The Dubai World Cup program is still nearly three months away, yet much of the weekend's racing news revolves around that massive evening.
California Chrome, second in last year's $10 million Cup, is set to kick off his comeback Saturday at Santa Anita. If that goes well, a repeat Dubai visit could be on the agenda for the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner. Another Japanese challenger looms for the March 26 World Cup. Mshawish, a contender on last year's World Cup undercard, is in action in Florida.
And the World Cup Carnival itself set sail at Meydan on Thursday.
There were no surprises among the finalists for the 2015 Eclipse Awards, with American Pharoah likely to be a unanimous choice as Horse of the Year. "News and Notes" also includes a rundown of the media Eclipse winners.
On the minus side of the equation, Hong Kong's star sprinter, Able Friend, is sidelined for the year with a tendon injury, raising questions whether his career is over.
We're far from over, so let's get it in gear.
The big guns
California Chrome has not raced since finishing second in last year's Dubai World Cup. His planned appearance at Royal Ascot in June was scrubbed when he wasn't deemed ready. Then a comeback in the Arlington Million in August also went by the boards. Back in California, he has been working steadily, capping his preparations with a pre-race workout Saturday at Santa Anita, where he drew post No. 4 in a field of nine for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Pasqual at 1 1/16 miles. That's in hopes of getting him back to Dubai for the World Cup on March 26. If he is back to his Kentucky Derby-winning level, California Chrome should be able to handle the competition in the San Pasqual -- even if anticipated rain should render the track muddy. The foes include Hoppertunity, the Bob Baffert trainee who won this event last year and has posted a string of three runner-up finishes in recent graded stakes. Baffert had considered Dortmund for the race but wasn't satisfied with his last work. Hard Aces, however, will make the start. He won the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita in June, then drew three straight sixes -- finishing in that spot in the Grade I Pacific Classic, the Grade I Awesome Again and the Breeders' Cup Classic. The others seem to need to improve to compete for the win. California Chrome also will have to step it up off the long layoff. He has won only a single race since taking the first two legs of the 2014 Triple Crown -- and that was on the grass in the Grade I Hollywood Derby Nov. 28, 2014. In that race, he was chased home by Queen's Plate-winning filly Lexie Lou.
Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park drew just six to tackle 1 mile on the main track but they're a salty bunch. Mshawish hasn't been able to find the winner's circle in three tries since he finished third in the Group 1 Dubai Turf at Meydan in March, behind only Solow and The Grey Gatsby. But the losses were all against top-shelf rivals and trainer Todd Pletcher may have found a bit easier spot here for the 6-year-old son of Medaglia d'Oro, who is 3-for-3 at Gulfstream. On the other hand, he again faces Matrooh, who finished one slot ahead of him in the Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct in their last start; Valid, who was fifth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile and won the Harlan's Holiday at Gulfstream in his last start; and the ultra-consistent Grande Shores. So maybe it's not such an easy spot, after all.
Kentucky Derby and Oaks preps
Not much action here this weekend, with only Delta Downs offering stakes races, one open and one for fillies, and a turf mile out west.
Six are set for Saturday night's $75,000 Big Drama Stakes for 3-year-olds and there's not much to separate them. Wild Man is the 2-1 morning-line favorite after finally winning in his fifth try, in a Churchill Downs maiden races over Thanksgiving weekend. Earlier, he was racing against better at Saratoga, Keeneland and Belmont Park. Texas Jambalaya also has run behind some tough customers but won his last start at Delta a month ago. Sea Vow has two straight wins. Any of the others could step up a bit.
Nine are entered for Friday night's $75,000 By the Light Stakes for 3-year-old fillies with Princess Kennedy the morning-line favorite. The Sun King filly started her career at Emerald Downs in Washington, where she posted a pair of wins, then wound up her juvenile campaign with a second-place finish in the Letellier Memorial at Fair Grounds. Flashy Appeal started at Prairie Meadows Iowa, was third in the Letellier and returns for this. Go No Go had three wins from five starts at Remington Park in Oklahoma. One to watch: Aerolite, a Tapit filly, finished third in the Debutante at Churchill Downs, then was outclassed at Saratoga and Monmouth. But she showed promise in her last start at Remington.
