1 of 2 | Secret Oath, seen winning the 2022 Kentucky Oaks, returns against a tough field in Saturday's Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs
March 10 (UPI) -- With just eight weeks left on the clock, Kentucky Derby prep action swings to the Gulf Coast of Florida this weekend, with a lot to be sorted out in the Tampa Bay Derby.
In Arkansas, two of the best fillies from 2022 go head to head in the Grade II Azeri Stakes with a couple more from the same division set to contest the Grade I Beholder Mile at Santa Anita.
Group 1 racing continues apace in Australia and the all-weather season is starting to give way to the rapidly approaching flat turf racing that marks the middle of the year in Europe.
We'll get on with all that anon. But first: Today's quiz. Which racing jurisdiction is home to the planet's top three horses in the newly released Longines World's Best Racehorse Rankings? Answer in "News and Notes."
The Road to the Roses
The Kentucky Derby prep action moves across the Florida peninsula from Gulfstream Park to Tampa Bay Downs for Saturday's $400,000 Grade III Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.
The race offers 50 "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points to the winner -- a golden opportunity given the wide-open feel of the 12-horse field.
Trainer Todd Pletcher entered two -- Tapit Trice and Shesterkin. They finished 1-2 in a Feb. 4 allowance event at Gulfstream, but Tapit Trice was the star, winning by 8 lengths. That's enough to make him the 8-5 favorite on the morning line for the Derby.
Groveland, Classic Car Wash and Classic Legacy, the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers, respectively, from the local Sam F. Davis Stakes return for this heat. None is likely to be mistaken for division leader Forte.
Speaking of Forte ... Pool 5 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager opens Friday and remains available until Sunday evening. Now that most of the contenders have actually raced this year, the bet looks a little less like a blind stab.
Forte is the morning-line favorite at 4-1 off his win in the Fountain of Youth, which is a lot longer odds than he'll fetch on the first Saturday in May if he wins his planned intervening start. "All other 3-year-olds" open at 5-1. Remember, if your horse doesn't start, there is no refund.
Looking forward: Next weekend is devoid of way stations along the main "Road to the Kentucky Derby." However, the penultimate leg of the "European Road to the Kentucky Derby," the Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions Stakes, is slated for March 15 at Kempton Park in England.
We'll need a break as the March 25 program has the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park, the UAE Derby on World Cup night in Dubai and the final race of the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby," the Fukuryu Stakes at Nakayama Racecourse.
The 2022 Kentucky Oaks winner, Secret Oath, makes her seasonal debut in Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Azeri at Oaklawn Park. The Arrogate filly, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, was last seen finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Disaff.
She won her first three starts at Oaklawn during the 2021-22 meeting and got home third in the Arkansas Derby. She will be tested in this by the likes of Clairiere, a rival for division supremacy through most of 2022, Lovely Ride, Interstatedaydream and Hidden Connection.
In fact, every one of the eight looks capable of winning the 1 1/16-mile race.
Another who was in the top-level mix last year, Pauline's Pearl, is prominent among eight entered for Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Beholder Mile at Santa Anita. Pauline's Pearl finished in the money in four of five starts in 2022 and comes off a repeat victory in the Grade III Houston Ladies Classic.
She runs into a progressive sort in Fun to Dream, a 4-year-old Arrogate filly who is riding a four-race win streak that most recently featured the Grade I La Brea and the Grade II Santa Monica. She's the 5-2 favorite.
Classic / Dirt Mile
Skippylongstocking has hit a pattern of win one, lose one and the oddsmaker sees that continuing in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Michelob Ultra Challenger at Tampa Bay Downs.
The 4-year-old Exaggerator colt is the 8-5 favorite on the morning line after finishing seventh in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup in his last start. Before that, he won the Grade III Harlan's Holiday at Gulfstream, finished ninth in the Grade I Pennsylvania Derby and won the Grade III West Virginia Derby.
Tax and Classic Causeway could prove troublesome in the Challenger.
A field of six is set for Saturday's $250,000 Grade III San Carlos at Santa Anita with Forbidden Kingdom and Get Her Number the morning-line picks.
