Kentucky Derby fans turn their attention to the Ozarks this weekend as 14 3-year-olds line up for the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park, final prep for the Arkansas Derby.
Oaklawn's Saturday card also offers the Grade III Razorback Handicap and the Grade II Azeri for fillies and mares. Santa Anita has the Grade I Santa Margarita for fillies and mares and female sprinters take center stage at Gulfstream Park.
Meanwhile, the Dubai folks have released the likely fields for all nine races on the March 26 World Cup card. The $10 million World Cup itself is top-heavy with American stars and the entire program is light horses owned by "the boss", Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.
Saturday is Golden Slipper Day in Australia with several top Group 1 events at Rosehill Gardens in Sydney. And Hong Kong has a promising bunch lining up for Sunday's BMW Hong Kong Derby.
While we wait for the corned beef and cabbage to cook for St. Pat's, let's line up for this:
The Road to the Roses
The $900,000, Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park well could be a proving ground for some fresh faces on the Kentucky Derby trail, notably Cupid, who was scratched from last week's California prep for this. The Coolmore-owned, Bob Baffert-trained Tapit colt is burdened by high expectations and faces a due date for those on Saturday. There are, of course, more proven commodities in a contentious and talented field, notably the winner of the local Southwest Stakes, Suddenbreakingnews, who drew the outside, No. 14 post. That's not a good thing in a big field at Oaklawn but he did win the Southwest from No. 13 with a dramatic, late, wide rally. Among the others, Discreetness won the Remington Springboard Mile in December and the Smarty Jones over the Hot Springs oval in January but struggled home seventh in the Southwest from the outside gate. Whitmore got a bad start in the Southwest but rallied to finish second. American Dubai chased a moderate pace in the Southwest and held on for third. Remember Ralis? No? He won the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga last September, finished sixth in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park, was last of 14 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and ships in from California for this. Cherry Wine and Creator, like Cupid, are two late-developing types who really need to step things up. And, by the way, that $900,000 is not a typo. That's how well things are going at Oaklawn this spring.
A detour overseas:
With $30 million on offer over 10 races, you expect many of the world's best horses to assemble at Meydan on World Cup night. And so they will again for this 31st edition of the $10 million World Cup and its supporting event.
The likely field for the Cup itself includes five horses representing the United States -- one of whom, Frosted, is owned by Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin Racing. Among the hype about California Chrome, Keen Ice, Hoppertunity and especially Mshawish, do not overlook Frosted. He has a local win and Sheik Mohammed loves to move the $6 million winner's share from one of his pockets to another. Mshawish, owned by Qatar-based Al Shaqab Racing, also has a big shot here. He finished third last year in the Group 1 Dubai Turf but has become even better since trainer Todd Pletcher put him on the dirt, where he won the Grade I Donn Handicap in his last start. The three "real" Americans are 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, second in last year's Cup and seemingly at a new level this year, and two others who seldom win -- the Bob Baffert-trained Hoppertunity and Dale Romans' Keen Ice. Candy Boy, another who spent most of his career in the United States, has not raced since finishing fourth in last year's Cup but he is trained by Doug Watson, who has been carrying all before him in the UAE this season. Candy Boy is still eligible for a "non-winners of two other than" race back home. All of that, of course, is unjustifiably U.S.-centric. Last year's Japanese Derby winner, Hokko Tarume, has been ridiculed in some quarters as having only one poor comeback race after a long injury-related layoff. But he is very talented and dangerous. Mubtaahij, trained by Meydan fixture Mike de Kock and representing South Africa, won last year's Group 2 UAE Derby but has not won since. The other are Teletext, representing Saudi Arabia; Vadamos, from France; Gun Pit, from Hong Kong; Intilaaq, from England; and the UAE's Special Fighter, who rode a golden rail to an upset victory in the Group 1 Maktoum Challenge Round 3.
We'll look at the other fields in much more detail in next week's preview. An appetite-whetting look: Postponed, Highland Reel, Duramente and One and Only in the Dubai Sheema Classic; Solow is out of the Dubai Turf with a minor but incredibly badly timed injury leaving Godolphin's Tryster the likely favorite; Confrontation, Rich Tapestry and X Y Jet in the Dubai Golden Shaheen; Peniaphobia, Sole Power, Goldream, Buffering, Mongolian Saturday in the Al Quoz Sprint; super filly Polar River against Market Rally, El Camino Real Derby winner Frank Conversation and others in the UAE Derby; a talented Watson-trained duo in the Godolphin Mile; and some of the top Purebred Arabians in the Dubai Kahayla Classic.
Worth noting: Sheik Mohammed's top two trainers, Saeed bin Suroor and Charlie Appleby, have only two and three starters, respectively. Kiaran McLaughlin trains Frosted.