Nine 3-year-old milers are set for the $100,000, Grade III Sham Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita. Dressed in Hermes returns to the main track after running in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and then winning the grassy Grade III Cecil B. DeMille at Del Mar. Collected was second in the DeMille in just his second career start. Found Money comes off a win in the King Glorious Stakes at Los Alamitos. I'malreadythere got home third in both the Grade III Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar and the Grade III Los Alamitos Futurity.
Fillies will be flying 6 furlongs in Saturday's $100,000 Interborough Stakes at Aqueduct with La Verdad truly one of the likely ones. The 6-year-old Yes It's True mare was second behind long shot Wavell Avenue in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Keeneland but then a fading sixth in the Fall Highweight. Her record is better on the main track but she has won on the Big A's winter-use inner oval. Princess Violet won the Grade I Madison Stakes at Keeneland last spring and has missed an exacta finish only twice in 13 career starts, most against quality foes. Dancing House, a Tapit filly owned by Godolphin Racing, won two straight races last spring but has not run since last April 10 and hasn't exactly been setting the track on fire in morning workouts. Willet won this last year and also won her last start
On the grass, 10 are set for Saturday's $100,000 Turf Dash at 5 furlongs over the Tampa Bay Downs greensward. Among the likely ones is Power Alert, an Australian-bred by an Argentine sire who is 3-for-6 since arriving in the United States. Richies Sweetheart tackles males after defeating a field of fellow fillies and mares in the $100,000 Lightning City stakes at the course and distance Dec. 19. Flying Rumor and Night Officer also can figure in this event.
Lochte, winner of three straight stakes races in South Florida, drew the rail for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Fort Lauderdale Stakes at Gulfstream Park and will face 10 rivals. His last win was the Grade III Tropical Turf Handicap over the same course. Takeover Target won two graded stakes in New York before migrating. Sky Flight won at Keeneland and Aqueduct during the fall and Heart to Heart won the Grade III River City at Churchill Downs in his previous outing. The rest of the field is solid and includes a pair of Woodbine-based horses down for the winter -- Lukes Alley and Money Talker. War Correspondent won the Grade III Appleton Stakes over the course in his last start but that was last March.
Filly & Mare Turf
Nine, plus three "main track only" alternates, are in for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Marshua's River Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Quiet Kitten and Tuttipaesi are the 121-pound highweights for the 1 1/16-miles event although both are stepping up a bit in company. Among the others, Sandiva and Strike Charmer are both graded stakes winners and several others have come close to that distinction. Divine Aida has a sparkling record in South Florida.
Wonder Gal has been placed in six graded stakes without winning one but finds some class relief in Sunday's $100,000 Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct. The Tiz Wonderful filly, with Irad Ortiz Jr. up, starts from the No. 3 post in a field of six that also includes Bay Ridge Stakes winner and runner-up Saythreehailmary's and Sheriffa. The race is 1 mile and 70 yards on the main track.
The 2016 Dubai World Cup Carnival kicked off Thursday at Meydan with Le Bernardin, under a beautifully timed ride by Tadhg O'Shea, taking Round 1 of the Al Maktoum Challenge, presented by Longines. O'Shea sent Le Bernardin out to a daylight lead on the turn for home and he just did hold on to win by a head over Layl, with Prayer for Relief and Faulkner another pair of heads back in third and fourth. Last year's winner, Surfer, had every chance at mid-stretch but flattened out to finish fifth. Le Bernardin, a 7-year-old horse by Bernardini out of the Wild Again mare La Rosa, ran 1,600 meters in 1:37.12. It was his second win in as many starts this season at Meydan.
For much more on the opening session of the Carnival, see Richard Gross's rundown in Monday's UPI Horse Racing Roundup.
Speaking of the World Cup program, one of Japan's top 3-year-olds from 2015, Duramente, is reported fully recovered from an injury and pointed toward the Group 1 Sheema Classic on March 26 with the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe as an ultimate goal. Duramente won the Satsuki Sho, or Japanese 2,000 Guineas, and the Tokyo Yushun, or Japanese Derby, before being sidelined. Racing Post reports the colt is set to return in the Group 2 Nakayama Kinen on Feb. 28 before the Dubai engagement. Japanese runners have had marked success in Dubai but have fallen short in repeated attempts to land the Arc.
