Both U.S. juvenile champions went down to defeat in their 3-year-old debut during weekend racing while potential contenders for World Cup night in Dubai surfaced in California and England.
Hong Kong's Sunday featured a rags-to-riches story worthy of Horatio Alger.
But the star of the weekend was Unique Bella, a 3-year-old filly who easily won Sunday's Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita much as her stablemate, Songbird, did a year earlier.
Looking forward already to a potential matchup between those fillies sometime down the road, let's get back to the moment with:
The Road to the Oaks
Unique Bella turned in the performance of the weekend in Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Las Virgenes at Santa Anita -- a victory so effortlessly powerful that her owner immediately was pondering Kentucky Derby options.
With Mike Smith just along to keep her turning left, the gray Tapit filly took the lead halfway through the 1-mile event and quickly put paid to three rivals. Her margin was 8 3/4 lengths with Mopitism second, Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award 2-year-old champion Champagne Room third and Miss Southern Miss well up the track in fourth. The time was 1:35.66 but Unique Bella clearly could have run faster and won by more.
Unique Bella was second in her first try and now has reeled off three straight wins, all by huge margins.
Fernando Diaz-Valdez, racing manager for Don Alberto Stable, which owns the filly, said it's "too early to say" whether to seek Kentucky Derby qualifying points for Unique Bella.
"I'm told I should (emphasis on the 'should') go to the Kentucky Derby when the time comes. But we'll see," Diaz-Valdez said.
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who steadfastly kept Songbird running against other females throughout her stellar 3-year-old season, was less enthusiastic.
"I really like to concentrate on the filly races," he said. "If an opportunity came to do something else, we'd probably have to consider that. But I'd like to keep her against the fillies if I can."
Asked to compare Unique Bella and Songbird, he said, "I don't like to compare fillies and I won't compare these two." Indeed, but why? Songbird won last year's Las Virgenes by 6 1/2 lengths after leading by 10 lengths before Smith geared her down.
Delphinia contested the lead three-wide into the turn in Saturday's $50,000 Cincinnati Trophy Stakes on the Turfway Park all-weather track, then took over on the turn and jetted off to a 7-lengths victory. Sister Nation rallied for second with On Probation third. The even-money favorite, Promises Broken, ran to her name, beating only one rival after contesting the early pace.
Delphinia, a striking gray daughter of The Factor, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:17.52 under Julio Garcia. Trained by Wesley Ward, Delphinia finished second in her career debut at Keeneland in October, then won going 5 furlongs on the turf at Gulfstream Park in December -- her last previous outing.
Tequilita rallied four-wide to take the lead in the stretch in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream Park and held on to win by 1/2 length over Pretty City Dancer. Brahms Cat was a long shot third as the favorite, Ms Locust Point, faded from the lead to get home fifth.
Tequilita, a Union Rags filly, completed 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.36 with Luis Saez up. Coming off a 2 1/2-months layoff, she posted her third straight win. Michael Matz trains the filly for his wife, Dorothy, and also trained her sire and her dam, Sangrita, also owned by Dorothy Matz.
"We've sort of figured out her running style and where she wants to break," the trainer said. "For a while she was showing too much speed, and now I think we went from a mile to six furlongs and back to seven. If we want her to go longer, we can get her to sit still and still make a nice run. I think she's still figuring out what she's supposed to do."
On the turf, Rymska came rolling on the far outside in deep stretch to notch her first U.S. victory in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Sweetest Chant Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Rallying from near the back of the field, the French-bred daughter of Le Have just edged Compelled with a wide move. Fifty Five followed Rymska from even farther back to take third. Rymska finished 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.04 with Joel Rosario up.
Rymska finished second in the Grade III Miss Grillo at Belmont in her U.S debut last October, then made a similar bold late run to finish a close fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Filly Turf.
Trainer Chad Brown, who won the Sweetest Chant for the sixth time, said, "She ran good in the Breeders' Cup. We gave her a little freshening and Joel rode her perfectly. I thought she was a little too far back but, like I said, Joel timed it perfectly ... This is probably the way she wants to run. I was concerned the mile was a little too short for her."
