Classic Empire (center, black blinkers), seen winning the 2016 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, makes his 3-year-old debut Saturday at Gulfstream Park. (Breeders' Cup photo)
Don't pay any attention to that pesky groundhog. A clear sign that spring is on the way is the arrival Saturday of top Kentucky Derby and Oaks preps in Florida, New York and California.
The 3-year-old races include an early showdown in Florida between last season's 2-year-old champ and the winner of the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot. In California, the 2016 2-year-old filly champ returns to action against a well-bred and promising rival.
There are a smattering of races for the older horses in Arkansas and California.
And we also have the latest from the Dubai World Cup Carnival, where Thursday's card was marked by significant upsets and an event that might as well have been called the Old Guys Rule Stakes. Check it out in the Dubai section, below.
The world's richest race may be in the rear-view mirror but the Triple Crown races are just over the horizon, so let's not lose focus.
Focusing first on:
The Road to the Roses
Saturday's schedule includes a trio of 3-year-old races Gulfstream Park, Aqueduct and Santa Anita.
Classic Empire, champion 2-year-old of 2016 and the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, makes his sophomore bow in Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Lambholm South Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. The Pioneerof the Nile colt, trained by Mark Casse, drew the No. 3 gate.
Joining Classic Empire in the 1 1/16-miles fray on the main track is Gunnevera, winner of last year's $1 million Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs. Gunnevera, a son of Dialed In, drew the rail.
Among the others, watch out for Irish War Cry, a Curlin colt who is undefeated in two starts including a hard-won victory in the Marylander at Laurel Park on New Year's Eve; Fact Finding, winner of all three of his starts at Saratoga, Keeneland and Gulfstream; and Shamsaan, a Shadwell homebred son of Bernardini who could be rounding into prime form.
The $200,000 Swale Stakes, also at Gulfstream, is 7 furlongs and drew a field of six. Sonic Mule, winner of three straight in South Florida, has never missed the board in seven starts. Three Rules, who swept last season's Florida Sire Stakes series, also was nominated to the Holy Bull but runs here.
Favorable Outcome finished third in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont but had a less favorable outcome in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, finishing 12th. Vanish ran well enough on the Woodbine all-weather and tries dirt for the first time in the Swale.
The five-horse field for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita has more question marks than exclamation points.
Irap finished second to Mastery in the Grade I Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity. But he was 7 1/4 lengths behind the winner that day and subsequently finished fourth in a Santa Anita maiden tilt. Dangerfield has not raced since finishing third in the Cash Call Futurity and before that was third in the Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot. Term of Art won the Grade III Cecil B. DeMille at Del Mar in November but finished well up the track in two other graded stakes effort. The other two are recent maiden winners.
Fortunately, there are some great races elsewhere on Santa Anita's Saturday card.
El Areeb enters Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Withers on the Aqueduct inner track as the winner of three straight races, including the Grade III Jerome over the same surface on Jan 2 -- by 11 1/4 lengths. That race was over a muddy strip but the Exchange Rate colt also won the James Lewis Stakes at Laurel Park on a fast track, drawing off smartly at the end.
The second- and third-place finishers from the Jerome -- Bonus Points and True Timber -- will try again in the Withers. The other seven need to move forward to have an impact but, as several are impressive recent maiden winners, that's not impossible.
Gulfstream also has the $100,000 Kitten's Joy Stakes at 1 mile on the turf for 3-year-olds. Made You Look has won three of his last four starts, two of those graded stakes. But the loss in the middle of that streak was a sixth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Among the other seven, Lemonist is a Lemon Drop Kid colt out of a Danzig mare, Pitamakan. He's finished first in his last two races but was DQ'ed to second in the most recent.
Pretty City Dancer makes her long-awaited 3-year-old debut in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Forward Gal, going 7 furlongs at Gulfstream Park. The Tapit filly won three straight to wind up last season but has not raced since taking the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga On Sept. 3. Bode's Dream won three in a row before losing to Wildcat Kate in the Old Hat Stakes on Jan. 7 and faces that rival again. Ms Locust Point was an easy winner in the Gin Talking Stakes at Laurel Park.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Sweetest Chant also is at Gulfstream, at 1 mile on the turf but drew a surprisingly unaccomplished field. Of note: Rymska, a French-bred daughter of Le Havre, finished second in the grassy Grade II Miss Grillo at Belmont Park and fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Filly Turf. Compelled won the Juvenile Filly Turf at Gulfstream Park West in November.
Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Las Virgenes at Santa Anita is 1 mile on the main track and is expected to feature last season's Eclipse Award and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Champagne Room in her 3-year-old debut. Champagne Room was a 33-1 long shot in winning the Breeders' Cup last fall over the same track but has been working strongly.
Champagne Room's competition is expected to include Unique Bella, who was very good in winning the Santa Ynez by 7 1/2 lengths on Jan. 8. The Pennsylvania-bred filly is by Tapit out of the Unbridled's Song mare Unrivaled Belle, who herself was the 2010 Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic winner.
Three graded stakes surround the Robert B. Lewis on Saturday.
Hoppertunity kicks off his 6-year-old season in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II San Antonio at 1 1/8 miles on the dirt. The Bob Baffert trainee has finished fourth in four of his last five starts but won the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in the middle of that skein. He also won this race last year.
Hoppertunity starts from the inside post with Hard Aces, a 7-year-old, breaking from the outside in an eight-horse field. Adding to the luster of the field are Accelerate, Dalmore, Mor Spirit and Prospect Park. All will be looking for a chance to shine before Arrogate returns to action.
Fourteen are entered for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Marcos at 1 1/4 miles on the grass. Most have run well at one time or another without showing much affinity for the winner's circle.
Texas Ryano has developed into a useful horse for trainer Carla Gaines and won the Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup at Del Mar in his 2016 finale. Blue Tone and Itsinthepost return in the San Marcos after finishing 1-2 in the Grade III San Gabriel on Jan. 7.
Some In Time makes his first start after racing in South America but note than another competitor here, Hi Happy, was undefeated in six stars in his native Argentina, seven of them Group 1 events, but finished seventh in his U.S. debut last November.
Rather than saying it's too tough to figure out, let's call this year's San Marcos a good wagering opportunity.
St. Joe Bay comes off a victory in the Grade III Midnight Lute Stakes on New Year's Eve -- his first-ever stakes win. That's enough to make him the morning-line favorite for the $200,000 Grade II Palos Verdes on Saturday. Ocho Ocho Ocho hasn't won since the 2014 Delta Downs Jackpot. Moe Candy, a late-starting, lightly raced 5-year-old might have a shot in this 6-furlongs event as he moves out of his conditions into stakes company for the first time.
Ivan Fallunovalot won last year's King Cotton Stakes, hasn't lost in three intervening starts and returns for Saturday's $125,000 renewal. The 7-year-old Valid Expectations gelding comes off a victory in the Grade III Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park and has been working nicely since his return to Hot Springs.
Recount, one of many traveling Illinois-breds, was last seen winning the Bet On Sunshine Stakes at Churchill Downs. Rockport Cat stopped in New Mexico to win the Zia Park Sprint en route east from Southern California. Crewman returns on two weeks rest after winning the Forego Stakes on the Turfway Park all-weather. And trainer D. Wayne Lukas tries again with Mr. Z, who shortens up to this 6-furlongs distance.
On the international front:
Upsets, from the minor to the very major, were the rule Thursday night at Meydan.
The very major surprise was in the evening's featured race, the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge, Round 2, at 1,900 meters on the dirt, a prep for the Dubai World Cup itself. Le Bernardin, winner of Round 1, was highly fancied to move forward in this but could do no better than fourth, beaten some 5 lengths.
The overlooked Chilean-bred mare Furia Cruzada skimmed the rail in a tightly bunched field, split rivals to take the lead 300 meters out and just barely held off Second Summer for the win Round 2 in 1:58.86. Power Blade was third as Le Bernardin flattened out in the final 100 meters.
In the U.S. markets, the winner paid $82.40 to win. There is, of course, no wagering in Dubai.
