White Abarrio, shown after winning the Holy Bull Stakes, is the favorite for Saturday's Florida Derby. Photo by Lauren King, courtesy of Gulfstream Park
April 1 (UPI) -- Another big weekend of Kentucky Derby trials looms with the Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby and Jeff Ruby Steaks each offering guaranteed entry to the Churchill Downs starting gate for at least two horses.
Those races are surrounded by Kentucky Oaks preps and many more graded stakes at Oaklawn Park, Gulfstream Park and Turfway Park in Kentucky. Santa Anita and Aqueduct, which have their own Kentucky Derby semifinals next weekend, also chip in with stakes action Saturday.
On the international scene, Japan's reigning Horse of the Year, Efforia, returns for his 4-year-old debut Sunday in the Grade 1 Osaka Hai. And after two makeup Group 1 events on Monday, Australia has four more Saturday.
There's so much to cover that ace analyst Jude Feld, after handicapping 24 weekend races, commented, "Exhausting." The fruits of his labors and expertise are available at popejude.com.
Let's start with ...
The Road to the Roses
Two top 3-year-olds formerly trained by Bob Baffert are in action for new barns this weekend.
With Baffert banned from participation in the Kentucky Derby, both horses forfeited "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points earlier in the season and now will need to finish in first, second or, maybe, third Saturday to have a realistic chance to get into the Churchill Downs starting gate.
Also of note, with a good showing this weekend, a filly could advance to the Kentucky Derby for the first time since the current "points" qualifying system was put into place.
Summer is Tomorrow, runner-up in the Group 2 UAE Derby, has been supplemented to the Run for the Roses, where he could join the Japan-trained winner of the Dubai race, Crown Pride. The "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" ended Thursday without a contender.
Here's how the rosebuds bloom:
The $1 million Grade I Curlin Florida Derby
White Abarrio defeated Simplification by 4 1/2 lengths in the Grade III Holy Bull nearly two months ago. Then White Abarrio took a pass on the Grade II Fountain of Youth a month later and Simplification won that by 3 1/2 lengths.
On Saturday, the two meet again in the $1 million Grade I Curlin Florida Derby. White Abarrio, a gray Race Day colt trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., is the 5-2 morning-line favorite with Simplification, a son of Not This Time trained by Antonio Sano, as the 7-2 second choice.
Classic Causeway and Charge it look like the major rivals in the field of 11. Classic Causeway won the Grade III Sam F. Davis and the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby -- the latter just three weeks ago. Charge It remains undefeated after just two previous starts with the last coming by 8 1/2 lengths at the end of 1 mile.
The others look less likely unless Pappacap, runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, can reverse direction quickly after reporting eighth in the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds in his last start.
The $1.25 million Grade I Arkansas Derby
Could D. Wayne Lukas become the first trainer to saddle two filly winners of the Kentucky Derby? The dapper veteran won the 1998 edition with Winning Colors and now has Secret Oath teed up to follow in that one's hoofprints -- if the Arrogate filly can get ace the acid test Saturday at Oaklawn Park and if her owners so choose.
Secret Oath has won her last three starts, all at Oaklawn, including a 7 1/2-length romp in the Grade III Honeybee on Feb. 26. The Arkansas Derby will be her first race against male competition and her first as far as 1 1/8 miles.
She's the favorite on the morning line at 5-2. Her closest competitor in the oddsmaker's estimation is California shipper Doppelganger, second in the Grade II San Felipe in his last start and recently transferred from Baffert to his former assistant Tim Yakteen.
We the People, a Constitution colt making just his third start and first in a stakes event, is 7-2 on the line and Un Ojo, the 75-1 upset winner of the local Grade II Rebel on Feb. 26, was posted at 6-1. Also in the nine-horse field are Kavod, Chasing Time and Ben Diesel, who finished fourth, fifth and eighth in the Rebel, respectively.
Un Ojo's winning time in the Rebel was 1:45.69 and he was all out in the closing stages. Secret Oath ran the same distance on the same day in the Honeybee in 1:44.74 with no opposition through the final furlong.
Secret Oath already has earned her way into the Kentucky Oaks with the Honeybee win and Lukas said that race still is on the radar -- maybe.
"The Oaks is still very much right in the middle of our thinking, except the owners did mention the Derby two or three times since then," Lukas said. "I don't know where they're headed, but the five weeks [between races] is terrific."