Champagne Room remains atop the Kentucky Oaks points list with 23. Unique Bella earned 10 points, putting her in a three-way tie for second on that ranking with 20. Tequilita joined list, earning 10 for her victory and an eight-way tie for positions No. 5 through 12 on the ranking.
The Road to the Roses
Irish War Cry went right to the lead in Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Lambholm South Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, was never challenged and won easily by 3 3/4 lengths over Gunnevera while last year's champion U.S. 2-year-old, Classic Empire, had no response when asked and finished third.
Irish War Cry, a Curlin colt owned and bred by Isabelle de Tomaso, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.52 with Joel Rosario riding.
It was the third win without a loss for Irish War Cry. Classic Empire, who had not run since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November, suffered only his second loss, the first coming when he dropped his rider at the start of the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga in September. Gunnevera was making his first appearance since winning the Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot in November.
"He's a really nice horse and I was obviously really high on him," said winning trainer Graham Motion. "But when you're running against the juvenile champion, you have reservations. I was torn. I was toying with the idea of running in the Sam Davis (next weekend at Tampa Bay Downs). I thought it might be a little easier race, because he's so lightly raced. But the more I looked at it, the way he was working, I just thought we had to take a shot today."
Motion said he will consider the Grade II Fountain of Youth on March 4 or the Grade I Florida Derby on April 1. "I don't know if I want to run in every race," he added.
Royal Mo gunned out of the gate in Saturday's $150,000 Grade Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, raced just inside an eager Irap through most of the race and finally kicked away to win by 3 1/2 lengths over that rival. The favorite, Sheer Flattery, just missed catching Irap in the final strides, settling for third.
Royal Mo, a strapping bay colt by Uncle Mo, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.48 with Victor Espinoza riding for trainer John Shirreffs. It was only the fourth career start for Royal Mo, who took three tries to find the winner's circle, accomplishing the job Nov. 1 at Del Mar when first sent around two turns.
"There's a big difference," Espinoza said of Saturday's performance. "He's improving a lot. From the last few races to this race, he's really coming along. He's going in the right direction. Hopefully, we keep going all the way."
Shirreffs, who also trains Derby hopeful Gormley, said he will have to work out schedules for the two. "Obviously, you don't really want to run them together," he said. "We'll see how it goes." Jerry Moss, who owns both, added, "I think we'll go to Arkansas with one and stay here with the other."
El Areeb, the odds-on favorite, raced just off the pace in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Withers Stakes over the Aqueduct inner track, blew by pacesetting True Timber when asked by jockey Trevor McCarthy and romped home first by 4 1/2 lengths. True Timber held second, 1/2 length in front of J Boys Echo. El Areeb, an Exchange Rate colt, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.47, winning for the fourth straight time. In his previous race, he took the Grade III Jerome over the same course by 11 1/4 lengths.
Winning trainer Cathal Lynch was too nervous even to mention "Kentucky Derby" or "Triple Crown" aloud.
"If we're going to take a shot at these other three things, it would probably be nice to have a little break before we do," Lynch said. "I won't even say it. I'm a little superstitious."
The decision would be whether to try the March 4 Gotham before the April 8 Wood Memorial en route to the ... you know ... "other thing" on May 6 in Louisville.
True Timber also will "keep moving forward," according to Joe Lee, assistant to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
Favorable Outcome took back behind the early speed in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park, circled the leaders turning for home and got there first by 3/4 length over the favorite, Three Rules. Sonic Mule finished third.
Favorable Outcome, a Flatter colt trained by Chad Brown, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.03. It was his first race since finishing 12th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
"It made a lot of sense to cut him back in distance and put him back on the dirt," Brown said. "For him to win about 80 percent (fit) as he was today, it's pretty exciting for the rest of the year. I'm going to keep him at sprint distances. We didn't nominate him for the Triple Crown. Not even tempted."
Three Rules swept the Florida Sire Series races last year before finishing sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
The defeat did not cost Classic Empire his No. 1 spot on the Churchill Downs rankings used to determining the field for the Run for the Roses. He now has 32 points. El Areeb climbed to No. 2 with 20 points. Gunnevera moved to the fourth position with 14. Irish War Cry and Royal Mo each moved into a logjam of seven hopefuls with 10 points at No. 7 through 13 on the list.
