Kentucky Derby preps at Santa Anita, Keeneland and Aqueduct top the list of weekend Thoroughbred racing action.
Although the predicted chilly weather may not seem like it, Keeneland's opening is right up there with the Masters, Final Four and opening day at Wrigley Field in signifying the end of winter and the blossoming of spring. After this weekend, the only top-level Derby preps left is the following weekend's Arkansas Derby.
Keeneland, as usual, packs a host of graded stakes into its limited spring schedule. Also on tap during the weekend is a raft of graded sprint stakes, from 5 1/2 to 7 furlongs on turf and on dirt.
Overseas, at Randwick in Australia, a spate of graded stakes heralds the onrushing Southern Hemisphere fall season.
Good Friday should be a great Friday of racing at Lingfield in the British All-Weather Championship finals. Friday also is Chengdu Dubai International Cup race day in China, with the entire show flown in from Meydan for the second straight year. At Newmarket, there's a wary eye out to prevent an outbreak of strangles.
Moving right along ...
The Road to the Roses
Dortmund puts his five-race unbeaten streak on the line in Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Santa Anita Derby, facing five rivals. Among them are the second- and third-place finishers behind Dortmund in the Grade II San Felipe on March 7 -- Prospect Park and Bolo. The others, One Lucky Dane and Bad Read Sanchez, also have hit the board in graded stakes. Dortmund drew the rail, which won't hurt Martin Garcia's chances of hustling him to the lead -- as he has in his past two starts -- or laying up behind another would-be front-runner. Trainer Bob Baffert saddles both Dortmund and One Lucky Dane and next weekend is expected to send last year's 2-year-old Eclipse Award champ, American Pharoah after the Arkansas Derby trophy. Baffert said he wasn't thrilled with the rail draw for Dortmund. "I have an idea what I'll tell my riders," he said. "But the most important thing is that we have the stock. These races are won or lost in the first turn."
Carpe Diem is the marquee name in Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Toyota Blue Grass at 1 1/8 miles at Keeneland. The Giant's Causeway colt is one of several Todd Pletcher trainees jockeying -- pun intended -- for a spot at Churchill Downs on May 2. He won both his starts as a 2-year-old, including the Grade II Claiborne Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, then finished second to the currently sidelined Texas Red in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He won the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby by 5 lengths in his only previous start this year. He will start from the versatile No. 5 gate, giving jockey John Velazquez all the options. The main threat among seven rivals is Ocho Ocho Ocho, a Street Sense colt who was undefeated in three starts as a 2-year-old, ending with a win in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot. Under the old system, the purse money from that would have guaranteed Ocho Ocho Ocho a place in the Kentucky Derby. Now, he needs to earn points in the races blessed by Churchill Downs and he got none of those by finishing eighth in the Grade II San Felipe in his first start of 2015. A first- or second-place finish here would do the job but anything less would find the colt outside looking in if 20 or more are entered for the Run for the Roses. He drew the rail and trainer Jim Cassidy said that's okay. "He broke a little slow last time but he won't this time," Cassidy predicted. Among the others, Classy Class might enjoy a break from the Aqueduct inner track while Frammento could be improving and might enjoy the added distance.
Daredevil, winner of last year's Grade I Champagne Stakes, drew post No. 6 in a seven-horse field for Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Daredevil finished an inexplicable last in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but came back with an acceptable second-place finish in his 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream. Byron Hughes, assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher, said a Sunday workout went "very well ... He's very similar to what I saw last year. Whenever I watch him, I think he can do just about anything." Among his six rivals is El Kabeir, who has run well all winter over the Big A's inner track without gaining much respect. A good showing here would reverse that trend. "We have a lot of confidence in him," said trainer John Terranova. "He's seasoned, versatile and all of that bodes well for him." Also set to line up here are Frosted, second in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream and a mysterious fourth in the Grade II Fountain of Youth; and Tiz Shae D, runner-up in the Gotham.
