Last year's 2-year-old champ, Nyquist, got his Kentucky Derby campaign off to a swell start in California Monday, joining potential Triple Crown prospects Suddenbreakingnews, Destin and Frank Conversation in victories during the long holiday weekend.
With Valentine's Day on Sunday and Presidents Day on Monday, U.S. racing fans in warm weather climes were treated to some promising performances. Those in the Northeast got snow, cold and cancellations.
Bone-chilling temperatures precluded racing at several sites, including Turfway Park, Charles Town, Mahoning Valley and Aqueduct -- but not at Laurel Park in Maryland, enabling Kiaran McLaughlin to train graded stakes winners for Godolphin on the same day in both the frigid north and in balmy Florida. McLaughlin, no dummy, opted to remain in Florida.
In other on-track action, Tepin got off to a good start toward defending her Eclipse Award and Breeders' Cup crowns. And prospective stars emerged in California and Florida.
In Dubai, Hong Kong's veteran sprinter Rich Tapestry and 2-year-old filly Polar River starred in this week's Carnival ring. And a talented mare beat a very good field in the weekend feature in Australia.
Hoping all had a great Valentine's Day and looking forward to this week's start of baseball spring training (!), we move right along to:
The Road to the Roses
Nyquist, the 2015 juvenile champ and Breeders' Cup winner, remained undefeated with a clean, workmanlike victory in Monday's $200,000, Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita. With Mario Gutierrez at the controls, the Uncle Mo colt got away quickly from the inside gate and battled with Sheikh of Sheikhs for the early lead. When he got clear of that rival, Exaggerator tried to mount a challenge but never got close to even terms with Nyquist, who won by 1 1/2 lengths. Denman's Call finished third as Sheikh of Sheikhs faded badly in the stretch. Nyquist finished 7 furlongs in 1:20.71. His five wins last year, in addition to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, included the Grade I Del Mar Futurity and the Grade I FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita. The FrontRunner and the Breeders' Cup were both run at 1 1/16 miles. Asked about going to the lead, Gutierrez said he knew Nyquist would be eager to run after his long layoff. "I wanted to fight with him as little as possible today, let him do his thing and you saw the results," he said. Trainer Doug O'Neill said he will talk to owner Paul Reddam about the next step. "The original plan was the Florida Derby ... so we'll huddle up and play it by ear and do whatever is in the best interest of Nyquist for sure," O'Neill said.
Suddenbreakingnews rallied from last of 14 to win Monday's $500,000, Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. With Luis Quinonez up, the Mineshaft gelding had to go seven-wide entering the stretch to get running room. But when he did, he hit the afterburners and roared by the field to win by 2 3/4 lenghts. Whitmore was second, American Dubai third and the favorite, Collected, ran evenly in the stretch to finish fourth. Synchrony finished sixth and Discreetness got home seventh. Suddenbreakingnews finished the 1 1/16 miles on a good track in 1:45.14. All of his five previous starts came last year at Remington Park in Oklahoma, where he posted two wins and three seconds. In Monday's race, Suddenbreakingnews started from the No. 13 post position -- never an asset at Oaklawn. "Luis knew he had to drop back to save ground and it just turned out he was trailing the field," said winning Trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel. "That's the good thing about Luis. Even when you have a plan that doesn't work out, he has the experience to still get it done. I could tell at the eighth pole that he was going to get there. It's very exciting." Von Hemel said his gelding "more than likely" will take the next step on the Arkansas road to the Kentucky Derby -- the March 19 Rebel.
Jockey John Velazquez said he didn't really run very well but Destin did enough to win Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and keep his Kentucky Derby hopes alive. After finishing fourth in his first try around two turns at Fair Grounds, there was some concern that distance would limit the Giant's Causeway colt. Not so on Saturday, as he raced behind the leaders as Velazquez tried to get his head into the race, then came through between rivals in the stretch and won off by 2 1/2 lengths. Morning Fire was third and the favorite, Gettysburg, retreated in the late going to finish fifth. Destin scored his second career win and 10 Kentucky Derby points. But his rider said he will have to do better, adding, "... he was green in everything -- looking at the horses sideways, and when he got to the quarter pole he didn't know what to do and I had to get after him. At least he put in a nice run, but he didn't go forward to get away from the horses. He just kind of waited and was not really running the way he was supposed to. He was still good enough to win today, but he has to put his mind into the business," Velazquez said. Despite the rider's reservations, Destin ran the second-fastest time in the history of the race, 1:43.67 -- only 0.13 second off the mark set in 2009 by General Quarters.
