tactics before the race and everything went as planned. Café Pharoah's start wasn't that sharp but he recovered well and we were able to sit in good position, in third. ... After that, I just tried to keep him focused, especially after taking over the lead in the final stages."

Several of Japan's top dirt runners, including Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Marche Lorraine, were absent in preparation for races in Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

Hong Kong

A month ago, Waikuku put paid to Golden Sixty's 16-race winning streak in the Grade 1 Stewards' Cup. The two went separate ways in Sunday's dual Group 1 events at Sha Tin Racecourse. Both were favorites. Both were defeated.

Persistent rains that softened the turf may have been a factor and both horses had significant traffic problems. But the upsets were a further disappointment as a gloomy, rainy day played out before an empty grandstand thanks to tightened pandemic measures.

As Golden Sixty struggled in the Group 1 City Hong Kong Gold Cup, eventual winner Russian Emperor got all the breaks. The two raced at the back of the field down the backstretch in the 2,000-meters test.

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But when a horse in distress muddied the passage, Russian Emperor got through on the rail and Golden Sixty was pushed out on the course.

Russian Emperor, a Galileo gelding, then worked to the front and opened up in the closing 200 meters, winning by 4 1/4 lengths. Golden Sixty chased valiantly but couldn't make up the difference, finishing third.

Douglas Whyte, Hong Kong's all-time jockey leader, conditions both Russian Emperor and Savvy Nine. Whyte gave the weather a nod in the outcome of the Gold Cup, but gave most credit to the winner.

"I've ridden here for 22-23 years as a jockey and when this light rain is about it's when you notice the true difference in the track," Whyte said. "When there's that heavy rain, it runs right through the track and drains. This light rain makes a difference and Russian Emperor was there to lap it up."

The Gold Cup also saw Sky Darci, the reigning BMW Hong Kong Derby winner, pulled up on the backstretch and diagnosed with an injury to his left hind fetlock. His prognosis was not immediately announced.

In the other Group 1, the Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup, Waikuku also was victimized by traffic. At mid-stretch, jockey Zac Purton found himself on the rail behind rivals and pinned by another to his outside.

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He could only wait as Wellington, with a clear run, got to the front and kept going. Ka Ying Star was up for second as Waikuku settled for third.

Wellington, a 7-year-old Cityscape gelding, picked up his second group 1 victory, following the Chairman's Sprint Prize (G1) at the end of last season. Trainer Richard Gibson said the horse will stick around Hong Kong to defend that title.

Australia

Home Affairs got away cleanly in Saturday's Group 1 Black Caviar Lightning Stakes at Flemington and the hot favorite, Nature Strip, did not. At 1,000 meters, that's enough to dictate the outcome and so it was as Nature Strip was not quite able to close the gap, losing by a nose on a head bob. Eduardo was third.

Home Affairs, a 3-year-old colt by I Am Invincible, made it three wins from his last four starts. The lone loss was a ninth-place finish in the Everest Stakes last spring. Nature Strip won that race and his only previous loss in the past 15 months came at the hands of Eduardo.

Winning rider James McDonald said, per Racenet, the way the race unfolded, Home Affairs was "just left there" on the lead "like a sitting duck. For him to show that much fighting quality and determination and speed is just unbelievable.

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"So Nature Strip is the world's best sprinter at this stage and this fella is banging down the door," McDonald said.

Nature Strip's pilot, Jamie Kah, said, "He got wiped out at the start and wasn't entitled to run like that. It was a good run."

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