Hoppertunity saved ground and trailed the field until the start of the stretch turn in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II San Antonio, got to the outside turning for home and edged Mor Spirit with a good late effort, winning by 1 length. Accelerate was third, a head in front of pacesetting El Huerfano.
Hoppertunity, a 6-year-old son of Any Given Saturday, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.55 with Flavien Prat in the irons. The victory, which pushed his lifetime earnings past the $4 million mark, was his first start since finishing fourth in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs Nov. 25. He also won the San Antonio last year, when it was run at 9 furlongs, and went on from that to finish third in the Group 1 Dubai World Cup behind only California Chrome and Mubtaahij.
Bob Baffert trains both Hoppertunity and More Spirit. The latter was second in last year's Grade I Santa Anita Derby and 10th in the Kentucky Derby. After nearly 10 months off, Mor Spirit returned to finish a close fourth in the Grade I Malibu going 7 furlongs on Boxing Day.
"There's nothing like having a good horse," Baffert said of Hoppertunity. "That's why we're in the business. So as long as he's doing well, we'll go to Dubai and see if we can get another win."
He said he's not sure about plans for Mor Spirit: "We're going to play it by ear but today was a good race for him."
Isotherm tracked the pace from between horses in the $200,000 Grade II San Marcos on the turf, got through at the top of the stretch and was up in the final sixteenth to win by 1/2 length from Itsinthepost. Flamboyant was 2 lengths farther back in third and the favorite, Texas Ryano, finished sixth with a mild late run.
The victory gave Prat a sweep of the late Pick 4, which returned $421.45 for a 50-cents investment.
Isotherm, a 4-year-old colt by Australian-bred Lonhro, ran 1 1/4 miles on firm turf in 2:00.23, scoring his first win since the Grade III Pilgrim at Belmont Park in September of 2015.
"Most of his trips wind up with us wanting to pull our hair out so this was amazing," said Austin Trites, assistant to winning trainer George Weaver. "Flavien Prat has a nose for the pocket and managed to get a perfect trip today." Commenting on his day, Prat said, "I knew I had some good shots. Everything worked out really well and I'm pretty lucky."
St. Joe Bay battled for the lead through the early furlongs of Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Palos Verdes Stakes, then gradually drew off, winning by 2 1/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Moe Candy, Ike Walker and Ocho Ocho Ocho completed the order of finish.
St. Joe Bay, a 5-year-old St. Anddan gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.75 with Kent Desormeaux riding. It was his third straight win after starting his career with a 1-for-15 mark.
"There was a lot more pressure (on him) than I thought," said winning trainer Peter Miller. "When I saw (Ocho Ocho Ocho) hounding me in 21 and two, I was like, 'Geeeez'. But this horse is just so good right now and he's got gears. When the gray horse (Moe Candy) came to him I got a little concerned, but he had another gear."
Miller said will "look at maybe" the $2 million Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen at Meydan on World Cup night. "I think he deserves it."
Storm Advisory made all the going in Saturday's $125,000 King Cotton Stakes and won rather easily, besting Recount by 2 3/4 lengths. Apprehender made a late run from the back of the field to nip the favorite and defending King Cotton champ, Ivan Fallunovalot, for third. Storm Advisory, a 5-year-old son of Weigelia, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.85.
"The horse basically pulled me around the track today," said winning jockey Geovanni Franco.
It was Storm Advisory's first start since an allowance win at Remington Park early in December.
"We've been planning for this meet for months," said winning trainer Robertino Diodoro.
Kitten's Cat needed every yard of Saturday's $100,000 Kitten's Joy Stakes for 3-year-olds but finally bested pacesetting long shot Clyde's Image by a head. The odds on favorite, Made You Look, had no running room in the lane and finished third. Kitten's Cat, a Kitten's Joy cold owned and bred by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.41 with Luis Saez in the irons.
Super Surprise stalked the pace set by even-money favorite Isabelle in Sunday's $100,000 Biogio's Rose Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares, then went by that one in the stretch run to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Isabella held second, 3/4 length ahead of Jules N Rome. Super Surprise, a 4-year-old Giant Surprise filly, got 1 1/16 miles over the fast inner track in 1:44.59 with Jose Ortiz riding.
