With American Pharoah's romping win in Saturday's Arkansas Derby, the Kentucky Derby field is just about set.
More about that in a minute, though, because there was a lot more going on during a busy weekend of Thoroughbred racing.
Two races run within minutes of each other on Friday set a tone for the Distaff division with the 2013 and 2014 champions both emerging victorious. And there were important races in many of the other divisions.
Internationally, the second and final weekend of The Championships at Randwick in Australia will lead to further drama down the road. There was a big upset on the Epsom Derby trail. And Let's Go Donki proved very un-donkeylike in Japan.
Speaking of roads, let's start with ...
The Road to the Roses
American Pharoah was on cruise control in Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. After rating nicely, he quickly went by pacesetter Bridget's Big Luvy on the stretch turn and cut loose from rest of the field, winning by 8 lengths without being asked for much effort. Far Right came from last of eight to finish second and Mr. Z was third. American Pharoah ran 9 furlongs in 1:48.52 with Victor Espinoza up for trainer Bob Baffert. The Pioneerof the Nile colt is undefeated and, really, unchallenged in five starts since a fading, fifth-place showing in his career debut. American Pharoah, Mr. Z and a third Kentucky Derby qualifier, El Kabeir, all are owned by Ahmed Zayat.
"I don't know if words can describe what I'm feeling," Zayat said by telephone from Mexico. "I know he is very talented and a very fast horse. But today he showed us a different dimension. This horse can do anything. He's brilliant." Espinoza added, "The way this horse runs is unbelievable. I don't feel like he's running that fast and then I look back and he's so far ahead. He was doing it by himself and doing it easy."
Baffert, who also handles last weekend's dominant Santa Anita Derby winner, Dortmund, said he was relieved American Pharoah allowed himself to be rated behind early speed. "When that other horse got off to that lead, it was either that he's going to rate or he's going to be empty today," Baffert said. "He's a good horse and he keeps moving forward." Far Right also is headed to Louisville but his trainer, Ron Moquett, said it's obvious something will have to happen differently there for his horse to defeat American Pharoah. "Just like everybody else going there, we'll need some of the best luck," Moquett said.
Divining Rod saved ground into the turn, then took over in the stretch run to win Saturday's $100,000 Lexington at Keeneland by 3 easy lengths over Donworth. Fame and Power made the early going and lost second at the end by a nose. Divining Rod, a Tapit colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.29 with Julien Leparoux up. Divining Rod finished second in the Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs and third in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby. But with only 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points collected for for the win, he has 22 points and remains a few slots shy of qualifying for the May 2 Run for the Roses. Should that change, said trainer Arnaud Delacour, "We'll consider it, for sure."
After weekend action, the prospective Derby field shapes up as (listed by points earned, with no more than 20 horses to start):
1. (171) International Star, Louisiana Derby winner 2. (170) Dortmund, Santa Anita Derby winner 3. (164) Carpe Diem, Blue Grass winner 4. (160) American Pharoah, Arkansas Derby winner 5. (113) Frosted, Wood Memorial winner 6. (100) Mubtaahij, UAE Derby winner 6. (100) Materality, Florida Derby winner 8. (95) El Kabeir 9. (76) Upstart 10. (63) Far Right 11. (60) Itsaknockout 12. (58) Firing Line, Sunland Derby winner 13. (45) Danzig Moon 14. (44) War Story 15. (41) Tencendur 16. (40) One Lucky Dane 16. (40) Stanford 18. (34) Mr. Z 19. (30) Ocho Ocho Ocho 19. (30) Bolo 19. (30) Madefromlucky
Untapable, last year's Eclipse Award champion 3-year-old filly, got back in the winner's circle at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, dominating the $600,000, Grade I Apple Blossom under John Velazquez. The 4-year-old Tapit filly tracked the leaders, came wide into the stretch and drew off to score by 2 1/2 lengths over Diva's Diamond. Gold Medal Dancer, who edged Untapable in their last start, could do no better than third this time around. Untapable, the 2014 Kentucky Oaks and Breeders' Cup Distaff winner, covered 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.96. "I was awfully concerned with how sharp she's been, the works that she's put in," said winning trainer Steve Asmussen. "I thought Johnny did a great job with her into the first turn. Once they lined out down the backside, I thought she was really in a commanding position and ran extremely well from there." Winning owner-breeder Ron Winchell said the next race isn't decided yet. "When we brought her back, this was the main target," he said.
