International racing takes center stage this week with the QE II in Hong Kong and the first stirrings of the new season in England.
In North America, several 1-mile races on both turf and dirt highlight the agenda in the calm before the Kentucky Derby storm.
The winds are rising so let's get going.
An English veteran, a rising star from Japan and globetrotters representing Australia and France will take on a talented team of locals in Sunday's Group 1 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup at Sha Tin. That said, the top locals all have question marks after their illustrious names. Designs On Rome and Military Attack, the 1-2 finishers in this event last year, are both back for another try. But Designs on Rome comes off a fourth-place finish in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic -- an honorable effort but none of the 11 Hong Kong horses who competed in Dubai has come back to win the QE II. Military Attack finished 10th in last year's World Cup. This year, the 9-year-old, winner of the 2013 QE II, has been inconsistent. The other accomplished local, California Memory, 7, also has struggled this season though trainer Tony Cruz now reckons him "in top form." The rest of the home team, while capable of springing a surprise in the right circumstances, seems a cut below. Designs On Rome will start from gate No. 11 in the 12-horse field with a short run into the first turn. Military Attack drew post No. 2.
The invaders are 4-year-old Japanese runner Staphanos, whose main credential is a third-place showing in the Group 2 Nakayama Kinen; France's entrant, Smoking Sun, who took down the Group Singapore Airlines International Cup last year before finishing sixth in the Grade I Arlington Million; Criterion, a Group 1 winner from Australia with Hong Kong experience; and the evergreen Red Cadeaux, a 9-year-old who won the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Vase in 2012 and thrice has played bridesmaid in the Melbourne Cup. In a bit of an oddity, Zac Purton, who will ride Military Attack on Sunday, filled in Craig Williams aboard Criterion for a Wednesday morning workout. Williams will fly in Sunday. "He felt great," Purton told trainer David Hayes. Criterion will start from the rail, Staphanos from No. 5, Red Cadeaux No. 9 and Smoking Sun No. 10.
Speaking of Derbies, Christophermarlow remained unbeaten in three starts by easily winning Wednesday's Investec Derby Trial at Epsom Downs over four rivals in his seasonal debut. Godolphin's Future Empire was second, 4 lengths in arrears. The victory assures Christophermarlow and entry in the Investec Derby on June 6 and trainer John Gosden said his participation is likely. "He has only had three runs during his life and ... he is a very good looking horse, out of a Galileo mare and by a top American stallion, Tapit," Gosden said. "He has a lovely manner about him, is very honest and a good doer. I see him as a big boy with lots of improvement so there is no reason why he won't be back here on the first Saturday in June."
And speaking of June, those looking forward to Royal Ascot later in that month can anticipate a stellar week of racing. Ten countries are represented in the entries for the eight Group 1 races during the meeting. If all holds together: The Prince of Wales's Stakes could see California Chrome against the likes of The Grey Gatsby, Cirrus Des Aigles, Spielberg, Criterion and Free Eagle; the Queen Anne could pit Hong Kong's Able Friend against France's Dubai winner, Solow, and Breeders' Cup Mile winner Karakontie; the two Group 1 sprints could include Sole Power, Hong Kong's Gold-Fun and two Americans -- Undrafted and Holy Lute. And there's plenty more.
The last two winners of the Dubai World Cup -- African Story and Prince Bishop -- have been retired from racing by Godolphin. Both geldings are 8 and trainer Saeed bin Suroor said their long and successful careers will be rewarded with continued lodging at active Godolphin stables, "which they enjoy immensely." He said details remain to be determined. African Story won the 2014 World Cup and Prince Bishop landed last month's renewal. Both victories were significant upsets.
Meanwhile, back in North America:
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate Fields drew eight prospects, including three trained by Jerry Hollendorfer. Of those, the most likely is Summer Hit, a 6-year-old Bertrando gelding who finished second in this event each of the past two years. He will have to contend again with Pepper Crown, last year's winner, who has been running well early in the season. Neil Drysdale will saddle Are You Kidding Me, who won the Grade III Kent Stakes at Delaware Park last year. Edge of Reality ran well in the Santana Mile at Santa Anita in his last outing, finishing second.
Middleburg drew the rail for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Miami Mile at Gulfstream Park and will face 10 rivals in trying for his 12th straight in-the-money finish. The 5-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid steps up in class but looks ready. Grand Tito won last yeasr's edition and has been running against tougher rivals with moderate success. Inchcape has been inching his way into the picture.
