American Pharoah, seen winning the Arkansas Derby for fun, is the morning-line favorite for Saturday's Kentucky Derby. (Oaklawn Park photo)
Here we come, spinning out of the turn and into Kentucky Derby weekend with American Pharoah and Dortmund the top two morning-line picks in the Run for the Roses.
And that's not all. There are more excellent races on Friday and Saturday at Churchill Downs than you can shake a Daily Racing Form at. There are even more hot stakes at Belmont Park. Look to Woodbine for early Queen's Plate hints.
Internationally, Able Friend runs again on Sunday in Hong Kong and if he can beat Hong Kong Derby winner Luger, maybe his owner will finally let him travel overseas. In England, it's Guineas weekend at Newmarket so that "other" Derby can't be far in the future.
But first things first.
The Kentucky Derby
As expected, Bob Baffert will saddle the top two morning-line picks for Saturday's $2 million Kentucky Derby, presented by YUM! Brands -- Arkansas Derby winner American Pharoah at 5-2 and Santa Anita Derby winner Dortmund at 3-1. Between them, the colts have won 10 of their last 11 races. Dortmund is undefeated in six starts and American Pharoah has reeled off four straight victories after a defeat in his career debut. All is not roses for the duo, however, as American Pharoah drew post position No. 18, which has produced only one winner from 24 starters since the advent of the starting gate. Dortmund got No. 8 and Baffert said he's okay with the draw. For American Pharoah, he said, "It's okay. It's good. Anything but being down there (on the rail)." Jockey Victor Espinoza agreed. "I love my post," he said. Ocho Ocho Ocho drew the dreaded rail but trainer Jim Cassidy put the best light on it. "My plan, to be honest with you, is still to take hold and sit in the second flight" for a late run, he said. None of the other trainers voiced any concerns with their draws.
Stanford was withdrawn from the Derby field on Thursday, opening a spot for Frammento. The latter's trainer, Nick Zito, said he feels his colt will thrive at the 1 1/4-miles Derby distance.
Other notable draws: Blue Grass winner Carpe Diem (2), Florida Derby winner Materiality (3), UAE Derby winner Mubtaahij (6), Sunland Derby winner Firing Line (10), Louisiana Derby winner International Star (12), Wood Memorial winner Frosted (15).
The Derby is the culmination of a stellar Saturday under the Twin Spires -- a card so rich in talent as to be almost embarrassing. In other stakes races:
The race before the Derby is the $500,000, Grade I Turf Classic at 9 furlongs, with a field so competitive that Seek Again is the morning-line favorite at 4-1. He was second in this race last year -- to Wise Dan -- but has not raced since finishing sixth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Mile. Stephanie's Kitten, Jack Milton and Finnegan's Wake are on hand to mix things up. Chocolate Ride has won three straight races, two of them graded stakes, yet is 12-1 on the line. Umgiyo, an Australian-bred, makes his first U.S. start and was last seen finishing seventh behind world-class turfers in the Group 1 Dubai Turf on World Cup night. This promises to be a grand battle.
Bayern makes his first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Classic in the $500,000, Grade II Churchill Downs at 7 furlongs out of the backstretch chute. Although he has thrived going longer, the speedy Bayern also is 2-for-2 at this tricky distance, including a 7 1/2-lengths victory in last year's Woody Stephens at Belmont Park. He's been firing bullets for Baffert in the morning at Santa Anita. The main competition appears to be Private Zone, who was second in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap in his last start and won the Grade I Cigar Mile in New York to wrap up last year's campaign, and C. Zee, a close second in the Grade III Commonwealth at Keeneland on April 4. Also in this cast are Pants On Fire and Gentlemen's Bet.
The $300,000, Grade II Distaff Mile got a baker's dozen entrants. The favorites are the 1-2-3 finishers from the Grade II Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park -- Lady Lara, Sandiva and Coffee Clique. The latter won this race last year. At least six others have run well enough in the recent past to win this renewal with a return to top form. Water Hole comes from England with a good record, first-time Lasix and Gary Stevens riding for trainer Chad Brown. Beware.
Only eight are in for the $300,000, Grade I Humana Distaff at 7 furlongs on the main track but they're a quality bunch. Judy the Beauty makes her first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint last fall and faces the likes of Sweet Reason, Sweet Whiskey (also entered in Friday's La Troienne), Clearly Confused, Dame Dorothy and Thank You Marylou.