Furia Cruzada, trained by Erwan Charpy, was making her first start in Dubai but might have merited a closer look as she was second behind only Endless Time in last year's Group 2 Lancashire Oaks at Haydock and a respectable sixth in the Group 1 Yorkshire Oaks in which Seventh Heaven defeated Found. The UK races were on turf, which apparently is not Furia Cruzada's forte, as her three Group 1 victories in South America also were on the dirt.
Punters may be more cautious next time, particularly in light of jockey Antonio Fresu's analysis: "She is not 100 percent fit so I am looking forward to her next race ... I think she will improve."
Cool Cowboy got home a neck in front of the favorite, 2016 Golden Shaheen winner Muarrab, in the Group 3 Al Shindagha Sprint, a 1,200-meters prep for the Group 2 Dubai Golden Shaheen at the same distance on World Cup night. Wild Dude was well behind in third.
Cool Cowboy, with Patrick Dobbs up for trainer Doug Watson, hooked up outside Muarrab as they straightened out into the stretch and that pair dueled to the 100-meters mark where Cool Cowboy finally inched clear. He finished in 1:11.49. The 6-year-old son of Kodiak Kowboy finished fifth behind Le Bernardin last month in Round 1 of the Maktoum Challenge at 1,600 meters.
Another heavy favorite, Red Galileo, was relegated to third in the EGA Casthouse Trophy at 3,200 meters as Zamaam and Red Barbados took the top places. Zamaam also is trained by Charpy.
Sanshaswes gave trainer Mike de Kock a victory on the night, taking the 2,000-meters EGA Jebal Ali Trophy by 1 1/4 lengths over Dylan Mouth with Belgian Bill third.
The EGA Al Taweelah Trophy at 1,000 meters on the turf drew some of the older horses running anywhere: Medicean Man, 11, Sole Power, 10, Fityaan, 9, Caspian Prince and Sir Maximilian, 8. Only one of the 14 was under age 5. Age was no significant barrier as Speed Hawk, aged 6, barely edged Medicean Man at the wire with Fityaan third and Sole Power fourth -- all within 1 length. The youngster, Taexali, finished seventh. Old guys rule.
Arab Spring and Decorated Knight are among those hoping Saturday to deny Grendisar a third straight victory in the Betway Winter Derby Trial at Lingfield Park. The 10-furlongs event is a Fast Track Qualifier for the Betway Easter Classic at the same course and distance on Good Friday.
Arab Spring, trained by Sir Michael Stoute and with Ryan Moore named to ride, has won both his all-weather starts. Decorated Night, with the services of Roger Charlton and Andrea Atzeni, makes his first all-weather start and comes off a long layoff following a victory in the Group 3 Meld Stakes at Leopardstown in July.
Grendisar, trained by Marco Botti with Adam Kirby set to ride, followed last year's Winter Derby Trial victory with wins in both the Group 3 Winter Derby and the Easter Classic and was named All-Weather Horse of the Year. Also in the field are the Jamie Osborne-trained Battalion and Our Channel.
News and notes:
The Association of Racing Commissioners International has named a panel that will certify which racing jurisdictions are in compliance with four of its integrity standards. But ARCI said the certification is not intended to be a guideline for dissemination of simulcast signals to or from states that are found noncompliant. That provision has been part of proposed legislation that has been stalled for years in Congress.
Panel members named Wednesday, all former racing regulators, are Steve Barham of Oregon, Bennett Liebman of New York and Alan Monat of Illinois.
Under the program, the panel will report each year at the annual ARCI meeting whether jurisdictions are "Compliant", "Substantially Compliant" or "Non Compliant" with select integrity standards embodied in the Model Rules. For 2017, the standards are linked to four ARCI Model Rules that often are referred to as the National Uniform Medication Program.They are: Implementation of the ARCI/RMTC Controlled Therapeutic Schedule; use of an RMTC accredited testing laboratory; adoption of the Multi-Medication Rule Violation point system; and the independent administration of race day furosemide for those trainers/owners opting to use it.
ARCI President Ed Martin said ARCI is not attempting to recommend or decide which simulcast signals should be approved.
"That is up to the tracks, ADWs, OTBs, the local horseman's group, and the appropriate regulator, to make such decisions individually," Martin said. "All the ARCI will do is provide information for others to assess what weight to give it in making decisions affecting their customers or constituents."