They're 3 years old Sunday, ready to launch Kentucky Derby bids

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Colonel Liam, shown after winning the 2021 Fort Lauderdale Stakes at Gulfstream Park, returns to try for a repeat win Saturday. Photo by Lauren King, courtesy of Gulfstream Park
Colonel Liam, shown after winning the 2021 Fort Lauderdale Stakes at Gulfstream Park, returns to try for a repeat win Saturday. Photo by Lauren King, courtesy of Gulfstream Park

Dec. 30 (UPI) -- Eight horses celebrate their third birthday Sunday by lining up for the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park -- the holiday weekend's way station on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby."

Jan. 1, after all, is the official birthday of all Northern Hemisphere Thoroughbreds, and any foal of 2020 thus becomes eligible for the 2023 Classics. It's never too early to make a good impression.


Gulfstream Park also has some of those aspirational youngsters, as well as preps for the Pegasus World Cup weekend four weeks down the calendar. Aqueduct and Fair Grounds also are in on the action as we usher out the old year and welcome the new.

On the international front, Japan has some prospective stars for the aforementioned 2023 as Dura Erede won a tight battle to the finish in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, a race that has produced more than its share of subsequent Classics winners.


Wishing everyone all the best as we turn the final page of the calendar, we go directly to:


Sunday's $250,000 Smarty Jones for newly turned 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park, a "Road to the Kentucky Derby" race with 10 points to the winner, drew a field of eight.

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Most enter two-by-two: Two for trainer Kenny McPeek, two for Steve Asmussen and two for Brad Cox. D. Wayne Lukas and John Haran saddle the solo performers.

None has yet demonstrated Derby form.

Asmussen fields How Did He Do That, who has two wins, including the Zia Park Juvenile in New Mexico, from six starts, and Communication Memo, finally a winner in his fourth start two weeks ago at Oaklawn.

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Cox enters Victory Formation, 2-for-2 with sprint wins at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, and Angel of Empire, who has two wins at Horseshoe Indianapolis and a sixth-place finish on the Kentucky Downs turf.

McPeek has Denington, who needs to right the ship after recent disappointments, and Ten Days Later, winner of one of five starts.

Lukas will look for a major turnaround by Western Ghent and Haran sends C.J.'s Storm back out after a shellacking over the Oaklawn course Dec. 9.


A dozen birthday boys will try 1 mile in Sunday's $150,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Most are still seeking their level, but Fliparino enters off a third-place finish in the Grade III Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs, and Mr Bob most recently was second in the Ed Brown Stakes on the same course. Watch and learn.

Saturday's $150,000 Renaissance Stakes runs at 6 furlongs at Oaklawn Park. Two Eagles River, who lost a narrow decision to Victory Formation in his last, and Count de Monet are the morning-line picks.

Count de Monet has three wins and counting, two of them at Horseshoe Indiana and the latest over the Oaklawn strip.

Juvenile Fillies

Defining Purpose is the 7-5 morning-line pick in a field of nine entered for Saturday's $150,000 Year's End Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The Cross Traffic filly enters the 1-mile event off a fifth-place finish in the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs.

A dozen fillies are lining up for Saturday's $125,000 Gowell Stakes at 6 furlongs on the Turfway Park all-weather course. It should be a you-pick-'em cavalry charge but the oddsmaker is looking at Whatchamacall, Sassy and Bold, and Secret Statement.


Sunday's $100,000 Cash Run Stakes at Gulfstream Park has nine newly turned 3-year-old fillies. Pure Pauline come from a fourth-place finish in the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs.

Lynx won two legs of the Florida Sire Series and finished second in the third. Infinite Diamond, Alma Rosa and Arella Star all flopped in earlier Grade 1 experiments but get points for their connections' continued expectations.

Classic / Dirt Mile

Eight turned out for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Harlan's Holiday Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and it's a mark of the competitive nature of the field that O'Connor, making his second U.S. start after arriving from his native Chile, is the morning-line pick.

The 5-year-old is a Group 1 winner in South America and has won 10 of 19 starts. The win total includes his first U.S. effort for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. on Oct. 16.

Others to consider include Louisiana Derby third Pioneer of Medina, Kentucky Derby fourth Simplification, last year's Harlan's Holiday runner-up South Bend and Belmont Stakes third Skippylongstocking.

Saturday's $150,000 Queen's County Stakes at Aqueduct attracted 11 with Law Professor as the 5-2 favorite on the morning line. The 4-year-old Constitution gelding finished second in the Grade I Woodward in October, then was fifth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland.



Maryquitecontrary is 4-for-5 in her short career, all sprinting at Gulfstream Park, and puts that record up against older rivals in Saturday's $125,000 Rampart Stakes, while adding a furlong to her previous-longest 7 furlongs.

Her numbers stack up, and while Colorful Mischief is the morning-line favorite, she is trending in the wrong direction after two straight sub-par runs in Kentucky.

Battle Bling didn't fire in her last start, the Grade III Go For Wand Stakes on Dec. 3, but before that, the Vancouver mare had won three straight races, elevating her to the top of the list for Sunday's $150,000 Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct. Five are entered for the 1 1/8 miles.

Turf / Turf Mile

Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Fort Lauderdale Stakes at Gulfstream Park is a prep for the Grade I Pegasus World Turf Invitational and, lo and behold, the reigning champion in that event,

Colonel Liam, is back for another go. The 5-year-old son of Liam's Map is 3-for-3 over the Gulfstream turf, counting a DQ boost to victory in his career debut.

