Breeders' Cup Classic winner and 3-year-old sensation Arrogate runs Sunday -- his official 4th birthday -- in his final prep before a rematch with Breeders' Cup runner-up California Chrome.
That's just one development in the ongoing drama that is the $12 million Grade I Pegasus World Cup. The field for the Jan. 28 race at Gulfstream Park continues to shape up with Keen Ice, who ran third in the Breeders' Cup, gaining access through a deal.
The upcoming weekend also includes a bunch of 2-year-old races, most of them for state-breds in various jurisdictions, and some tasty turf action from Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs to Fair Grounds and Santa Anita.
And we'll have a look at the international front as well, with action in Dubai, Qatar and France.
Let's put 2016 to rest with this:
Pegasus World Cup
Breeders' Cup Classic winner Arrogate will face just four rivals in Monday's $200,000 Grade II San Pasqual and trainer Bob Baffert, eyeing a rainy weather forecast, said the race will be his final hard work before the Pegasus.
"From here on out with the rain, things are going to be spotty, so you've got to go," Baffert said after Thursday's draw. "I want to get a race into him, but it's not going to be easy. There are some nice horses in there."
The field also includes Dalmore, last seen running fourth in the Zia Park Derby in New Mexico; Midnight Storm, winner of four from his last five starts; Accelerate, third in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile; and Prospect Park, winner of the Grade III La Jolla at Del Mar in August.
Arrogate worked 6 furlongs on Tuesday at Santa Anita, clocked in a bullet 1:12 1/5.
Baffert also was beating the drum for "Horse of the Year" votes for Arrogate, even though he won only two stakes races in 2016. Granted, those two were the Grade I Travers and the Breeders' Cup Classic, where he edged California Chrome, who probably is the favorite for year-end honors.
"To me, it's good enough that he won the right race," Baffert said of Arrogate. "He beat a really good horse and he beat him here on the square ...
California Chrome, who won the San Pasqual this year and is set for his career finale in the Pegasus, worked an easy half mile early Thursday morning at his Los Alamitos training base. Trainer Art Sherman said California Chrome is spot on for his rematch with Arrogate.
Meanwhile, Keen Ice got a spot in the Pegasus gate when his owners struck a deal with Jerry and Ronnie Frankel, who own a gate but lacked a likely runner. Keen Ice not only was third behind Arrogate and California Chrome but also upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers at Saratoga. He followed the Breeders' Cup effort with a runner-up showing in the Grade III Harlan's Holiday at Gulfstream on Dec. 17, behind Stanford, another likely Pegasus opponent.
"Everyone knows that California Chrome and Arrogate are in a league by themselves," said Jerry Frankel in a news release. "But we believed from day one that Keen Ice was the best 'other' horse available, and he has proven it in his last two races. Of course, everyone thought that American Pharoah was in a league by himself the day Keen Ice beat him in the Travers, proving anything can happen."
Paul Reddam, who expected to have Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist available when he spent $1 million for a Pegasus gate, instead will run Semper Fortis, a former maiden claimer seeking his first graded stakes win, Daily Racing Form reported Thursday. Nyquist is retired.
Reddam said he realizes Semper Fortis is unlikely to beat either California Chrome or Arrogate. But, he told DRF's Steve Anderson, "We'll run a horse to get some of the money back. If you don't have a realistic shot of running 1-2 and you're more likely to finish in the pack, you have to take your lumps."
And officials of the Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream Park and dreamed up the Pegasus World Cup, said this week they are considering whether to shuttle future runnings of the race -- assuming there are such -- between Gulfstream and Santa Anita, another Stronach property. A similarly conditioned turf race also is under consideration as an attraction for more overseas participation.
Moving along ...
The weekend's big turf races are on the West Coast but don't miss the opportunities at Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs and Fair Grounds.
Santa Anita has the sole Grade I event of the year's final gasp -- Saturday's $300,000 American Oaks at 1 1/4 miles on the grass. Stays in Vegas is the narrow morning-line favorite off a third-place in the Grade I Matriarch at Del Mar, beaten only a nose and a head. Lady Valeur won the off-the-turf Miss America Stakes on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather in her last start.
Intriguing for the American Oaks: Sassy Little Lila, an Artie Schiller filly who ships in from New York could be on the upswing for trainer Brad Cox; and Queen Blossom, making her first start outside her native Ireland and now conditioned by Graham Motion.
Also Saturday at Santa Anita it's the $100,000 Grade III Robert J. Frankel Stakes for fillies and mares going 9 grassy furlongs. The field of eight in includes Ryan's Charm, a multiple Group 1 winner in Argentina who finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf in her first North American start.
Pretty Girl, another South American Group 1 winner, makes her second U.S. start in the Frankel and first since a seventh-place finish in the Grade I Beverly D. at Arlington way back in the August heat. Sweet Charity makes her first start after shipping from France, where she won her last two starts. Arles raced with distinction in Germany and has been second in two U.S. starts, both Grade III events. Frenzified, a multiple winner in England, was third in the Grade I Rodeo Drive at Santa Anita in October.
The other three in the Frankel aren't bad, either, as reflected in a rare morning line that has all eight horses at single-digit odds.