In California, Beholder, a 2012 and 2013 Eclipse Award champ, waited patiently behind the early pace in the $75,000 Santa Lucia Stakes, took over when cued by jockey Gary Stevens and romped home first by 3 3/4 lengths in her first start of 2015. Uzziel led early and held second, 2 3/4 lengths to the good of Oscar Party. Beholder, a 5-year-old daughter of Henny Hughes and winner of the 2013 Santa Anita Oaks and Breeders' Cup Distaff, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.54 in her first start since last September. She missed last fall's Breeders' Cup after an ill-timed illness. "I could easily be wrong but she's the best filly in the world," said winning owner B. Wayne Hughes. Trainer Richard Mandella added, "It's a relief to get through this and she's back. I don't think she could have looked any better." Mandella said Beholder is ticketed for the Grade I Vanity on May 9 and then the Grade I Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes day.
House Rules needed most of the stretch to get by Before You Know It and Shayjolie in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct but finally got the job done, winning by 1/2 length. House Rules, a 4-year-old Distorted Humor filly, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:52.41 with Junior Alvarado in the irons. She has won three of her last four starts. "She's funny," said winning trainer Jimmy Jerkens. "When she gets strangled off a slow pace, or you drag her too far back, she gets discouraged. That's what happened to her in a couple of those bad races. I told Junior, 'I don't want you on the lead but have them in your sights and save every inch of ground you can.' He did it perfect."
Race Day is racing his way right into the thick of the handicap division. The 4-year-old Tapit colt dueled with Carve through the early furlongs of Saturday's $600,000, Grade II Oaklawn Handicap, put that one away and went on to win by 3 3/4 lengths. Carve held second, 4 lengths better than Tapiture. With John Velazquez up for trainer Todd Pletcher, Race Day ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:47.93. He now has won five of his last six starts, dating back to a maiden win at Keeneland in October. He also has won at Churchill Downs and Gulfstream Park. "It worked out perfect," Velazquez said. "We went a little quicker than I expected to, but we had no choice to be upfront. We got good position going into the first turn and I tried to save enough horse for the run home. He did everything so easy coming to the quarter pole. When I asked him right at the eighth pole he responded." Pletcher said he will discuss options for the next race with owner Matt Schera.
Protonico led under pressure for the first half mile of Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Ben Ali at Keeneland, worked clear of the field and cruised home first by 5 lengths. Neck 'n Neck beat the other four, finishing 2 1/2 lengths to the good of Ami's Holiday. Protonico, a 4-year-old Giant's Causeway colt, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:48.79 with Javier Castellano riding. It was his first start since being eased in the lane in the Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 7. Despite that, he was the odds-on favorite for the Ben Ali after a couple of sizzling works. Tristan Barry, assistant to winning trainer Todd Pletcher, said the Donn fizzle remains a mystery. "Just a complete head scratcher. Throw it out. He's back today," Barry said.
One of the things we love about the Keeneland spring meeting is that horses are in from all over the country, presenting unique handicapping challenges -- and opportunities. Thus it was in Friday's $300,000, Grade I Maker's 46 Mile, featuring seven horses whose last starts came at Santa Anita, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park and Aqueduct. Gulfstream form dominated as Jack Milton rallied from last to post a mild upset victory by 2 3/4 lengths, followed by Aripeka and Long On Value, all up from Florida. The favorite, California invader Summer Front, finished fifth. Jack Milton, a 5-year-old son of War Front, finished in 1:36.30 over soft turf. "I really liked the way the race set up today," said winning rider Javier Castellano. "He's a come-from-behind horse. It was a beautiful pace. I think they went pretty quick early in the race and set it up perfectly. He gave me a good kick. I'm very satisfied with the way he did it."