Frank Conversation rallied three-wide from mid-pack to take the lead in the lane in Saturday's $200,000, Grade III El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, then held on to win by 3/4 length over Tusk. Kasseopia finished third. Frank Conversation, a Quality Road colt, ran 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:50.64 with Mario Gutierrez up for trainer Doug O'Neill. It was his second straight stakes win over the Golden Gate track. He also has won on turf going down the hill at Santa Anita but has yet to show he can get the job done against quality rivals on the dirt. "It was a perfect trip," Gutierrez said. "It was a lot of horses, so I wouldn't say we were worried, but we definitely wanted to get the perfect position right away coming out of the gate. It worked really good for us." Trainer Doug O'Neill said Frank Conversation's works on the dirt indicate he is "not only a synthetic and turf horse ... But we'll definitely try a big dirt race soon." Still, he said he next goal is the Grade III Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on April 2 -- on the all-weather.
Marengo Road pressed the pace set by odds-on favorite Never Gone South in Monday's $75,000 Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel Park, moved to the lead at the top of the stretch and held off Charmed Victory to win by 3/4 length. Never Gone South finished third. Marengo Road, a Quality Road colt, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:40.13 with Julian Pimentel up. It was his third win from eight starts. "Now we'll see where it takes us," said winning trainer Mike Trombetta. Marengo Road was owned by Harry Meyerhoff, who died Thursday at the age of 86, in partnership with his son. The elder Meyerhoff was a long-time and prominent ower who campaigned, among others, 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner and 1980 Horse of the Year Spectacular Bid.
Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager closed Sunday with "all others" the favorite at 5-2. You got 4-1 on Mohaymen and 7-1 on Nyquist before his victory in the San Vicente. The other individual interests closed at double-digit odds. And the inaugural edition of the "Ultimate Kentucky Derby Poll" sponsored by Horse Racing Radio Network and Brisnet also found Mohaymen on top with 12 of the 13 votes. Only Brisnet's Ed DeRosa sided with Nyquist.
Weep No More rallied from near the back of the field to post a mild upset victory in Saturday's $100,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, beating pacesetter Valueable Charmer by 2 3/4 lengths. The favorite, Smart Shopping, was third with a belated rally. Weep No More, a Mineshaft filly, ran 1 mile and 40 yards on the fast main track in 1:41.69 under Victor Lebron in just her third career start. Lebron also rode her in her first win and said he keyed off that effort. "I watched the replay again because I wanted to give her the same trip," Lebron said. "As soon as I asked her today, she took off, the same as last time." If nothing else, the name certainly would fit at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend.
Great Soul stalked the pace in Monday's $75,000 Wide Country Stakes at Laurel Park, advanced three-wide turning into the lane and was along in time to win by 1/2 length over Prognosis. Clare's Dowery was third at long odds and the odds-on favorite, Karen's Silk, finished fourth and fell while galloping out. Great Soul, a Pennsylvania-bred Great Notion filly, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:27.73 for jockey Trevor McCarthy. She broke her maiden on New Year's Eve at Laurel and was making her 3-year-old and stakes debut.
Filly & Mare Turf
Tepin, last year's Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award winner, was an easy winner in her 5-year-old debut in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. After tracking the pace made by Lovely Loyree, Tepin took charge when given her cue by Julien Leparoux and quickly cleared, winning by 3 1/1 lengths, ridden out. Lady Lara, always close, outfinished Lovely Loyree to finish second. Tepin ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:42.91. "There is nothing much I can say except that was perfect," Leparoux said. "She's got a big heart and she had a great kick at the end." Trainer Mark Casse said Tepin ultimately is headed for another run in the Breeders' Cup. "But our first major goal with her," he said, "is the Grade I Maker's 46 Mile at Keeneland (on April 15). She kind of likes Keeneland." Casse's other Endeavour starter, 2014 Canadian Horse of the Year Lexie Lou, trailed throughout, finishing sixth and last.
Long shot Bolo ran down pacesetting favorite Obviously in the final strides of Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Arcadia Stakes at Santa Anita, winning by a neck over that one. Om didn't fire late and finished third, another 2 3/4 lengths in arrears. Bolo, a 4-year-old Temple City colt, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:33.09 with Flavien Pratt at the controls. His re-emergence is an interesting development. After running third in both the Grade II San Felipe and the Grade I Santa Anita Derby last year, Bolo finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby, returned to Santa Anita to win an allowance race and then finished ninth and last on the grass in the $1.25 million, Grade I Belmont Invitational Derby on the Fourth of July. He then disappeared until Saturday. "The horse had a terrific trip," said winning trainer Carla Gaines. "All I told Flavien was to let him break and find his place in the race. I felt he'd be sitting right behind the leaders and he would still have a kick home. That's exactly what happened." She did not discuss plans.