Saturday's $75,000 Tropical Park Derby and $75,000 Tropical Park Oaks, both at Gulfstream Park and both at 1 1/16 miles, both drew huge and competitive fields. They represent outstanding handicapping and wagering opportunities. Oscar Nominated is a 3-1 morning-line pick in the Derby; Try Your Luck a 3-1 choice in the Oaks.
Gulfstream Park also offers on the Saturday card the $100,000 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at 2 miles on the grass with a full field and the $75,000 Via Borghese Stakes for fillies and mares on the green course at 1 3/16 miles where the 12 entrants hail from as far afield as England, Chile, France and Germany.
Fair Grounds has twin mile turf events for 3-year-olds and 3-year-old fillies -- the Woodchopper and the Pago Hop. Fifteen signed up for each of those races so good luck with the handicapping there!
Twelve signed on for Saturday's $100,000 Turf Dash at Tampa Bay Downs, a 5-furlongs charge down the greensward.
The Road to the Roses and/or Oaks
As noted, much of the action here is for state-breds and thus unlikely to impact the starting field at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. But with four months to go, you never know. So pay at least a little attention.
The open events are Saturday's $100,000 Marylander and $100,000 Gin Talking for fillies, both at Laurel Park in Maryland, and Thursday's $75,000 Blue Norther for 2-year-old fillies and Friday's Eddie Logan for any 2-year old on the Santa Anita. The Santa Anita races are on the grass.
Look for the state-bred juveniles at Sunland Park in New Mexico, Aqueduct and Fair Grounds.
Santa Anita's Saturday program also features the $100,000 Grade III Midnight Lute at 6 1/2 furlongs on the main track. Pick from five, none of them yet a graded stakes winner. Masochistic, who was disqualified from his second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint because steroids had not cleared his system, was not allowed in the Midnight Lute field because he has yet to pass a test that would allow stewards to remove him from the no-run list.
Laurel Park offers three other stakes on Saturday in addition to the 2-year-old events.
Over the waves:
The 2016 season closed out at Sha Tin on Tuesday with a promising look at the year ahead as Pakistan Star returned to the winner's enclosure with a handy win in the Griffin Trophy.
The German-bred Shamardal colt became an international sensation when he won his first two Hong Kong starts with dramatic last-to-first finishes. He then disappointed in three straight races before trainer Tony Cruz dropped him back to his own age group and even weights for Tuesday's feature and installed local champion Joao Moreira in the irons for the first time. It all worked as Pakistan Star raced closer to the lead than in previous outings, took over easily 600 meters out and won by daylight.
Now, Cruz has plans for the Four-Year-Old Classic Series, starting with the Hong Kong Classic Mile on Jan. 22. "After that, the trainer said, "it is probably 'the best race for him'."
Moreira, for his part, said Pakistan Star has some learning to do after turning 4 on Jan. 1, the universal birthday for Northern Hemisphere Thoroughbreds. "He's still a very young horse. He's still picking up," Moreira said. "I can say that now he is definitely not mature enough to be facing the top horses at this stage, but he indicates to me that he will be one of those top horses in time. It's just a matter of time."
Pakistan Star was purchased by the Hong Kong Jockey Club from the 2014 Arqana yearling sale in France and sold to Kerm Din at the annual Hong Kong International Sale in March for HK$6 million.
Last week's program at Meydan was "Doug Watson Day" as the trainer saddled five winners. Thursday, he shared the limelight with Charlie Appleby, who early on looked like duplicating his rival's feat of the previous week.
Appleby saddled the winner of the first race, Capezzano; the first two home in race No. 2; and the winner in the third. Then Watson found his stride, sending out the winner in the fourth and fifth. Satish Seemar crashed the party as North America won the sixth event before Watson saddled the winners of the final two races. Final score: Watson 4, Appleby 3, Seemar 1.
The race was in France and part of the British All-Weather Championship program but its immediate effect will be in Dubai. Realtra, a 4-year-old Dark Angel filly coming off a 14-months layoff, impressively won Wednesday's Prix Miss Satamixa at Deauville, a Fast-Track Qualifier for the All-Weather finals.
Realtra, last seen as a close fifth in the Group 1 Sun Chariot Stakes at Newmarket a year ago October, raced close to the pace at Deauville for jockey Christophe Soumillon, jumped to the lead just inside the furlong marker and won by 1 1/2 lengths, geared down. "I was instructed to ride the race to win, but without doing too much," Soumillon said. "She was able to do that well under these conditions. She will definitely head for Dubai."
With a couple of Group 2 targets on the turf for her early in the World Cup Carnival program, Realtra still could return in time for the Fillie's and Mares' Championships Condition Stakes on the All-Weather Championship Day at Lingfield Park on Good Friday.
For the second year in a row, a German-trained horse has captured the US$500,000 Qatar Derby. Noor Al Hawa, trained by Andreas Wohler, turned the trick Thursday, winning with relative ease from Gerrard's Quest. The victory was the first in Qatar for Wohler. Mario Hofer saddled last year's winner in a dead heat.
"He was always in a nice position and given they didn't go that fast he really quickened nicely and won very easily," Wohler said. "Noor Al Hawa was my first runner in Qatar so I am really pleased. The horse will remain in Qatar for the Emir's Sword Festival." That is Feb.23, 24 and 25 and Nasser Sherida Al Kaabi, general manager of the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club, said he looks forward to more international runners for the festival.