Australian sprinter Chautauqua gets in some late work on Thursday before Sunday's Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize at Sha Tin in Hong Kong. (HKJC photo)
World-class sprinters and milers clash in Hong Kong, 3-year-olds prep for the Derby and Oaks in England while France and Japan host important Group 1 events this weekend.
American racing fans continue to sort out the likely contenders for their own Derby, now just a week away.
First, the far-flung features:
Sunday's Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize at Sha Tin often is a playground for local sprinters. This year, however, it has been elevated to the top rank of international competition and has drawn some top-rank foreign contenders. Chief among those are Chautauqua and Buffering from Australia. Both are multiple Group 1 winners at home and Buffering comes to Hong Kong fresh off a victory in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night in Dubai. Both horses got cozy draws on Thursday and both have been the picture of strength during morning trackwork.
"We want to show the world what a great horse he is," said Chautauqua owner Rupert Legh.
Buffering's trainer, Robert Heathcote, also pronounced his star ready to rumble. The other notable foreign entry is Mongolian Saturday, winner of last fall's Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint at Keeneland. He came from that win to finish fifth in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint in December, then missed his engagement in Dubai after traveling poorly.
"It's a tough race," admitted Mongolian Saturday's trainer, Ganbat Enebish of Sunday's affair. "It's a great race to watch. We have the world's best sprinters all in one place."
However, Hong Kong's international Group 1 events typically are tough nuts to crack for the raiders. Waiting to receive them in the Chairman's Sprint prize are the likes of Aerovelocity, Peniaphobia and Gold-Fun, all top-class winners in their own right at Sha Tin. This is a leg of the Global Sprint Challenge and more than lives up to its expectations.
Sunday's co-feature at Sha Tin, the Group 1 Champions Mile, on paper is a showcase for Japan's reigning Horse of the Year, Maurice, winner of all six of his 2015 starts. Half of those victories came in Group 1 races, including December's Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile.
"The gate is not too bad," said jockey Joao Moreira, who will ride Maurice from the No. 6 slot. "It's good in my opinion. He's going to find it much easier to find a position with cover from there than he had to do in December when he won from gate 11. Fingers crossed, we get on the right track."
The rest of the field is comprised of two Godolphin runners -- Bow Creek from Australia and Safety Check, who splits his time between Dubai and the United Kingdom -- and local runners. As always, the home team is a threat to turn away even the most highly ranked challengers.
Air Force Blue is the hot favorite in a field of 13 for Saturday's Group 1 Quipco 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket. The American-bred War Front colt, trained by Aidan O'Brien, won four of his five starts as a 2-year-old, three of them Group 1 events including the Dubai Dewhurst Stakes over the course in October. Massat, second in the Dewhurst, is back for another go. Stormy Antarctic ran well as a 2-year-old and won over the course two weeks ago. Galileo Gold shows promise. Although a few key players are missing, the event should sort out the prospects for the Derby at Epsom.
Also on the Saturday card at Newmarket, the venerable Sole Power will attempt to rebound from a thrashing in the Group 1 Al Quoz Stakes in Dubai as he takes on a huge field in the Group 3 Pearl Bloodstock Palace House Stakes at 5 furlongs. And last year's Irish Derby winner, Jack Hobbs, returns in the Group 2 Jockey Club Stakes.
Sunday the fillies take center stage at Newmarket in the Grade I Qipco 1,000 Guineas.
Gold Actor, like Maurice, is from the first crop of budding sire Screen Hero. And, like Maurice in Sunday's Group 1 Champions Mile in Hong Kong, Gold Actor is likely to be the favorite in Sunday's Group 1 Tenno Sho (Spring) at Kyoto. If they both perform, it will be a feather in the cap for Screen Hero as the Kyoto fixture is run at 3,200 meters. Gold Actor has won five in a row, including the Group 1 Arima Kinen. He took his 2016 debut in the Nikkei Sho despite not being fully trained. An assistant to trainer Tadashige Nakawaga called the Nikkei Sho "a perfect win," adding, "3,200 meters is not his best distance but he settles well and I think he'll be able to run his usual race." Sounds of Earth, second in both the Arima Kinen and the Kikkei Sho, will try again. So is Kitasan Black, third in the Arima Kinen. Eighteen are set to start in the marathon.
Sunday's Prix Ganay is run over 2,100 meters of Saint-Cloud turf. Stay tuned for more on this important early-season race, won last year by Cirrus Des Aigles.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
The "week before the week" saw no changes in the prospective field for the May 7 Run for the Roses. Louisiana Derby winner Gun Runner tops the field in points earned while the undefeated Nyquist leads in most "expert" polls as a result of his victory in the Florida Derby. Trainer Bob Baffert's decision the previous week not to enter Cupid in the Derby has been the only change in the standing since the last qualifying race. That boosted Mo Tom, the Grade III LeComte winner in New Orleans, from the bubble to No. 20 for the 20-horse field.
One of the more interesting horses in the field is the Japanese-trained winner of the Group 2 UAE Derby, Lani. Jockey Yutaka Take rode the Tapit colt in a Wednesday work and noted Lani decided to stop about 3 furlongs shy of his scheduled distance.
"His temperament is that he is not willing to run always," Take said. "If he does, he has a big chance."
When will he know if the colt wants to run on Derby Day, the rider was asked. "After the gate," he replied.
Filly & Mare Turf
Incredibly, the Keeneland spring meeting ends with a full field for Friday's $150,000 Grade III Bewitch Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/2 miles on the grass. Button Down, a British-bred, Orloda, a German-bred, and Generosidade, a Uruguayan-bred, are the morning-line favorites.
Fourteen are entered for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate Fields. There are no monsters in the bunch but the field does include Gabriel Charles, last-out winner of the Grade I Eddie Read Stakes at Del Mar way back in July; Bal a Bali, who has finished in the money in three straight graded stakes in Southern California; and last year's winner, G.G. Ryder. Although he's been idle for a while, Gabriel Charles has been working steadily at Santa Anita.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Miami Mile at Gulfstream Park attracted eight. Among them, Middleburg was getting good late last year after a victory in the Grade III Cliffhanger at Monmouth Park and Aktabanty ran reasonably well against second stringers in France. Quiet Force, a 6-year-old graded stakes winner by Dynaformer, won his last race but was not claimed when offered for $50,000.
News and Notes
Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, multiple Eclipse jockey Ramon Dominguez and trainer Steve Asmussen have been elected to the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame.
Rachel Alexandra was named Horse of the Year and Champion 3-Year-Old Filly in 2009 and posted a career record of 13-5-0 from 19 starts and earned $3,506,730. Zenyatta posted a career mark of 19-1-0 from 20 starts and earnings of $7,304,580, was named Horse of the Year in 2010 and won four Eclipse Awards. Her only loss was to Blame in the Breeders' Cup Classic in her final start.
Dominguez, 39, won 4,985 races (23 percent) and $191,620,277 in his career and won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Asmussen, 50, a native of Gettysburg, S.D., ranks second all time in career wins (7,286 through April 21) and fourth in earnings ($241,026,551) in a training career that began in 1986 after a brief stint as a jockey. The Eclipse Award winner in 2008 and 2009, Asmussen has led all North American trainers in wins nine times and earnings three times. He has ranked in the top 10 in both wins and earnings every year since 2000. Among many others, Asmussen trained Curlin and fellow inductee Rachel Alexandra.