Saturday's Arkansas Derby, the last chance for 3-year-olds to earn their way into the Kentucky Derby field, is the focus of another rich weekend of thoroughbred racing.
Also expected back on the track are stars such as Untapable, Effinex and Tepin.
On the international front, up-and-coming 3-year-olds will be on display in Japan and in England. South Africa offers a Group 1 event for fillies and mares.
The Road to the Roses
Saturday's $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby is the last realistic chance to amass the points needed to crack the Kentucky Derby field. Eleven of the 12 contestants will be trying to knock off Cupid, winner of the Grade II Rebel over the course and the only one in the bunch who currently looks sure of a spot in the Run for the Roses. Cupid, a Tapit colt owned by the Coolmore connections from Ireland, is the 2-1 morning-line favorite and a good effort might make him trainer Bob Baffert's best hope for the Run for the Roses after Mor Spirit's second-place finish in last weekend's Santa Anita Derby. Cupid is No. 11 on the leaderboard for the Kentucky Derby starting gate with 50 points. Mor Spirit has 84 points and stands in seventh position. Also among the favorites in the Arkansas Derby are Whitmore, second to Cupid in the Rebel; Suddenbreakingnews, winner of the Grade III Southwest at Oaklawn; and Gettysburg, so far only a maiden winner. Creator, a late-running third in the Rebel, is listed at 10-1 on the line. The Arkansas Derby earns the winner 100 Derby qualify points. The runner-up gets 40, third takes 20 and fourth gets 10. Whitmore already has 24 points and conceivably could make the field with a top-four finish Saturday. Suddenbreakingnews, Creator and Discreetness, with 10 points each, probably would qualify by finishing second. A win by a long shot, however, would push quite a few contenders down the list of Kentucky Derby prospects.
Remember Swipe? The Birdstone colt may have clobbered your trifecta in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, finishing second between Nyquist and Brody's Cause -- two of the likely favorites for the Kentucky Derby. In fact, Swipe finished second to Nyquist in each of his last four starts and was only 1/2 length in arrears at the end of the Juvenile despite starting from a wide gate. Well, Swipe makes his first start as a 3-year-old in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Lexington at Keeneland -- against a field made up largely of late bloomers. Swipe has 12 points on the Derby leaderboard and would earn 10 more with a win in the Lexington. But with others likely to leapfrog him as a result of the Arkansas Derby, it's doubtful he can crack the Churchill Downs lineup. Like Santa Anita Derby winner Exaggerator, he's trained by Keith Desormeaux. The only other contestant with real experience at the top level is Synchrony, who finished third in the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park but then was a well-beaten sixth in the Grade III Southwest behind Cupid, Whitmore and others. Riker led the way in the Breeders' Cup but faded to finish sixth and was equally unimpressive in his 2016 debut. Collected won the Grade III Sham at Santa Anita back in January, then won the Sunland Park Festival of Racing Stakes.
It's hard to believe Untapable hasn't won a race since last year's Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park. The now 5-year-old Tapit mare was Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award champ after the 2014 season and seemed well on her way to a repeat last year after finishing second in the Grade II Azeri and winning the Oaklawn meeting's biggest prize for distaffers. But that victory was followed by a second in the Grade I Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park, a second in the Grade III Shuvee at Saratoga, a third in the Grade I Personal Ensign at the Spa and another second in the Grade I Spinster at Keeneland. She then missed the Breeders' Cup after spiking a fever. This season started out identically to 2015 with a second-place finish in the Azeri last month. Now she's back as the 6-5 morning-line choice in Friday's Apple Blossom. The opposition includes Tara's Tango, winner of the Grade II Santa Maria and the Grade I Santa Margarita in her two previous starts in California. Call Pat, Forever Unbridled, Streamline and Theogony complete the field.
Saturday's $750,000 Grade II Oaklawn Park Handicap features the winners of the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, Melatonin; Grade II Gulfstream Park Handcap, Blofeld; Grade III Razorback Handicap, Upstart; and last year's Grade I Clark Handicap, Effinex. The highly competitive field also is sprinkled with horses who have been competitive in those same races or others of equal stature, including Carve and Financial Modeling. Eight are set to go 9 furlongs in a race second to none on the weekend card.
By contrast, Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Ben Ali at Keeneland has a competitive but less accomplished field. Only three won their last race -- two of them in the optional claiming ranks and the other, Are You Kidding Me, making his first start since last November when he won the Grade II Autumn Stakes on the Woodbine all-weather. And this is only his second start on dirt. Eagle, a 4-year-old Candy Ride colt, enters off a nice winter campaign in New Orleans where he finished second in the Grade III Mineshaft Handicap and a close fourth in the Grade II New Orleans Handicap. The Todd Pletcher-trained J S Bach has won four in a row while moving up the ladder but has a lot to do from the outside post in his first stakes try. Noble Bird won the Grade I Stephen Foster last June at Churchill Downs but hasn't run a lick since then.
Breeders' Cup Turf Mile winner Tepin seeks her fourth straight win in Saturday's $350,000 Grade I Jenny Wiley at Keeneland, going 1 1/16 miles. The Mark Casse-trained, 5-year-old Bernstein mare won the Grade III Endeavour and the Grade II Hillsborough at Tampa Bay Downs during the winter. She will have plenty of competition from the likes of Miss Temple City, Recepta, Dacita and Tiger Ride, all in good recent form against significant opposition. Two European imports are well worth watching in their U.S. debuts. Akatea, a 4-year-old Shamardal filly, finished second in the Group 1 Prix du Moulin de Longchamp in September and third, beaten only 3/4 length, in the Group 2 Prix Daniel Wildenstein over the same course the following month. Wekeela, a 4-year-old by Hurricane Run, won the Group 3 Prix Chloe at Chantilly and was fourth in the Group 1 Prix de Opera in her final start last fall. Those are good credentials.
