The Arkansas Derby and the Lexington Stakes mark the end of the Road to the Roses this weekend and should complete a pretty good "who's who" of the Kentucky Derby field.
Keeneland, Oaklawn Park, and Santa Anita all have top-shelf graded stakes. Woodbine returns to action after the winter hibernation.
On the international front, the delayed first day of The Championships at Randwick finally is in the books and the second round is Saturday.
Able Friend continued to roll over the local competition in Hong Kong as his owner warily eyes an overseas campaign and the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup looms on the horizon. In Japan, it's the Group 1 Oka Sho, or Japanese 1,000 Guineas. And keep a weather eye on Leopardstown in Ireland on Saturday.
With the Kentucky Derby only three weeks away, let's look first to the American 3-year-olds.
The Road to the Roses
Dortmund was so dominant in winning last week's Grade I Santa Anita Derby that his stablemate in the Bob Baffert barn, American Pharoah, will have to put on some show in Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Arkansas Derby to hold onto his favorite's role in the Run for the Roses. American Pharoah, a Pioneerof the Nile colt, has won four straight races, including the Grade II Rebel in the slop over the Oaklawn Park course in his only previous start this year. The colt is the reigning 2-year-old champ and is at or near the top of most lists of Derby prospects but this is far from a walkover.
The field also includes Far Right, The Truth Or Else and Mr. Z -- the trifecta from the Grade III Southwest earlier in the Hot Springs meeting. Bridget's Big Luvy has two big wins on muddy tracks at Gulfstream Park and Laurel Park but there's no rain in Saturday's forecast in central Arkansas. Madefromlucky and Bold Conquest were 2-3 in the Rebel. With all that said, American Pharoah hasn't been threatened since a learning experience in his maiden start and this race seems to be his to lose.
"The main thing right now," Baffert said Thursday from his California base, "is to take one race at a time. Hopefully, he runs well and comes out of it well. Every time he runs we learn more and more about him." Far From Over, said trainer Ron Moquette, "is doing unbelievable so I'm happy with the way he comes into the race." And trainer Todd Pletcher said he hopes the added distance will help Madefromlucky. "We've got to figure out the next step for him and where we belong, and this race should help us clarify that," Pletcher said.
None of the seven lined up for Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Lexington at Keeneland is going to figure in the Kentucky Derby. But the race certainly is worth a look for some late-developing types who might be players later -- even as soon as the Preakness. Among those, Fame and Power, trained by Baffert for Juddmonte Farms, finally broke his maiden on his fifth try in California when stretched out to 7 furlongs and the First Defence colt now gets the extra 1 1/2 furlongs he's likely to like. Donworth and Comfort also come off maiden wins.
Churchill Downs released a new "Leaderboard" for Derby contenders, reflecting defections and injuries. After all of that, Madefromlucky is No. 21 on the list, with a maximum of 20 to start on May 2 at Churchill Downs. No. 22 is Frammento, the Nick Zito trainee who has run well in Florida and at Keeneland. Bold Conquest is No. 23, Mr. Z is 24 and The Truth or Else is No. 25.
It's worth noting a foreigner's perspective on the May 2 Kentucky Derby. Sam Walker, who analyzes the international scene for Racing Post in England, reckons Dortmund hasn't faced much and that his owner's comparisons to Seattle Slew and Smarty Jones are ludicrous given Dortmund's mediocre Racing Post Rating of 114. Walker also says UAE Derby winner Mubtaahij has a better chance than any of six previous UAE Derby winners who have tackled the Churchill Downs classic. (Steve Haskin has the Mike de Kock trainee No. 5 on his "Derby Dozen" this week for The Blood-Horse). Barring an outstanding performance Saturday by American Pharoah, Walker adds, "the Run for the Roses is wide open." Walker picked California Chrome last year and Orb the year before.
And, as has been the case all along the road to the Triple Crown, if you can't be there in person, catch the action on Horse Racing Radio Network, on satellite or at www.horseracingradio.net. Mike Penna has got the goods.
So dominant is Able Friend at Sha Tin that his 1 1/4-lengths victory in Tuesday's HK Group 2 Chairman's Trophy didn't even impress his jockey. "I think he ran a little bit under what he can produce," said Joao Moreira. "But, still, he was just too good. Once again he proved he is the best horse in town." Moreira had to shake up the 5-year-old son of Shamardal a bit during the stretch run to get him going and finished the 1,600 meters in 1:33.76. Beauty Flame was second and Rewarding Hero was third and Dan Excell checked in fourth.