The Lane to the Lilies
Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Central Bank Ashland at Keeneland traditionally is a major stepping stone to the Kentucky Oaks. Seven are set to go 1 1/16 miles in this year's renewal. Peace and War makes her first start since winning the Grade I Alcibiades over the course and distance last fall and, before that, raced with some credit in England. The others, frankly, have been disappointing to this point in their careers. Lovely Maria did finish second by 2 1/2 lengths to I'm a Chatterbox in the Rachel Alexandra. Lassofthemohicans was a non-threatening second to Birdatthewire in the Grade II Forward Gal.
Feathered and Sarah Sis top a roster of 11 for Saturday's $400,000, Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park, going 1 1/16 miles. Feathered, an Indian Charlie filly, finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last fall and subsequently a good second to Take Charge Brandi in the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos. However, she finished a flat fourth in her 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream Park. Sarah Sis, by Sharp Humor, has three wins and three seconds from six starts, three of which came earlier in the Oaklawn meeting. She won the Grade III Honeybee in her last outing.
Stellar Wind is the morning-line favorite among eight in for Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Santa Anita Oaks at 1 1/16 miles. Stellar Wind, a Curlin filly trained by John Sadler, broke her maiden at Laurel Park on her second try, then shipped across the continent to win the Grade III Santa Ysabella over Light the City and Glory. Both of those are back for another try. Singing Kitty and Curlin's Fox were 1-2 in the China Doll Stakes on the Santa Anita turf in their last start. Baffert saddles Luminance, who is undefeated in two starts and moves up in class.
Seven will contest the $300,000, Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct, going 9 furlongs. Among those, Condo Commando won the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga in the slop and also took the Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct -- by 11 1/2 lengths. She came back to win her first start as a 3-year-old in the Busher over the inner track. Puca, Wonder Gal, Noble and a Beauty and Jacaranda all have shown talent at one time or another in their brief careers.
Three-year-olds take to the Keeneland grass on Friday's opening day with Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up Luck of the Kitten among the 13 signed on. The only horse better than this one on Hallowe'en at Santa Anita was Hootenanny, his stablemate in Wesley Ward's barn who is looking to mow down some international grass runners later this spring in England. Among Friday's rivals are Danish Dynaformer, who comes off a handy maiden win in Florida. Eh Cumpari is fresh from a win in the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream Park lawn and Divisidero was third in that heat. Night Prowler and A Lot were 1-2 in the grassy Grade III Dania Beach Stakes in Florida. Tuba won the Black Gold Stakes at Fair Grounds in his last outing. The mix of winning shippers and returnees from layoff illustrates the complexity of handicapping at Keeneland in the springtime.
Saturday's fourth race at Keeneland is a 9-furlongs, conditioned allowance but looks more like a graded stakes with the likes of Mr Speaker, Big Blue Kitten, Sky Blazer, Patrioticandproud, Guys Reward, Hyper and War Dancer. Let's hope the weather allows these two races to stay on the grass.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Providencia at Santa Anita is a 9-furlongs event, restricted to 3-year-old fillies, and drew a field of 13 with some foreign intrigue. The morning-line favorite is Prize Exhibit, who raced well in England and finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Spirit of Xian and Sister of Mercy also come from England and Havanna Belle has raced well in Ireland. Entrechat has won going down the hillside turf course and Miss Boom Boom is starting to make noise. Lady Zuzu is a Dynaformer filly who looks well suited to the grass.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Stopchargingmaria makes her seasonal debut in Saturday's $350,000, Grade I Madison at Keeneland. The Tale of the Cat filly won the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks and the Grade I Alabama last summer in New York before finishing second in the Grade I Beldame against older rivals. Three of the top four from the Grade II Barbara Fritchie Handicap on Valentine's Day at Laurel Park are in for this. Lady Sabelia won that race, her sixth win in her last seven starts. Princess Violet was second and Sam's Sister finished fourth with some traffic problems. Wedding Toast is a graded stakes winner for Godolphin and has not finished worse than third in eight career starts.
A field of seven is set to go 7 furlongs in Saturday's seventh race at Keeneland, the $300,000, Grade III Commonwealth. And No. 7 may well be the favorite as the denizen of that gate, C. Zee, comes off a very handy win in the Grade III Gulfstream Park Sprint in his last outing and has run well at Keeneland. Bourbon Courage will try to bounce back from a terrible 2015 start in Maryland. Kobe's Back is in from California with Gary Stevens as the pilot. The well-traveled Hip Four Sixtynine has looked good in the morning locally. I Got It All, bred by a partnership including former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, also could figure in the outcome.
