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Kentucky Derby contenders in weekend action in Louisiana, Japan

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Victory Formation, shown winning the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park, is the favorite in Saturday's Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, a "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points race. Coady Photography, courtesy of Oaklawn Park
1 of 2 | Victory Formation, shown winning the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park, is the favorite in Saturday's Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, a "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points race. Coady Photography, courtesy of Oaklawn Park

Feb. 17 (UPI) -- Weekend racing will bring a new leader in both the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" standings and the Japanese counterpart; potential Kentucky Oaks contenders are in action in Louisiana and Dubai; and important early-season sprints are on tap at Laurel Park in Maryland.

Oaklawn Park kicks in a $600,000 purse for older horses, and Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita also are in on the action.

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Around the world, a North American horse improbably challenges Japanese dirt runners in Sunday's Grade 1 February Stakes, and delegates to the 39th Asian Racing Conference in Melbourne adjourn to the races Saturday to see some good ones run.

We also have notes from Bahrain and the British All-Weather Championships.

You know the season is heating up when ace industry analyst Jude Feld swings back into action with his insight into the key races. He's back firing at popejude.com.

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And we're firing with:

The Road to the Roses

Louisiana

Brad Cox has three entries, headed by the undefeated Victory Formation, and Steve Asmussen fields three for Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

The 1 1/8-mile test offers 50 "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points to the winner, who will jump to the No 1 spot on the leaderboard.

Victory Formation, a Tapwrit colt, won sprinting at Keeneland and Churchill Downs last year, then passed his two-turn test with flying colors on New Year's Day, winning the 1-mile Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park by 3 lengths, ridden out.

Angel of Empire was second in that race and Cox tries him again in the Risen Star, along with Tapit's Conquest. Victory Formation is the 3-1 morning-line favorite in the Risen Star.

Asmussen's all have something to prove. Private Creed makes his first start on dirt after racing well in six turf engagements. Silver Heist and Harlocap make their stakes debuts.

For that matter, most of the field has something to prove with some maiden winners, shippers and assorted others looking for a move forward. If Victory Formation doesn't do it, it will be a wide open race.

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Harlocap, by the way, moves over from Baffert's care to Asmussen. That qualifies the colt to earn "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points in the race, which he could not under Baffert, who is banned by Churchill Downs.

Maryland

Saturday's $100,000 Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel Park can be a good place to spot eventual "new shooters" for the Preakness Stakes, if not Derby candidates. In this bunch, Spectacular Bid Stakes winner Prince of Jericho, an early Triple Crown nominee, could fit either category.

Japan

Sunday's Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse is the third of four races in the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" series and, while it lost the top two horses on that leaderboard to the Saudi Derby, the race still retains plenty of promise.

Six of the 14 entries are early nominees to the U.S. Triple Crown, reflecting the record 37 such from Japan this year.

The only 3-year-old in the field with points already earned in Perriere, a Henny Hughes colt who finished second in the second leg, the Zen-Nipon Nisai Yushun at Kawasaki Racecourse in December.

The series won't be decided until after the final race, the Fukuryu Stakes on March 25 at Nakayama Racecourse, which earns the winner 40 points.

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The Path to the Oaks

Six are entered for Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds, and a case can be made for most.

Chop Chop, a City of Light filly, has run badly only once in five starts but that bum effort came in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, where she finished last.

She comes off a good effort in the local Silverbulletday Stakes, second behind The Alys Look, who is skipping this. Hoosier Filly won all three starts at 2 but hasn't raced since scoring by 5 lengths in the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26.

The other four in the Rachel Alexandra may be a shade below those two. But Godolphin homebred Pretty Mischievous could step up and if Knockyoursocksoff ever gets a good start, she could be a handful.

Saturday's $100,000 Wide Country Stakes at Laurel Park has six 3-year-old fillies including Sally's Sassy, a West Coast filly. She was a stakes winner on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather and ships in from Turfway Park, where she has been training on the all-weather. She won her first starts at Del Mar on the turf.

Around the divisions

Classic

West Will Power, Ginobili and Law Professor top the morning line for Saturday's $600,000 Grade III Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park. The 1 1/16-mile affair drew 10.

