It's that time of year when the Dubai World Cup, the final round of Kentucky Derby preps and the early stirrings of International racing all compete for attention.
Saturday's action centers on American 3-year-olds with key races in Kentucky and New Mexico. But the main focus really is on the likely fields in place for next weekend's Dubai World Cup races -- and some fine fields they are.
Other action includes a race for the older set in New York and a pair of events in Florida for fillies and mares. Laurel Park in Maryland has four nice events on Saturday, one of which could impact the Derby picture.
Even though it's a week away, let's start with the big one.
The prospective field for the $10 million Dubai World Cup is relatively short but pleasantly sweet, featuring a showdown between Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome and the home team's top gun and defending champion, African Story. The new dirt track at Meydan Racecourse reinvigorated American interest in the entire card, with Lea and Candy Boy joining in the expected nine-horse World Cup field. That bunch also includes two of Japan's best, Epiphaneia and Hokko Tarumae, and England's Side Glance.
The seven other Thoroughbred races on the card each offer international intrigue. Perhaps the deepest and toughest of them, the $6 million Dubai Sheema Classic at 1 1/2 miles on the grass, attracted Main Sequence from the United States to face the likes of Hong Kong's Designs On Rome, French globetrotter Flintshire, Japan's One and Only and Harp Star, plus Just the Judge and Sheikhzayedroad from England. The winner here will have something to brag about.
Martin Talty, Dubai Racing Club International Manager said: "We are very happy with the fields that have been lined up for races on Dubai World Cup day this year. In the Dubai World Cup race alone there are eight Group or Grade 1 winners from five countries. Across the entire card we have 31 Group or Grade 1 winners from 12 countries and we look forward to a huge day of racing for the 20th renewal of the world's richest race day."
And, of course, the World Cup comes the same day as the Louisiana Derby and the Florida Derby ... so let's take a look at the ...
Road to the Roses
A stark illustration of the dangers of future book wagering: You can tear up those Kentucky Derby tickets on Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red. He is off the Derby trail with continuing foot problems, trainer Keith Desormeaux said Tuesday. Desormeaux had been hoping to get Texas Red to the Santa Anita Derby or the Arkansas Derby to earn enough points to qualify for the Run for the Roses.
Firing Line has finished second in his last two starts -- both times a head behind Dortmund. He won't have that rival to contend with in Sunday's $800,000, Grade II Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico. Firing Line, who likes to be out front, drew the rail. Lord Nelson, one of trainer Bob Baffert's "on the bubble" Derby contenders, drew right to his outside but won't make the trip. Baffert said he's not satisfied with the way Lord Nelson has bounced back from the Grade II San Felipe. That leaves Firing Line as the overwhelming favorite. Where's the Moon posted a big upset win in the local Mine That Bird Derby in his last start and Why Two comes off a victory in the Turf Paradise Derby but neither figures against the California invader. Tiznow R J regressed in Fair Grounds stakes and hopes for better in the high desert.
Meanwhile, Saturday's $550,000, Grade III Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park drew a big field with some talent. The narrow morning-line favorite is the Todd Pletcher-trained Royal Son, who captured the John Battaglia Memorial over the track in his last outing, winning by a lot. Godolphin blue will identify Imperia, who won the Grade III Pilgrim at Belmont Park in September, was second in the Kentucky Jockey Club last November, fifth in the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds in his 3-year-old debut and now tries an all-weather course for the first time. Metaboss comes to Kentucky after a victory on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather in the Grade III El Camino Real Derby and also has won on the turf at Santa Anita. Conquest Typhon ran third in the El Camino Real but earlier was a graded stakes winner on both turf and all-weather. Dubai Sky has won three in a row on the grass. Wireless Future has developed quickly in New Orleans and could be a threat if he likes the surface. The Spiral Stakes has been run since 1972 under a variety of names, including the Jim Beam Stakes and the Galleryfurnituredotcom Stakes, depending upon sponsorship. Past winners include Animal Kingdom, Hard Spun, Flower Alley, Stephen Got Even, Lil E. Tee, Serena's Song and Prairie Bayou.
