Gormley and perhaps Sonic Mule moved on down the Road to the Roses in weekend racing action while a pair of favorites scored in South Africa and a pair of Hong Kong horses punched their tickets to Dubai.
On the minus side, nasty winter weather forced cancellations, including some stakes at Aqueduct and Turfway Park. And rain continued to plague Santa Anita.
We'll accentuate the positive, since we're writing beachside in Mazatlan, starting with:
The Road to the Roses
Gormley pressed the pace set by American Anthem in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, took a short lead turning for home and prevailed by a head after a spirited stretch battle. It was 13 lengths back to Big Hit in third. Gormley, a Malibu Moon colt, ran 1 mile on the sloppy, sealed track in 1:35.89 with Victor Espinoza in the irons.
It was his third win from four starts for Gormley and a pleasant rebound from a dull seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, where he bobbled at the start.
"When he's feeling good, he breaks quickly and already running," Espinoza said. "In the Breeders' Cup he broke slow but today he came into the race in really good shape and got into it right away."
The victory was worth 10 points toward a potential start in the Kentucky Derby and moved Gormley into the second spot on that list, behind only Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Classic Empire. Owner Jerry Moss said he has "no idea" where Gormley will run next. American Anthem advanced into a many-way tie for No. 12 on the Derby list.
Sonic Mule scored his third straight win, taking Saturday's $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park by a head over long shot State of Honor after a long stretch battle. Talk Logistics was third, 1 1/4 lengths farther back, and the favorite, Cavil, got home a tiring sixth. Sonic Mule, a Distorted Humor colt, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.52 with Javier Castellano aboard.
His winning climb started with an optional claimer in November and continued in the Buffalo Man Stakes in December. Todd Pletcher trains the colt, bred by WinStar Farm and owned by Calumet Farm.
"I was a little concerned how he would handle the mile. We tried to stretch him out a little bit earlier," Pletcher said. "But the one thing I did feel good about was he breezed really well the other day and seemed like he was coming into any race, whatever it would be, in good form. It was just a matter of working out a trip and seeing if he could get the distance."
On the grass: Made You Look bounced back nicely from a disappointing sixth-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf to win Saturday's $100,000 Dania Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park with an off-the-pace stretch move. Clyde's Image was a long shot second, 2 1/2 lengths back of the winner and 1/2 length to the good of Shiraz. Made You Look covered 7 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:29.98.
Made You Look, a More Than Ready colt also trained by Pletcher, won the Grade II With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga before the Breeders' Cup.
"The main thing I was disappointed about with the Breeders' Cup was that he didn't run his race," the trainer said. "He didn't really fire. When you run your race and get beat, it's one thing, but he just didn't fire."
The Road to the Oaks
Unique Bella was ultra impressive in Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Ynez at Santa Anita, drawing off in the stretch to win by a wide margin without being asked for any run whatsoever. It Tiz Well picked up the pieces to finish second with the 4-5 favorite, Shane's Girlfriend, fading to finish third. Princess Karen was fourth after contesting the early pace.
Unique Bella, an imposing gray filly by Tapit, ran 7 furlongs on 1:22.29 with Mike Smith in the irons. It was her second win in three starts for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. In her previous outing, she romped by 10 1/4 lengths at Del Mar.
Wildcat Kate pressed the pace set by previously undefeated Bode's Dream in Saturday's $100,000 Old Hat Stakes at Gulfstream Park, got by in the final strides and won by a neck over that rival. It was another 3 lengths back to Summer Luck in third. Wildcat Kate, a Kantharos filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.46 with Eduardo Nunez up.
Wildcat Kate had chased Bode's Dream unsuccessfully in their last race over a sloppy track. She now has two wins and two seconds from four starts for trainer Kathleen O'Connell but has never assayed two turns.
"She is a real fighter," O'Connell said. "She's always exhibited a lot of gameness, even in her works before she ran. She's got such a good mind, which is a big part of it, especially with these babies."
On the turf: As noted here earlier in the week, Saturday's $100,000 Ginger Brew Stakes at Gulfstream Park was a wide-open affair. When the air cleared, the favorite, Bellavais, got home first by 3/4 length at odds of better than 4-1 but only after an adventurous stretch run that included being hit with a rival's whip -- and reacting to that insult.
Bellavais, a Tapit filly, rallied to the lead from far back, came alongside pacesetting India Mantuana in the lane, tried to savage the rival's whip after being accidentally struck and then kicked in to win by 3/4 length over the stubborn foe. Lady Alexandra finished third. Bellavais, with John Velazquez up, ran 7 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:30.37.
"I thought she jumped something," said winning trainer Jim Toner. "But Johnny said the rider hit her. She's a tough little filly. She's small but she's very tough and competitive."
Her only previous win came by disqualification at Aqueduct in early November.
