It was a big weekend for Kentucky Derby hopefuls in North America and a promising Sunday for the local runners in Hong Kong while in Japan, Mikki Isle landed the Mile Championship.
The Kentucky Derby picture took a particularly intriguing turn as Gunnevera jumped up near the top of the points list with a victory in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot and Mastery also showed promise in California.
Laurel Park had a big weekend, including some of the most important late-season sprint action.
Let's sprint right into action ourselves:
The Road to the Roses
Put Gunnevera right near the top of the list for the first Saturday in May after the colt's dramatic, last-to-first win in Saturday's $1 million Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot.
With Javier Castellano up, Gunnevera started last of 10 and dawdled at the back of the field around the first turn and into the backstretch. He started circling rivals entering the turn and by the time he hit the eighth pole, he was in front and en route to a 5 3/4-lengths victory. Hot Sean was best of the rest, 4 lengths ahead of Dangerfield.
Gunnevera, a chestnut colt by Dialed In out of the Unbridled mare Unbridled Rage, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.15.
"He's a come-from-behind horse and I wanted to see how the race unfolded in the first turn," Castellano said. "I wanted to take advantage of the early speed and save ground and it worked out perfectly ... He's a great developing horse and the way he finished I think will get better with more distance."
After starting his career at Gulfstream Park, Gunnevera rose to national attention with a late-running victory in the Grade II Saratoga Special in August. He then finished fifth in the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. Saturday's win generated 10 Kentucky Derby points, putting him in a three-way tie for fourth on that list.
Trainer Antonio Sano obviously has the Derby in mind. "We will probably run in Florida and likely point to the Fountain of Youth stakes along the way," the Venezuelan native said.
Save space on the list for Mastery, too. He led all the way in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar and easily held off California Diamond in the late going, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over that one. Ann Arbor Eddie was third.
Mastery, a Candy Ride colt out of the old Trieste mare Steady Course, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.32 with Mike Smith up for trainer Bob Baffert. The colt was an easy winner in his first start last month at Santa Anita. "We knew he was a nice horse when he broke his maiden, but from what we saw today he could be something," Baffert said. "The second out is so important. They can run well in the first outing and then take a step back. We didn't have him super cranked for the first out and this one was a lot of him."
El Areeb made it two straight wins at Laurel Park with a smashing victory in Saturday's $100,000 James F. Lewis III Stakes. With Trevor McCarthy up, the Exchange Rate colt worked quickly to the lead and dominated the stretch run, winning off by 5 1/4 lengths. Two Charley's beat the others, finishing 3 1/2 lengths ahead of the favorite, High Roller. El Areeb ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.96.
"The performance didn't really surprise me that much," said winning trainer Cal Lynch. "We expected the horse to do this first time out. He had a couple little issues that slowed him down but the horse is very talented. Physically he's getting bigger and stronger and he may want to go farther. We're very excited."
Gold for the King waited behind the leading duo in Saturday's $100,000 Notebook Stakes for state-bred juveniles at Aqueduct, moved to the lead at the quarter pole and edged away in the final yards to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Sal the Turtle pressed the pace, led briefly and held on for second, 2 1/4 lengths ahead of late-running Bourbon Empire.
Gold for the King, a Posse gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.70 with Jose Ortiz in the irons. He now has three wins and two thirds from five starts. Trainer Charlton Baker, who added blinkers for the race, said, "I thought he still kind of played around with that horse (Sal the Turtle) in the stretch. But he's still a young horse. He's going to learn as he goes along. I think the blinkers made a difference. Not a big difference but just enough."
Hallelujah Hit out-finished the favorite, Rowdy the Warrior, in Friday's $100,000 Don C. McNeill Stakes for Oklahoma-bred 2-year-olds at Remington Park, winning by 1 length. Makin the Dough finished third. Hallelujah Hit, a Mr. Nightlinger gelding, ran 1mile on a fast strip in 1:38.50 under Alex Birzer.
