Ivan Fallunovalot working January 23 for his start Saturday in the King Cotton Stakes at Oaklawn Park. (Coady Photography)
Things really heat up on the Kentucky Derby trail this weekend with the Grade III Withers at Aqueduct, the Grade II Holy Bull and Grade II Swale at Gulfstream Park and the California Cup Derby at Santa Anita.
There also are opportunities for the 3-year-olds on the grass. And fillies aspiring to the Kentucky Oaks will be on display at Gulfstream and, weather permitting, Aqueduct.
Sam Houston hosts its biggest weekend of the year, with the John B. Connelley Turf Cup and the Houston Ladies Classic, both Grade III events, on the Saturday night calendar. Santa Anita's California Cup program, in addition to the Derby, has four other rich stakes for the state-breds.
Internationally, Hong Kong runs two stellar sprints on Sunday, including the first of its many international Group 1 races. South African Group 1 racing continues Saturday with a three-horse (or more, who knows?) showdown at Kenilworth. And South African trainer Mike De Kock swept three of the top four placings in Thursday's feature at Meydan as the Dubai World Cup Carnival rolls on.
Let's start with the international set.
Contentment and Beauty Flame, respectable fifth-and sixth-place finishers in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile in December, head a talented field for Sunday's Group 1 Stewards Cup at Sha Tin. The 11 entries for the 1,600-meters event also include some of Hong Kong's most recognizable names -- among them, Military Attack, Designs on Rome, Blazing Speed, Luger, Contentment and Beauty Only. Blazing Speed, Designs On Rome, Military Attack and Beauty Only cut back from the 2,000 meters of the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup, in which they finished third, fourth, sixth and eighth, respectively. Luger has not been seen since finishing last in the Group 1 Champions Mile last May -- that after winning the BMW Hong Kong Derby. Dan Excel, twice a Group 1 winner in Singapore's lamented international races, could be nearing the end of his tenure at age 8 after five straight disappointing runs.
Sunday's companion Centenary Sprint Cup also has some stars, including Aerovelocity, who he missed a chance to claim the US$1 million Global Sprint Challenge bonus when he bypassed the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint in December. Maybe this year. Also entered for this are Gold-Fun, Lucky Nine, Not Listenin'tome and Peniaphobia, among others.
Legal Eagle might find the 2,000 meters of Saturday's Group 1 J&B Met more to his liking than the shorter trip of the recent L'Ormarins Queen's Plate -- even though he won the latter with an impressive performance. Trainer Sean Tarry said before the Queen's Plate he wasn't sure of Legal Eagle's ability to defeat top rivals like Legislate at that trip. But he did and now Legal Eagle will tackle that same rival, Futura and 13 others in Saturday's race. Trainer Justin Snaith, who handles both Futura and Legislate, says he has a hard time separating those two as they come into the J & B Met. Legislate was second in the QP; Futura, fifth after not liking the tardy pace. The three are attracting most of the early handicapping attention with the other dozen entrants seen running a different race. We shall see.
The day's other Group 1 event at Kenilworth is the Betting World Cape Flying Championship at 1,000 meters, where Tarry will saddle Carry On Alice, who won over the course and distance in December. She also was third in this race last year. Fifteen are entered for the sprint.
Forries Waltz started from the No. 13 gate in Thursday's Group 2 Al Rashidiya at Meydan, raced in mid-pack under Christophe Soumillon and then outfinished stablemate Ertijaal, winning by 1 1/2 lengths. Ernshaw was third and Mujaarib was along fourth, giving Mike de Kock first, second and fourth in the event. Forries Waltz, a 4-year-old, South African-bred colt by Greys Inn, picked up his second win in as many starts to begin his 2016 campaign. He got the grassy 1,800 meters, or about 9 furlongs, in 1:47.85. "It was a big step up in class for Forries Waltz after his win here two weeks ago," de Kock said. "We thought he was up to this level and has proved he is." Overall, de Kock had three winners, two seconds and a third on the card.
Read all the details of Thursday's Carnival doings in the Richard Gross's report, inserted free of charge in Monday's UPI Horse Racing Roundup.
Back in North America:
The Road to the Roses}
Mohaymen and Greenpointcrusader are the standouts in a short field for Saturday's $350,000, Grade II Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. Mohaymen, a gray Tapit colt owned by Shadwell Farms, is undefeated in three starts including the Grade II Nashua and the Grade II Remson, both at Aqueduct and the latter at 1 1/8 miles. Greenpointcrusader won the Grade I Champagne in the slop at Belmont Park, then fell short with a late rally in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, finishing seventh but beaten only 4 1/4 lengths. Conquest Big E was eighth in the Juvenile but returned in November to win at Churchill Downs. The other three need to improve to compete.
Seven are set for Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Withers at Aqueduct, going 1 1/16 miles. Flexibility, a Bluegrass Cat colt, is the morning-line favorite off his victory in the Grade III Jerome Stakes on Jan. 3. Before that, he was second behind Mohaymen in the Nashua and the Remsen. Sunny Ridge, a New Jersey-bred colt by Holy Bull, won the Sapling at Monmouth Park, finished second behind Greenpoint Crusader in the Champagne, then was second to Exaggerator in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot. Vorticity was second in the Jerome. King Kranz has run consistently well just below this level and Donegal Moon could be dangerous here after a misadventure in the Jerome.
Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Swale at Gulfstream Park is 7 furlongs, taking a back seat to the Holy Bull on the Derby trail. But the middle distance does provide trainers an opportunity to envision their horses' potential distance limitations, so it bears watching. Case in point: Awesome Banner led all the way in snappy time in winning the Grade III Hutcheson at 6 furlongs in his last outing and increased his margin through the stretch. Noholdingback Bear chased that quick pace, then faded to finish second. With the added furlong, what happens and who moves forward? Meanwhile, as Illinois racing struggles, Illinois-breds continue to pop up in top company. Here, that's Richie the Bull, who won three of his four starts as a juvenile, ending with the Jim Edgar Illinois Futurity at Hawthorne Race Course, going 1 1/16 miles and winning by 9 1/4 lengths, albeit versus state-bred foes. A pair of maiden winners could make some noise here, too.
Saturday's $250,000 California Cup Derby at Santa Anita is for state-breds but it wouldn't hurt to keep an eye on the undefeated Smokey Image. The Southern Image colt, saddled for the first time here by Carla Gaines, is undefeated in five starts over three different tracks. He's also training well after nearly three months' rest. And Victor Espinoza takes the mount.
The $75,000 WEBN Stakes at Turfway Park, originally scheduled for Saturday, has been reslated to run on Feb. 20.
Life Imitates Art finished second in each of his first four starts, then finally broke through in his last outing, winning the Grade III Dania Beach over the Gulfstream Park turf. The More Than Ready colt returns against six rivals for Saturday's $100,000 Kitten's Joy over the same course. Among the others, Azar had a tough trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf but ran very well previously in top company and Conquest Daddyo won the Grade II Summer Stakes on the Woodbine turf before finishing a belated fourth in the Breeders' Cup. This is a nice field.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Forward Gal at Gulfstream Park attracted seven fillies to go 7 furlongs. On paper, the standout is Cathryn Sophia, who won both her starts as a juvenile -- by 12 3/4 lengths in a Parx maiden race and by 16 1/4 lengths in the $100,000 Gin Talking Stakes at Laurel Park. In the latter race, according to Equibase, the Street Boss filly raced on her left lead. The most likely rival is Island Saint, a daughter of Speightstown who made steady progress through 2015. A couple others show promise, though.
Sunday's $100,000 Busanda Stakes at Aqueduct has some recent maiden winners and some also-rans from last year's graded stakes. But the field remains very much in the mode of sorting itself out to see which fillies can improve enough to move along.
Twelve signed on for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Sweetest Chant on the Gulfstream Park turf and it's a well-matched field. Pricedtoperfection and Module finished second and third last time out in the Ginger Brew Stakes over the course. Spinamiss showed promise in Ireland last summer, then won her only U.S. start as a juvenile. Conquest Bebop and Gliding by were second and third in an optional claimer in their last start. Hidden Treat is 2-for-2 going shorter than Saturday's 1 mile. And Ami's Mesa won both her 2015 starts at 7 furlongs on the Woodbine all-weather course.
Forever Unbridled drew the rail and was installed as the morning-line favorite for Saturday night's $400,000, Grade III Houston Ladies Classic at Sam Houston. The Unbridled's Song filly took a while to recover from a tough outing in last year's Kentucky Oaks but returned to the winner's circle after the Grade III Comely Stakes at Aqueduct in her last start over the Thanksgiving weekend. Cali Star exits a victory in the Grade III Rampart Stakes at Gulfstream. Cassatt and Theogony have bright resumes.
Kaigun and Da Big Hoss are morning-line favorites for Saturday's $200,000, Grade III John B. Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston. A field of 12 is set to go 1 1/2 miles. Kaigun ended 2015 with a pair of graded stakes runner-up finishes. Da Big Hoss was sixth with a late move in the Breeders' Cup Turf against some of the world's top horses. Big John B, an occasional graded stakes winner, also is worth a look in this event.
Saturday's $250,000 California Cup Turf Classic at Santa Anita is restricted to Cal-breds but has some proven graded stakes runners. Poshsky, G.G. Ryder and Tamarando finished first, third and fourth, respectively, in the Grade III Berkeley Handicap on the Golden Gate all-weather in their last outing. Alert Bay was beaten only 1 length, albeit finishing sixth, in the Grade III Daytona down the hillside course in his previous start.
Filly & Mare Turf}
A competitive field of eight is set for Saturday's $200,000 California Cup Oaks at 1 mile on the turf with no particular standouts.
Green Gratto and Dads Caps headline a field of 10 for Saturday's $150,000 Toboggan Stakes at Aqueduct. The former has won two straight, including the Grade III Fall Highweight, and the latter has been in the money in five straight races, including a runner-up finish behind Salutos Amigos in this heat last season.
A field full of veteran sprinters takes on 6 furlongs in Saturday's $100,000 King Cotton at Oaklawn Park. The morning-line favorites are Ivan Fallunovalot, who was victimized by a slow start in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, and Lewys Vaporizer, another successful Illinois-bred. Plenty of attention will go to the likes of Alsvid, Gentlemen's Bet and Bayerd.
Saturday's $150,000, restricted California Cup Sprint at Santa Anita has a couple who have won stakes races in open company, notably San Onofre, who won the Grade III Midnight Lute in his last outing.
Filly & Mare Sprint}
Saturday's $150,000 Sunshine Millions Filly/Mare Turf Sprint down the Santa Anita hill features an overflow field with several who have been competitive in open company. It's a bit of a program-stabber but offers the chance of great reward.