Last year's juvenile champ, Nyquist, is the center of attention as a big Presidents Day weekend schedule includes a slew of important Kentucky Derby prep races.
Laurel Park hosts some big sprint races. Tepin returns to action on the Tampa Bay turf.
Hong Kong celebrated the Year of the Monkey with a huge crowd at Sha Tin Racecourse and an even bigger victory the next day, winning the feature in Dubai. Group 1 racing returns to Australia, along with some promising 2-year-olds.
No promises here. We deliver:
The Road to the Roses
Four weekend races loom at potential preps for the Kentucky Derby, from California to Florida with an important stop in Arkansas.
Monday's $200,000, Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita features the 2-year-old debut of Nyquist, the undefeated 2-year-old Eclipse Award champion, Breeders' Cup winner and early Kentucky Derby favorite. Nyquist put in his final major work for the race last weekend and trainer Doug O'Neill said he is happy with the Uncle Mo colt's condition. "He's got so much class, so much raw ability," O'Neill said. "It's hard to believe that he's any more mature than last year but he's doing everything right and thriving on training. He's doing super." O'Neill said there have been discussion about taking Nyquist to the Florida Derby but Saturday's race will help firm up the plans. "We'll see how the San Vicente goes and huddle up with the whole crew and figure out what's in the horse's best interest," he said. There is likely to be some competition in the San Vicente, including Grade II Saratora Special and Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot winner Exaggerator, Sheikh of Sheikhs, El Charo and recent first-out maiden winner Denman's Call -- although with long-time Santa Anita race caller Trevor Denman retired, others will be auditioning for the job during the weekend.
Monday's $500,000, Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park features Discreetness, Gordy Florida, Synchrony and Luna de Loco, the top four finishers from the Smarty Jones Stakes earlier in the meeting. In addition, frequent Hot Springs raider Bob Baffert is expected to send out Collected, winner of the Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. Discreetness worked Wednesday under jockey Jon Court and trainer Jinx Fires said the half mile in 50 seconds flat was "perfect."
"Jon said he might have gone a little fast because the track was deep," Fires said. "But Jon said he handled the track like he owned it." The Discreet Cat colt has won four of his six starts. That tally includes a dominating victory in a 7-furlongs allowance at Churchill Downs last September. Collected, meanwhile, is 2-for-3 with the only loss a second-place finish to Dressed in Hermes in the Grade III Cecil B. DeMille at Del Mar.
Fourteen are entered for Saturday's $200,000, Grade III El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, a 1 1/16-miles event over the all-weather course. Frank Conversation, Marquala and Algenon were first, second and third in the local California Derby last month. Leandro Mora, assistant to Frank Conversation's trainer, Doug O'Neill, told The Blood-Horse the colt is eligible for the Group 2 UAE Derby at Meydan on World Cup night and that would be an option if he runs well Saturday. Kasseopia, a British-bred son of Showcasing, raced on the all-weather in England, then finished second in the Grade III Grey Stakes at Woodbine in October and has been training at Santa Anita for trainer Graham Motion. Touched by Autism finally won on his fifth attempt after four runner-up showings. Mr. Coker is a Santa Anita maiden winner. Oscar Dominguez raced in Ireland last year and makes his first U.S. start. Tusk could find himself in this spot, too.
Seven are in for Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and any one of them will have to run his way into serious Derby contention. Only two, both trained by Todd Pletcher, are nominated to the Triple Crown and they have only two wins between them from six starts. Gettysburg broke through in his third try for owner WinStar Farm and the Pioneerof the Nile colt looks promising. Destin, a Giant's Causeway colt, won at first asking at Belmont Park in October and most recently finished fourth in the Grade III LeComte at Fairgrounds. Among the others, Morning Fire comes off a front-running win in the Pasco Stakes going 7 furlongs over the Tampa Bay track and will add a furlong and a half. Rafting has won two of three and comes back from a short vacation. Whatawonderflworld has three straight wins. All were in restricted races but the Tiz Wonderful has looked impressive.
Pletcher also saddles Outwork in an optional claimer Saturday at Tampa Bay. The Uncle Mo colt won his only start last year -- one of those 4 1/2-furlongs sprints at during the Keeneland spring meeting.
Also worth a look is the listed Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel Park in Maryland on Monday.