Reload just did prevail over pacesetting 61-1 long shot Take the Stand after a stretch duel in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, winning by a neck over that rival. It was 1/2 length back to Karibu Gardens in third. Reload, a 7-year-old gelding by Hard Spun, spun out 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:40.15 with Javier Castellano in the irons. The Phipps Stable homebred, trained by Shug McGaughey, won his first graded stakes since the Grade III Canadian Turf over the same course nearly a year ago. "I thought he ran a great race," said McGaughey assistant Robbie Medina. "He's been training so well. I was a little worried early because he was farther back than he usually is, but going down the backside, I saw Javier had plenty of horse and he had him out in the clear. It looked like he was going a little easy, but that's his personality."
Tara's Tango was off last of eight in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Santa Maria Stakes, moved quickly to a stalking position and outfinished Yahilwa in the final yards, winning by 1/2 length. Living the Life finished third. Birdatthewire ran out of gas and finished fifth. Tara's Tango, a 4-year-old Unbridled's Song filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.48 with Martin Garcia up for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. She finished third in her previous start in the Grade II Santa Monica. "I was a little distressed when she came away from the gate slower than we wanted her to," Hollendorfer said. "But Martin got her into a good position right away." He said letting Birdatthewire go early made a difference. He said he has not filled out the next stop on Tara's Tango's dance card.
Penwith took charge in the lane in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Royal Delta Stakes at Gulfstream Park and drew off late to win by 3 lengths over the favorite, Sandiva. Best Behavior was 4 lengths farther back in third. Penwith, with Luis Saez up, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.16. The 5-year-old Bernardini mare was idle for most of 2015, then returned to win an allowance race over the course last month. The Royal Delta was her first graded stakes victory. "It was a very good ride, a good spot, and she ran huge. She's come back great this year," said winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "I'm glad the owners were patient and gave her the time off and she's come back great. She's beautiful and doing well, and it was a great win." Sandiva was making her turf debut and trainer Todd Pletcher said he was pleased with her effort.
Call Pat was last of eight entering the far turn in Sunday's $100,000 Bayakoa Stakes at Oaklawn Park, advanced along the rail and then got through between rivals and finished full of run, winning by 1/2 length over Streamline. The early leader, Meshell, finished third and the favorite, Sarah Sis, settled for fourth. Call Pat, a 6-year-old Lawyer Ron mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.81 with Joe Rocco Jr. up.
Pangburn rallied late to snatch victory in Saturday's $75,000 Maryland Racing Media Stakes at Laurel Park, beating Joint Return by 1/2 length. The odds-on favorite, Mei Ling, faded late to finish third. Pangburn, a 4-year-old Congrats filly, ran about 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:47.90 with Jevian Toledo in the irons.
La Macchina raced last of six into the stretch turn in Saturday's $100,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park, swung wide and kicked into gear like a semi-tremendous machine and got home first by 1/2 length over Ain't Got Time. Carve was third and the favorite, Cougar Ridge, beat only one rival. La Macchina, a 4-year-old Malibu Moon gelding owned by O'zbekiston Racing, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.27 for jockey Channing Hill. "Actually, I told the jockey to just stay back a little bit because the (long race), it's tougher, so I wanted to make sure he had enough gas for the home stretch," said winning trainer Otabek Umarov. Hill said the plan worked. "He really fired nice coming down the lane," the rider said. It was his first step into the stakes ranks since La Macchina finished seventh in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile in September of 2014. After his early struggles, the gelding now has three wins and a second from his last five races.
Kid Cruz tracked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 John B. Campbell Stakes at Laurel Park, then outfinished Souper Lucky, winning by 1/2 length over that one. Kobel was third. Kid Cruz, a 5-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid, got 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:52.98 with Jose Ortiz up. "This horse is very lazy," Ortiz said. "I knew that I had to ride him all the way."
Page McKenney raced through snow to defeat some of the East Coast's toughest sprinters in Monday's $250,000, Grade III General George Stakes at Laurel Park. With Horacio Karamanos in the irons, the 6-year-old Eavesdropper gelding raced in mid-pack around the turn, came wide and sprinted home first, getting the best of the favorite, Majestic Affair, in the final strides. Sonny Inspired was a long shot third, 1 3/4 lengths in front of Green Gratto. Page McKenney ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.61 in his first start in a sprint. "I have ridden a lot of nice horses, but this horse is all heart," Karamanos said. "It was a big test today at seven-eighths."
Filly & Mare Sprint
Dancing House pressed the pace in Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Barbara Fritchie Stakes at Laurel Park, took the lead in the lane, shook off the favorite, Lady Sabilia, and then survived a late threat from Clothes Fall Off to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Clothes Fall Off held second, 1 1/2 lengths in front of Lady Sabelia, who barely held on for third. Dancing House, owned by Godolphin and trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.23 under Kendrick Carmouche. The winner, a 5-year-old Tapit mare, has not missed the trifecta since finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in 2013. She ran second to La Verdad in her last race, the Interborough at Aqueduct. "No (plans)," said McLaughlin, who also trains Clothes Fall Off, for different owners. "We've been pointing to this for a while with both. We're really happy to win this. We'll look ahead, but we're real happy to be first and second. I thank Laurel for running today." Many other East Coast tracks canceled in the face of bitter cold. McLaughlin spoke by phone from Florida, where he saddled Penwith to victory in Gulfstream Park.
Stonetastic was way too much for seven rivals in Sunday's $65,000 Miami Shores Handicap at Gulfstream Park. After shaking off some early pressure, the 5-year-old Unbridled's Song mare opened up in the stretch and coasted the final sixteenth, winning by 5 lengths, well in hand. Miss Melinda beat the others with Mom'z Laugh third. Stonetastic, with Paco Lopez along for the ride, finished 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:15.78. After finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup, she came back on Boxing Day to get home second in the Grade II Sugar Swirl at Gulfstream.
Dubai (By Richard Gross)
The opening of the second half of the 2016 Dubai World Cup Carnival featured sprints and belonged to a return invader and one very chill filly.
Rich Tapestry crossed over from the an outside gate and led the rest of the way to score by 1 1/2 lengths over Muarrab in the featured 3/4-mile, Group 3 Al Shindagha Sprint on the dirt track with Reynaldothewizard appearing another half-length back in third. Hong Kong-based, 8-year-old Rich Tapestry will be seeking to better last year's third-place finish in the Group 1 Golden Shaheen on March 26 after a runner-up ending in the same race the year before. Trainer Michael Chang will want to make more history in Dubai after becoming the first Hong Kong trainer to win a North American race with Rich Tapestry's win in the 2014 Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship. He also won the Group 3 Mahab Al Shimaal that year at Meydan for his first Dubai score. The favorite, Marking, went to his knees at the start of the Al Shindagha, dumping jockey Gerald Mosse. Neither horse nor rider appeared seriously hurt.
The evening's opening UAE 1000 Guineas saw favored Polar River freeze four opponents in their hooves with a 13-lengths' embarrassment over Promising Run with Kabaw another 2 1/2 lengths back over 1 mile of dirt. Polar River increasingly looks like a 3-year-old UAE version of U.S. sensation Songbird with a chance the two may meet someday if trainer Doug Watson casts his gaze abroad. The daughter of Congrats is now a perfect 3-for-3 in Dubai. "If she keeps progressing, it would only be fair to take her over to the U.S. and give her a chance to further her career," Watson asserted after the romping win. "She was very impressive." Watson plans to next run his star filly in the March 3 UAE Oaks and target a spot in the UAE Derby on World Cup day. UAE horses have used the Group 2 UAE Derby in recent years as a springboard to the Breeders' Cup and even the Kentucky Derby, including 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic runnerup Toast of New York and last year's Triple Crown contestant Mubtaahij, the two most recent UAE Derby winners.
The night belonged to Watson, who also saddled a 1-2 finish in the second race on the card when Grand Argentier was 4 1/4 lengths grander than stablemate Dornoch in the Xpress dirt-mile handicap. Ormindo was a distant 5 1/4 lengths back in third. In fact, the entire week belonged to UAE-based Watson, who also saddled four winners in Saturday's non-Carnival contests at Meydan.
While everyone awaits the Feb. 25 debut of California Chrome and the arrival of other U.S. invaders, the remainder of the evening's spoils were equally split among local trainers and their charges. Comicas gave trainer Charlie Appleby a 3/4-length advantage over Pure Diamond in the 3/4-mile turf trial with Ajwad 2 3/4-lengths arrears. William Buick, enjoying a notable Carnival, guided the winner. Mike de Kock's Liquid Mercury flowed to a 1/1/2-lengths' win over Code of Honor with Sugar Boy a sweet third by 1 3/4 lengths. Market Rally scored big in a down week for the real financial markets when the 3-year-old son of Unbridled's Song won his UAE debut for trainer Dhruba Selvaratnam by a bell-ringing 6 lengths over Lazzam with Hombre Rojo the guy 7 lengths back in third. Rarely denied Godolphin and trainer Saeed bin Suroor ended an evening featuring speedsters with a length-and-a-half win by Musaddas over Dormello with Golden Soul shining 1 1/4 lengths back in the 1 1/8-miles turf closer.