Heart to Heart, Tourist and Shining Copper are the morning-line favorites in a field of nine for Friday's $300,000 Grade I Maker's 46 Mile at Keeneland. Heart to Heart, a 5-year-old son of English Channel, finished 10th in the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland last fall but that race was run on yielding ground. He since has won three straight graded stakes. Shining Copper, a 6-year-old son of Aragorn, has been used in big races as a rabbit for others owned Ken and Sarah Ramsey. When allowed to run his own race last time in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap at 9 furlongs, he set a more measured pace and was only caught in the final yards, finishing second. Tourist finished third in the Shadwell in October, then eighth in the Breeders' Cup Mile. This will be the first 2016 start for the Tiznow 5-year-old.
Filly & Mare Turf
Mrs McDougal, Strike Charmer and Coming Attraction are the main attractions in a field of 10 for Saturday's $100,000 Plenty of Grace Stakes at Aqueduct. Mrs McDougal finished third behind Tiger Ride and Include Betty in the Grade III Valley View at Keeneland to end her 3-year-old campaign and makes her first start of the year. Strike Charmer was slightly outclassed by Sandiva and some others in her last start at Gulfstream but finds a more appropriate field here. Coming Attraction and several others take a class jump.
Wild Dude heads a short field for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Los Angeles Stakes at Los Alamitos. The 6-year-old son of Wildcat Heir won the Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship last fall but then was sixth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and returned with a sixth in the Grade II San Carlos at Santa Anita last month. Among the other five, San Onofre is a graded stakes winner and the others display lesser credentials.
Saturday's 1-mile, $150,000 Northern Spur at Oaklawn Park features two refugees from the Derby trail -- Z Royal and Madtap -- plus a smattering of allowance types and recent maiden winners. Another, Big Red Rocket, enters the race still a maiden. Decorated Soldier enters after winning his second start by 7 1/2 lengths at Tampa Bay Downs for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Also worth a look is Friday's $150,000 Bachelor Stakes for 3-year-olds, a 6-furlongs affair at Oaklawn Park. Morning Fire, winner of the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and the Spectacular Bid at Gulfstream Park, graces this competitive field.
Woodbine on Sunday hosts the $125,000 (Canadian) Woodstock Stakes at 6 furlongs for 3-year-olds.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Seven are entered for Saturday's $150,000 Instant Racing Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Oaklawn. Cash Back has won three straight but all were on turf. Seeking Angels has won two of three, but both were against fellow Arkansas-breds. Durango and Just Wicked have been consistently good.
Saturday at Woodbine it's the $125,000 (Canadian) Star Shoot Stakes with 3-year-old fillies going 6 panels on the all-weather. A well-matched field of six is on tap.
An overflow field is on hand for Saturday's $100,000 Giant's Causeway for fillies and mares at 5 1/2 furlongs on the Keeneland grass and they come from all over the map -- from Santa Anita to Gulfstream Park. It's a bit of a head-scratcher with the added twist that a few of these are making their first start off a long layoff. Many eyes will be cast to Miss Matzoball and Jewel of a Cat, the first an third finishers in the recent Captiva Island at Gulfsteam Park. Eden Prairie finished a close second to Leigh Court in the Mardi Gras at Fair Grounds three months ago in her last start and is one of only two in this field with a win on the Keeneland lawn.
Around the world, around the clock:
Saturday's first flat racing at Newbury could provide some pointers to the good 3-year-olds eyeing the Derby and Oaks. Frankel is among the past winners of the JLT Greenham Stakes at 1,400 meters. This year's field of five is headed by the undefeated, John Gosden-trained Crazy Horse. He concluded his 2-year-old season with a win in the Group Three Worthington's Whizz Kidz Stakes over the course and the same 7-furlongs distance in October. Fillies will go in the Group 3 Dubai Duty Free Fred Darling Stakes, also at 7 furlongs.
Eighteen 3-year-old colts are entered for Sunday Grade 1 Satsuki Sho, or Japanese 2,000 Guineas, at Nakayama Racecourse. Last year's 2-year-old champion, Leontes, will be looking to avenge a narrow defeat at the hands of the undefeated Makahiki in the Yayoi Sho, over the same 2,000 meters as Sunday's race. Also here is the undefeated Satono Diamond, who comes off a relatively easy win in the Grade 3 Kisaragi Sho at Kyoto. The "unbeaten" tag has not been kind to runners in recent renewals of the Satsuki Sho. Since it became a graded race in 1984, 16 have gone to the post undefeated and only 6 emerged with that record intact -- most recently Deep Impact in 2005. Worth noting: Christophe Lemaire, who rode Makahiki in his last two starts, elected to maintain his relationship with Satono Diamond for Sunday's race.
Two more Group 1 events on Saturday at Royal Randwick: The Schweppes All Aged Stakes at 1,400 meters and the Moet & Chandon Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds at 1,600 meters. The former includes Kermadec, second to Winx last month in the George Ryder.
Saturday's Group 1 L Jaffee Empress Club Stakes for fillies and mares at Turffontine is 1,600 meters for 1 million Rand. The race drew seven, including Inara, who will travel from Summerveld in Durban especially for the race. The 4-year-old, trained by Mike Bass, has not raced since winning the Majorca Stakes in January.