The downside is he has only one start since last year's Pegasaus -- that a ninth-place showing in the Group 1 Dubai Turf last March. Judging by the work tab, trainer Todd Pletcher has him ready to fire and, if he does, he will take some beating.


Saturday's $100,000 Woodchopper Stakes, limited to eight starters by the condition of the Fair Grounds turf course, is a wide-open affair with Ready to Purrform, Open Road, Straight Answer and Un Ojo all worthy of a close look.

Filly & Mare Turf

Queen Goddess and England's Rose are the morning-line picks in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Robert J. Frankel Stakes at Santa Anita.

Queen Goddess returns from a seven-months break after finishing second in the Grade II Santa Barbara. England's Rose was second in the Grade I Matriarch last time out but hasn't won in more than a year.

Saturday's $125,000 Grade III Suwanee River Stakes at Gulfstream Park has a quality field of 10 with a distinctively international flavor. Scotish Star, Bay Storm and Stolen Holiday all have solid credentials while making their first snowbird appearance.

Free Like a Girl will be the morning-line favorite in Saturday's $100,000 Pago Hop Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Fair Grounds -- if she draws in.

The race is restricted to eight starters as the CDI-owned track struggles to reclaim its turf course and Free Like a Girl has been relegated to the also-eligible list. If she doesn't make the field, look to A Mo Reay and Illinois-bred Trail Ridge Road.


Turf Sprint

Eleven are set to open Saturday's Santa Anita program charging down the hillside turf course in the $250,000 Grade II Joe Hernandez Stakes.

It's a good mix of speedsters and closers but if Super Ocho breaks well from the No. 3 gate, the Chilean-bred could hang on. He's back on the grass, where his record is better than on dirt, after leading into the stretch in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Keeneland before finishing sixth.

Whatmakessammyrun has won over this unique course and should be running late. It's a good, competitive race.


Twelve are set to go in Saturday's $125,000 Grade III Mr. Prospector Stakes at Gulfstream Park, many looking to climb up a rung on the class ladder.

It's a wide-open affair with an interesting possibility in Pappacap. Second in the 2021 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he finished fourth in this year's Florida Derby and his record would look a lot better had he not been chasing the likes of Jack Christopher and Epicenter.

Sibelius is the morning-line favorite after a narrow loss in the Bet On Sunshine Stakes at Churchill Downs.

Friday's $135,000 Gravesend Stakes at Aqueduct has a field of 12 with Greeley and Ben and Three Two Zone as lukewarm favorites on the morning line.


Eight signed on for Sunday's $125,000 Holiday Cheer Stakes at 6 furlongs on the Turfway Park all-weather course. Visitant has been a tiger at the northern Kentucky oval, winning seven of nine starts there including the 2021 Kentucky Cup Classic and this year's Forego.

Distance doesn't seem to matter to the son of Ghostzapper, who celebrates his seventh birthday on race day. Outadore, a winner in his only previous appearance at the northern Kentucky oval, is back after a win at Keeneland.

Filly & Mare Sprint

Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Las Flores Stakes at Santa Anita couldn't be much more competitive with much of the field exiting similar events at Del Mar.

The morning-line favorite, Samurai Charm, returns from a successful sojurn in New Mexico where the First Samurai mare won both the Chaves County and the Zia Park Distaff for trainer Peter Miller.

Frank's Rockette will be a tough one to beat in Saturday's $125,000 Grade III Sugar Swirl Stakes at Gulfstream Park, provided she bounces back well from a drubbing in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint in her last start.

However, the 5-year-old was second in this race last year and is light on wins during the past two campaigns.


Around the world, around the clock


The Hopeful Stakes at Nakayama Racecourse has been churning out subsequent Classics winners since well before it was granted top-level status seven years ago. Dura Erede bids to add his name to the list after a determined victory in Wednesday's renewal of the race, the final Grade 1 on the JRA calendar.

The Duramente colt tracked just behind pacesetter Top Knife through most of the 2,000 meters of the Hopeful but appeared to tire as the field hit the stretch run, dropping back. He then showed maturity bred from a long summer break to stage a strong rally that got him home first by a nose.

It was his first JRA Grade 1 win, as it was for his trainer, Manabu Ikezoe, and jockey, German champ Bauyrzhan Murzabayev, who is riding in Japan on a short-term license.

"I couldn't tell if we won, it was so close," Murzabayev said. "But my colt broke well and it was the plan to chase the pace in second so everything went well. After two close seconds last weekend, I'm so happy that I came in first in the last Grade 1 race of the year."

Ikezoe added, "I think he's improving nicely."


Dura Erede is bred to follow in the footsteps of Classics winners. His sire, Duramente, won the Satsuki Sho or Japanese 2000 Guineas and the Tokyo Yushun, or Japanese Derby and his damsire, Orfevre, swept the 2011 Japanese Triple Crown and twice finished second in the Qatar Prix del l'Arc de Triomphe.

On Thursday, the action switched to the dirt and to Oi Racecourse, Tokyo's in-town track, for the Grade 1 Tokyo Daishoten. Ushba Tesoro rallied through the stretch to win the 2,000-meters event by a convincing 1 3/4 lengths after racing in mid-field to the final turn.

Japan has put new emphasis on dirt racing since achieving success on the surface in major international competition and the Daishoten prompted fan enthusiasm for a foreign campaign for the new hero.

"I thought it is worth trying running in this big race as he has been having good races on dirt," said trainer Noboru Takagi. "As for the plan for future, I will make decision after I see how he comes out of the race because we had a series of races already."

Japan Dirt Derby winner Notturno finished second in the Daishoten, followed by Meisho Hario and Sunrise Hope.


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