A big weekend of Thoroughbred racing includes action from Dubai to Australia, with important Kentucky Derby and Oaks preps in America and a bevvy of big turf races.
How big is it? Well ...
Big upsets were the rule Thursday evening at Meydan in Dubai.
Big doings are on tap down under with Winx, Chautauqua and several other heavy hitters set to run on Saturday at Randwick and Caulfield.
Big names in American turf racing take the track at Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs and Santa Anita.
And the biggest of the big names from around the world are among the initial nominations just announced for Dubai World Cup night, now only six weeks down the road.
Big, yes. But not too big for us to handle so let's get right to it.
The Road to the Roses
The weekend's primary Derby prep runs Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs and the primary interest in that $250,000 Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes is the undefeated Ghostzapper colt McCraken.
Trained by Ian Wilkes, McCracken won all three starts during the Churchill Downs fall meeting, finishing with a rallying win in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club on Nov. 26. He hasn't run since but has been working regularly and well and the Palm Meadows Training Center.
Trainer Todd Pletcher offers Fact Finding, also undefeated in three starts including the Smooth Air Stakes over the course last December, and Tapwrit, winner of the Pulpit Stakes, also at Gulfstream in December. Mark Casse will saddle two: King and His Court, winner of two straight stakes at Woodbine, and State of Honor, runner-up in stakes events in his last two outings.
Chance of Luck won the Inaugural Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Wild Shot finished second to McCracken in the Kentucky Jockey Club. And in the outside gate in the field of nine is No Dozing, second in the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct in his last start. This race will start to sort things out with this bunch.
Five are set for Sunday's $200,000 Grade II San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita at 7 furlongs. Four of them come off maiden wins and could be anything. The fifth, Blabimir, has started four times, finished only twice and won once. His two DNF results came in a maiden event at Santa Anita in November and the Grade III Sham on Jan. 7 when he bobbled at the start and eventually was eased in the stretch. He has posted two sparkling works since that misadventure, most recently a 5-furlongs effort from the gate, clocked in 1 minute flat -- best of 129 timed at that distance on Feb. 2. Doug O'Neill trains the Tapizar colt.
Mastery was nominated to the San Vicente but trainer Bob Baffert said the undefeated colt will make his next start in either the Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 11 or the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn a week later. The San Felipe purse is $400,000; the Rebel's, $900,000. Each offers 50 Kentucky Derby points to the winner.
A full field of 12 is on tap for Saturday's 50,000 WEBN Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on the Turfway Park all-weather track. Mike Maker trains three of them while Wesley Ward handles two. Ward trainee Star Empire finished second in the Grade III Futurity at Belmont last fall but then was eased in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after being sent off at triple-digit odds. One of Maker's charges, Hey Mike, has been running competitively against tougher in Florida and could figure here if he handles the all-weather.
We keep waiting for one of Hansen's offspring to jump up to the big time and there are two in the WEBN -- En Hanse, starting from the rail, and What's On Tap, who drew outside.
Hansen, a son of Tapit, won the 2011 Kentucky Cup Juvenile and went on to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park. He finished ninth in the Kentucky Derby and now stands in South Korea after a brief residence in Kentucky. One of his U.S.-bred colts, Han Sense, recently has been sent to Dubai and is entered for next week's UAE 2,000 Guineas.
The Road to the Oaks
R Angel Katelyn is 4-for-5 and headlines Saturday's $100,000 Suncoast Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the Tampa Bay Downs main track. The High Cotton filly scored her last two wins in the Sandpiper and Gasparilla, both at Tampa Bay. She makes her first start around two turns.
Many of the others in the Suncoast are facing winners for the first time. One of those, however, is Elate, a Medaglia d'Oro filly who destroyed eight opponents in her career bow last November at Aqueduct with an 88 Beyer Speed Figure. The Bill Mott trainee, a Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschenider homebred, has been working bullets in preparation for her 3-year-old debut.
At Oaklawn Park, it's Saturday's $125,000 Martha Washington Stakes. Perfect Wife and eight others will contest the 1-mile event. Perfect Wife, a Majesticperfection filly, comes off a win in the Trapeze Stakes at Remington Park. Ever So Clever is a Steve Asmussen trainee who looked ever so good last year, twice graded stakes-placed at Churchill Downs.