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West Will Power makes his 2023 debut, and Oaklawn debut, after a freshening. He was last seen finishing second in the Grade 1 Clark Stakes Nov. 25 at Churchill Downs.

Ginobili, second in the 2031 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, exits a win in the local Fifth Season Stakes.

Law Professor arrives from New York after winning the Queens County Stakes at Aqueduct.

A nice field of nine is set for Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Mineshaft Stakes at Fair Grounds.

Tawny Port, beaten less than 5 lengths in last year's Kentucky Derby, makes his 4-year-old bow. Pioneerof Medina, third in last year's Louisiana Derby, is in peak form. Happy American and Mr. Wireless exit a 1-2 finish in the local Grade III Louisiana Stakes.

Saturday's $100,000 John B. Campbell Stakes at Laurel Park drew a field of 10, most of them experienced stakes competitors at this level, from Maryland up to New York.

Saturday's $125,000 Dust Commander on the Turfway Park all-weather track drew a field of 10 with In Love and Price Talk at the top of the morning line. They finished first and third, respectively, in the local Prairie Bayou Stakes in December.

Distaff

Kathleen O. was undefeated after four starts after winning last year's Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks but then finished fifth in the Kentucky Oaks.

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She was second in a November comeback in the Grade III Comely Stakes at Aqueduct and returns among seven for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Royal Delta Stakes at Gulfstream. She faces a stern test with several other stakes winners in the opposition.

Hybrid Eclipse seldom runs a bad race and looks formidable against six rivals in Saturday's $100,000 Nellie Morse Stakes at Laurel Park.

Sprint

Eastern Bay makes his 9-year-old debut in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III General George at Laurel Park. The E Dubai gelding finished 2022 with second-place finishes in the Grade II Vosburgh and Grade III Bold Ruler at Aqueduct.

Factor It In was third in the Bold Ruler and has won two straight at Laurel since then.

Filly & Mare Sprint

Pass the Champagne ships up from Florida for Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Barbara Fritchie Stakes at Laurel Park.

She was second in the Grade I Central Bank Ashland at Keeneland last year before finishing 12th in the Kentucky Oaks. She's back in form after two starts down south. Fille d'Espirit has won three of her last four starts, all local.

Turf

The question about Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Fair Grounds Stakes is whether to trust the recent local form or look for visitors capable of swooping in for a payday.

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The top two finishers from the Jan. 21 Colonel E.R. Bradley Stakes, Gentle Soul and Two Emmys, fit the first description.

Pixilate isn't exactly a visitor as he's been training in New Orleans since late December but he hasn't raced in the Big Easy since December of 2021. Eight go on the still-challenged turf course.

Filly & Mare Turf

Saturday's $100,000 Albert M. Stall Memorial at Fair Grounds has a full field of eight fillies and mares -- no tigers in the bunch but a competitive assembly of familiar faces.

Turf Sprint

The short fields dictated by the ailing Fair Grounds turf course strike again in Saturday's $100,000 Colonel Power Stakes as My Pal Mattie is among six relegated to the also-eligible list.

He may not have been the best horse in the 5 1/2-furlong sprint, but he likely would have been the controlling speed. Watch that he doesn't draw in and, if not, Ice Chocolat and Manny Wah are worthy of a peek.

A competitive field of nine is set for Saturday's $100,000 Wishing Well Stakes at Santa Anita with Big Summer as the narrow morning-line pick, trailed by Bay Storm and Eddie's New Dream.

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Fourteen are entered for Saturday's $100,000 Turf Dash at Tampa Bay Downs and 12 fillies and mares signed on for the companion $100,000 Lightning City Stakes. They're both at 5 furlongs and, with the favorite drawn on the rail in both, they should be fun to watch.

Around the world, around the clock

Japan

Sunday's Grade 1 February Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse pits a North American grass racing specialist against a somewhat depleted field of Japanese dirt specialists going 1 mile.

The two-time winner of the race, Café Pharoah, has abandoned ship to contest the $20 million Saudi Cup, leaving Red le Zele as the arguable favorite among the locals.