Lady Eli pressed the pace in Sunday's $125,000, Grade III Appalachian Stakes, presented by the Japan Racing Association, at Keeneland, then went on about her business, winning by 2 1/2 lengths. Miss Temple City edged pacesetting Sunset Glow for second. Lady Eli, a daughter of Divine Park, ran 1 mile on good turf in 1:35.80 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons. The race was restricted to 3-year-old fillies. Lady Eli was making her first start since winning last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and remains undefeated in four career outings. "We'll probably take her back to our home base at Belmont," said winning trainer Chad Brown. He said the $200,000 Wonder Again Stakes there on May 31 will be a prep for the $1 million, Grade I Belmont Oaks Invitational on the Fourth of July, "which is our early season target. But we'll let the filly tell us and see how she trains."
Baffert sent Wolf Man Rocket to Oaklawn Park along with American Pharoah and picked up another win as the Mineshaft colt rallied by Hillbilly Royalty in the late going to land Saturday's $100,000 Northern Spur for 3-year-olds by 1 3/4 lengths over that rival. Poseidon's Way finished third. Wolf Man Rocket, with Espinoza up, covered 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.48, scoring his first victory after finishing second twice in California. Owner Frank Fletcher, an Arkansas businessman, said he's not sure where Baffert will send Wolf Man Rocket next. "I think he's the first maiden in 18 years of the Northern Spur," Fletcher said. "So a lot of people said we shouldn't have been in this race. We'll see what Mr. Baffert tells me to do next. I listen to him pretty carefully."
Masochistic pressed the pace in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Kona Gold Stakes at Santa Anita, took the lead heading for home and prevailed by 3/4 length over the stubborn pacesetter, San Onofre. Saraha Sky finished third. Masochistic, a 5-year-old Sought After gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:14.69 with Tyler Baze at the controls. This was basically, don't change anything that ain't broken," Baze said.
Holy Boss went quickly to the fore in Friday's $100,000 Bachelor Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park, turned back a challenge from long shot A M Milky Way and went on to win by 1 length over that one. Hebbronville checked in third. Holy Boss, a Street Boss colt out of the Holy Bull mare Holy Grace, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.58 with Luis Quinonez in the irons.
Woodbine swung back into action Saturday with the $125,000 (Canadian) Woodstock Stakes for 3-year-olds highlighting the action and Serious Talk posting serious upset. The Forestry gelding stalked the pace three-wide, then wore down pacesetter Jacks Escarpment in the stretch run, winning by 3/4 length at 10-1 odds. The favorite, Conquest Bigluck E, settled for third. Serious Talk, with Emma-Jayne Wilson aboard, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.52.
Yiannis led from the start in Sunday's $75,000 San Pedro Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita and held well at the end of 6 furlongs to win by 1 1/4 lengths from Serbian Syclone. The favorite, Kentuckian, was up for third. Yiannis, a Midshipman ridgling, was clocked in 1:09.67 with Victor Espinoza aboard.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Promise Me Silver remains undefeated in seven career starts after rallying from well back to win Saturday's $100,000 Instant Racing Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park by 2 1/4 lengths. Harbour Island finished second and Indian Brava got show money. Promise Me Silver, a Silver City filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.03 with Cliff Berry in the irons. She has won at six different tracks while being well managed by trainer Brett Calhoun. "She's very versatile," Calhoun said. "The position allowed us to run that kind of race today. Fractions were pretty hot up front. When Cliff pulled the trigger, she accelerated." He said Promise Me Silver will move along to graded stakes company in the $200,000, Grade III Eight Belles at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks day May 1.