On Sunday, Santa Anita hosts the $100,000, Grade III Wilshire Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 mile on the turf. And Golden Gate has two turf miles for 3-year-olds.
Sr. Quisqueyano invades from Florida as the morning-line favorite for Friday night's $200,000, Grade III Texas Mile at Lone Star Park. The 5-year-old son of Exclusive Quality comes off a second-place finish in the Grade Skip Away Stakes at Gulfstream Park but cuts back significantly in distance from his recent outings. One King's Man and Rise Up also figure in this field.
Filly & Mare Turf
Did you blink and miss the Keeneland spring meeting? The all-too-brief gathering winds up Friday with an overflow field for the $150,000, Grade III Bewitch Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/2 miles. A tough-to-figure field of 14 is on tap with two also-eligibles. The field is so well balanced that the morning-line favorite, Tabreed, is listed at odds of 9-2. Cay Dancer, Caroline Thomas, Kitten's Point, White Rose and Hellenistic all have realistic chances in a handicapper's dream of a race.
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Last Tycoon Stakes at Santa Anita boasts a field of eight veterans with several looking to get back on track after recent disappointments. Quick Casablanco finished 2014 well enough but was unimpressive in his 2015 debut. Big John B makes his first start since finishing up the track in the Breeders' Cup Classic after a quick run up the class ladder. At this time last year, Si Sage was on his way to the Group 1 Singapore Airlines International Cup at Kranji. But he hasn't had much impact since that trip. Power Foot has been a consistent stakes performer on the circuit. Don't discount Abbey Vale, an Irish import who may have his feet under him after an eventful start to his American career.
Eight are set for Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Excelsior Stakes at 1 1/4 miles at Aqueduct. Four of them -- Turco Bravo, Cousin Stephen, North Slope and Micromanage -- were the top four in the Stymie Stakes in their last outing. Red Rifle is in from New Orleans after a fifth-place showing in the Grade II New Orleans Handicap. Wicked Strong, who was fourth in last year's Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, also finished fourth in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap in his only previous start this year.
Churchill Downs springs into action with Saturday night's feature, the $100,000 William Walker Stakes for 3-year-olds replacing the old Derby Trial as the feature. The William Walker is named for the rider of the 1877 Kentucky Derby winner and drew some impressive 3-year-olds whose distance limitations precluded the Run for the Roses. Blofeld, undefeated in three starts, two of them graded, arguably tops the roster and will start from gate No. 2 under John Velazquez. Among the rivals is Cinco Charlie, who has won both his starts under the Twin Spires, including the Bashford Manor last June and shows stakes wins at Delaware Park, Laurel, Fair Grounds and Sunland Park. West Hill remains undefeated after two starts, the latter the Rainbow Stakes at Oaklawn.
Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Jacques Cartier Stakes at Woodbine is 6 furlogns on the all-weather surface.
News and notes
Lava Man, Xtra Heat, jockey Chris Antley and trainer King Leatherbury have been elected to the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame. The four will be inducted on Aug. 7 at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion in Saratoga.
Antley won 3,480 races with purses earnings of $92.3 million. The victories included 127 graded stakes, among them the 1991 Kentucky Derby with Strike the Gold and the 1999 renewal aboard Charismatic. He won nine races on Hallowe'en Day in 1987 -- four at Aqueduct and five at the Meadowlands. He died in 2000 at the age of 34.
Leatherbury, 82, currently is best known as the owner and trainer of Ben's Cat, a top Maryland sprinter. He saddled his first winner in 1959 and ranks fourth on the all-time training list with 6,454 victory.
Lava Man, a California-bred by Slew City Slew, claimed as a 3-year-old for $50,000, went on to win seven Grade I races, including three straight runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup and back-to-back runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap. He won Grade I events on both turf and dirt in 2006.
Xtra Heat, a daughter of Dixieland Heat, was sold as a 2-year-old for $5,000 and went on to win 26 of 35 starts with earnings of $2.39 million. She won 25 stakes races, including 11 graded stakes.
The contemporary electees were chosen from a nationwide voting panel comprised of 180 racing writers, broadcasters, industry officials and historians from a group of 10 finalists selected by the Hall of Fame's Nominating Committee. Black Tie Affair was among the nominees but not among the top four vote-getters.