Proxy gets a little playful while training for Saturday's $3 million Pegasus World Cup. Photo by Lauren King, courtesy of Gulfstream Park
Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Things are heating up in the racing world with the year's first American Grade I stakes on the weekend program in Florida, along with important Kentucky Derby preps in Arkansas and California.
It could be an important weekend, too, for U.S. horses targeting the rich events set for February in Saudi Arabia and March in Dubai.
And, speaking of the world front, Hong Kong heats up to the boiling stage as the three top horses on the grounds, two of them rated in the world's top 10, face off for the first time Sunday. In South Africa, it's Met weekend with a bunch of crafty old veterans and a few newcomers to spice things up.
Let's dive right in with those Derby preps ...
The Road to the Roses
Trainer Bob Baffert has beaten a path from California to Hot Springs, Ark., and returns for Saturday's $750,000 Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park with the even-money favorite, Arabian Knight.
The Uncle Mo colt has made only one previous start but that was good enough to raise eyebrows as John Velazquez brought him home first by 7 1/2 lengths in a Nov. 5 maiden affair at Keeneland. That was 7 furlongs and this is 1 1/16 miles, but Arabian Knight didn't look like he was losing any momentum in the debut.
The colt was sold to Zendan Racing Stables a year ago for $2.3 million, so momentum is expected.
The Southwest is no cakewalk, though. Jace's Road comes off a victory in the classy Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds and Corona Bolt captured the Sugar Bowl Stakes at the same track in his last.
Both come from the barn of red-hot trainer Brad Cox, who also fields Oaklawn allowance winner Hit Show. Red Route One has been competitive in graded stakes in Kentucky for trainer Steve Asmussen and could step up.
The race is a "Road to the Kentucky Derby" event with 20 points to the winner.
Baffert is back at it in Sunday's $200,000 Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita -- this time sending out four of the five starters.
Havnameltdown drew the rail and looks like a tough nut to crack with three wins and a second in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity to his credit.
The other three come to the San Vicente off maiden wins. The sole guest at the Baffert party is Man Child, last seen second in the Lost in the Fog Juvenile Stakes at Turf Paradise.
How Did He Do That returns to New Mexico for Sunday's $100,000 Riley Allison Derby at Sunland Park. The Good Magic colt, training at Oaklawn Park for the Steve Asmussen operation, visited the Land of Enchantment last November to win the Zia Park Juvenile but has finished out of the money in two starts in Arkansas since then.
Nonetheless, he's the favorite in this. One In Vermillion ships in from Turf Paradise where he won the aforementioned Lost in the Fog Juvenile.
The Path to the Oaks
Faiza, Pride of the Nile and Uncontrollable, the first three finishers in the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos in December, clash again in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Las Virgenes at Santa Anita.
Faiza, trained by Baffert, is undefeated after two starts. Pride of the Nile, from Doug O'Neill's barn, saw a two-race win streak snapped with the Los Al defeat.
Michael McCarthy conditions Uncontrollable, a daughter of Upstart who looks to improve on three straight runner-up showings.
Faiza and Pride of the Nile were just a head apart at the end of the Starlet with Uncontrollable 5 1/2 lengths farther back.
The Las Virgenes also has Justique, a Justify filly coming off a win in the Desi Arnaz Stakes at Del Mar, and Broadway Girls, a daughter of Army Mule who won the Blue Norther at Santa Anita in her last start.
Six turned out for Saturday's $200,000 Martha Washington at Oaklawn Park with Defining Purpose and Olivia Twist the solid favorites.
Defining Purpose, a Cross Traffic filly, won the Year's End Stakes over the Oaklawn track in December. Olivia Twist, by Mshawish, is 3-for-3, all at Remington Park.
Classic / Dirt Mile
A year ago, the $3 million Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational featured a showdown between Breeders' Cup Classic winner Knicks Go and Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Life Is Good.
Saturday's renewal at Gulfstream Park doesn't have that level of intrigue but the full field for the 1 1/8-mile race does have five Grade I winners in a fairly well-matched, lalent-laden field.
Likely contenders include Proxy, last seen winning the Grade I Clark Stakes at Churchill Downs in November; last year's Florida Derby winner, White Abarrio, a close third in the Grade I Cigar Mile in his most recent start; and Grade I Awesome Again winner Defunded, in from California for trainer Vaffert.
Also, Art Collector, winner of 10 of 20 starts; Get Her Number, second in the Cigar Mile; and Cyberknife, winner of the 2022 Arkansas Derby and Grade I Haskell, who was caught in the final strides to finish second in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
The race can be a springboard to the $20 million Saudi Cup and/or the $12 million Dubai World Cup in late February and late March.
So, too, can Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Pasqual at Santa Anita be a pathway to the Middle East, and Baffert has two potential candidates there in Hopper and Messier.
Messier finished second to Taiba in the 2022 Santa Anita Derby but then was 15th in the Kentucky Derby and disappointed in two late-season starts after a long layoff. Hopper hasn't raced since winning the Grade I Affirmed at Santa Anita last June.
None of the other seven is particularly scary with the possible exception of Newgrange. Ironically, that colt was under Baffert's care last season when he won the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn but switched to Phil D'Amato.
He did not make the Run for the Roses and was last seen finishing third in the Grade III Native Diver Stakes at Del Mar in November.
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Fred W. Hooper at Gulfstream Park is 1 mile on the dirt, featuring a nice field of 11 without a clear favorite. Dean Delivers, off three straight seconds over the course, could step up.
It's a well-matched field for Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Houston Ladies Classic at Sam Houston Race Park with She Can't Sing, Pauline's Pearl, Sixtythreecaliber and Hidden Connection closely bunched atop the morning line.