Cowboy Culture survived a wide trip to win Saturday's $60,000 Keith Gee Memorial for 3-year-olds by 3/4 length over Girvin. Hot Dad was third with a late run. Cowboy Culture, a Quality Road colt, ran about 1 mile on firm turf in 1:37.44 with Florent Geroux in the irons.
Rye came from last of 11 and got by Rye Patch in the late going to take Sunday's $50,000 Super Bowl Starter Handicap by 2 3/4 lengths with Sky Preacher third. Rye, a 4-year-old English Channel colt, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.42 with Kent Desormeaux in the irons.
Hute dueled for the lead in Saturday's $85,000 Red Hedeman Stakes for New Mexico-bred 3-year-olds, then shook off another late challenge before winning by 1 1/4 lengths over Dom Strait. The favorite, He's Another Who, finished third with a late rush while being floated wide. Hute, a Western Gambler gelding, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.84 under Ken Tohill.
Not My Note stalked the pace duel in Saturday's $85,000 Mt. Cristo Rey Handicap for state-breds, then took over and ran on to win by 4 1/2 lengths. Weappear and Wyatt completed the trifecta. Not My Note, a 5-year-old gelding by Japanese-bred Fusaichi Zenon, ran 4 1/2 furlongs in 49.52 seconds with Tracy Hebert in the irons.
O'er the bounding sea ...
Decorated Knight, making his first start since a freak accident kept him out of last year's Arlington Million, posted an impressive win in Saturday's Betway Winter Derby Trial Stakes on the Lingfield Park Polytrack.
The victory could pave the way to the Winter Derby and the All-Weather Championship finals on Good Friday. Or it could be a doorway to even great glory in Dubai.
With Andrea Atzeni up for trainer Roger Charlton, the 5-year-old son of Galileo took a promising lead inside the final furlong in Saturday's race and held off the favorite, Arab Spring, by a short head. Battalion was 1 1/4 lengths back in third and just a short head in front of Grendisar, who won this race the past two years.
"He will take a bit of stopping in the Winter Derby if he stays here for it and the other option is the Group 1 Jebel Hatta at Meydan on March 4," said Harry Charlton, assistant to his trainer father, Roger.
He added the Jebel Hatta "can come up quite a weak Group 1 race, with often seven or eight runners ... The Jebel Hatta is quite a valuable proposition for a Galileo entire who is very closely related to Gleneagles." And, he added, "Depending on how the Jebel Hatta went, you could also consider running on Dubai World Cup Night in the Dubai Turf."
It's not often a horse undergoes career-threatening surgery, endures a fattening year off and then rises through the ranks from competing in lowly Class 5 racing to victory in an international Group 3 event. But that's just the feat that Supreme Profit pulled off in Sundays' Centenary Vase Handicap at Sha Tin with a bit of help from jockey Chad Schofield.
With the field plodding along 600 meters into the 1,600-meters event, Schofield realized his mount wasn't likely to win a scramble through deep stretch. So, he sent the 6-year-old Encosta De Lago gelding to the early lead and held on, winning by 1 length from a late-running Basic Trilogy. Romantic Touch was third, a touch in front of Helene Superstar.
Winning trainer Danny Shum said Supreme Profit nearly was retired after a colic operation shortly after he went through the ring as Lot 1 in the 2012 Hong Kong International Sale.
"As a result of that operation, we had to wait for more than a year before he made his Hong Kong debut and at that time he was very fat and carrying a lot of condition," Shum said. "He showed talent but he took a long time to come right, and he won his first race in Class 5 here. But since then, he has kept on improving and now he is a very happy horse."
The favorite, Helene Charisma, finished seventh in Sunday's race, leaving trainer John Moore scratching his head. "We still haven't given up hope that he will be a Hong Kong Derby contender," Moore said.
Jockey Joao Moreira was disappointed aboard Helene Charisma but still rode a triple on the day to notch his 500th Hong Kong win. "I think we're going to stretch that number out a little bit yet, don't worry," Moreira said.