Classic Causeway wins Saturday's Tampa Bay Derby, jumping to the top of the Kentucky Derby contender leaderboard. SV Photography, courtesy of Tampa Bay Downs
March 14 (UPI) -- With only eight weeks to go to the Kentucky Derby, a few serious contenders are starting to show themselves, and this week's candidate is Saturday's Tampa Bay Derby winner Classic Causeway.
The colt's impressive victory was a highlight in weekend horse racing, and also boosted him to the top of the leaderboard for a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate May 7.
That was not, of course, the only weekend racing action.
The first- and second-place finishers from the 2021 Breeder's Cup Filly & Mare Sprint were back on the track and won. And trainer Chad Brown continued his turf-racing magic, saddling a pair of exacta finishes at Tampa Bay Downs.
On the international front, have a look at a massive upset in Australia and a couple promising 2-year-old fillies in Japan.
And in the "wudja believe?" department: Consecutive days gave us stakes winners named Rotknee and Kneesnhips? See Aqueduct and Fair Grounds, below.
First, the important stuff.
The Road to the Roses
And so the Kentucky Derby picture starts to take shape. Classic Causeway joined the ranks of serious contenders with a front-running and rather emphatic victory Saturday in the $400,000 Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.
Shrugging off a mild challenge from Shipsational, the Giant's Causeway colt opened up in the final furlong to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Long Shot Grantham edged Shipsational for second with two more long shots, Golden Glider and Trademark, fourth and fifth.
With Irad Ortiz Jr. capping a huge day on the Gulf Coast, Classic Causeway ran 1 1/16 miles on a track rated "good" in 1:44.90, making it 2-for-2 on the year after finishing third in the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland and second in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last year.
Both of this year's wins came at Tampa Bay Downs, so he does have to prove he can win elsewhere. And the time of the race and his provisional Beyer Speed figure of 84, while likely impacted by the ease of victory, were not spectacular. Trainer Brian Lynch said the numbers don't concern him considering the way his colt won.
"It's pretty exciting stuff," Lynch said. He's just come into his own right now and just to watch him, he seems like a happy horse that enjoys his job. He's very, very good right now."
The trainer said Classic Causeway possesses a quality that could prove crucial going forward toward the Kentucky Derby.
"He has always been a very good gate horse and he's a horse that actually loves the gate and is excited to walk into it," Lynch said. "And as soon as they pop, he's off. That early speed is a great asset to have because you're going to stay out of trouble when you can break fast and clear."
And Ortiz said it gets even better after that.
"He does it by himself, then he relaxes going into the first turn and on the backside," the jockey said. "He waits for you. He's a smart horse."
Classic Causeway earned 50 points on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" leaderboard -- more than enough to ensure a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate. Lynch said he will have one more start before then, likely in the Blue Grass at Keeneland.
The punters apparently weren't impressed as "All other 3-year-olds" closed as the 4-1 favorite in Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager Sunday night. Risen Star Stakes runner-up Smile Happy, San Felipe Stakes winner Forbidden Kingdom and Classic Causeway followed in that order.
There wasn't much else in the Derby division this weekend.
If Friday's $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby were to promote a contender, it likely would have been Santa Anita invader and odds-on favorite Finneus.
But locally stabled Chrome King blew up that narrative with a stretch run that got him by Finneus and on to a 1-length victory. Finneus did salvage second but the performance did not offer much promise for progress.
Chrome King, a Munnings gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.11 for jockey Enrique Garcia.
In the Derby news department, trainer D. Wayne Lukas confirmed Saturday that star filly Secret Oath will start in the $1.25 million Grade I Arkansas Derby April 2.
But don't get too excited about a potential shot at the Kentucky Derby, as the trainer and owners Robert and Stacy Mitchell said the Kentucky Oaks still isthe ultimate springtime goal.
"That's where I'm going," Lukas said of the Oaks. "We have no plan to run in the Derby now. That's not chiseled in stone, either, but that's the way the Mitchells feel. They don't want to run in a 20-horse field. They feel like the Oaks is every bit as prestigious."
The decision to run in the Arkansas Derby, he said, came down to confidence in the filly's talent, the comfort of home cooking and, of course, the $1.25 million.
"We consider all the things," he said. "First of all, you want to absolutely think that you are as good as any of the other 3-year-olds that might show up and you don't really know who is going to show up.
"And then, second, you consider that she's here at home. If you're going to step out of the box, that's probably a good spot to do it. She's been successful on this racetrack.