Fourteen 3-year-olds are lined up for the $250,000, Grade II American Turf at 1 1/16 miles on the greensward. Luck of the Kitten is the 7-2, morning-line favorite in a field that also includes Granny's Kitten, who makes only her second career start and first since last July. Conquest Typhoon has been in the picture in some really good races, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last fall. A Lot ran well on the grass in Florida and stretches out.
Competitive Edge and Lord Nelson dropped off the Kentucky Derby trail a while back but now hook up in the $200,000 Grade III Pat Day Mile on the main course. Competitive Edge is 3-for-3, including the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga last summer and has never won by less than 5 3/4 lengths. Lord Nelson won the Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita in February, beating Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red. Neither of those has yet gone beyond 7 furlongs. Gimme Da Lute has beat up on California-breds at Santa Anita. The filly Peace and War, a Grade I winner around two turns at Keeneland, provides an added element.
The Kentucky Oaks
You can't win the Oaks-Derby Double without first getting the Oaks right. So here's the scoop. The narrow morning-line favorite on the morning line for Friday's Grade I Kentucky Oaks is Grade I Santa Anita Oaks winner Stellar Wind, a daughter of Curlin who will have Victor Espinoza up and the No. 12 post position. The starting spot may not be much of an inconvenience as her main rivals both usually race out front while Stellar Wind favors a pace-stalking trip. Condo Commando dominated the Oaks preps in New York this spring and I'm a Chatterbox was untouchable in New Orleans. Now they're the co-second favorites, at a generous 4-1. I'm a Chatterbox, a daughter of Munnings, ran through the Fair Grounds races like a hot knife through butter, winning the Silverbulletday by 8 lengths and the Grade III Rachel Alexandra and Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks by 2 1/2 lengths each. She will break from gate No. 8 with Florent Geroux in the irons for trainer Larry Jones. Condo Commando, a daughter of Tiz Wonderful, won the Busher by 4 3/4 lengths and the Grade II Gazelle by 2 1/2 lengths. Joel Rosario will get a leg up from Rudy Rodriguez on his way to the No. 5 post. There are others, including Oaklawn Park stakes winners Include Betty and Sarah Six and the top two in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks, Birdatthewire and Eskenformoney.
If you really, really like a Derby favorite, wheeling that one with the whole Oaks field in the Oaks-Derby Double might be a way to get a little value.
The Oaks Day undercard is lovely.
A dozen 3-year-old fillies are set for the Grade III Eight Bells at 7-furlongs out of the chute. This brings together classy winners from California, Florida, Arkansas, Kentucky and New Mexico. There's an abundance of speed, which might contribute to the favorite's roll for Callback, a Baffert trainee and sometime speedball who finished first in the Sunland Park Oaks in her last start, coming from off the pace. She was set down to fourth for drifting in late in that event, but still ...
The $150,000, Grade III Twin Spires Turf Sprint at 5 1/2 furlongs on the green track features the top four finishers from the recent Grade III Shakertown at Keeneland -- Something Extra, Channel Marker, Undrafted and Power Alert. Heitai finds a tough spot in a rare trip outside Louisiana. Good Deeds has had a short break after a successful winter in Florida and Louisiana.
Honor Code and Protonico headline the $400,000, Grade II Alysheba at 1 1/16 miles on the main track. Protonico comes off a romping win in the Grade III Ben Ali at Keeneland going 9 furlongs and finished a close second to Hoppertunity in the Grade I Clark under the Twin Spires last fall. Honor Code, meanwhile, rallied late to win the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap in his last outing and has never been worse than second in six lifetime starts. Call Me George was a 22-1 upset winner in the Grade II New Orleans Handicap a month ago. Noble Bird has been improving sharply and deserves a look in his first stakes engagement. Ride On Curlin was second in last year's Preakness.
My Miss Sophia, second in the 2014 Kentucky Oaks, returns from a long vacation in the $300,000, Grade I La Troienne, going 1 1/16 miles on the main track. The Unbridled's Song filly is under new management with Bill Mott taking over from Todd Pletcher. If her long string of impressive works is an indication, she's ready. If not, there's plenty of talented opposition including Sheer Drama, Sweet Whiskey, Frivolous, Gold Medal Dancer and Molly Morgan -- all graded stakes winners.
The $150,000, Grade III Edgewood Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles on the turf drew a diverse bunch including Grade III Florida Oaks winner Quality Rocks, Del Mar Debutante winner Sunset Glow and multiple French stakes winner My Year Is a Day, who makes her first U.S. start.
Even the non-stakes races have big and competitive fields, the better to warm up handicapping skills for Derby Day.