Trainer John Moore has been trying to convince owner Cornel Li to take Able Friend to other jurisdictions to confirm his international standing. Li has been reluctant and the horse will stay in Hong Kong and shoot for his sixth straight win in the Group 1 Champions Mile on May 3. Then, he may travel, with the Yasuda Kinen in Tokyo on June 7 a potential target. "I think connections did the right thing by keeping him here to go for the Champions Mile in a few weeks' time and I think we can work it out and make sure he is at the top of his game for that," Moreira said. "He won the international race in December (the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile) and I think he can do it again next month."
Meanwhile, the April 26 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup, a Group 1 race now worth HK$20 million (about US$2.5 million) drew a nice cast of characters with Japanese runners looking to be the main threat to the top locals -- Designs On Rome, Military Attack, California Memory and others. Criterion is the established threat, with multiple Group 1 stakes wins on his resume and a third in last December's Group 1 Hong Kong Cup. Stephanos is a rising star in Japan. France sends Smoking Sun, who finished second last year in the Group 1 Singapore Airlines International Cup. And Red Cadeaux, a virtual citizen of the world, is back for another visit in Sha Tin. "This mix of established heroes and emerging stars is one facet of what makes the APQEII Cup one of the world's top Group 1 contests," said William Nader, executive director of racing for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Chautaqua rallied from the back of the field to take down Monday's Group 1 T J Smith Stakes, narrowly edging Lord Of The Sky. Terravista finished third. Highly rated Lankan Rupee faded badly to finish next-last of 10. Chautaqua, a 5-year-old Encosta de Lago gelding, got the 6 furlongs over soft turf in 1:11.04. He had finished second in his two previous starts, the Group 1 Darley Classic and the Group 1 Newmarket Handicap, both at 1,200 meters at Flemington. The victory carried an automatic entry into October's Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.
Kermadec got through traffic late to land his first career win at the highest level, taking the Group 1 Doncaster Mile by 1 3/4 lengths over Real Impact. Royal Descent finished third. Kermadec, a 3-year-old by Teofilo, finished in 1:37.61 with Glen Boss in the irons. The victory earned Kermadec a berth in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Keeneland in October.
Mongolian Khan completed the New Zealand Derby/Australian Derby double with a gritty win in the latter race under Opie Bosson. The son of Holy Roman Emperor had disappointed in the Group 1 Rosehill Guineas at 2,000 meters in between the derbies but seemed more suited to the return to 2,400. Trainer Murray Baker said Mongolian Khan will have a rest and prepare for the Caulfield Cup and Melbourne Cup in the Southern Hemisphere springtime.
Among the 2-year-olds, Pride of Dubai won the Group 1 Inglis Sires Stakes by 3/4 length from Odyssey Moon with Ragesse third. Pride of Dubai, a Street Cry colt, is owned by a syndicate including Sheik Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum and Coolmore.
Candelara scored an impressive win off a 10-month layoff in the Group 3 Adrian Knox Stakes and trainer Bjorn Baker said the filly will move right along to Friday's Group 1 Australian Oaks against top stayers.
Saturday's Group 1 races, in addition to the Oaks, are the Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes at 1 1/4 miles, the Schwepps 150th Sydney Cup at 2 miles and the Cellarbrations Queen of the Turf Stakes at 1 mile.
Keep an eye on the Group 3 PW McGrath Memorial Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown on Sunday. Trainer Aidan O'Brien has six of the 11 prospective starters, including the current favorite for the Epsom Derby, John F Kennedy, a Galileo colt who won two of three as a juvenile. O'Brien used this race as a steppingstone for the likes of Galileo himself in 2001 and High Chaparral in 2002. Just sayin'.
Back in the States:
Alsvid stalked the pace in Thursday's $300,000, Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn Park, then outfinished Ivan Fallunovalot to win by 3/4 length over that one. Picko's Pride led early and finished third while the favorite, Gentlemen's Bet, was never involved and finished last. Alsvid, a 6-year-old Officer gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.36 with Chris Landeros up.
Seven are entered for Friday's $100,000 Bachelor Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn. Among them, Subtle Indian is undefeated in three starts including the Gazebo Stakes over the course in his last outing. Some of the others have been running in richer company -- but without winning.
None of the seven prospective starters in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Kona Gold Stakes at Santa Anita has exactly been setting the world afire. But San Onofre steps up in class with four wins and two seconds from six career starts and deserves a look. Masochistic also has been running well against the locals.