Forbidden Kingdom, an American Pharoah colt, turned to sprinting after finishing sixth in last year's Santa Anita Derby and makes his first start since finishing second in the Grade I Malibu Dec. 26.
Get Her Number, a 5-year-old son of Dialed In, finished second in the Cigar Mile in December and ninth in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational in his most recent effort.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saturday's $125,000 Grade III Hurricane Bertie at Gulfstream Park drew six entries. Frank's Rockette returns from a two-month break after winning the Grade III Sugar Swirl Stakes on New Year's Eve by 12 1/4 lengths. Drifaros has won four in a row, but meets tougher foes here.
Filly & Mare Turf
Chad Brown has three of the seven entries for Saturday's $225,000 Grade II Hillsborough Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, including the 2-1 morning-line favorite Shantisara.
The 5-year-old, Irish-bred mare finished second in the Grade III Pegasus World Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Gulfstream Park last time out and won the Grade I QE II Challenge Cup at Keeneland last October.
Brown also has the favorite, Free Look, in an overflow field for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs.
The Tapit filly was last seen finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Keeneland and on her way there finished second in the Grade II Miss Grillo at Aqueduct.
Among the others, Alpha Bella comes off a second in the Grade III Sweetest Chant Stakes at Gulfsream Park and then it looks like anyone's race.
Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Santa Ana Stakes at Santa Anita has nine entries to try 1 1/4 miles. Several have been running well but not at this level so it should be interesting.
Around the world, around the clock
Please accept our apologies for ending the All-Weather Championships Fast-Track Qualifier season a week too early. In fact, the final automatic qualifiers for the Good Friday extravaganza will run this Saturday at Wolverhampton.
On the other hand, those races might have more relevance to the rapidly approaching flat turf season than the all-weather.
Two-time Group 1 winner Angel Bleu is set to begin his campaign in the Lady Wulfruna Stakes. Angel Bleu was one of Europe's leading 2-year-olds early in 2021, taking the Group 2 Vintage Stakes at Goodwood before a memorable G1 double in France's Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere and Criterium International.
The Dark Angel colt tailed off in the second half of the summer, and has not been seen since finishing fifth behind Baaeed in the Group 1 Sussex Stakes at Goodwood on July 27.
"Angel Bleu has been in training all winter and the intention is to start him off at Wolverhampton on Saturday," trainer Ralph Beckett said. "This is not a prep for the All-Weather Championships finals, but it is a prep for the rest of the year."
The race does offer a guaranteed spot in the £150,000 All-Weather Mile Championships, and the 14 entries also feature Berkshire Shadow and Lusail, who were fifth and sixth, respectively, in last season's 2000 Guineas.
Lusail missed by a head in a dramatic finish to the 2022 St James's Palace Stakes -- with Angel Bleu finishing ninth -- and reported sixth on his return in the Group 3 1351 Turf Sprint at Riyadh.
"He has come back from Saudi as good as gold," trainer Richard Hannon said of Lusail. "I thought he ran well out there but it showed he needs a bit further than that. He will go on the surface at Wolverhampton no problem and could well take his chance."
The final Fast-Track Qualifier of this season's All-Weather Championships takes place later on the card, with reigning Marathon champion Earlofthecotswolds among nine contenders.
It's a full field for the Group 1 Youlong Stud Newmarket Handicap at Flemington. The historic race, dating back to 1874, has been won by some of Australia's top sprinters, notably Black Caviar in 2011 and Takeover Target in 2006.
Only five horses have won the event more than once, and last year's winner, Roch 'N' Horse, bids to become the sixth. Private Eye and I Wish I Win, however, are the antepost favorites.
Eighteen are signed on for Saturday's Group 1 Coolmore Classic for fillies and mares at Rosehill Gardens. Without a clear favorite, those getting action include Hinged, Annavisto, Hope In Your Heart and Ruthless Dame.
News and notes:
The top three spots in the Longines World's Best Racehorse Rankings are filled by Golden Sixty, Romantic Warrior and California Spangle -- all based in Hong Kong. It's worth noting that Hong Kong, with severely limited sable space and no breeding industry, is home to less than 2% of the world's racehorse population, so having the top three on the global ranking is quite something.