Magic Vow topped Lucky Andy to take Saturday's $150,000 Louisiana Legacy for state-bred 2-year-olds by 1 1/4 lengths over that foe. The even-money favorite, Jack Snipe's, was third with a belated bid. Magic Vow, a Private Vow gelding, ran 1 mile in 1:40.80 with Kerwin Clark at the controls.
Shane's Girlfriend, a California invader making just her second start, exploded down the stretch in Saturday's $400,000 Grade III Delta Downs Princess, winning by 13 1/4 lengths. Cajun Delta Dawn, in from Florida, came from off the pace to finish second, 2 1/2 lengths in front of pacemaker Flatter Up. The favorite, Golden Mischief, was never a factor and finished seventh.
Shane's Girlfriend, a daughter of Adios Charlie, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.98 with Flavien Prat in the irons for trainer Doug O'Neill. The win was worth 10 points toward a start in the Kentucky Oaks in May, putting her in a four-way tie for the third position on that list. Shane's Girlfriend won at first asking at Santa Anita Oct. 28, drawing off in that 6-furlongs maiden event to score by 5 3/4 lengths.
Tequilita stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Smart Halo Stakes at Laurel Park, moved to the lead in the lane and went on to win by 1 length over Star Super. Candycoated Dame finished third. Tequilita, a daughter of Union Rags, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.03 with Alex Cintron up. She broke her maiden last month at Keeneland with a similar trip.
"This is a very nice filly," said Michael Matz, who trains Tequilita for his wife, Dorothy, "and we felt very confident coming into the race today. She ran exactly as we thought she would."
Let It Ride Mom and Sister Nation rallied from the back of the field in Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Glorious Song Stakes at Woodbine with Let It Ride Mom getting the nod by 1/2 length. Kodiak Gal, who prompted the early pace, held on for third, 1 length farther back. Let It Ride Mom, a daughter of Into Mischief, ran 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:22.69 for jockey Rafael Hernandez. She now has two wins and two close seconds, all at Woodbine.
"She's done everything right so far," said Kathryn Sullivan, assistant to winning trainer Mark Casse. "I thought she had a lot of horse left. I think we see good things in the future."
Sweet Posse ran right by pacesetting favorite Okie Diva on the second turn in Friday's $75,000 Slide Show Stakes for Oklahoma-breds at Remington Park and drew off smartly, winning by 8 1/2 lengths. Okie Diva was second, 9 1/4 lengths ahead of Kowgirl Whiskey and it was another 9 1/2 lengths back to the trailer in the short field, Ice Goddess. Sweet Posse, a Caleb's Posse filly, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:40.60 with Jareth Loveberry in the irons.
Sashimi Blaster rallied from last of 10 to win Saturday's $150,000 Louisiana Jewel for state-bred juvenile fillies at Delta Downs by 1 3/4 lengths. The favorite, Naughty Little Nun, held the lead much of the way and finished second, 1 length in front of Show'em the Heat. Sashimi Blaster, a Quality Road filly, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:42.17 with Gerard Melancon in the irons.
Around the world, around the clock:
Ivan Fallunovalot ventured far from his usual haunts in Oklahoma and Louisiana to post a commanding win in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash. With Calvin Borel in the irons, the 6-year-old Valid Expectations gelding dueled with the odds-on favorite, X Y Jet, into the lane, then kicked away to win by 4 1/2 lengths. Rockinn On Bye edged X Y Jet for second. Ivan Fallunovalot ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.07. He had won five straight on his home circuit -- a skein interrupted only by a ninth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint last fall at Keeneland.
"We broke a tad slower than usual for him," Borel said. "I got him in the race early and went really slow. We backed it up a lot. I just let him go up to him and the best horse that's going to finish is going to win. That's what it amounted to."
X Y Jet was making his second start since finishing a close second in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen at Meydan in March. "We just weren't able to catch him," said X Y Jet's rider, Emisael Jaramillio. "My horse tried, but just couldn't catch up."
Name Changer raced just behind the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Richard W. Small Stakes, eased out for running room as the field hit the stretch and went on to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Discreet Lover, add odds of more than 72-1, finished second with Ami's Holiday third. Name Changer, a 3-year-old Uncle Mo colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.99 with Jevian Toledo up. It was his second straight win.
