Country Grammer trains Thursday for his bid to score back-to-back wins in the $12 million Dubai World Cup. Photo by Liesl King, courtesy of Dubai Racing Club
DUBAI, March 24 (UPI) -- Kentucky Derby doings heat up this weekend with the Louisiana Derby, the Jeff Ruby Steaks, the Sunland Park Derby and the UAE Derby in Dubai all offering qualifying points for would-be contenders.
Country Grammer defends his title in the 27th running of the Group 1 Dubai World Cup, with a supporting program on both turf and dirt second to none on the world's racing calendar.
Fair Grounds and Turfway Park also boast quality cards around their features.
First the Derby, then the World Cup, then back to the rest. Let's go.
The Road to the Roses
Trainer Brad Cox sends out three of the 12 starters for Saturday's $1 million Grade II Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, including the 2-1 morning-line favorite, Instant Coffee.
The Bolt d'Oro colt has three wins from four starts, the most recent a victory in the Grade III Lecomte over the New Orleans track Jan. 21. On paper, a repeat of that performance should be good enough to win this race.
Others to watch include Sun Thunder, second in last month's Grade II Risen Star, and the sole out-of-town talent, Kingsbarns, winner of both of his previous starts in Florida for trainer Todd Pletcher.
The Louisiana Derby confers "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points on the 100-40-30-20-10 scale, virtually ensuring that at least the top two finishers will earn a spot in the Louisville starting gate. Instant Coffee is already No. 9 on the list with 32 points
Two Phils and Major Dude take on an all-weather surface for the first time as the favorites in Saturday's $700,000 Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky.
Two Phils has started at five different tracks in his short career, going 3-for-7, all on dirt for trainer Larry Rivelli. Major Dude, trained by Todd Pletcher, perked up when switched from dirt to turf for his last four starts, winning the Grade III Kitten's Joy on that surface at Gulfstream Park in his last race.
The Jeff Ruby Steaks also awards 100 Kentucky Derby points to the winner, thanks to Churchill Downs' ownership of Turfway Park. The name is the result of sponsorship by the Jeff Ruby Steakhouse chain.
Saturday's $250,000 Rushaway Stakes at Turfway is a half-furlong shorter than the 1 1/8-miles Jeff Ruby. It also has a full field with several Triple Crown nominees and is worth a look for potential Preakness candidates or late-developers for later in the year.
Sunday's $600,000 Grade III Sunland Park Derby attracted a field of seven with Hard to Figure, a California shipper trained by Bob Baffert, as the morning-line favorite.
The Hard Spun colt was second in the Grade III Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in his latest start. Fort Bragg, formerly trained by Baffert and now in the Tim Yakteen barn, also visits from California.
The race offers 50 Kentucky Derby point to the winner on down through a scale of 20-15-10-5 although Hard to Figure is ineligible to accrue any of those points because Baffert remains banned by Churchill Downs.
Perhaps the most consequential of the weekend's Derby preps is the $1 million Group 2 UAE Derby on the Dubai World Cup undercard.
It's consequential because it also offers 100 Kentucky Derby points to the winner and on down that scale but even more because it attracted the leader of the "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" series, Cairo, and the top three from the "Japan Road," Perriere, Derma Sotogake and Continuar.
All of those were early Triple Crown nominees and any could be a serious candidate to contest the Run for the Roses.
Also in the field are three American-trained colts -- Tall Boy and Ah Jeez, trained by Doug O'Neill, and Worcester, trained by Baffert.
Both O'Neill horses have been in Dubai for weeks and both already are winners at Meydan racecourse. Worcester remains a maiden after two starts in California against top-class opponents.
Cairo, a Coolmore homebred colt trained by Aidan O'Brien, is the favorite on the international markets (there is no wagering in Dubai).
This race, too, is a 100-point event so it easily could produce a Kentucky Derby runner or two. O'Brien used the race in 2018 to qualify Mendelssohn, who finished last in the Run for the Roses after a disastrous start.
