Kentucky Derby long shots could emerge from New Year's Day races

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Regaleira wins Thursday's Grade I Hopeful Stakes in Japan, defeating male 2-year-olds. Photo by and courtesy of Katsumi Saito
Regaleira wins Thursday's Grade I Hopeful Stakes in Japan, defeating male 2-year-olds. Photo by and courtesy of Katsumi Saito

Dec. 29 (UPI) -- New Year's Day races at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and Gulfstream Park in Florida give some relative unknowns a chance to get a hoof onto the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

Those races, unpredictable as they are, add a dash of spice to a long weekend that also includes graded stakes for older horses at Gulfstream and at Santa Anita. The Florida heats include preps for the Pegasus World Cup program late in January.


On the international front, Japan's final Grade 1 event on the grass found a filly defeating some top 2-year-olds, giving her a chance to try that country's Classics in 2024.

Wishing everyone a happy and, especially, peaceful New Year, here we come, spinning out of the turn for the final time in 2023.

The Road to the Roses

Sunday's $300,000 Smarty Jones at Oaklawn is the official "Road to the Kentucky Derby" race of the weekend, offering 10 points to the winner with 5, 3, 2 and 1 for the next four finishers.


It's 1 1/16 miles on the main track and kicks off the most lucrative Derby prep series anywhere, followed by the $800,000 Southwest on Jan. 27, the $1.25 million Rebel on Feb. 24 and the $1.5 million Arkansas Derby on March 30.

That said, the Smarty Jones has not yet been won by a subsequent star. The 2023 winner was Victory Formation, who then exited the Triple Crown trail with a ninth-place finish in the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

Entries for the Smarty Jones were not available at press time, but the nominations are not high on the Kentucky Derby radar -- yet.

Monday's Mucho Macho Man at Gufstream has a field of eight, but none is yet a threat to the division.

First World War finished fourth in the Grade II Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 8 and Inveigled was second in the James Lewis at Laurel Park on Nov. 11. And that's about it as the big names await later Florida Derby preps.

Around the ovals:

Gulfstream Park

Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Fort Lauderdale Stakes is 1 1/8 miles on the turf and is the logical prep for the Pegasus World Cup Turf at the end of the month.


Some good ones are in the field including progressive four-time winner Running Bee and Stone Age. The latter formerly was trained in Ireland by Aidan O'Brien.

The $150,000 Grade III Suwannee River Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 mile on the green course is a steppingstone to the filly and mare turf race on the Pegasus card.

Santa Anita

Monday's $100,000 Grade III Las Flores Stakes has fillies and mares sprinting 6 furlongs on the main track.


Fingal's Cave, returning from a 14-month break, led all the way to a 4 3/4-length victory in Thursday's $100,000 Bay Ridge Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares.

The 4-year-old Carpe Diem filly, trained by David "Slam" Donk, won her first four starts last year and finished second in the Grade II Raven Run at Keeneland in October 2022.

On the flip side of long layoffs, Greeley and Ben, winner of the Dave's Friend on Dec. 23 at Laurel Park, runs right back in Saturday's $150,000 Gravesend, a six-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds and up, at Aqueduct Racetrack.

The gelding is 9 and has won 25 of 42 career starts. A win would push his career earnings over the $1 million mark.


Around the world, around the clock


Regaleira rallied from far back in the field to overtake Shin Emperor in deep stretch and win Thursday's Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Nakayama Racecourse.

A daughter of Suave Richard, she became he first filly to win the important race for the most promising 2-year-olds and her connections said she will be considered for the Grade I Satsuki Sho or Japanese 2,000 Guineas in the new year.

Regaleira entered the race off a third-place finish in her last start while Shin Emperor, a full brother to 2020 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Sottsass, was undefeated after two starts.

The latter looked to make it three in a row at mid-stretch and he shot out to a daylight lead after stalking the pace through much of the 2,000 meters. Instead, Regaleira got free from some traffic and blazed up on his outside to win by 3/4 length.

"We had to travel near the rear because the filly missed her break," Lemaire said. "But she was very calm after that. She responded well at the last two corners and, after I steered her to the outside, displayed an incredible late charge.


"I look forward to her performances next year and I think a longer distance would also suit her."

Friday's Grade 1 Tokyo Daishoten on the Oi Racecourse dirt is the final Grade 1 of the Japanese season.

The field includes several runners with experience or aspirations to international competition later in 2024 including reigning Dubai World Cup winner and Breeders' Cup Classic fifth Ushba Tesoro and this year's UAE Derby runner-up Dura Erede.


Wondering what happened to the All-Weather Championships? Well, they changed the format, eliminating the "Fast Track Qualifier" races that made it easy to keep track week-to-week of what was going on.

Despite the tracking issues, there's plenty going on and New Year's Day offers a new marker as Newcastle hosts the inaugural All-Weather Championships Trials Day fixture.

The event features six £45,000 open handicaps, one in each of the All-Weather Championships categories. The winner of each race will be eligible for free entry to the corresponding Finals Day race at Newcastle, as well as a £30,000 bonus should they go on to win on Good Friday.

Lingfield Park stages the other All-Weather Championships Trials Day on March 1. Any horse that wins at both Trials Day meetings in the same category and goes on to win at Newcastle on Finals Day will be eligible for a total bonus of £75,000.


Latest Headlines