Tale for Ruby broke near the back of the field after a rough start in Saturday's $100,000 Safely Kept Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, rallied five-wide turning for home and got clear, winning by 2 1/4 lengths. Takrees and long shot Outsider Art filled the trifecta slots. Tale for Ruby, a Tale of Ekati filly, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.51 with Edgar Prado up. Since breaking her maiden in July at Saratoga, she had posted a pair of close runner-up finishes, both at Belmont Park. "I've always liked her and she's had a multitude of little things go wrong. We could never get two or three races in a row out of her," said winning trainer Barclay Tagg.
Sharp Azteca dueled the favorite, Hot Seat, into submission at the top of the lane in Saturday's $100,000 City of Laurel Stakes for 3-year-olds, then drew off to win by 5 1/4 lengths over that rival. Rated R Superstar was up for third. Sharp Azteca, a Freud colt, ran 7 furlongs in 1:22.03 with Edgard Zayas up. He won the Grade III Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs this spring and finished a close fourth in the Grade II Woody Stephens at Belmont. Trainer Jorge Navarro said he thought Sharp Azteca would be out as long as a year when he exited the Super Derby Prelude in August with a bad quarter crack.
"My blacksmith, he did an amazing job," Navarro said. "Seven-eighths is a distance that can be tough unless he's ready, and I guess he was. He's going to be my top 4-year-old." Hot Seat was making just his third start after a pair of easy wins at Parx.
Rockin Jojo rallied from next-last in a field of 12 to win Saturday's $75,000 Geisha Stakes for Maryland-bred fillies and mares by a head over Candida H. Wowwhatabrat was third. Rockin Jojo, a 4-year-old daughter of Street Magician, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.42 under Angel Cruz.
Hesinfront was only in front in the final jump in Saturday's $250,000 Delta Mile but that was all that was required to land the winner's share. Hesinfront finished a head in front of Great Minds and another nose to the good of Pinson. Those three all tracked down the odd-on favorite, Rise Up, who led by as much as 7 lengths and settled for fourth, a head behind Pinson. Hesinfront, a 5-year-old son of War Front out of the Sky Classic mare Classy Marlin, finished in 1:38.64 with Robby Albarado up. The Kentucky-bred was claimed for $62,000 at Churchill Downs in September and earned $150,000 for Saturday's victory.
Savings Account tracked the pace into the stretch in Saturday's $200,000 Treasure Chest Stakes for fillies and mares, came around the leaders and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Vieja Luna. Danzatrice and Brooke's a Bookin completed the order of finish. Savings Account, a 5-year-old Medaglia d'Oro mare, ran 1 mile in 1:39.53 for jockey Florent Geroux.
Wildcat Wish put a head in front of pacemaker Black Bear at the finish of Saturday's $75,000 Sam's Town Stakes. The odds-on favorite, The Truth Or Else, was flying late but could do no better than third. Wildcat Wish, a 3-year-old Wildcat Heir gelding, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.68 under Javier Castellano.
Cash Control tracked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Cardinal Handicap for fillies and mares, then dominated in the stretch run, winning by 4 lengths from Kitten's Roar. Lots o' Lex was third, a head farther back. Cash Control, a 5-year-old Pioneerof the Nile mare, ran 1 1/8 miles on firm turf in 1:49.39 with Shaun Bridgmohan in the irons. She won the Grade III Mint Julep under the Twin Spires in June for her only previous graded stakes victory.
"The fractions were good, they were kind of strung out a little bit," said winning trainer Brad Cox. "She was laying there third and going down the backside nobody was really on the inside or outside of her so she was able to relax, shut off and kick home. Turning for home, obviously he had a ton of horse."
Recount was under pressure all the way in Saturday's $80,000 Bet On Sunshine Stakes, gave up the lead and came again to win by a head over Holy Boss. W.B. Smudge contested the early pace and finished third, 1 length to the good of Alsvid. Recount, a 4-year-old, Illinois-bred gelding by Limehouse, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.45 with Chris Landeros up. It was his second straight win and third from his last five starts.