The third thing is, a million, two-hundred-fifty thousand is probably the most attractive purse she'll ever run for. I was thinking the other day that it will be hard to imagine she's going to run for a bigger one, except in the Breeders' Cup. So, we factored that in."
Regarding the Oaks versus Derby decision: Remember that Lukas saddled one of only three filly winners of the Kentucky Derby, Winning Colors in 1998.
In the schedule department, there are no "Road to the Kentucky Derby" this weekend anywhere in the world.
The main series resumes March 26 with the Group 2 UAE Derby in Dubai and the "Japan Road" concludes that same day with the Fukuryu Stakes at Nakayama Racecourse. The "European Road" series ends March 31 with the Cardinal Condition Stakes on the Chelmsford City all-weather course in England.
The Path to the Oaks
As noted in Friday's preview, weekend action was a little thin.
Unsolved Mystery showed the way in Friday's $75,000 Arizona Oaks at Turf Paradise, dueling first with the favorite, Madiha, then with the late bid of Chesterette before easing under the wire first by 1/2 length. Chesterette got second, 3/4 length ahead of Madiha.
Unsolved Mystery, a Goldencents filly, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.47 with Mario Gutierrez in the irons. She was coming off her maiden win Feb. 6 at Santa Anita.
In other action:
Tampa Bay Downs
Chad Brown continues to deliver amazing results on the turf, saddling 1-2 finishes in both Saturday features on the green course.
Dolce Zell, making her U.S. debut after only two starts last year in France, came with a late bid in the lane to capture Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Florida Oaks, winning by a head over a stubborn Spicer.
On Alert rallied from last of nine to finish third. Dolce Zell, a Zelzal filly out of the Dr Fong mare Dolce Attesa, completed 1 1/16 miles on good turf in 1:44.18 with Irad Ortiz Jr. up.
"I had a perfect trip, to be honest," Ortiz said. "I was in beautiful position going into the first turn. Up the backside I followed [Spicer], and by the far turn, it looked like I was in good position and ready to roll, but Chad told me that when she makes the lead early she can wait on horses.
"So I was ready for that. When she hit the lead, she kind of waited a little bit for the other horses, so I hit her one time and she responded very well. She looks like a nice filly. She was ready today and she did everything right."
The Oaks field wasn't the year's strongest, but Dolce Zell did defeat a few stakes winners, doubly impressive as she had not raced since winning a maiden event at Longchamp last Oct. 14 as a long shot.
Bleecker Street ran her record to 5-for-5 with a neat run from the back of the pack to take Saturday's $225,000 Grade II Hillsborough Stakes for fillies and mares by 3 3/4 lengths. Rocky Sky was second, 3/4 lengths to the good of Gladys.
Bleecker Street, a Quality Road filly, is another from the Brown barn of turf winners. Improving steadily through her first four engagements, she entered the Hillsborough off a Grade III Endeavour Stakes over the same course.
Hector Diaz, who piloted Bleeker Street over 1 1/16 miles of good turf in 1:48.21, said she is "the best filly I've ever ridden. She's really easy to ride. When you ask her to go, she accelerates. She has an amazing turn of foot. The course was softer than she likes, and that tells me how good she is."
In Saturday's $100,000 Michelob Challenger Stakes, Scalding raced well off the early speed, then hooked up as the filling in a three-horse sandwich through the final sixteenth before prevailing by a neck. Cody's Wish was second with Dynamic One coming alive late to take third.
Scalding, a 4-year-old Nyquist colt trained by Shug McGaughey, ran 1 1/16 miles on the good main track in 1:43.53 with Javier Castellano up. His fourth straight win came in his seventh career start and first try in a stakes race.
McGaughey acknowledged the jump in class was "a big job ... but we've always liked this horse. He has been training forwardly and from what we saw today, his future is definitely [bright]."
Heaven Street pressed the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Columbia Stakes for 3-year-olds, rallied through the stretch to gain a late lead and won by 1 length from Bens Malice.
Heaven Street, a Street Sense colt, ran 1 mile on good turf in 1:37.78 with Irad Ortiz Jr. up for trainer Christophe Clement.
Ce Ce may be the reigning U.S. filly/mare sprint champ but that didn't get in the way of her stretching out to win Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Azeri Stakes at 1 1/16 miles -- and over some heavyweight competition, at that.
The 6-year-old Elusive Quality mare rated kindly for jockey Victor Espinoza as 2020 Kentucky Oaks winner Shedaresthedevil made the early going. She moved up on the turn, put a head in front when straightened into the stretch and held off the late bid of Pauline's Pearl to win by 3/4 length.
Shedaresthedevil was third as Ce Ce was timed in 1:43.55 over a fast track.