Miss Ella came three-wide from a stalking position to take over in the stretch run in Sunday's $250,000, Grade II Adena Springs Beaumont Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Keeneland and went on to win by 2 1/2 lengths Divine Dawn was second, Fantastic Style checked in third and the favorite, Delightful Joy, beat only one rival. Miss Ella, a daughter of Exchange Rate, got 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:28.11 for jockey Rajiv Maragh. She was making only her second career start. "I think a lot of it was Rajiv," said winning trainer Graham Motion. "He had a lot of confidence in her. Also Jack Swain, the owner, had a lot of confidence in her. It was a great opportunity to get some graded stakes money and we were able to get all of it. I think she's a special filly. I think she has a really bright future."
Ancient Goddess rallied from far back in Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Star Shoot Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Woodbine and was just up in time to nip Brooklynsway for the win. Zia was 1 length farther back in third. Ancient Goddess, a French-bred filly by Iffraaj, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:10.19. "I got a perfect trip," said winning rider Luis Contreras. "The filly came here sharp and ready to run. She surprised me because it was her first time running on Polytrack and she handled it like she has been here for a long time."
On a day awash in victorious favorites, Katie's Eyes was a poke in the eye for chalk players, winning Saturday's $100,000 Giant's Causeway Stakes for fillies and mares at Keeneland -- at 13-1 odds -- by 2 1/2 lengths with a good stretch move. Ageless was second, Runway Ready was third and the favorite, Free as a Bird, settled for fourth. Katie's Eyes, a 4-year-old daughter of Leroidesanimaux, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on yielding turf in 1:02.78 with Florent Geroux up. She was coming off two straight wins in turf sprints at Fair Grounds. Trainer Mike Stidham said owner Ike Thrash convinced him to move along to tougher competition. "I thought we might be biting off a little more than we could chew today but Mr. Thrash wanted to go here so here's where we landed, and I'm glad we did," Stidham said. Also, see www.popejude.com for Jude Feld's tips on winning longshots like this one.
Home Journey led all the way home in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Las Cienegas Stakes for fillies and mares down the Santa Anita hillside turf course and held on to win by 1 length over Go West Marie. Blingismything recovered from a bobbled start to rally for third. Home Journey, a 5-year-old mare by Good Journey, finished the gravity-assisted 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:13.09 over firm turf with Rafael Bejarano in the irons. "She ran really fast last time and just got nailed," said winning trainer Mike Puype. "Today, she slowed it down a little bit, she kicked, and she ran a good race."
Filly & Mare Turf
Ball Dancing tracked the pace in Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Jenny Wiley at Keeneland, swung three-wide into the lane and won off by 2 1/2 lengths over Filimbi. Hard Not To Like finished third. Ball Dancing, a 4-year-old Exchange Rate filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on yielding turf in 1:43.08 for jockey Javier Castellano. She now has two wins and two seconds from four U.S. starts since being shipped last summer from France, where she also ran with distinction. Chad Brown trains both Ball Dancing and top turfer Stephanie's Kitten. "They're both top class, very even," he said. "We gave her a chance to get her Grade 1 today and she did it for us. As long as she's healthy, I have some big races planned for her this year."
Saturday's races at Randwick provided their share of immediate thrills and plenty of promise for the future -- with a nod to the past, to be sure.
Criterion got clear in the final furlong of the Group 1 Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes and held off globetrotting veteran Red Cadeaux to win by 2 1/2 lengths with Royal Descent third. Criterion, with Craig Williams up, got the 1 1/4 miles over soft going in 2:05.35 and the top two remain candidates for the Audemars Piguet QEII Cup in Hong Kong in two weeks' time. It was the first win for Criterion since he took the Group 1 Australian Derby over the course almost exactly a year earlier. He has, however, run well in defeat with the intervening races including a good third-place showing in last December's Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup. "As long, of course, that he pulls up well from today and he's fit and well, then the return to Hong Kong is locked in," winning trainer David Hayes said. And Red Cadeaux's trainer, Ed Dunlop, said his 9-year-old warrior "was brave again and a touch unlucky. We have a couple of options with him but Hong Kong's the most likely."