The $600,000 Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks
As Turfway Park's renaissance continues under Churchill Downs ownership, its premier 3-year-old race is the only one in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series awarding the winner 100 points for an all-weather win.
This year, the favorites in a full field are the 1-2 finishers from the local Battaglia Memorial -- Tiz the Bomb and Stolen Base. That pair was separated by just a neck as both made their all-weather debuts March 5.
The "new shooter" is Blackadder, a Quality Road colt who also won his first all-weather start last time out in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields. He forfeited the 10 points he would have earned for the win because then-trainer Baffert, is banned from all things Derby. Blackadder since has been turned over to Tim Yakteen.
And by the way: It's the Jeff Ruby "Steaks" rather than the "Stakes" because sponsor Jeff Ruby is a chain of upscale steak houses favored by many top racing connections. This race has had more names than a Lady Gaga concert has costume changes -- among them the Spiral Stakes, Jim Beam Stakes and Galleryfurniture.com Stakes.
The "European Road to the Kentucky Derby wound to its conclusion Thursday at Chelmsford City outside London as Dark Moon Rising rallied down the stretch to win the Woodford Reserve Cardinal Condition Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths over Harrow. Find and Blue Tail were third and fourth.
While Dark Moon Rising, a Night of Thunder colt, moved to the top of the leaderboard with the victory, none of the horses that contested the seven races in the series is nominated to the U.S. Triple Crown.
A similar series in Japan also looks unlikely to produce a Derby runner as none of the top four points-getters in that is nominated to the Triple Crown. Churchill Downs does continue to list five who finished down the list as possible for the Derby but connections have not confirmed any interest.
Meanwhile, in Derby-related news:
The fifth and final pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, originally scheduled for this weekend, will be pushed back to restructure the betting field to include Summer Is Tomorrow and, should she quality, Secret Oath as separate interests.
The pool now will run from April 7 to 9. Inexplicably, it will close before the scheduled post time for the Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial.
The Path to the Oaks
With Secret Oath redirected to the Arkansas Derby, visitors from California and Kentucky assume the favorites' role in what looks to be a speed-heavy field for Saturday's $600,000 Grade III Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Eda, a Santa Anita-based Munnings filly still trained by Bob Baffert and thus not eligible for the Kentucky Oaks, is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line off four straight wins.
Those included the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos in December. Bubble Rock, based at Keeneland for trainer Brad Cox, is an interesting case as she makes her first start on dirt after racing on turf last year and the Turfway Park all-weather this season.
Magic Circle, who arrived earlier in the month from New York, and local denizen Yuugiri could force the pace. Handicappers will look without much success for a quality closer to pick up the pieces from the expected pace battle.
Down in Florida, Kathleen O., an undefeated Upstart filly, is the 4-5 pick on the morning line in a field of seven for the $250,000 Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks.
The Shug McGaughey trainee won the Grade II Davona Dale over the same track by 2 lengths in her most recent effort. Goddess of Fire, a Mineshaft filly handled by Todd Pletcher's operation, enters off a second-place finish in the Grade II Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds.
The $250,000 Bourbonette Oaks on the Turfway Park all-weather course has a full field and a mixed bag it is. Sandstone, a Street Sense filly trained by Kenny McPeek, is a rather tepid morning-line favorite.
She posted two impressive wins at Churchill Downs last fall including a 10 1/2-lengths score in the Rags to Riches Stakes. She then reported third as the odds-on favorite in the Grade II Golden Rod Nov. 27 and hasn't raced since.
Among the others in the Bourbonette, Mrs. Barbara won the Grade III Mazarine on the Woodbine all-weather track Nov. 28, then was a closing fourth in the Grade III Florida Oaks on the Tampa Bay Downs turf in her 3-year-old debut March 12.
There are lots of other options, among them recent maiden winners and some obviously looking for something new, surface-wise.
Elsewhere around the ovals:
The $100,000 Grade III Ghostzapper Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on the dirt features Fearless, never out of the exacta in seven Gulfstream starts, and Greatest Honour, winner of last year's Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth.
The latter was sidelined for a year after finishing third in the Florida Derby, returning to finish sixth in the Grade III Challenger at Tampa Bay Downs on March 12.
Abaan is the morning-line pick of seven in the $200,000 Grade II Pan American Stakes, a 1 1/2 miles test on the turf.