Getting the distance wasn't all that big a surprise as Ce Ce, despite the sprint honors, has been competing at the outer limits of that designation, at 6 1/2 and 7 furlongs, with success. And she did win the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn in 2020, going 1 1/16 miles.
"Coming to the top of the stretch, it looked like she was going to go ahead and put a little daylight between herself and everybody else," winning trainer Michael McCarthy said.
"Coming to the sixteenth pole, I saw her ears go up and wasn't sure if she was getting tired or what. When those two other fillies came to her, she dug back in and showed what a champion she is today."
Obligatory rallied from last of six in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Hurricane Bertie Stakes for fillies and mares, seized the lead in the lane and drew off to win by 3 lengths over Bramble Berry. The favorite, Four Graces, ran evenly to finish third, another 2 3/4 lengths in arrears.
Obligatory, a 4-year-old Juddmonte homebred filly by Curlin, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the good main track in 1:17.92 with Tyler Gaffalione riding for trainer Bill Mott. It was her first start since a victory in the Grade III Chilukki Stakes at Churchill Downs in November.
Headline Hunter challenged pacesetting favorite Miss Auramet in the stretch drive in Saturday's $100,000 Captiva Island Stakes for fillies and mares, found that rival wanting and rolled home first by 2 1/4 lengths.
Miss Auramet held second, 1 length in front of Miss J McKay. The race came off the turf onto the new all-weather track and Headline Hunter, a 4-year-old Tapizar filly, lowered the 5-furlong course record on that surface to 57.51 seconds.
Edgeway, the odds-on favorite, was this weekend's recipient of the proverbial paid workout. The 5-year-old Competitive Edge mare wasted little time taking the lead in Sunday's $150,000 Grade III Las Flores Stakes for fillies and mares and kicked away to win by 7 lengths with only light urging by jockey John Velazquez.
Private Mission, Dynasty of Her Own and Aloha Kitten completed the order of finish as Edgeway got 6 furlongs of fast track in 1:10.22. She now has three of four and five of her last six for trainer John Sadler.
"The focus with her is the fall. We want to try to get her back to the Breeders' Cup," owner Kosta Hronis said. "So staying home, not doing a lot of traveling with her until we have to is how we'll approach it. We'll keep our options open and see how she comes out of the race and then make a plan for the next race."
Edgeway finished second, 2 1/2 lengths adrift of Ce Ce in the 2021 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Del Mar. This year's World Championships are at Keeneland.
Acclimate went out to a comfortable lead through the first mile of Saturday's $125,000 Grade III San Luis Rey Stakes over the firm turf, responded gamely when challenged through the final furlong by Dicey Mo Chara and held on to score by 1/2 length over that rival. It was another 3 1/2 lengths to Current in third.
Acclimate, an 8-year-old Acclimation gelding, finished 1 1/2 miles in 2:25.40 with Ricardo Gonzalez in the irons.
"He's just a cool horse," said Acclimate's trainer, Phil D'Amato. "Today, he made a pretty sensible pace, the other horse came to him and he fought him off, so the win was well-deserved. ... I would say the San Juan Capistrano (Grade III, 1 3/4 miles on turf June 19) is probably the most logical next step."
Acclimate finished fourth in last year's San Luis Rey, then went on to win the San Juan Capistrano.
Visitant looked every bit the winner on paper before Saturday's $100,000 Big Daddy Stakes and franked that form, in spades, on the track. With Gerardo Corrales in the irons, the 6-year-old son of Ghostzapper surged to the lead heading into the stretch and left six rivals watching his heels en route to a 5 1/4-length victory.
Here Mi Song was second, 1/2 length in front of Johnny Unleashed. Visitant, the prohibitive favorite, finished 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in a snappy 1:08.33.
Tiger Dad came from off the pace in Friday's $100,000 Phoenix Gold Cup, got to the front at the sixteenth pole and survived a late bid by Bedrock to win by 1/2 length. Darnquick also came from well back to take third.
Tiger Dad, a 6-year-old Smiling Tiger gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.64 with Karlo Lopez up.
Mucho Del Oro got the lion's share of the gold after winning Friday's $100,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile Handicap. The 4-year-old Mucho Macho Man gelding led early, and then was involved in a mad scramble through the last few furlongs, surrendering the lead and then winning a photo by a nose over My Indy. Majestic Eagle was flying late to take third.
Mucho Del Oro, with Juan Hernandez in the kip, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.08.