Dads Caps has been finishing behind Salutos Amigos all winter at Aqueduct. With that rival returning from Dubai, Dads Caps should have a clear shot in Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Carter at Aqueduct, right? Not so much. This race attracted the big boys -- Grade II San Carlos winner Wild Dude from out west; multiple Grade I winner Palace, off a long layoff; Grade I Kings Bishop winner The Big Beast, off comeback win at Oaklawn Park; and Grade III Belmont Sprint winner Clearly Now. It's 7 furlongs of pure speed with a few long shots to keep The Big Beast honest.
Eight speedy 3-year-olds are set for Saturday's $300,000, Grade III Bay Shore at Aqueduct. Among them, Lord Nelson cuts back to 7 furlongs after failing to threaten Dortmund in the Grade II San Felipe and Ready for Rye has won three straight, including the Grade II Swale at Gulfstream. A couple of inner-track specialists will see what they can do on the main oval.
Saturday's $125,000, Grade III Shakertown at Keeneland, 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass, has a fascinating field including several talented steeds who haven't run well in recent outings. Included in that bunch are the likes of Go Blue Or Go Home (and note, UK plays in the NCAA Final Four Saturday night!), Zee Bros, Berlino Di Tiger and Heaven's Runway. Those who have been rolling well include Undrafted, who is unraced since finishing an oh-so-close third in the Breeders' Cup; Australian import Power Alert, who won both his starts going short on the Gulfstream Park grass; Amelia's Wild Ride; and Tight End Touchdown, who misfired on the main track in Pennsylvania in his last start in November.
Saturday's $75,000 Thunder Road at Santa Anita is worth a look with the likes of Winning Prize, Talco, Pure Tactics, Gabriel Charles, Mr. Commons and Si Sage all signed on.
They're off and running at Randwick with four Group 1 events. The Darley T J Smith Stakes at 1,200 meters features Lankan Rupee among the favorites. There's also The Star Doncaster Mile; the BMW Australian Derby with Preferment, Volkstok'n'barell, Mongolian Khan and others; and a lot of promising 2-year-olds in the Ingalls Sires Stakes.
The seven-race card for the All-Weather Championships on Friday at Lingfield includes events for all categories of runners and culminates months of qualifying races in England and in France. Godolphin has used this series to place all-weather specialists in the absence of the now-replaced Tapeta track at Meydan and holds a strong hand for the finals.
Friday marks the second straight year the Meydan folks pull up stakes after the World Cup program and put on a race day at Chengdu in southwestern China. There are five races at various distances over a course renovated last year by Meydan. Purses total just over US$600,000. Horses, trainers, jockeys, vets and all the infrastructure come from Dubai and return there afterwards. The racing might not be international quality but the very fact the horses enter China, race and leave is very important as a foot in the door should the central government ever decide to give its blessing to commercial racing in that vast market. This is the UAE's ante into a pot for a game that might never be dealt. The Hong Kong Jockey Club, Coolmore and the China Horse Club also have a stake in the game in various ways.
News and Notes
Racing Post reports Newmarket is on "high alert" for cases of strangles after a Marco Botti-trained horse tested positive for the potentially fatal and disruptive disease after returning from Dubai. Two horses who shared the return flight with the affected horse are in isolation but have tested negative. "Trainers should be very aware about this outbreak of a disease which can shut racing down," the British publication quoted Mark Tompkins, head of the Newmarket Trainers Federation. "It's all very well having all this international racing but with no quarantine for some places this is what can happen." The Dubai Racing Federation said there has not been a case of strangles in the UAE in 10 years. "It should be noted that the apparent symptoms of strangles were not identified until 14 days after the horse arrived back at Newmarket," the organization said in a statement. "This would indicate that the horse was infected post departure from the UAE." As a precaution, blood drawn from the horses while in the UAE is being tested.
Finally, you'd like to think Holy Week, a 3-year-old Pleasantly Perfect colt, would be a logical choice in the fifth race at Aqueduct on Holy Saturday -- a maiden special weight event.