Grand Marshal upset the Group 1 Schweppes 150th Sydney Cup, coming from well back to win by a short head in the final jumps from Who Shot Thebarman. Like A Carousel was third and Hong Kong's top stayer, Dominant, finished sixth over the soft going. Last year's Melbourne Cup winner, Protectionist, continued his slide, finishing seventh, and now has not won in four intervening starts. Grand Marshal, a 5-year-old Dansili gelding, ran 2 miles in 3:24.70 with Jim Cassidy up.
Amanpour was tough to load before the Group 1 Cellarbrations Queen of the Turf Stakes but ran plenty well once she got sorted out. After racing prominently for jockey Kerrin McEvoy, the 5-year-old mare by Northern Meteor took over the lead halfway through and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Catkins. Noble Protector finished third. Amanpour ran 1 mile in 1:37.77.
Gust of Wind was slow out of the gate in the Group 1 Seven News Australian Oaks, gained ground steadily to take the lead with a quarter mile left and went on to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Winx. Candelara was third. Gust of Wind, a New Zealand-bred daughter of Darci Brahma, covered 1 1/2 miles in 2:32.40 with Tye Angland in the irons.
The unfortunately named Let's Go Donki had the last hee-haw Sunday as she romped to a 4-lengths victory in the Group 1 Oka Sho, or Japanese 1,000 Guineas, at Hanshin Racecourse. The daughter of King Kamehameha, third in the Group 3 Tulip Sho last month, led all the way and finished 1,600 meters on firm going in 1:36.0. Culminar was second and Countess Thule finished third. "She's been winless after breaking her maiden and had very close finishes since, so I'm glad she was able to demonstrate her true strength," said winning rider Yasunari Iwata.
Derby preps have been consistently formful in the United States this spring but not so everywhere. John F Kennedy, among the favorites for the Epsom Derby, chugged home last Sunday in his 3-year-old debut in the P.W. McGrath Memorial Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown in Ireland for trainer Aidan O'Brien. Granted, it was last of only three. Still, the Galileo colt showed nothing and was beaten more than 10 1/2 lengths by Success Days and Zafilani. Success Days' stock for the Epsom classic jumped quickly with the British bookmakrer while that of John F Kennedy took a nosedive. Jockey Ryan Moore pointed out the going was soft and John F Kennedy might prefer firmer footing.
Hawthorne Race Course
Recount didn't need a second look after taking Saturday's $50,000 Land of Lincoln Stakes for 3-year-old Illinois-breds by 3 3/4 lengths over Market Rad. Wildwood Nafir finished third. The favorite, Dom the Bomb, finished next-last of eight after dueling for the early lead. Recount, a Limehouse gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.20 under Emmanuel Esquivel.
Lady Kelia came from off the pace to capture Saturday's $50,000 Pretty Jenny Stakes for 3-year-old Illinois-bred fillies by 2 lengths over Hollarforadollar. Scatladybdancing was third and the favorite, Timeaday, finished sixth. Lady Kelia, a daughter of The Bold Bruiser, ran 6 furlongs in 1:11.23 with Carlos Montalvo in the irons.
Lasting Bubbles stalked the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Wayne Hanks Memorial for Texas-bred distaffers, shot to the lead when asked and drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Early Fantasy finished second and Platinum Song was third. Lasting Bubbles, a 7-year-old daughter of Pulling Punches, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.90 with Iram Diego up.
Prettypriceygirl came from last of seven to win Saturday's $50,000 Czarina Handicap for fillies and mares by 3/4 length from Bright Town. The favorite, African Rose, surrendered the early lead to finish third. Prettypriceygirl, a 6-year-old Scat Daddy mare, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.47 with Isaias Enriquez riding.
Proceed proceeded from last of six to win Sunday's $75,000 Sunland Park Handicap by 4 1/2 lengths over Isn't He Clever. Ol' Winedrinker Who was third and the favorite, Rebranded, finished last. Proceed, a 4-year-old Desert God colt, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:47.37 with Alfredo Juarez Jr. up.