Lovely Bernadette won three straight in Kentucky last year before finishing fifth in the Grade II Golden Rod. Chanel's Legacy and My Sweet Stella were 1-2 in the local Dixie Belle last month. Tap of War is well-bred and won her only previous race way back in July at Prairie Meadows. She has posted a couple very fast works in preparation for this. Torrent was second to Perfect Wife in the Trapeze and tries again.
Jerry Hollendorfer has shipped Tapped from down south to contest Saturday's $50,000 California Oaks on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course. The Tapit filly finished fourth in the Grade I Hollywood Starlet at Los Alamitos, then won an allowance event at Santa Anita. She has posted a work on the Golden Gate track and doesn't face much in the way of experienced success. Alex Solis has the mount.
On the turf, eight fillies are entered for Saturday's $50,000 Joseph E. Spanky Broussard at Fair Grounds. It's a "you pick 'em" event although trainer Mark Casse returns Summertime Sky to the surface where she won at first asking on New Year's Eve. In the interim, the Sky Mesa filly finished a credible fourth in the $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes. Rum Go has been idle since third in the Grade III JP Morgan Chase Jessamine Stakes at Keeneland in October. The others are stepping up a bit.
Nashmiah, 3-for-3 in Saudi Arabia, led a parade of long shots to a mish-mosh of Thursday evening's UAE 1,000 Guineas at Meydan. Nashmiah, owned and bred by the Sons of the late King Abdulla bin A'Aziz, looked to have her work cut out for her against stiffer opposition despite her perfect record at home.
With Mickael Barzalona up, Nashmiah was on the lead halfway through Thursday's 1,600-meters feature but looked like being swamped by her better-fancied rivals turning into the stretch. Instead, she kept finding more and held off fellow long shot Nomorerichblondes by a head. Rajar was third.
"I knew she was tough after my win on her in Saudi last time," Barzalona said. "I was able to give her a bit of a breather, which really helped. But then she was very tough and just kept battling. This was a big step up in grade for her and that was a very good performance for the whole team."
That result came as the Meydan crowd was still reeling from the winning effort in the previous race of the venerable Krypton Factor, winner of the Dubai Golden Shaheen on the old all-weather Meydan surface way back in 2012 but a bit hapless more recently. The 9-year-old raced close to the lead, then hit another gear about 200 meters out and went on to win 1,200-meters sprint by 1 1/2 lengths over Jamesie with Sir Maximilian third.
Also on Thursday night's program, Godolphin entry Top Score edged Nobelium in the 1,400-meters Meydan Classic Trial on the grass; Alabaster and Etijaah dead-heated for the win in the 2,000-meters Range Rover Sport on the dirt; Salateen won a five-way dash to the wire in the 1,400-meters Range Rover on the turf; and Folkswood gave Godolphin a third winner in the finale at 1,800-meters on the turf. Dutch rider Adrie De Vries rode a triple, so "alstublieft" to him.
Super Mare Winx, riding a 13-race winning streak and recently voted the top turf-running horse in the world, returns to the course on Saturday at Randwick in the Group 2 The Star Apollo Stakes. Godolphin's 6-year-old Authorized gelding, Hartnell, looks the only potential threat to Winx in this field and then only if Winx isn't feeling her oats after an early-week gallop at Rosehill in company with stablemate Preferment. Hartnell was second to Winx in October in the Group 1 Cox Plate.
Trainer Chris Waller said after last week's trial he has planned four races for Winx in the southern hemisphere autumn, starting with the Apollo and finishing in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick April 8.
Saturday's Group 1 Ladbrokes C.F. Orr Stakes at Caulfield got a solid cast of 12 including Black Heart Bart, Awesome Rock, Malaguerra, Turn Me Loose, Jameka and Arod. Awesome Rock starts for the first time since winning the Group 1 MacKinnon Stakes at Flemington three months ago. Malaguerra, a 5-year-old Magnus gelding, defeated Black Heart Bart by a decisive 2 lengths in the Group 2 Browns Sawdust and Shavings Australia Stakes at 1,200 meters in January, with Turn Me Loose finishing seventh.
Chautauqua, winner of the Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize in Hong Kong last May, returns from a vacation in Saturday's Schweppes Rubiton Stakes, going 1,100 meters at Caulfield. The 6-year-old Encosta de Lago gelding returned from his Sha Tin triumph to run fourth in the Group 1 Moir Stakes in September and seventh in the Grade I Manikato in October. If he's fully cranked, seven rivals should be scrapping for the orts.