Saturday's $100,000 Northern Spur at Oaklawn, for 3-year-olds at 1 mile around two turns, attracted the Bob Baffert-trained Wolf Man Rocket, a Mineshaft colt who has started twice at Santa Anita and finished second both times. Rivals from Fair Grounds and Sam Houston also face a promising local contingent.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Promise Me Silver is undefeated in six starts and looks well placed to extend that record in Saturday's $100,000 Instant Racing for 3-year-old fillies at Oaklawn. The Silver City filly has won at six different tracks, including Oaklawn, where she took the Dixie Belle in January, edging the talented Sarah Sis. Indian Brava is undefeated in two starts, both local, and steps up a rung on the class ladder.
Sunday's $250,000, Grade II Adena Springs Beaumont at Keeneland attracted a field of eight, six of them graded stakes winners. Ball Dancing, Filimbi, Hard Not To Like and Emotional Kitten all look capable of taking this although as perceived paucity of pace may reward a tactical ride on any of them.
You can make a case for just about any of the 12 entrants for Saturday's $100,000 Giant's Causeway for fillies and mares at Keeneland, at 5 1/2 furlongs on the lawn. Among them, however, Free as a Bird does stand out as the winner of seven of her last eight starts. The only blemish on that record was a second, by 1/2 length, to Ageless in last year's edition of this race. Ageless finished fourth, beaten only 3/4 length, in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint last fall and makes her 2015 debut. This one calls for all your handicapping skills and a bit of luck into the bargain.
Go West Marie and Heaven's Stairway are the morning-line favorites among eight for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Las Cienegas Stakes for fillies and mares down the Santa Anita hillside grass.
If it ever stops raining there, Keenland's Friday program will include the $300,000, Grade I Maker's 46 Mile with seven entered. Among those, Long On Value comes off a victory in the Grade III Canadian Turf Handicap at Gulfstream Park, Summer Front was last seen finishing second in the Grade I Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita and Legendary won last fall's Grade III Knickerbocker in New York. Za Approval and Jack Milton also deserve a look.
Filly & Mare Turf
Filimbi and Ball Dancing headline a cast of eight for Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland, going 1 1/16 miles. Filimbi won the Grade II Goldikova in California to end her 4-year-old season and the Mizzen Mast mare ran okay to finish Grade III Hillsborough Handicap at Tampa Bay in her season opener. Ball Dancing has a win and two close seconds since shipping in from France, where she ran well in Group 1 company. Also consider Hard Not To Like and Emotional Kitten.
Keep an eye on Saturday's fourth race at Keeneland, a 1 1/16-miles allowance that includes Radiator, a 4-year-old Juddmonte Farms homebred Dubawi filly who raced well in England last year and won her first U.S. start for new trainer Bill Mott earlier in the meeting.
It's tough to look past Untapable in Fridays $600,000, Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park. The 4-year-old Tapit filly couldn't quite catch Gold Medal Dancer last time out in the Grade II in her first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff. But with that under her belt and with a steady work tab, she is the obvious one to beat among seven entrants. Gold Medal Dancer is back for another try and Sugar Shock has been excellent in Hot Springs. The others need a step forward.
House Rules rules as the 6-5 morning-line pick for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct. The 9-furlongs race finds nine set to go, also including Got Lucky and Before You Know It. House Rules, a 4-year-old Distorted Humor filly, comes off her second straight successful winter in Florida.
Saturday's $600,000, Grade II Oaklawn Handicap has a cast including proven performers like Tapiture, Carve, Hard Aces and Golden Lad as well as some promising talent. Among the latter, Race Day returns from a win in the local Grade III Razorback, where he beat Midnight Hawk, Golden Ticket and Carve. The Tapit colt will start from the rail with John Velazquez up for Todd Pletcher. Doug O'Neill brings Sammy Mandeville from California, where the Rock Hard Ten colt is graded stakes placed and has been improving by leaps and bounds, albeit in softer company.
Six are entered in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Ben Ali at Keeneland, going 1 1/16 miles, and one of those, Irish You Well, is cross-entered at Oaklawn. Two potential favorites have question marks. Protonico finished second, only 1/2 length behind Hoppertunity and ahead of Constitution, in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs in his final start of 2014. But the 4-year-old Giant's Causeway colt was eased in the stretch in his only previous start this year, the Grade I Donn Handicap. Farhaan, a 6-year-old Shadwell homebred, has run impressively -- but not since last summer at Saratoga. Golden Ticket and Ami's Holiday also are in the mix.
In other action:
Will Rogers Downs
More Than Even rallied by pacesetter Beau Ravelle in the stretch run to win Monday's $50,000 Wilma Mankiller Memorial by 3 1/4 lengths. Teardrop pressed the pace and held on for third. More Than Even, a 5-year-old mare by Stephen Got Even, ran 6 furlongs on a muddy, sealed track in 1:10.54 with Cliff Berry up. The race is named for the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation.