Finally, it's Kentucky Derby weekend and, at least for some of the trainers, time to stop overanalyzing and simply hope for the best.
Meanwhile, the Derby and Oaks undercards are stellar in their own right. There's plenty of other graded stakes racing from New York to California.
Overseas, 3-year-old Japanese milers who someday could hope to be Maurice will take on the Group 1 NHK Mile at Tokyo and there was a major shakeup in the prospects for the Investec Epsom Derby in England right amidst the weekend preps.
But there's only one place to start:
There's little to add to the separate story and "Bob's Best Bets" conjecture. This ball now is rolling well down the hill, picking up speed and there's not too much to be done about it. Trainer Steve Asmussen, who will saddle prospects Gun Runner and Creator, summed it up on Thursday at Churchill Downs when asked if race scenarios flash constantly through his fevered imagination:
"Nothing but,'' he said. "Nothing but. Simulate it in your head. You know, who's where and who's doing what? You know, tendencies. Then go back and watch the replays of them. See if there's a reason they were where they were ... Overanalyze it, to say the least,'' Asmussen said.
Doug O'Neill, who will saddle morning-line favorite Nyquist, his second Derby starter, said he has figured out how to keep things straight this time around. "We found out that time that we had success doing what we'd been doing all along," O'Neill said. "It worked. So we're just doing that again -- same patterns, same style. We just want to stay on course. That's what's going to work. We know that now."
We'll see at about 6:34 p.m. EDT on Saturday.
And remember, if you can't be there in person, you can keep track of all the pre-Derby doings as well as Oaks and Derby days, though Horse Racing Radio Network (www.horseracingradio.net). And sorting out the very competitive races could be easier with the help of www.popejude.com.
Kentucky Oaks By Richard Gross
Friday's 142nd running of the 1 1/8-mile, $1 million, Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs will see slightly favored Rachel's Valentina starting from gate 11 in a full field of 14. The Bernardini filly and only daughter of Racing Hall of Fame's Rachel Alexandra will try to follow in her mother's formidable 2009 record 20-length Oaks-winning hoofprints.
Two other close wagering choices, Cathryn Sophia and Land Over Sea, will be close by in gates 12 and 13. Cathryn Sophia was among several entrants not originally targeting the Oaks until it was decided undefeated Eclipse Award-winning Songbird would not contest the race because of a lingering fever.
"We would not have run her in this race if Songbird was running," confirmed trainer John Servis.
Other possible challengers in the highly competitive field include Terra Promessa on the rail, with Weep No More, Lewis Bay and Go Maggie Go, starting from the 2 through 4 posts respectively. Go Maggie Go is running in only her third race following a win the Gulfstream Park Oaks.
"She may be short on experience, but she is long on talent," explained trainer Dale Romans of his decision to enter her in the Oaks.
Longshots Dream Dance, Mokat, Mo D'Amour, Royal Obsession, Paola Queen and Venus Valentine are set to start from gates 5 through 10. Taxable faces a taxing task as a long shot running from the far outside 14 post. Also eligible is Dothraki Queen, whose connections will have to wait until the morning of the race to see if she will get a gate.
The Kentucky Oaks, affectionately referred to as Lilies for the Fillies because of the blanket of lilies awarded the winner, serves as a prelude to Saturday's 142nd Kentucky Derby, the Run for the Roses.
Other than the Breeders' Cup, Derby weekend under the Twin Spires is about as good as it gets in American racing and this year is no exception. After mid-week rain and cold, the weekend forecast is fine -- partly sunny with highs in the 70s Friday and 80s Saturday. If you can't figure out the Derby or the Oaks, try these top-shelf contests:
Curalina and Sheer Drama, the third- and fourth-place finishers in last fall's Breeders' Cup Distaff, drew the No. 1 and No. 2 gates for the $300,000 Grade I La Troienne at 1 1/16 miles. It's Curalina's 4-year-old debut. Sheer Drama, now 6, won the Grade I Madison at Keeneland a month ago by a neck over Distaff winner Stopchargingmaria. Angela Renee, Penwith and the improving Brooklynsway also figure in the seven-horse field.
Carina Mia, Stageplay, Nickname, Marquee Miss and Jade Princess all drop off the Oaks trail and shorten up for the $200,000 Grade II Eight Belles at 7 furlongs. Carina Mia is the favorite after a close but fading fourth in the Grade I Ashland at 1 1/16 miles on the Keeneland strip. Eight are entered.
The $150,000 Grade III Twin Spires Turf Sprint has some international intrigue with Hootenanny in the 13-horse field. Trainer Wesley Ward already has a win at Royal Ascot and a second in the Group 1 Prix Morny at Deauville with the 4-year-old Quality Road colt and plans a return to Ascot. Hootennany returned from a 10-months layoff to finish second on the Woodbine all-weather course last month. The opposition includes Something Extra, second in the recent Shakertown at Keeneland, and Guns Loaded, winner of three straight in California.
Eagle and Noble Bird, 1-2 in the Bel Ali at Keeneland, headline a cast of 10 in the $400,000 Grade II Alysheba at 1 1/16 miles on the main track. Cat Burglar sneaks in from California. Departing arrives from a Midwestern odyssey trough Hot Springs, New Orleans and Lexington and Majestic Harbor has been consistent throughout his winter campaign.
Catch a Glimpse, Ava's Kitten and Outsider Art were the first three home in last month's Grade III Appalachian at Keeneland and they're also the favorites for the $150,000 Grade III Edgewood for 3-year-old fillies. The 13-filly field also includes Adore, who was second in the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks; Harmonize, a close seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and a winner in her 2016 debut; Florida Oaks runner-up Enjoy Yourself; California invaders Nodiac and Jeremy's Legacy and some others. Tough race.
Derby Day Stakes races kick off with the $300,000 Grade II Churchill Distaff Turf Mile, featuring Tepin. Her only claim to fame is that she has won five straight races, including last year's Breeders' Cup Mile, and eight of her last nine, including last year's edition of this race. It's hard to imagine her losing to any of the eight rivals in this field. If you must, try Isabella Sings, who was second by 1 length to Tepin last time out in the Grade II Hillsborough at Tampa Bay Downs -- after leading by 18 lengths early in the proceedings.
It's sprinters again in the $500,000 Grade II Churchill Downs, this time 7 furlongs out of the chute. Proven competitors Salutos Amigos, Holy Boss, Barbados, Calculator and Kobe's Back will slug it out with a new twist from Speightster. The 4-year-old Speightstown colt, trained by Bill Mott, won all three of his starts last year, culminating in the Grade III Dwyer, where he beat Texas Red. But he hasn't raced since. How good is the WinStar Farm homebred? We'll soon find out.
In the very next race, fillies and mares go the same 7 furlongs in the $300,000 Grade I Humana Distaff. Breeders' Cup winner Wavell Avenue, Taris and Stonetastic are the favorites here in a field of 10.
An evenly matched baker's dozen is set for the $300,000 Grade II American Turf for 3-year-olds. Airoforce, who finished second to the very promising Euro runner Hit It a Bomb in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, drew the rail and looks as good as any now that he's back on the course he can eat. Dressed in Hermes is a threat and Shakimat, Converge and Harlan's Holiday also should figure here.
The $250,000 Grade III Pat Day Mile, a one-turn affair from the end of the backstretch chute, includes a bunch of refugees from the Triple Crown trail: Ralis, Discreetness, Forevamo, American Dubai, Fellowship, Cocked and Loaded and Unbridled Outlaw among them. To watch: A pair of lightly raced but highly promising colts -- the Bob Baffert-trained American Freedom and Imperial Hunt, undefeated and untested in two Florida starts. Watch this for potential "new shooters" for the Preakness.
The last chance to fatten the bankroll before the Derby is the $500,000 Grade I Turf Classic at 9 furlongs. Big Blue Kitten and Slumber finished third and fourth in the Breeders' Cup Turf last fall -- behind Found and Golden Horn, who were the best in the world at that moment. Absent the Euros, Big Blue Kitten and Golden Horn are the favorites here. Also in the field are the likes of Grand Tito, Chocolate Ride, Bolo, Reporting Star, Midnight Storm, Divisidero, Triple Threat and World Approval -- all graded stakes winners.
Red Vine and Anchor Down are the hot favorites in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Westchester at 1 mile on the main track. Red Vine missed by just a neck to Tonalist in the Grade I Cigar Mile in his last start back on Thanksgiving weekend. Anchor Down has had excuses for three failures so far this year and looks to make amends. Samraat, Mylute, Stormin Monarcho and Matterhorn are all potential upsetters.
Ironicus is the 8-5 morning-line pick in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Fort Marcy at 9 furlongs over the inner turf track. The 5-year-old son of Distorted Humor has missed the board only once in 11 starts and won the Grade II Bernard Baruch at Saratoga before taking a long vacation. If he's not ready off the layoff, Red Rifle, Force the Pass and Go Around have potential.