The connections of Derma Sotogake and Perriere have mentioned the Kentucky Derby as a possible target for their colts.
The "Japanese Road to the Kentucky Derby" wraps up Saturday with the Fukuryu Stakes at Nakayama Racecourse.
The winner there gets 40 points, which will make him the overall victor in the series and potentially entitle him to a Kentucky Derby bid, provided he's nominated to the Triple Crown series or made eligible through a $6,000 late-nomination fee.
None of the 14 entered for the event has earned any points in the first three races in the series.
Around the world, around the clock
The Dubai World Cup
The headline event Saturday at Meydan Racecourse is, of course, the World Cup. But world-class runners are in action up and down the program, on both dirt and turf, at distances from 6 furlongs out to 2 miles. A brief look:
The $12 million Group 1 Dubai World Cup, 1 1/4 miles on the dirt, has the defending champion, Country Grammer, trained by four-time winner Baffert and ridden by four-time winner Frankie Dettori.
Country Grammer just missed winning the $20 million Saudi Cup both last year and last month, and both horses who got the better of him, Emblem Road and Panthalassa, are back in the Cup, though both are long shots in this race.
Panthalassa heads an eight-horse Japanese contingent including last year's UAE Derby winner, Crown Pride, and last year's Grade 1 Japan Cup winner Vela Azul.
Algiers represents England and was a dominant winner in two local preps for trainers Simon and Ed Crisford. It should be one of the best dirt races of the year.
The $6 million Group 1 Longines Dubai Sheema Classic is run at 2,410 meters, just over 1 1/2 miles, on the turf and features arguably the world's top turf runner, Equinox.
The 4-year-old won two of Japan's top middle-distance turf races to end 2022 and will stake a claim to greatness if he can handle these rivals in his first start of the season.
The opposition includes Rebel's Romance, representing Sheik Mohammed bin Rasheed Al Maktoum's Godolphin Racing, winner of six straight races including the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf at Keeneland in his last start.
He missed a planned prep race with a minor issue. Mostahdaf, a Frankel colt, won the Group 3 Neom Turf Cup in Saudi Arabia in his last outing. Others come from France and Hong Kong.
The $5 million Group 1 Dubai Turf has 15 horses set to go 1 1/8 miles with Japan again holding a strong hand.
Last year, Panthalassa dead-heated with Lord North for the victory in this race and Lord North now seeks an historic third straight win. Vin De Garde just missed a three-way dead heat by a nose last year and returns, too, although fellow Japanese Do Deuce and Serifos are better fancied.
Godolphin fields Nation's Pride, Master of the Seas and Real World, all capable of winning. Shirl's Speight, owned and bred by Canadian Charles Fipke, comes back to the turf after finishing ninth in the February Stakes on the Tokyo Racecourse dirt and could be a live longshot.
The $2 million Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen at 6 furlongs on the dirt has the winner of the February Stakes, Lemon Pop; Gunite, second in the Group 3 Riyadh Dirt Sprint for trainer Steve Asmussen; and last year's winner, locally based Switzerland, in a talented field. Bob Baffert saddles Hopkins, who comes off a Grade III victory at Santa Anita.
The $1.5 million Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint is run down a straight 6 furlongs on the grass and recent experience shows an outside draw is a big plus.
However, a couple of favorites, Godolphin's Al Suhail and three-time World Cup Carnival winner Al Dasim, have defied that seeming bias to post victories at the course and distance earlier this season.
Sight Success has had some success against Hong Kong's top sprinters. Trafffic issues can play a big role in this.
The $1 million Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup is a wide-open affair with 15 lining up to go 2 miles on the turf. The early favorite is Godolphin's Siskany, a 5-year-old who won his first start of the season going 1 3/4 miles.
The $1 million Group 2 Godolphin Mile on the dirt kicks off the Thoroughbred part of the program. Japan again has one of the top picks in Bathrat Leon, winner of the Group 3 1351 Dirt Sprint in Saudi Arabia in his last start.