Sun Jewellery faces off with Werther again in Sunday's HK Group 1 BMW Hong Kong Derby, with trainer John Size hoping to show his budding star can keep going another 200 meters after narrowly holding off Werther in their last two starts going 1,600 and 1,800 meters in the HK Group 1 Classic Mile and the HK Group 1 Hong Kong Classic Cup. Both of those races produced dramatic finishes and Blizzard was well in the frame of each of them, as well, so Sunday's race is well anticipated. The added distance also adds spice as 14 are set to start. None of the trainers was unhappy with the draw and John Moore, who trains Werther, said, "Sun Jewellery's drawn 4 and we've got Werther and Victory Magic inside of him, so it will be interesting."
A full field of talented 2-year-olds is set for Saturday's Group 1 Golden Slipper at Rosehill. There's no shortage of achievement or promise with Extreme Choice and Flying Artie, the 1-2 finishers from the Group 2 Blue Diamond Stakes among the likely favorites. Craig Newitt rides Extreme Choice, a Not a Single Doubt colt, and Damien Oliver will take a leg up on Flying Artie, a Artie Schiller. Both are trained by Mick Price.
The same program includes the Group 1 Ranvet Stakes at 2,000 meters with Criterion, Mongolian Khan, The United States and others; and the Group 1 George Ryder Stakes at 1,500 meters, which features the likes of last year's Cox Plate winner, Winx, and Futurity Stakes winner Turn Me Loose; and the Group 1 Rosehill Guineas.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
Untapable makes her 2016 debut in Saturday's $350,000, Grade II Azeri at 1 1/16 miles. The 5-year-old Tapit mare, winner of the 2014 Breeders' Cup Distaff, was a close second in this race last season, then went on to win the Grade I Apple Blossom. Call Pat, Streamline, Meshell and Sarah Sis, the top four from last month's local Grade III Bayakoa, all return for this. Daily Racing Form's new pace notation system seems to indicate -- not really sure -- that Call Pat benefitted from a hot pace in the Bayakoa, closing from last of eight to win by 1/2 length. On the flip side, front-runner Sarah Sis would seem to have suffered from that pace scenario, fading badly from a stalking position as the favorite. Untapable has been working steadily toward her return and, in theory, looks unbeatable in this field. But, as Homer Simpson famously said, "In theory, communism works."
Another indication that the U.S. handicap ranks, already a bit thin this year, have been sucked dry by the Dubai World Cup: Saturday's $350,000, Grade III Razorback drew a field of 10 -- three of them owned by O'zbekistan Racing and trained by Otabek Umarov. Another is a first-time U.S. starter up from Argentina, Idolo Portendo -- a two-time Group 1 winner in his former home. The entry is not to be taken lightly. The 1X, Looks to Spare, is making his first start since finishing third in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, only 1 length behind Effinex. The 1A, La Macchina, won the Essex Handicap over the course and distance in his last outing. Among the locals, Carve makes his second start of the season after finishing a closing third in the Essex. Far Right won last year's Smarty Jones and Southwest at Oaklawn and finished second in the Arkansas Derby, albeit 8 lengths behind American Pharoah. And Upstart, despite not coming close to a win since last year's Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, is the morning-line favorite for this race.
Ten are set for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Inside Information Stakes for fillies and mares, going 7 furlongs on the main track. Tiger Ride won three of four to close out 2015, including the Grade III Valley View at Keeneland, and makes her 4-year-old debut. Best Behavior finished fifth in this last year, then figured in the trifecta in each of seven subsequent races. She finished third in the Grade II Royal Delta in her last outing. Flutterby, Stonetastic, Kiss to Remember, You Bought Her and Bar of Gold are all seasoned graded stakes runners.
Saturday's $125,000 Correction Handicap also finds fillies and mares sprinting -- in this case, 6 furlongs. Paulassilverlining and Clothes Fall Off are the morning-line favorites in a field of five. The latter comes off a second-place finish in the Grade II Barbara Fritchie at Laurel Park.
Taris finished third in last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint but has posted two straight wins going longer back in California. The 5-year-old Flatter mare takes on six rivals in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Santa Margarita Stakes. Among those rivals is the improving Tara's Tango, winner last month of the Grade II Santa Maria. Penwith comes west as the winner of last month's Grade II Royal Delta at Gulfstream Park. Lavender Chrissie won the Zia Park Oaks in her last start back on Thanksgiving Weekend and will need to move forward in this.
The New Mexico track was forced to scrap the Sunland Park Derby in the wake of an equine herpesvirus outbreak. Back in action, the track has a weekend full of stakes, culminating in the $415,000 Sunland Park Festival of Racing Stakes on Sunday at 9 furlongs. The latter did draw some shippers, including the morning-line favorite, Collected, who finished fourth in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park and is based in Bob Baffert's Santa Anita barn. Doug O'Neill entered Found Money, who finished fourth in the Grade III Sham at Santa Anita in his last outing. And Todd Pletcher offers the Florida-based Gettysburg, who finished fifth in the Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs in his most recent start.