A half dozen passed the entry box for Saturday's $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park, worth watching mostly for hints about "new shooters" for the Preakness. There's more promise than performance in the field although Combat Diver has upside after a horrible trip left him ninth at the end of the Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct. Trainer Gary Contessa said he would consider a Kentucky Derby push if Combat Diver -- another by Line of David -- wins Saturday. And you've got to love Bridget's Big Luvy -- for the name and not for the fifth-place finish in the Grade III Hutcheson at Gulfstream Park in his last outing, where he beat only a horse that was pulled up.
After two mentions just above, it should be noted Line of David, a son of Lion Heart out of the Capote mare Emma's Dilemma, won the 2010 Arkansas Derby, beating that year's eventual Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver. And Lion Heart was second in the 2004 Kentucky Derby behind Smarty Jones.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Sharla Rae is the clear morning-line favorite in a field of 12 with two also-eligibles for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Pure Romance Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway Park. The Afleet Alex filly exits a win in the California Oaks over the Golden Gate all-weather and also won on the dirt in Barretts Debutante at Los Alamitos. After her, the race is pretty wide open.
Eight are entered for Sunday's $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks in New Mexico, two of them trained by Bob Baffert. The heavyweight of the duo, Callback, finished second in the Grade II Santa Ynez and won the Grade I Las Virgenes in her last two starts and looks tough here. Maybelline, owned by Baffert's wife, has run well in California without winning much. Rousanne, winner of the Island Fashion Stakes in her last outing, looks the best of a suspect local bunch.
Saturday's $100,000 Caesar's Wish at Laurel Park is a 1-mile test often a prep for the Black-Eyed Susan on Preakness weekend. Seven are set for this heat and By the Moon stands out thanks to her victory last fall in the Grade I Frizette in the Belmont Park slop.
Fillies and mares
Gulfstream Park's Saturday card features a pair of $200,000, Grade II events for the distaff set -- the 7-furlongs Inside Information and the 1 1/16-miles Sabin Stakes. The Sabin attracted seven, among them Molly Morgan, a consistent graded stakes performer for trainer Dale Romans, and Tiz Windy, ditto for conditioner Carl Nafzger, and House Rules, for Jimmy Jerkens. The latter already has two wins at Gulfstream this winter; the other two make their seasonal bow. Sheer Drama is knocking on the door. The Inside Information also drew seven and features Merry Widow, who is riding a three-race winning streak in South Florida, including a pair of Grade III events earlier in the Gulfstream meeting.
Saturday's card includes 10 named starter allowances, several of which have big fields and plenty of excellent wagering opportunities.
There are enough big races later in the year in the handicap division to accommodate more than just Shared Belief, California Chrome and Bayern. So it will be interesting to watch the five contestants in Sunday's $100,000 Stymie Stakes at 9 furlongs on the main track, including old standbys Vyjack and Micromanage and Godolphin Racing's North Slope. No one is likely to confuse any of those with the big guns but they are capable of making some waves. The others are Turco Bravo and Cousin Stephen.
As noted above, things are stirring. While the Kentucky Derby provides a highlight of the American racing season on May 2, the same weekend finds the Qipco 2,000 Guineas running at Newmarket in England -- the prep of preps for the Epsom Derby. Ditto for the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks. Of course, the UAE Derby at Meydan could play into those races, as it could into the Kentucky Derby.
In Japan, the Group 1 Tenno Sho (Spring) on May 3 already has entries from Brown Panther and Red Cadeaux. Brown Panther also is entered in the Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup on World Cup night. On March 28, it's the Group 1 Takamatsunomia, the third leg of the Global Sprint Challenge with Hong Kong's Aerovelocity scheduled to start.
News and notes
Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens died Wednesday in Florida at 85. "The Chief," also was known as "the Giant Killer," in large measure for having defeated Secretariat twice in 1973, with Onion in the Whitney Handicap and later with Prove Out in the Woodward Stakes. His charges earlier defeated Kelso three times and bested the likes of Riva Ridge, Buckpasser and Cicada. Jerkens worked almost exclusively in New York during his distinguished career. His notable horses included Devil His Due and Sky Beauty.
An unscientific Equibase online poll asking which of the four horses nominated to the Hall of Fame "would get your vote" finds Lava Man far ahead with 680 votes, or 53 percent. Black Tie Affair is next with 339 votes for 26 percent, trailed by Kona Gold (149, 12 percent) and Xtra Heat (123, 10 percent). Equibase must have a lot of California-based users.