The 5-year-old Will Take Charge gelding won three straight races but tossed in a dull effort March 5 to end that string with a fourth-place finish in the Grade II Mac Diarmida. He again has to deal with Temple, who won the Diarmida, and with Gufo, a multiple Grade I winner looking to bounce back from a 10th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Turf.
Family Way heads a cast of seven in the $150,000 Grade III Orchid Stakes for fillies and mares, also 1 1/2 miles on the turf. The 5-year-old Uncle Mo mare exits a runner-up showing in the Grade III The Very One Stakes at 1 3/8 miles and again faces the third- and fourth-place finishers from that race, Harajuku and Beautiful Lover.
The winner of The Very One, Virginia Joy, takes a pass. Beautiful Lover, a 6-year-old Arch mare, won the Grade III La Prevoyante two starts back.
The $100,000 Grade III Appleton Stakes at 1 mile on the grass has a field of nine and no firm favorite. Phantom Currency rules at 3-1 on the line even though he hasn't run for more than 13 months, now is 6 and starts No. 7 while facing a short run to the turn.
The Saturday program also has the $100,000 Cutler Bay Stakes for 3-year-olds going 1 1/16 mile on the grass; the $100,000 Sanibel Island for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles on the grass; the $100,000 Sir Shackleton Stakes, 7 furlongs on the dirt; and the $100,000 Sand Springs for fillies and mares, 1 1/16 miles on the turf.
Saturday's $400,000 Grade III Oaklawn Mile features the favorite, Cezanne, stretching out to the distance for the first time and the second-favorite on the morning line, Fulsome, cutting back to a mile off a long layoff.
Cezanne, a 5-year-old son of Curlin, has been super when trainer Baffert has been able to keep him on the track. He raced only once in 2021 but made it count, winning the Grade III Kona Gold Stakes at Santa Anita April 19 by 9 3/4 lengths, then was third in the Grade III Palos Verdes upon return in January and won the Grade II San Carlos last month.
Fulsome, a Brad Cox-trained 4-year-old colt by Into Mischief, won last year's Oaklawn Stakes at 1 1/8 miles but hasn't raced since last Sept. 25 when he finished fourth in the Grade I Pennsylvania Derby at the same distance. Market Analysis and Runnin' Ray look like potential upsetters.
With Frank's Rockette and Joy's Rocket the morning-line favorites, do we think Saturday's $200,000, 6-furlongs Carousel Stakes for fillies and mares might be a speedy affair?
Actually, both have good speed but Joy's Rocket has been used more as a stalker in her recent outings and, from an outside gate, might be expected to employ those tactics again. Acting Out and Li'l Tootsie could factor into the outcome.
Sunday's $150,000, 1 1/2-miles Temperence Hill Stakes drew a field of six with Lone Rock and Strong Tide the morning-line favorites.
Lone Rock, a 7-year-old Majestic Warrior gelding, finished second in the 2021 Temperence Hill behind a loose-on-the-lead long shot. He won the Tinsel Stakes in December, but then reported sixth in the Grade III Razorback Handicap Feb. 12.
Strong Tide, a 5-year-old by English Channel, performs on all surfaces and won an Oaklawn allowance event in his last start.
Visitant, Cross Border and Beatbox loom large in a big field set for Saturday's $250,000 TwinSpires Kentucky Cup Classic, 1 1/8 miles on the all-weather course.
Visitant, the 2-1 antepost favorite, has won six of seven starts at Turfway, including last year's edition of this race.
His last three starts, however, have come sprinting. Eight-year-old Cross Border won the local Prairie Bayou stakes in December, and then finished fifth, beaten less than 2 lengths, in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf at Gulfstream Park in January.
Beatbox has three straight wins over the course after breaking his maiden on the Monmouth Park turf last season.
The Kentucky Cup Classic, formerly run in the fall, has an illustrious roster of winners from the days when it ran in the autumn, including Thunder Gulch, Captain Steve, Roses in May, Hard Spun and Silver Charm and Wild Rush, who dead heated for the victory in 1998. There are three Dubai World Cup winners on that list.
Breeze Rider, winner of the local Wintergreen Stakes, is the 2-1 morning-line pick among seven fillies and mares in Saturday's $200,000 Latonia Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the artificial surface.
She faces a couple potentially tough ones in Skygaze, who had a win over the course last year before also winning the Grade III Maple Leaf at Woodbine. The Mary Rose makes her synthetic debut but brings some nice speed figures from dirt races in Arkansas and Texas.