"He's always given a good effort and he's always been right there," said winning trainer Jimmy DiVito. "When he gets beat he doesn't get beat by much. The Illinois boys are coming in!"
River Maid was a neck in front under the wire in Saturday's $200,000 (Canadian) Grade III Bessarabian Stakes for fillies and mares as only 1 length covered the first six finishers. Southern Ring and Minks Aprise finished second and third in the 7-furlongs event over the all-weather course. River Maid, a 4-year-old filly by Where's the Ring, finished in 1:21.85.
"She worked really well going into this race and she put me in a good position," said winning rider Gary Boulanger. "When I was that close at the five-sixteenths pole, I thought I could have a big piece of it if not all of it. She really dug in down the lane."
Sunday's final four races, including the Grade II Kennedy Road, were canceled because of high winds. The Kennedy Road was rescheduled for Friday.
Macagone, a 5-year-old gelding by Artie Schiller, won Saturday's $150,000 Artie Schiller Stakes by 3/4 length, holding off the late move of Blacktype. Night Prowler was another 1 length back in third. Macagone, with Kendrick Carmouche up, finished in 1:36.66 over turf rated good. Bill Mott trains the winner, who scored his second-ever stakes victory.
Sunday racing was canceled because of high winds.
Solid Wager trailed the field by a lot heading down the backstretch in Sunday's $100,000 Cary Grant Stakes for California-breds. But jockey Victor Espinoza got the 5-year-old Birdonthewire gelding cranking approaching the turn and he passed them all, getting up in the final yards to win by 1/2 length. Grazen Sky was second, 1/2 length to the good of Acceptance. Solid Wager finished 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.51.
Okie Ride was up just in time to deny pacesetting favorite Imahit in Friday's $50,000 Silver Goblin Stakes for Oklahoma-breds, winning by a nose. Perfect to Please was 3 1/4 lengths back in third. Okie Ride, a 9-year-old gelding by Candy Ride, got 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.13 with Luis Quinonez up.
Benwill kicked off the season's stakes action in the Big Easy with a not-so-easy, late-running victory over Berniestrike in Saturday's $50,000 Mr. Sulu Stakes for state-breds. Benwill, a 7-year-old son of Leestown out of the Dynaformer mare Dynaspice, closed strongly in the final yards to get up for the win, finishing about 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.06 under John Jacinto. The favorite, String King, finished fourth.
Nubin Ridge outfinished Jockamo's Song in Saturday's $50,000 Heitai Stakes for Louisiana-breds, winning by a neck. The pacesetter and favorite, Sir Ghengis, was another neck back in third. Nubin Ridge, a 6-year-old Gold Tribute gelding, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.57 with Ashley Broussard in the irons.
Sunny Oak came six-wide into the lane in Saturday's $50,000 Happy Ticket Stakes for Louisiana-bred fillies and mares and took charge, winning by 2 lengths over the front-runner, Smitty's Cougar. The favorite, Ramona's Wildcat, checked in third. Sunny Oak, a 3-year-old daughter of Giant Oak, ran 6 furlongs on the main track in 1:10.76 with Miguel Mena up.
Seaside Candy drew off in the lane to win Sunday's $50,000 Si Cima Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares by 4 lengths over Forest Lake. The odds-on favorite, Big World, finished third after being roughed up at the start. Seaside Candy, a 3-year-old Twirling Candy filly, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:43.08 with Colby Hernandez in the irons.
Golden Gate Fields
Star Student rallied from well back to win Saturday's $50,000 Oakland Stakes by 1/2 length over Indian Brut. Mah Gellin was third. Star Student, a 6-year-old gelding by Student Council, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.03 with Julien Couton in the irons. Mah Gellin holds the track record at this distance -- 1:08.23, set Jan. 24.
Rivers Run Deep, the odds-on favorite, ran to his notices in Saturday's $75,000 Cardinal Handicap for Ohio-breds. Despite giving as much as 10 pounds to his rivals, the 5-year-old son of Ready's Image led all the way and won by 3 1/4 lengths, coasting. Gone Too Soon and Candy Bites filled the trifecta. Rivers Run Deep, with Albin Jimenez up, ran 6 furlongs on a muddy, sealed track in 1:12.91.