Suavito was an impressive winner in a field full of good ones in Saturday's Group 1 C.F. Orr Stakes at Caulfield. The mare jumped alertly from the inside gate in the big field, then fell back as Turn Me Loose was turned loose on the lead. At the top of the stretch, jockey Luke Currie found a seam between rivals for Suavito, who went through and on to win by 3/4 length. Lucky Hussler was as unlucky in his run as Suavito was lucky, running best in the final strides but settling for second. Hucklebuck finished third and Turn Me Loose salvaged fourth. "There was good speed on," Currie said. "She always traveled like she was going to be there somewhere. She just needed a bit of luck." Suavito had been off for some 10 months after having a bone chip removed from a knee. Trainer Nigel Blackiston said Suavito "loves it here" and might come back to run in the Futurity Stakes. Thereafter, he said, he will have to decide whether to take the 6-year-old, New Zealand-bred mare up to 2,000 meters for the Australian Cup or move along to Sydney for other races.
In the Blue Diamond preliminaries Saturday at Caulfield, well-backed favorite Flying Artie was a popular winner in the colts and geldings division, taking the overland route around the turn before narrowly edging Star Turn with a significant gap back to China Dream in third. Flying Artie, an Artie Schiller colt, is trained by Mick Price. In the fillies' division, Samara Dancer got home first, 1 length ahead of late-running Concealer, after making her own way through traffic early in the stretch run. Miss Nymeria was third. Samara Dancer, by Hinchinbrook, now is perfect after two starts.
Capain Joy, after surviving a colic attack and resulting surgery last year, is headed to the All-Weather Championship Finals on Good Friday, thanks to a victory on Friday at Dundalk that was as much relief as joy to his trainer, Tracey Collins. The 7-year-old grey settled in second, got by pacesetting Geological a furlong out and won by 1/2 length over that one with Pat Smullen in the irons. It was his first start since June 27 and his seventh win at the Irish track. "I have never been so apprehensive and worried coming to the races as the horse is a real family pet," Collins said. The horse finished third in the mile event at last year's Good Friday finals "and we wanted him to have another chance on Good Friday if at all possible," Collins added. "But he was a very sick horse and you never know how well they will recover from surgery."
There was another Fast-Track Qualifier for the Good Friday finals on Sunday at Cagnes-sur-Mer on the south coast of France (sounds nice for those at Laurel or Aqueduct!). But the outcome is unlikely to impact Lingfield in March. Hurricane was the winner over 1 mile on Polytrack for trainer Jean-Claud Rouget. The Hurricane Cat 3-year-old remains undefeated in three starts, all on all-weather surfaces. But he is set to switch to turf and seek out the best races available in France to geldings.
After a couple days of weather-related cancellations, the Big A got back on track on Presidents Day with the $100,000 Hollie Hughes Handicap for state-breds. Drama King lagged early, came wide to get room in the stretch and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Eye Luv Lulu. Between the Lines was well back in third. Drama King, a 4-year-old colt by Nobiz Like Shobiz, finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.89 with Junior Alvarado riding.
Control Stake controlled things all the way in Saturday's $50,000 Sam Houston Sprint Cup, leading from the start and winning by 3 lengths. Johnny Whip was best of the rest with the even-money favorite, Double Ours, finishing third after acting up behind the gate. Control Stake, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred colt by Discreetly Mine, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.99 with Deshawn Parker in the irons.
Expect Royalty got a nose in front under the wire to win Saturday's $50,000 Houston Distaff Stakes for Texas-bred fillies and mares. Whiskey Eyes was second, 1 1/4 lengths in front of the favorite, Seneca Destiny, who led briefly late. Expect Royalty, a 6-year-old Valid Expectations mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:44.19 with Iram Diego in the irons.
Bully Good was along late to post the upset victory in Saturday's $50,000 Houston Turf Stakes for state-breds, beating the even-money favorite, Magna Breeze, by 1 1/2 lengths, going away. Supermason built an early lead and held on to finish third. Bully Good, a 5-year-old gelding by My Golden Song, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:42.36 with Gerardo Mora at the controls.