Able Friend, co-rated the world's top horse, takes on five challengers in Sunday's Group 1 Champions Mile at Sha Tin but the one that's worrying trainer John Moore is Luger. The budding star won the Hong Kong Derby earlier in the season in most impressive fashion. "I know he can beat the rest," Moore said of Able Friend early in the run-up to the Champions Mile. "But I don't know that he can beat Luger. What that horse did in the Derby, sitting three deep over 2,000 meters and then to win like he did -- that is a horse with lots of ability." Of course, Able Friend is pretty able himself. The 5-year-old son of Shamardal has won three international Group 1 events during the current meeting while owner Dr. Cornel Li has been resisting Moore's suggestions that Able Friend travel overseas to validate his lofty ranking. If things go to plan, Li may be out of excuses by Sunday evening. "How he goes in the Champions Mile will dictate whether we go the next step and venture to Ascot for the Queen Anne over the mile," continued Moore. "The expectations are high for the Champions Mile, being one of the top-rated horses in the world, and when he's not winning by big margins, people begin to query, fitness-wise, where he's at in this latter part of the season." As for Luger, trainer John Size said he is in good form, "so we would hope to go to the races and find out if he measures up to the open class horses. There is only one way to find out. We'll go and see what happens."
Of the six horses in the race, four are trained by Moore and two by Size. It could be a record for fewest trainers in a contested Group 1 race.
Saturday is Qipco 2,000 Guineas Day at Newmarket and Sunday's feature is the 1,000 Guineas. The former, as of mid-week, featured eight, including the Aidan O'Brien-trained Ol' Man River. That undefeated colt is among the favorites for the Investec Derby at Epsom Downs in one month's time. On the same card is the Harbour Watch Newmarket Stakes, with a majority of the prospective starters also nominated to the Derby. O'Brien also has the likely 1,000 Guineas favorite in Found. And the accompanying Pretty Polly Stakes also has been a launch pad for Oaks winners.
Meanwhile, California Chrome reportedly will take a pass on the Lockinge Stakes next month and go directly to the Group 1 Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot. Trainer Art Sherman said the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner had not bounced back sufficiently from his runner-up showing in the Dubai World Cup, as reported by British trainer Rae Guest. The Prince of Wales's Stakes could be one of the toughest events on the entire Royal Ascot schedule.
Back in North America:
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Precisionist Stakes got a field of nine to go 1 1/16 miles on the main track. There are no superstars but last year's winner, Fury Kapcori, is back. If nothing else, it's a tempting wagering opportunity.
There are three graded stakes on the Saturday card. The $150,000, Grade III Fort Marcy Stakes at 9 furlongs on the grass got a tough bunch including Mr Speaker, V.E. Day, Big Blue Kitten and Hyper and it's no hype to say this is a good heat. The $150,000, Grade III Westchester Stakes at 1 mile on the main track features last year's Belmont Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Tonalist. Palace Malice, who won four of his five starts last year, including this event and the Met Mile, was scratched Wednesday with a bruised foot, leaving only three others to run. This may not be the right distance for Tonalist and he is coming off a layoff. So watch out for the lightly raced Tapit colt, Juba. Five will go in the $200,000, Grade II Sheepshead Bay Stakes for fillies and mares with last year's winner, Riposte, the highweight. Rosalind could be a threat in the small field.
Saturday's card features the $150,000 (Canadian) Queenston Stakes for Canadian-foaled 3-year-olds -- by definition a race to watch for Queen's Plate hints. Eight are set to go with Jack's Escarpment the 2-1 favorite on the morning line after two wins and a second in previous starts. Also fancied by the oddsmaker are Conquest Boogaloo, Hammerstein and Imperial Dream.
News and Notes
Bill Nader will leave his position as executive director of racing for the Hong Kong Jockey Club at the end after December's Longines International Races to return to the United States. Under Nader's watch since 2007, the HKJC's standing among world racing jurisdictions has improved steadily, as reflected in the growing number of international Group 1 races and the consistently high quality of those events. Nader, who started his career in the U.S. northeast and worked at NYRA before moving to Hong Kong, will return to the United States but no specific position was announced. The HKJC will divide Nader's job with Andrew Harding moving up the organizational chart to become director of racing authority and Anthony Kelly, managing director of Arena Racing Company in England, moving to the SAR to become executive director of racing business and operations.
Back to the lead paragraph: "Here they come, spinning out of the turn," was the signature, top-of-the stretch scene-setter of legendary Chicago-area race caller and novelist Phil Georgeff, who called more than 96,000 races in his career.