Leona's Reward led from the start in Saturday's $75,000 Ohio Debutante for state-bred fillies and mares and pulled away in the stretch to win by 4 3/4 lengths. Deniro's Saint and Ebby were second and third. Leona's Reward, a 3-year-old daughter of Parents' Reward, got 1 1/16 muddy miles in 1:50.62 for jockey Irwin Rosendo.
On the international front:
Sunday at Sha Tin was semifinals day for the Dec. 11 Longines Hong Kong International Races and served notice the international raiders -- as usual -- will need to be on their toes to compete.
Trainer John Moore not only saddled the winner of the Group 2 BOCHK Wealth Management Jockey Club Sprint, 42-1 long shot Not Listenin'tome, but also saw Able Friend finish an honorable fourth in his first start in some 11 months after a tendon injury.
Not Listenin'tome, under Hugh Bowman, hit the front inside the 200-meters mark and held off Lucky Bubbles by 1/2 length with 2014 Hong Kong Sprint winner Aerovelocity third.
Moore was happy with the winner's performance, aided by the addition of earmuffs.
"If we can keep him in this fine form, we look forward to being competitive against the internationals," the trainer said. Of Able Friend, Moore added, "He was going to win at the 200 meters, but by the time he got to the 150, he'd already had enough. Considering the amount of time he's had off, though, you have to accept that and I'm sure he'll be a much fitter horse come international day."
Moore said he's not sure whether Able Friend, a 7-year-old former Hong Kong Horse of the Year, will stay at Sunday's 1,200 meters for the Longines Hong Kong Sprint or tackle the Longines Hong Kong Mile.
Beauty Only was just up at the finish of the Group 2 BOCHK Wealth Management Jockey Club Mile to snatch the winner's share from Romantic Touch, a 96-1 longshot and stablemate in Tony Cruz's barn. It was only another short head back to Sun Jewellery in third. Helene Paragon, trained by John Moore, was shut off just as he was unleashing a move in the stretch, finished seventh and is worth watching in three weeks' time.
"I believe he can be a big player on International Day," Cruz said of Beauty Only. "He's a much better racehorse than this time last year. He's much more professional and he'll be spot on for the big day. I'm looking forward to it."
Secret Weapon fired late in the Group 2 Longines Jockey Club Cup at 2,000 meters, rallying from last of nine to win by 1 1/2 lengths as some of Hong Kong's older artillery pieces finished in his wake. With Nash Rawiller up for trainer Dennis Yip. Secret Weapon found a seam some 150 meters from the finish and went right through and on to the victory.
"He was very strong over the 2,000 meters today," Rawiller said, "and you'd still expect there to be some improvement for International day." Trainer Dennis Yip, who landed his first open Pattern race, said Secret Weapon likely will be pointed to the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup on Dec. 11 although he also is entered for the Mile.
Among the heroes of the past, 8-year-old Military Attack battled to the end and finished third but pulled up lame, leaving trainer Caspar Fownes to determine his fitness for the big race; 7-year-old Blazing Speed finished fifth; and 6-year-old Designs on Rome, the 2014 Longines Hong Kong Cup winner who showed promise in his last start, couldn't deliver on that and finished last.
Mikki Isle bounced right out of the gate and onto the lead in Sunday's Group 1 Mile Championship at Kyoto Racecourse, turned back a stretch bid by Neorealism and held on gamely to win by a head over Isla Bonita. Neorealism saved third while the favorite, Satono Alladin, finished fifth. Mikki Isle, a 5-year-old son of Deep Impact, finished in 1:31.1 over firm going, scoring his first Group 1 victory since the 2014 NHK Mile.
Suguru Hamanaka rode the winner for trainer Hidetaka Otonashi and owner Mizuki Noda.
"Mikki Isle ran really well and I was able to race him in the front as planned," Hamanaka said. "The horse was in good form and performed his best in the race."