On the international front:
Legal Eagle went to the lead with 400 meters to run in Saturday's Grade I L'Ormarins Queen's Plate and drew off handily, winning by 2 1/4 lengths. Captain America and late-running Sail South -- both at big prices -- got the minor awards with Marinaresco just losing third on the wire. Legal Eagle, last year's winner and South African Horse of the year, further boosted his stock for the Grade I Sun Met later this month. The 5-year-old gelding by Greys Inn ran 1,600 meters in 1:37.73.
Super filly Bela-Bela also moved squarely into the Sun Met picture as she rallied from well back in the field to take Saturday's Grade I Maine Chance Farms Paddock Stakes. Like Legal Eagle, she was the big favorite and benefitted from a persistent ride from jockey Anton Marcus. When Safe Harbour and Silver Mountain took the front in the late going, Marcus was able to swing Bela-Bela out for room and just got by, winning by a shade less than 1/2 length. She finished 1,800 meters in 1:21.51.
Amazing Kids and Not Listenin'tome both could be headed to Dubai after Sunday's Group 3 Bauhinia Sprint Trophy Handicap at Sha Tin. With Joao Moreira in the irons, Amazing Kids rallied from well back of the early pace, took charge in the final few hundred meters and won by 1 1/2 lengths over Not Listenin'tome. Peniaphobia was third in the 1,000 meters down the straight.
Trainer John Size said Amazing Kids will return for the Grade II Centenary Sprint Cup on Jan. 30. After that, he said, "There aren't too many options for him here in Hong Kong for the next couple of months. I spoke to the owner last week and, provided he's fit and well, we will look at the Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai (on World Cup night). They've extended it from 1,000 meters to 1,200 meters and it would be a good race for him, I think."
Meanwhile, trainer John Moore said he's eyeing a surface change for Not Listenin'tome.
"We want to go back to Dubai but now we're thinking the Golden Shaheen on the dirt might be the race, not the Al Quoz," he said.
Harbour Master came around a messy jumble in the final stages of Wednesday's Group 3 January Cup at scenic Happy Valley, winning by a short head over Circuit Land. After starting from gate No. 13, jockey Zac Purton kept Harbour Master near the fence and behind the pace -- until things suddenly picked up heading for the final hairpin bend. That caused a chain reaction of efforts and Purton came around the resulting muddle for the score.
"It was certainly a messy race," Purton allowed. "There was a lot happening at different stages."
The January Cup is the only Pattern race run at the in-town track.
The rains continued at The Great Race Place, washing two nice races off the turf on Saturday.
Blue Tone led from the start in the $200,000 Grade II San Gabriel, shook off a persistent pace rival entering the stretch and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Itsinthepost ran evenly to get place money, another 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Twentytwentyvision. The surface switch resulted in four scratches. Blue Tone, an 8-year-old Birdstone gelding, finished 9 sloppy furlongs in 1:49.82 under Kent Desormeaux in a significant reversal of his recent form.
"Not for nothing but he must be a mudder," Desormeaux said of Blue Tone. "He won't step in a puddle on the road out to the racetrack in the mornings but I walked him out onto the track today and he was paddling in it, like a child in the mud. He was like a little kid. He was enjoying himself."
Continuing the watery theme, trainer Bob Hess said Blue Tone will "take a shot" in the $400,000 Poseidon on the Pegasus World Cup undercard at Gulfstream Park Jan. 28.
The $100,000 Las Cienegas came off the hillside turf course and went as 6 1/2 furlongs on the sloppy main track with Watch This Cat taking full advantage. After stalking the pace, the 5-year-old Eskendereya mare took the point in the stretch and got away to an 8 1/2-lengths victory. Paquita Coqueta, Cadet Roni and Lajatico completed the order of finish. The morning-line favorite, Prize Exhibit, was scratched. Watch This Cat, with Corey Nakatani up, finished in 1:16.41.
"This horse has won down the hill both times and she's impressed me," said winning trainer Richard Baltas. "I was excited about today but the only thing was that we just didn't know about the dirt. I just told Corey to let her have her way. Let her get relaxed and run where she wants to run and he did. He rode her perfectly."
Saturday's card, including the $100,000 Ladies Handicap, was canceled because of the extreme weather. So was the Sunday program, including the $100,000 Ruthless Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.
Saturday's card, including the Wintergreen Stakes for fillies and mares, was canceled by the extreme weather.
News and notes:
Oaklawn Park, in an effort to attract new fans and encourage existing patrons, is lowering its takeout on show bets during the 2017 live meeting. The track did not specify the new takeout rate, saying it "will be similar or higher than the payback to customers generally found on slot machines in casinos."
Bobby Geiger, director of gaming and wagering, said, "We hope to improve the on-track experience by providing a financial incentive to participate in show wagering – the easiest bet in racing. A significant number of our attendees every season are still relative newcomers to the sport or have never been to a race track before. We want to increase their opportunities to cash tickets, put more money in their pockets and create a more fun environment for them."
The increased payout will be available only for on-track wagers.