Fillies and mares tackle 1 3/8 miles on the grass in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Sheepshead Bay. Two of the six made their last start in Europe and two others started their careers overseas. French-bred Sea Calisi finished third in both the Group 1 Epsom Oaks and the Group 1 Prix Vermeille last season. Carla Bianca was a group stakes winner in her native Ireland and visited Chicago last summer to finish sixth in the Grade I Beverly D.
Saturday's feature is the $100,000 Grade III Senorita Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 mile on the turf with nine set to go. On Sunday, it's the $100,000, Grade III Adoration Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the main track.
Stacked Deck is the morning-line favorite in Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian) Vigil Stakes at 7 furlongs on the all-weather track, facing just five opponents. Stacked Deck starts his 5-year-old campaign after winding up 2015 with a victory in the Grade II Kennedy Road at 6 furlongs over the old Woodbine all-weather. Sunday's $150,000 (Canadian) Hendrie Stakes also is at 7 furlongs, but for fillies and mares. It drew a field of seven.
After Maurice journeyed from Japan to destroy his opposition in last Sunday's Group 1 Champions Mile in Hong Kong, it's hard to focus on the 3-year-olds tackling this Sunday's Group 1 NHK Mile at Tokyo Racecourse. Still, Maurice eventually will find some younger competition and it might come from this race. The field includes two of the disappointments from earlier Japan Derby preps -- the filly Major Emblem, who got home fourth in the Oka Sho, and Lord Quest, who faded to finish eighth in the Satsuki Sho. Tosho Drafter has won three straight races and steps up in class. In truth, this is a "wait and see" event.
The biggest news was off the track as trainer Hugo Palmer said last weekend's 2,000 Guineas winner Galileo Gold will not contest the Derby. Palmer said a genetic test found only a miniscule chance that the 1 1/4-miles Derby distance would be within the colt's scope and that he will be pointed to become "a superstar miler." He said the Irish 2,000 Guineas and the St James's Palace at Royal Ascot are likely targets.
On Thursday at Chester, meanwhile, US Army Ranger barely held off stablemate Port Douglas to win the Group 3 Chester Vase by a short head. Port Douglas drifted off the rail on the stretch turn, giving US Army Ranger an advantage he ultimately needed badly.
Jockey Ryan Moore described the winner as "still babyish" and a Derby contender but bookmakers backed off of him slightly.
Still more Derby contenders will go at it on Friday at Chester in the Dee Stakes, on Saturday over the Lingfield turf course in the Betfred Derby Trial and on Sunday at Leopardstown in Ireland in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial.
In Oaks preps, Somehow worked her way to the lead inside the final 200 meters in Wednesday's Cheshire Oaks at Chester, just holding off 10-1 long shot Moorside by 1/2 length with Ryan Moore up for Aidan O'Brien. The Fastnet Rock filly is 2-for-2 on the season. Next up is the Betfred Oaks Trial on Saturday at Lingfield.
Looking ahead a bit, the field for the Group 1 Darley July Cup, a 6-furlongs dash at Newmarket on July 9, could double down on the sprints bookending Royal Ascot. Among those under consideration for the Newmarket sprint is Zac Spirit, a Singapore runner who was left without a local Group 1 race when the Singapore Turf Club deep-sixed its international races. He won the local Group 1 Lion City Cup easily last month.
"I am seriously considering sending Zac Spirit over to England to run in the Darley July Cup as there is not a lot for him in Singapore at this time of year," said trainer Cliff Brown. "I think that he would cope fine with the different conditions over there."
The race also is a leg of the Global Sprint Challenge.
Already in the books:
Concord Fast waited just behind the early leaders in Tuesday's $100,000 Riley Allison Stakes for 3-year-olds, then closed with authority to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Ten Penny Cents was second, 5 1/4 lengths to the good of Music Giant. Concord Fast, a West Virginia-bred gelding by Concord Point, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.47 with Ry Eikleberry in the irons.
Adhara rallied three wided from just off the pace to win Tuesday's $65,000 El Paso Times Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 3/4 lengths over L J's Awesome Girl. Indian Tiva filled the trifecta. Adhara, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Cowboy Cal, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.54 with Alfredo Juarez Jr. up.
Ignored was a step slow at the start of Tuesday's $110,000 Copper Top Futurity for New Mexico-bred 2-year-olds but made up all the lost ground and then some by the end of the 4 1/2 furlongs, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over My Mirage. Happy Hennessey was third and the favorite, faded from the early lead to finish fourth. Ignored, a chestnut gelding by The Way Home, finished in 51.12 with Ruby Gonzalez riding.