The South China Morning Post reports crack miler Able Friend, one of the world's top-rated horses, has been diagnosed with a rare tendon injury in his right fore and is out at least for the remainder of the year. Able Friend was on the veterinarian's watch list until the morning of last month's Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile, in which he finished third. "He is done for the season," the SCMP quoted trainer John Moore. "He went into the Hong Kong Mile with a bruised sole, we kept him in minor work and the problem didn't resolve itself ... It's very disappointing to have one of the top five horses in the world and have him sidelined." Moore said he has asked the owner for permission to ship Able Friend to Australia for recuperation as Hong Kong lacks turn-out facilities. But a year off casts doubt on the comeback prospects of the 6-year-old star.
News and Notes
American Pharoah and his connections eclipse the rest of the field among finalists for the 2015 Eclipse Awards, with winners to be announced Jan. 16. The Triple Crown winner is a shoo-in for Horse of the Year and top 3-year-old male. His owner and breeder, Ahmed Zayat, trainer, Bob Baffert, and jockey Victor Espinoza, are all among the three finalists in their categories, with Zayat up for honors as both owner and breeder.
Jennie Rees has won her fifth Eclipse Award -- this time in the feature/commentary category for a story in the Louisville Courier-Journal about trainer Dale Romans' overcoming a reading disability to become one of the country's top trainers, with accomplishments worldwide. Rees, who retired from the C-J in November after 34 years with the publication, puts the Eclipse statuette alongside those won for magazine writing in 1988, newspaper and news-enterprise writing in 1993 and 2011, respectively, and multimedia in 2008. "What a tremendous way to go out," said Rees, one of the most respected members of the turf journalism fraternity. She plans to stay active in the industry in other roles.
Other media Eclipse Awards go to NBC Sports for live television programming for its broadcast of the 2015 Belmont Stakes, in which American Pharoah clinched the Triple Crown; to Digital Kitchen's production of "Ironman Perry Ouztz," about the 61-year-old jockey, directed by Brad and John Hennegan and aired on AT&T U-Verse Sports; to Scott Serio, for a picture of American Pharoah working out at Keeneland before the 2015 Breeders' Cup Classic, first published in the Cecil, Md., Guardian; and to Tim Sullivan, also of the Courier-Journal, for news/enterprise writing for an article on the suicide of assistant trainer Herb Johnson.
Churchill Downs has renamed the Grade II Firecracker in honor of the two-time winner of the turf race, Wise Dan. Wise Dan, a two-time Horse of the Year owned by Morton Fink and trained by Charlie LoPresti, triumphed in the 1 1/16-mile race in 2011 and 2013. The previously has been run during the closing weekend of the Churchill Downs spring meeting but this year will become part of the "Downs After Dark" program on Saturday, June 18. That program also includes the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap.
The Global Sprint Challenge rolls on into 2016, still seeking a winner of the US$1 million prize. A change for the new year is the inclusion of the Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize at 1,200 meters over the Sha Tin turf in Hong Kong on May 1. That race replaces the Group 1 KrisFlyer Sprint at Kranji in Singapore, which has been discontinued. The series bonus will be split by the owner and trainer of a horse which wins three of the 10 GSC races in three different jurisdictions during the year. The other races, all Group 1 events, are the Black Caviar Lightning States at Femington, Australia, Feb. 20; the Dubai Golden Shaheen, March 26 at Meydan in the UAE; the Takamatsunomiya Kinen on March 27 at Chukyo in Japan; the King's Stand Stakes on June 14 and Diamond Jubilee Stakes on June 18, both at Royal Ascot in England; the Darly July Cup on July 9 at Newmarket in England; the Sprinters Stakes on Oct. 2 at Nakayama in Japan, the Darley Classic on Nov. 5 at Flemington in Australia; and the Longines Hong Kong Sprint, Dec. 11 at Sha Tin. The series was inaugurated in 2005 and is still seeking its first winner.