If the profusion of Derby candidates is puzzling, Brisnet and Horse Racing Radio Network are offering some help in the form of the new "Ultimate Kentucky Derby Poll", which will feature 12 top-rank journalists sorting out the prospects. See www.horseracingradio.net or www.brisnet.com for details. It will be interesting to see how the UKDP musings stack up against those of long-standing analysts Steve Haskin at www.bloodhorse.com and Jay Privman and Mike Watchmaker at www.drf.com. Can 12 journalists agree on anything?
Twelve are in for Saturday's $100,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, going 1 mile and 40 yards. They all have something to prove but Smart Shopping, a first-out winner at Churchill Downs, appears to have some upside, as does Dreamup, a Bernardini filly trained by Eoin Harty for Godolphin, who blossomed when moved down to Florida from the chilly Illinois climes and stretched out to two turns.
A feisty field of 12 is entered for Saturday's $50,000 Cincinnati Trophy at Turfway Park, going 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather course. Also worth a look is Monday's $75,000 Wide Country Stakes at Laurel Park.
Moving across the waves:
Hong Kong-based sprinter Rich Tapestry went quickly to the lead in Thursday's Group 3 Al Shindagha Sprint while the odds-on favorite, Marking, went to his knees at the start and left jockey James Doyle behind. Rich Tapestry, with Gerald Mosse up, made all the going and had plenty left at the end, winning by 1 1/2 lengths from Muarrab with Reynaldothewizard chasing them home in third, another 2 lengths in arrears. Krypton Factor finished fifth as Rich Tapestry hit the line in 1:10.88. The Irish-bred Holy Roman Emperor gelding had not won since taking the Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship in October of 2014. He flopped in the Breeders' Cup Sprint but rebounded to finish third in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen. When last seen, he finished last of 13 on the grass in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin. Thursday's performance was doubly impressive given the competition. Reynaldothewizard may be 10 years old but he was riding a three-race winning streak and his resume includes a victory in the 2013 Golden Shaheen. Krypton Factor won the same race in 2012. Neither Marking nor Doyle appeared seriously injured in the stumble out of the gate.
Also on the Thursday night card, Polar River destroyed four rivals in the UAE 1,000 Guineas, winning by 13 lengths over Promising Run. Polar River, an American-bred filly by Congrats out of an Empire Maker mare, now is undefeated and untested in three starts, all at Meydan, for trainer Doug Watson. In the Group 3 UAE 2,000 Guineas, it was Market Rally leading all the way to the victory.
Read much more about the action in the desert in Richard Gross's section of Monday's UPI Horse Racing Roundup.
Saturday is the Group 1 Ladbrokes C.F. Orr Stakes at 1,400 meters at Caulfield. Turn Me Loose, Boban, Fawkner and Lucky Hussler are among the early favorites in a field of 18. Turn Me Loose drew gate No. 10; Fawkner, No. 12; Boban, No. 13. Lucky Hussler was a bit luckier in the draw, being installed in stall No. 8. Maurinho also must be given a chance off last year's form.
On the same card, some of Australia's promising 2-year-olds will be on display in the two divisions of the Ladbrokes Blue Diamond Prelude. Watch and learn for Blue Diamond Day two weeks hence.
With Ash Wednesday in the rear-view mirror, the run-up to the All-Weather Championships Finals on Good Friday is well and truly in the home stretch. On Saturday at Lingfield, Si Senor will be among those looking for a good enough effort to move along. Trainer Ed Vaughn said he hopes the son of Dansili can earn his way into the Group 3 Coral Winter Derby on Feb. 27, a clear stepping stone to the Coral Easter Classic at the same 10 furlongs on Finals day. First things first, though, and Vaughn said he's not sure Si Senor wants more than 1 mile. "The Winter Derby is a good pot though and his run at the weekend should tell us more," he said. Others still in for the Winter Derby include Sloane Avenue, runner-up in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile; Godolphin's runner Festive Fare; and South American Group 1 winner Furia Cruzada, now trained by John Gosden.
Thewizardofoz, a promising newcomer in Hong Kong last year, delivered in Wednesday's featured race at Sha Tin -- the Chinese New Year Cup. Even more impressive was the enthusiasm of the Hong Kong racing fan base as 89,881 turned out to usher in the Year of the Monkey. For the 4-year-old winner, the Class 1 victory could be a ticket to the Group 1 Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup at the same 1,400 meters next month. "That race is possible," said trainer John Size. "I'll have a look at the horse and see how he is, see if he can tolerate another run (that soon). I was pleased with the way he did it. He's done that as well as he can. He couldn't do any more than that and that's what we were hoping for."