While most of Japan's best are in Dubai, there's still a talented field for Sunday's Grade 1 Takamatsumomiya Kinen, a 1,200-meter dash at Chukyo Racecourse.
The field includes Meikei Yell, Namura Clair, Win Marvel and comebacking Pixie Knight. The latter won the Group 1 Sprinters Stakes in 2021, but has been out of action since he was seriously injured in the horrific, multi-horse spill that marred that December's Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint.
Three more Group 1 events top the weekend honor roll.
Fourteen 3-year-old fillies are lined up for the Vinery Stud Stakes at Rosehill Gardens with Prowess and Pavitra the early favorites. Both come off recent wins. On the same card, Gold Trip and Montefilia are early fancies in the 1 1/2-miles Tancred Stakes.
At Flemington, it looks like they'll have Cascadian to beat as the Godolphin homebred stretches back out to 1 1/4 miles in the historic Australian Cup.
Meanwhile, back in the States
The Path to the Oaks
Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks has a short field of five but three of those are among the division's best. Pretty Mischievous is the 8-5 favorite on the morning line while putting her record of four win from five losses on the line.
The Into Mischief filly, trained by Brendan Walsh, was last seen winning the Grade II Rachel Alexandra in February.
The Alys Look and Hoosier Philly, both 2-1 on the morning line, are the main competition. The Alys Look, a daughter of Connect trained by Brad Cox, comes off a win in the local Silverbulletday Stakes, but before that was second to Pretty Mischievous in the Untappable.
Hoosier Philly, another Into Mischief filly, was third in the Rachel Alexandra, but won last year's Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs with Pretty Mischievous third.
At Turfway Park, locally based Botanical is a solid favorite in Saturday's $300,000 Bourbonette Oaks. Trained by Brad Cox, the Medaglia d'Oro filly is 3-for-3 on the Turfway all-weather, steadily improving with each start.
The competition includes two shippers -- Ag Bullet, winner of her last two starts in California, and Bolivie, second in her last two starts, both on all-weather tracks in France.
In her most recent race, she was second to Brave Emperor in the Prix de la Californie at Cagne-Sur-Mer. Brave Emperor went from that to win the Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes at Kempton Park in England last week.
Art Collector, upset winner of the Grade I Pegasus World Cup in his last start, headlines Saturday's $500,000 Grade II New Orleans Classic at Fair Grounds.
The 6-year-old, trained by Bill Mott, had no luck in last year's $20 million Saudi Cup, finishing 12th, but has won three of four starts since that trip.
He faces a few tough ones in West Will Power, who was second in the Grade III Razorback at Oaklawn Park last month, and Pioneer of Medina and Mr. Wireless, 1-2 in the local Mineshaft Stakes.
Santin, winner of the 2022 Arlington Million at Churchill Downs, is the lukewarm favorite in a full field for Saturday's $300,000 Kentucky Cup Classic on the Turfway Park all-weather course.
The 5-year-old Godolphin homebred has never raced on any surface other than turf but has been training sharply at Turfway for two months. King Cause, also primarily as turf runner, has a win and a second on all-weather and is second-favorite on the morning line.
Atone, Two Emmys and Another Mystery are the early favorites in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Muniz Memorial at Fair Grounds, 1 1/8 miles on the grass course.
Atone gets the nod from the oddsmaker after winning the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational at Gulfstream Park in his last outing. Two Emmys, last year's Muniz winner, captured the Fair Grounds Stakes in his most recent outing.
Illinois-bred Another Mystery won the J.B. Connolly Stakes at Sam Houston Race Park in January for trainer Chris Block.
Saturday's program at Gulfstream Park features a pair of $100,000 turf sprints for 3-year-olds. The Texas Glitter is open, the Melody of Colors is for fillies only.
Saturday's $250,000 Animal Kingdom Stakes for 3-year-olds at 6 furlongs on the Turfway Park all-weather course is a wide-open affair with lots of inexperienced horses, some of them showing promise. Watch and learn.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Five are set for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Desert Stormer Stakes at Santa Anita. None has shown much in recent races and this looks like a program-stabber.