Rotknee was off alertly in Sunday's $100,000 Damon Runyon Stakes for New York-bred 3-year-olds, showed the way and won by 2 3/4 lengths over Agility. G Munning was third, nosing out the odds-on favorite, Best Idea.
Rotknee, a Runhappy colt trained by Mike Maker, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:27.06 with Manny Franco riding. It was his third straight win, a streak that dates back to last August at the Spa.
Owner/breeder William Butler said Rotknee was his collegiate nickname, but that begs the as yet unanswered question ... huh?
Saturday's racing, including the Correction Stakes for fillies and mares, was canceled because of the winter storm that swept over the Northeast.
If Rotknee at the Big A was unusual, how about Kneesnhips rallying from last of nine to win Saturday's $75,000 Allen Black Cat LaCombe Memorial for 3-year-old fillies?
Equally odd, Jockey James Graham looked like he was taking the Connect filly into the grandstand for a hot dog as he went way out past the center of the track turning into the stretch.
But the move paid off and Kneesnhips was along to win by 1 lengths over California Angel with the favorite, New Year's Eve, third. The 1 mile on good turf took 1:41.64.
Around the world, around the clock:
Sunday's Grade 2 Hochi Hai Fillies Review at Hanshin Racecourse turned up a couple to watch -- Sublime Anthem and Namura Clair. Those two, both running from well off the pace in the 1,400-meter event, duked it out to the finish with Sublime Anthem gamely holding off the favorite to win by a head.
The victory was all the more impressive as Sublime Anthem had to fight her way through traffic to get to the front in the final 200 meters while Namura Clair had a clear shot, albeit outside rivals.
Sublime Anthem, a Lord Kanaloa filly, got her second straight win following three straight runner-up showings. Namura Clair, by Mikki Isle, posted two victories as a 2-year-old and finished 2021 with a fifth place in the Grade 1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies.
It was an ouchy weekend for the chalk players in Oz.
Roch 'N' Horse, at 100-1 odds, outfinished 60-1 chance The Astrologist at the end of 1,200 meters in Saturday's Group 1 Yulong Stud Newmarket Handicap at Flemington with 25-shot September Run third.
Roch 'N' Horse, a 5-year-old New Zealand-bred mare, raced along the far-side rail as the field split into two groups, slowly ground down the few in front of her and was full of run at the end.
The victory was a triumph for New Zealand breeding and the winner's sire, Per Incanto, as much as a poke in the face with the ubiquitous Australian stick for local punters. Roch 'N' Horse entered the fray with just four wins to her name.
The Newmarket result eclipsed what otherwise would have seemed a big upset in the following race, the Group TAB Australian Cup, in which Duais got home first, 2 lengths in front of the favorite, Think It Over, with Spanish Mission third.
Duais looked an unlikely winner as the field turned for home but came with a steady push under Joshua Parr to eventually score with authority. Think It Over ran behind the winner while Spanish Mission could only salvage third after leading through the last half of the 2,000 meters.
At Rosehill, Lighthouse rallied from a well-judged stalking trip to account for Saturday's Group 1 Coolmore Classic for fillies and mares with Mirra Vision a long shot second and the favorite, Espiona reporting eighth.
Lighthouse, a 5-year-old Mizzen Mast mare, finally got the job done after three straight second-place finishes, two of those also in Group 1 affairs.
The final Fast-Track Qualifiers of the season went to the post Saturday at Wolverhampton and Kempton Park.
Tinker Toy, a lightly raced 5-year-old, landed the MansionBet Lady Wulfruna Stakes by 3/4 length to nail down a spot in the All-Weather Championships Mile on Good Friday.
Trainer Roger Varian said the plan is for a minor group stakes campaign for the first foal out of Albany and Moyglare Stakes winner Cursory Glance, "but we might consider the mile race on Finals Day now that he is qualified, especially given he has already won over the course and distance."
The long series of Fast-Track Qualifiers reached its end as Earlofthecotswolds, a converted jumper, won the 2-miles Racing TV Conditions Stakes at Kempton Park, earning a spot in the Betway All-Weather Marathon Championship.
A six-time winner over jumps for Nigel Twiston-Davies, the 8-year-old made the frame in two Marathon Fast-Track Qualifiers, including on his Flat debut at Wolverhampton in January. In Saturday's race, he led through honest fractions and was never threatened, winning by 6 lengths.
"Earlofthecotswolds is a right horse on the Flat now," jockey Liam Keniry said. "You can go a really good gallop on him and he stays going. That is the good thing about him. Not every horse will take to the Flat like he has, but he loves the surface and will hopefully go up to Newcastle now for Finals Day with a good chance."