Kentucky Derby trail moves front and center as Fair Grounds opens

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
The Bob Hope Stakes at 7 furlongs at Del Mar drew three from Bob Baffert's well-stocked stable of juveniles, including Cave Rock. Benoit Photo, courtesy of Santa Anita
The Bob Hope Stakes at 7 furlongs at Del Mar drew three from Bob Baffert's well-stocked stable of juveniles, including Cave Rock. Benoit Photo, courtesy of Santa Anita

Nov. 18 (UPI) -- Horse racing's focus shifts firmly from the Breeders' Cup to the Kentucky Derby with this weekend's opening of the Fair Grounds meet in New Orleans and the start of the Oaklawn Park season just around the corner.

We'll have previews of races from Bahrain to Japan and Hong Kong a bit later. But first, a little closer look at those early Kentucky Derby doings.


The Fair Grounds progression to the Run for the Roses has been productive recently.

The 2019 Kentucky Derby winner (by disqualification), Country House, 2021 Derby runner-up Mandaloun and this year's runner-up, Epicenter, all had stops in the Big Easy en route to Louisville, and it would not be surprising to see the Graded Stakes Committee move that Grade II designation up a notch soon.

The Fair Grounds season opens Friday. The Derby series starts with the $100,000 Gun Runner Stakes Dec. 26 at 1 1/16 miles and continues with the $200,000 Grade III Lecomte at the same distance Jan. 21 and the $400,000 Grade II Risen Star at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 19.


The $1 million Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 25, also at 1 1/8 miles, caps things off.

Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., have developed a lively back-and-forth movement of horses during overlapping schedules.

Country House, for example, finished third in the Arkansas Derby after running fourth in the Louisiana Derby. The meeting leading to the April 1 Arkansas Derby, now worth $1.25 million, kicks off Dec. 9.

Meanwhile, this weekend's schedule has a few 2-year-old events for 2-year-olds worth eyeballing, most notably Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Bob Hope Stakes at 7 furlongs at Del Mar.

The Bob Hope drew three from Bob Baffert's well-stocked stable of juveniles, notably Havnameltdown, an Uncaptured colt who has two wins and a second from three starts, with the second behind Cave Rock in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity.

Cave Rock, of course, went on to finish second to Forte in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Hard to Figure exits a win at Los Alamitos and Baffert's third, Newgate, has been hard to figure, finishing fourth in the Del Mar Futurity and fifth in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. The others have more to prove.


Aqueduct, Hawthorne Race Course, Charles Town, Gulfstream Park and Fair Grounds all host 2-year-old races for state-breds.

The soon-to-be-3 fillies also have engagements this weekend with some potential for the Kentucky Oaks series.

Saturday's $100,000 Dezi Arnaz Stakes for 2-year-old fillies at Del Mar drew seven with Justique, a Justify filly, showing the most promise after finishing third in the Grade II Chandelier at Santa Anita last month. Baffert has two of the seven but both must improve a bit to get home first here.

Fair Grounds, Gulfstream and Aqueduct also have the juvenile fillies off and racing.


Churchill Downs

Coach, She Can't Sing and Mariah's Princess are bunched at the top of the morning line in a field of seven set for Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Chilukki Stakes for 3-year-old fillies going 1 mile. They're all nice fillies and all have had some success. But all three still seek their first graded stakes win.


Saturday's $135,000 Gio Ponti Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on the turf has a big, interesting field. Dakota Gold finished fifth, beaten just more than 2 lengths, in that eventful 2021 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar and has raced just twice since, both times in state-bred company, finishing second and third.


A step up is not out of the question and could be enough here. Steady On and Marinara Sauced are both worth a long look.

Evvie Jets, winner of last month's Grade III Noble Damsel, returns in Sunday's $135,000 Forever Together Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. The Twirling Candy filly faces seven plus one "main track only" entry.

Among them is the Chad Brown-trained Fluffy Socks, seeking her first win in 11 months. There's no shortage of upset prospects.