In Turfway's olden days, the Rushaway Stakes was for 3-year-olds with promise but not quite ready for the big time of the Spiral, Jim Beam or whatever the big race was called that year. Saturday's $200,000, 1 1/16 miles renewal fits that description although the ongoing potential of the full field might be questionable.
The morning-line favorites include Grael and Erase, third and fifth in the local Battaglia Memorial, and Tommy Bee, a fading second in the Black Gold at Fair Grounds in his last.
The first three finishers from the local Turfway Preview -- Nobals, Determined Kingdom and Amicable -- return for Saturday's $200,000 Animal Kingdom Stakes for 3-year-olds at 6 furlongs.
Determined Kingdom is a gelded son of Animal Kingdom, the Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup winner whose illustrious career included a victory in Turfway Park's Spiral Stakes.
The favorites in Saturday's race, though, are Fair Grounds imports Hoist the Gold and Higher Standard, both tackling all-weather for the first time.
Saturday's $150,000 Excelsior Stakes at 1 1/8 miles has a field of just five and Todd Pletcher trains the overwhelming favorites in First Constitution and Untreated.
Saturday's $100,000 Singletary Stakes for 3-year-olds is 1 mile on the turf. Five are engaged with Sumter and Balnikhov the morning-line favorites.
Around the world, around the clock:
Japan's reigning Horse of the Year, Efforia, makes his 4-year-old debut in Sunday's Grade 1 Osaka Hai at Hanshin Racecourse. The Epiphaneia colt won four of his five starts in 2020 including the Satsuki Sho or Japanese 2,000 Guineas, the Tenno Sho (Autumn) and the Arima Kinen, all Grade 1 affairs.
His only loss was a second behind Shahryar in the Grade 1 Tokyo Yushun or Japanese Derby behind only Shahryar, who went on to finish third in the Grade 1 Japan Cup and kicked off his 4-year-old season with a win last week in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic.
"Last time he did have a slight hoof issue," trainer Yuichi Shikato said of Efforia. "This isn't a problem now. He has been running with a good rhythm and all's well with him so far."
The field for the 2,000-metes Osaka Hai also includes last year's winner, Lei Papale, a 5-year-old Deep Impact mare who comes off a second in the Grade 2 Kinko Sho at Hanshin Racecourse. She has not won in five starts since the 2021 Osaka Hai, but did finish a respectable sixth in the Group 1 Hong Kong Cup in December.
The Kinko Sho winner, Jack d'Or, a 4-year-old Maurice colt, also lines up for Sunday's race, as does third-place finisher Akai Ito.
The Group 1 stakes delayed by last weekend's bad weather were run Monday at Newcastle with Duais running out an easy winner as favorite in the Kia Tancred Stakes and Fangirl and Hinged leading a 1-2 finish for trainer Chris Waller with the favorite, Gypsy Goddess third in the Vinery Stud Stakes.
Duais, a 5-year-old mare by Shamus Reward, made it two in a row after taking the Group 1 Australia Cup in her previous start. She raced last most of the way around, got going with about 400 meters to run and, despite taking the widest course of all, won going away.
Fangirl, a 3-year-old daughter of Sebring, rebounded from two straight losses. She and her stablemate were the only two still in contention in the final 100 meters with Fangirl on the outside edging in front through the final strides.
The action moves to Randwick on Saturday with four Group 1 races on tap -- The Ingliss Sires Stakes for 2-year-olds at 1,400 meters, with Fireburn the hot favorite after winning the Golden Slipper, the Bentley Australian Derby at 1 1/2 miles, with Hitotsu the antepost favorite, the Furphy T J Smith Stakes at 1,200 meters (Nature Strip) and The Star Doncaster Mile (Forbidden Love, I'm Thunderstruck).
Next month's FWD Champions Day, with three international Group 1 races, will be run without foreign competition this year. The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which has gone to extreme lengths to maintain its global presence during the pandemic, capitulated in the face of the current wave sweeping through the population.
Citing uncertainties about proposed mandatory testing and the difficulty of maintaining the "bubble" that worked in previous international events at Sha Tin Racecourse, the Club said:
"As it is always the club's overarching principle of protecting the safety of our employees and stakeholders, we conclude that hosting overseas participants would not be practicable. The three major Group 1 races will be restricted to Hong Kong-based horses only.
"At this stage we have to concentrate on one major issue and that is to continue racing, which is absolutely critical and, with all the sacrifices people have made, that has to remain our main focus."