Pauline's Pearl has been battling against the best while the other three all come off wins. It's a good race.
Brazilian-bred Ivar is the morning-line favorite in a full field set for Saturday's $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational at Gulfstream Park. The 7-year-old has run three times in the Breeders' Cup Mile, never finishing worse than fourth, and won the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland.
It's been a while since his only start beyond 1 mile but he posted a respectable showing in that so the 1 1/8-mile distance shouldn't be a concern.
Of greater concern is a panoply of talented rivals including three of the first four finishers from the Grade II Fort Lauderdale on New Year's Eve, Grade I Hollywood Derby winner Speaking Scout, Woodbine Invader Who's the Star with three straight wins, and the sole mare in the group, Lady Speightspeare.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III William L. McKnight Stakes at Gulfstream Park is one for the "old guys rule" bunch with a big field averaging somewhere close to 7 years of age.
Nine-year-old veterans Red Knight and Channel Maker have lots of back class, but this 1 1/2-mile marathon is tough to figure with contenders coming from lots of directions.
Spooky Channel and Bemma's Boy are the morning-line picks for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III John B. Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston Race Park.
Spooky Channel enters the 1 1/2-miles fray with three straight wins at three different tracks, most recently the Buddy Diliberto Stakes at Fair Grounds.
Bemma's Boy was second in this race in 2020, then won the Grade II Pan American at Gulfstream Park. He missed all of 2021 and was winless but competitive last year.
Watch for Another Mystery, another of those Illinois-breds trained by Chris Block. He won last year's Connally in a dead heat at odds of 24-1.
Filly & Mare Turf
Shantisara is the morning-line pick in Saturday's $500,000 Grade III Pegasus Filly & Mare Turf Invitational at Gulfstream Park.
The 5-year-old mare made only two starts for trainer Chad Brown in 2022 but one of those produced a nice second-place finish in the Grade I Jenny Wiley at Keeneland.
Dalaika, a 7-year-old, German-bred mare, has won three of her last four starts including the Grade I Beverly D. at Churchill Downs and and Grade III Ladies Turf at Kentucky Downs.
Adventuring ventures out to 1 1/2 miles for the first time in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III La Prevoyante Stakes at Gulfstream Park but her previous efforts at slightly shorter trips and her superior numbers make her the likely one.
The Godolphin homebred, trained by Brad Cox, comes off a two-months freshening.
Private Creed, a Jimmy Creed colt trained in New Orleans by Steve Asmussen, is the morning-line favorite among eight entered for Saturday's $100,000 Bob Bork Texas Turf Mile for 3-year-olds at Sam Houston Race Park. Worthington, who ships in from Florida, also is worthy of a look.
The nine-horse field for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Toboggan at Aqueduct includes a bunch of hard-trying older horses including last year's winner, Drafted.
The 9-year-old continues to plug along, winning the Gravesend stakes in his last start, Dec. 30. Little Vic, second in the Gravesend, lines up again. Pirate Rick steps up in class after four straight wins.
Eight are set for Saturday's $100,000 King Cotton at Oaklawn Park with Gunite and Flash of Mischief sitting atop the morning line.
Gunite was fourth in the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile in his last start and has won four of his last six races. Flash of Mischief was ninth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, then won the local Ring the Bell Stakes in December.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Maryquitecontrary enters Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Inside Information Stakes at Gulfstream Park with a record of five wins and one second from six starts -- all at the Hallandale oval.
She steps up in class, though, and faces Obligatory, a 5-year-old Grade I winner last seen finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Miss Speedy might sneak into the frame if allowed to get her customary lead.
Turfway Park's well-funded stakes program continues to prosper with 12, plus two also-eligibles, entered for Saturday's $125,000 Wishing Well Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather course.
It's a tossup, but Ready to Venture won the Holiday Inaugural over the course in her last start for trainer Michael Stidham. Goin' Good comes off a long layoff for trainer Cox, who certainly is goin' good these days. She tackles the all-weather for the first time but has been training okay on the surface.
Around the world, around the clock
Hong Kong's "Big Three" go at it Sunday in the Group 1 Steward's Cup at 1 mile on the turf.
California Spangle and reigning Hong Kong champion Golden Sixty, the 1-2 finishers in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile in December, face off with Romantic Warrior, winner of the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup in that same memorable program.
Romantic Warrior has lost only once against nine wins, finishing fourth behind California Spangle in the Hong Kong Classic Cup 11 months ago. So they have some unfinished business.
California Spangle was second behind Golden Sixty their two face offs before the Longines Mile so the former has to prove it can do it again while the champ looks to regain supremacy.
California Spangle typically races on the lead while the other two are more stalk-and-pounce types. If that form holds in this seven-horse field, it should be quite a finish.
Sunday's swell program also has the Hong Kong Classic Mile, the first leg of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series that culminates in BMW Hong Kong Derby. The highest-rated in the field are Cordyceps Six and Keefy. Neither has been setting the world ablaze, so let's see what emerges from the fray.
Saturday's Group 1 World Sports Betting Cape Town Met at Kenilworth brings together not only most of South Africa's best horses but also a wide swath of the public, many dressed to the nines for one of the nation's sport-plus-fashion extravaganzas.
The field includes such familiar names as two-time Grade I Durban July winner Do It Again, Jet Dark and Kommetdieding. There's also a sprinkling of new blood in the form of 3-year-old Cousin Casey and 3-year-old filly Make It Snappy.
The Met, along with several others on the program, is included in the Hong Kong-based World Pool, ensuring a solid wagering base for bettors. The Hong Kong Jockey Club has been an active supporter of South African racing through its recent economic and political travails.