Lucky Score and Secret Reserve, first and third in the Grade III Vigil Stakes Sept. 25, renew their rivalry in Sunday's $175,000 (Canadian) Grade II Kennedy Road Stakes at 6 furlongs on the all-weather course.

Lucky Score may have had just that in the Vigil as Secret Reserve endured a tortuous trip, being blocked and steadied at the 3/16ths pole. The 11-horse Kennedy Road field also includes graded stakes winners Secret Poet and Arzak and Rockcrest, who was a long shot second in the Vigil.

Around the world, around the clock


Sunday's Grade 1 Mile Championship at Hanshin Racecourse brings together a well-matched cast featuring some established stars, including the popular, all-white filly Sodashi, and a few promising 3-year-olds.


Sodashi won the Grade 1 Victoria Mile at Tokyo Racecourse May 15, her third Grade 1 win at the distance, and then was a decent fifth when asked to go 1 1/4 miles in the Sapporo Kinen three months later.

The 5-year-old bounced back from that to finish second to long shot Izu Jo no Kiseki in the Grade II Ireland Trophy Fuchu Himba Stakes on Oct. 15.

Danon Scorpion won the Grade 1 NHK Mile Cup at Tokyo Racecourse in May. The 3-year-old colt is by Lord Kanaloa out of the Sligo Bay mare Lexie Lou, the 2014 Woodbine Oaks and Queen's Plate winner, so much is hoped for.

Serifos, another 3-year-old, looks to back up his victory in the Grade 2 Fuji Stakes last month. Soul Rush, a progressive 4-year-old colt by Rulership, was second in the Fuji and returns.

Salios, a 5-year-old son of Heart's Cry, returned from a summer break to win the Grade 2 Mainichi Okan Oct. 9 at 1 mile. He, runner-up Justin Café and third-place getter Danon the Kid all return for this.

German-bred Schnell Meister won the 2021 Mile Cup and was second to star filly Songline in the 1,600-meter Grade 1 Yasuda Kinen on June 5.


Hong Kong

Golden Sixty makes his 7-year-old debut Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse as the star of three events that will tee up the local squad for the Dec. 11 Longines Hong Kong International Races.

The shining star of Hong Kong racing, trained by Francis Lui, faces a short field with only six rivals set to challenge in the Group 2 BOCHK Private Wealth Jockey Club Mile -- a race he has won twice, each time en route to a victory in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile.

Lui points to California Spangle, second to Golden Sixty in the Group 1 FWD Champions Mile in April, as the main threat.

"California Spangle is up-and-coming. Golden Sixty is a 7-year-old, so he can only keep his form, while California Spangle can improve and maybe one day he can beat my horse. But you never know which race," Lui said after watching his star gallop Tuesday morning.

The Group 2 BOCHK Private Banking Jockey Club Sprint at 1,200 meters draws contenders for the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint.

The 2,000-meter Group 2 BOCHK Jockey Club Cup is a prep for the Longines Hong Kong Cup at the same distance or for December's Longines Hong Kong Vase at 2,400 meters, which does not have a local preliminary.



A quality field, including four Godolphin runners from three different trainers, is set for Friday's Group 3 Bahrain International Trophy at Sakhir Racecourse.

Saeed bin Surror brings Dubai Future and Passion and Glory to the 2,000-meters fray, while Charlie Appleby sends Royal Fleet and Andre Fabre is represented by Magny Cours.

Godolphin has yet to win this race and the blue-clad squad doesn't lack for competition this time around.

Insinuendo, a 5-year-old by Gleneagles, was last seen finishing third in the Group 1 British Champions Fillies and Mares at Ascot. And the Aga Khan has a lightly raced homebred Dubai colt in Dilawar.

The desert proved attractive to some of the world's top riders, too, including Frankie Dettori, William Buick, Danny Tudhope and Olivier Peslier.

Shadwell's Alflaila, a promising 3-year-old Dark Angel colt, winner of three straight races in England, has been ruled out with a training injury to his left fore fetlock. Local hope Litigator also was a late withdrawal, leaving a field of 10.

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