Red le Zele, a 7-year-old by Lord Kanaloa, finished fourth and sixth in the last two February Stakes and is better going shorter.

The invader is Shirl's Speight, a Charles Fipke homebred, who has almost no experience on the green course, finished a long shot second in last autumn's Breeders' Cup Mile on the Keeneland grass and engenders more hope than faith on the part of trainer Roger Attfield.

"Actually, it was the owner of the horse's idea to do this," Attfield told a prerace news conference. "He was quite adamant that he wanted to try him on the dirt here. I've always been a bit apprehensive about that because he's only run twice on the dirt and they hadn't been that great a race ... I just have my fingers crossed."

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The race, also unaccountably, is a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Classic in November at Santa Anita.

Dubai

Friday's World Cup Carnival offers up a likely duel between two Godolphin turf runners in the Group 3 Dubai Millennium Stakes and another experiment by California trainer Doug O'Neill in the Group 3 UAE Oaks.

Nations Pride and Ottoman Fleet look on paper to stand head and shoulders above the rest in the Dubai Millennium, a prep for either the $350,000 Group 1 Jebel Hatta Stakes on Super Saturday or the $5 million Group 1 Dubai Turf on World Cup night.

Nation's Pride was last seen finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Turf after a successful summer in New York and trainer Charlie Appleby said he expects to take the Teofilo colt on the road again later this year.

O'Neill, who last week won the Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas with Tall Boy, tries again with Ami Please, a filly with one win to her credit as a 2-year-old, racing mostly on the grass.

The UAE Oaks is a "Road to the Kentucky Oaks" race and O'Neill said it "would be a safe assumption" that Ami Please might follow that course if she runs well.

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"She's a beautiful filly. A lot of talent," O'Neill said. "She tends to run equally well on dirt or turf. We'll know a lot more about her in two days."

She faces a bright local prospect in Mimi Kakushi, The Kentucky-bred City of Light filly won her last two starts, including a romp in the UAE One Thousand Guineas.

Australia

Nature Strip tops a field of 11 set for the Group 1 Black Caviar Lightning Stakes Saturday at Flemington. The 8-year-old finished fourth in the TAB Everest and second in the Group 1 Darly Champions Sprint before heading off to a break.

He is one of the world's top-rated sprinters off his best efforts. But he also is only 1-for-3 in this 1,000-meters dash. Delegates shaking off the conventioneering of the Asian Racing Conference will attend to check things out.

England

Trainer Charlie Fellowes is hoping Vadream's first-up ninth place in the Listed Kachy Stakes at Lingfield Park two weeks ago is what the 5-year-old mare needed to be competitive in Saturday's All-Weather Championships Fast-Track Qualifier over the same course.

The race sets the winner a spot in the £150,000 All-Weather Fillies' & Mares' Championships on Good Friday, April 7.

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"It is interesting because the form of the Kachy Stakes is working out quite nicely," Fellowes said. "The first three in the handicap at Newcastle on Tuesday night all ran in it, so it wasn't the weakest Listed race in the world."

The Tuesday race to which Fellowes referred went to Diligent Harry, who shrugged off a 106 rating to win by 3/4 length over King of Bavaria after going down by a neck to Annaf in the Kachy.

Diligent Harry now has four wins from seven all-weather starts and could become the first horse to win two different races on Finals Day, having landed the All-Weather Three-Year-Old Championship in 2021.

Bahrain

The final two £60,000 Bahrain Turf Series races of the run Friday with 12 European horses lining up across the two races and at least one of the European trainers already happy with his experience in the event.

With three international winners in the books, George Baker is hoping one of his charges, Get It, can add to that with a victory in the 1,200-meters Al Sakhir Cup. Baker has had three horses based in Bahrain this season and earned £74,577 in purse money.

"They're pushing £100,000, these horses, and we'd struggle to get that at Wolverhampton, Southwell, Lingfield and places like that at this time of year," Baker said of England's all-weather tracks.

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"It's been a great success. We will be back next year. We're committed to Bahrain. Our owners have committed to it ... If we came back with six or seven next year, that would be absolutely wonderful."

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