Back in the US of A:
Sandiva has hit the board in five of her last six starts, dating back to victory in the 2014 Tropical Park Oaks and Saturday will be one of six in the $200,000, Grade II Royal Delta at 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park. Call Pat also has been a consistent check-earner at the graded stakes level. Best Behavior jumped up to win the Grade III Sugar Swirl Stakes the day after Christmas at Gulfstream.
Birdatthewire and Yahilwa, second and third behind Taris in the recent Grade II La Canada, are back among eight entered for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Maria Stakes at Santa Anita, going the same 1 1/16 miles.
Nine older fillies and mares are entered for Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Bayakoa Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Among them is Sarah Sis, second in both the Dixie Belle and the Martha Washingon over the course last year and winner of the Grade III Honeybee. Illinois-bred Streamline has won four of her last five starts. Call Pat is a graded stakes winner coming off a short rest.
The weekend's two biggest open sprints are Monday's $250,000, Grade III General George Stakes at 7 furlongs at Laurel Park and the $100,000 Hollie Hughes Handicap, 6 furlongs at Aqueduct and also on Presidents Day.
Eleven are set for Saturday's $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup at 6 furlongs at Turf Paradise. The morning-line favorite is Absolutely Cool, a 9-year-old gelding who has won this race the past two years and finished second in two runnings before that. He also has won three straight stakes events at the Arizona track.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Barbara Fritchie Stakes at 7 furlongs at Laurel: Hot City Girl was last seen on Boxing Day, finishing second to Birdatthewire -- but ahead of Cavorting -- in the Grade I La Brea stakes at Santa Anita on Boxing Day. In that race, she rushed up after a slow start from the inside gate, led most of the way and was just caught. Lady Sabelia is back seeking a second straight victory in the Fritchie and riding a two-race winning streak. Princess Violet was second in last year's running and used that as a springboard to victory in the Grade I Matron at Belmont. Dancing House was knocking on the door all year as a 3-year-old and finished second to recently retired Eclipse Award winner La Verdad in her first start this year in the Interborough at Aqueduct. Wonder Gal has yet to win in open company but has been competitive against some good ones.
Midnight Hawk, narrowly defeated by Race Day in last year's Grade III Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park, returns for Saturday's $100,000 Essex Handicap over the same oval. The Bob Baffert trainee was idle for 10 months after the Razorback and finished fourth in a comeback effort last month at Santa Anita. Carve also is in this field. He was second to that same Race Day in last year's Grade II Oaklawn Handicap and also has had a long vacation. D. Wayne Lukas saddles Sharm for Zayat Stables and the Majestic Warrior already has a win over the course at this meeting. Cougar Ridge has won four straight races -- two at Remington Park, one at Keeneland and one at Delta Downs.
Saturday's third race at Tampa Bay Downs -- a $35,000 handicap at 1 mile and 40 yards -- attracted some unusually talented entries. Bent On Bourbon won the Grade III Iowa Derby last year, then went wrong in the Grade II West Virginia Derby in August. He returns showing strong works for trainer Eddie Kenneally. Mr. Jordan was a terror in South Florida and New Jersey early last year, then seemed to be knocked off his game while chasing American Pharoah, Keen Ice and all the others in the Grade I Haskell. He was second to Mexikoma in the Sunshine Millions Classic in his last outing.
A sharp and well-balanced field of 12 is entered for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. War Correspondent, Old Time Hockey, A Lot, Sky Captain, Reload, Take the Stand (in Argentina), Grand Tito and Karibu Gardens are all graded stakes winners or within a whisker of it.
Filly & Mare Turf
Tepin headlines a prestigious field of seven for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Endeavour Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, going 1 1/16 miles on the grass. She won the Breeders' Cup Mile at Keeneland in her last outing -- her fifth win from seven starts at the top levels. The rivals here include 2014 Queen's Plate winner Lexie Lou, who also is a graded stakes winner on the grass and makes her second start back from a year-long layoff. She also faces two who defeated her in that comeback race Bureau de Change and Lovely Loyree; graded stakes winners Lady Lara and Photo Call; and consistent performer Partisan Politics. That's a tough field.