Ashadihan asserted herself in the final furlong to take Wednesday's All-Weather Championships Fast-Track Qualifier at Chelmsford City, beating Volunteer Point by 1 1/2 lengths. The favorite, Mise En Rose, settled for third, 1/2 length farther in arrears.
The win earned Ashadihan, a 4-year-old Kyllachy filly, a guaranteed place in the All-Weather Fillies' and Mares' Championships over the same 7-furlong distance on Good Friday. However, trainer Kevin Ryan said he's not certain of plans for the filly, who has won both her starts on all-weather tracks and also has finished fifth and sixth in Group 1 turf races.
"She is a very, very big filly and, even last season, she was still learning and was a bit immature," Ryan said. "She has grown into a big, strong filly now and it is great to have her in training again this year."
Back in North America:
On the turf:
The first three finishers from last month's Grade II Fort Lauderdale -- Flatlined, Almanaar and Dividero -- square off again in Saturday's $350,000 Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. The morning-line favorite, however, is Beach Patrol, winner of last summer's Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington, who makes his 4-year-old debut. The Lemon Drop Kid colt has hit the board in nine of 10 career starts. There's no proven speed in the race so the last of 9 furlongs should prove interesting.
Only five signed on for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Arcadia Stakes at 1 mile on the Santa Anita grass. But all five have competed successfully at the highest level and the race could be quite a scramble. Conquest Enforcer, a very consistent in-the-money performer, might be in peak form as he comes off a win in the Grade II Mathis Brothers Mile over the course on Boxing Day. Ring Weekend, Bolo, What a View and Ohio all have legitimate claims.
Sandiva and Sea Coast, the 1-2 finishers from the Grade III Marshua's River, return for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Suwannee River Stakes fat Gulfstream Park for fillies and mares going 9 furlongs. Sandiva, a 6-year-old mare by Footstepsinthesand, also won this event two years ago, defeating Rosalind. Also of interest in the 10-horse field: Goldy Espony. The 6-year-old, French-bred mare by Vespone had won five of six starts when she was sidelined in December of 2015. She has been working steadily at Palm Meadows for trainer Chad Brown.
Eleven fillies and mares are in for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes at 1 1/16 miles at Tampa Bay Downs. Isabella Sings, a 5-year-old Eskendereya mare trained by Todd Pletcher, is a multiple graded stakes winner. Azaelia has struggled a bit in the United States but last year finished fourth the Group 1 Prix de Diane at Chantilly -- one of the world's premier filly and mare turf races. Several of the others have shown flashes of ability.
The companion $150,000 Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes at 1 1/16 miles drew a field of 10. Among them is Kasaqui, who finished second behind only Mondialist in last summer's Grade I Arlington Million but then fared less well during the Keeneland fall season, including a last-place finish, virtually eased, in the Grade II Fayette Stakes in his last outing. Kaigun, now 7, had a solid first half last year with a string of wins and seconds, then tailed off and has been idle since July. Turbo Street, a 5-year-old gelding by Encosta de Lago, makes his first start for new owner/trainer Brian Lynch after shipping in from his native Australia. He didn't exactly set the outback on fire before the change of scenery but he has been working well at the Palm Meadows training facility. Catapult finished his 3-year-old season with a win in the Gio Ponti Stakes at Aqueduct and looks like a progressive sort. The same could be said of Bondurant. Coco Mon is one of those Illinois-bred refugees. They usually bear watching.
In other action:
Louisiana Downs hosts Premier Night on Saturday -- a whole card of stakes for the state-bred steeds. The $200,000 Championship and the $150,000 Distaff highlight the program.
Gulfstream Park's Saturday turf features are joined by the $350,000 Hardacre Mile Gulfstream Park Handicap, one-turn race on the main oval. Zulu, who was a Kentucky Derby prospect a year ago before flopping in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, is the narrow morning-line favorite after winning the restricted Tamarac on Dec. 18 off a long layoff. Also respected by the oddsmaker is Tommy Macho, who won the Grade III Hal's Hope over the same course a month ago by 5 3/4 lengths.
Vale Dori heads a field of six fillies and mares for Saturday's$200,000 Grade II Santa Maria for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles. The Asiatic Boy 5-year-old has won three straight races and four of her last five. Last year she finished second in the UAE Oaks and fourth in the UAE Derby. Of the others, Show Stealer and Autumn Flower ran second and third behind Vale Dori in their last outing, the Grade II La Canada, but Show Stealer was 2 1/2 lengths back of the winner and Autumn Flower was beaten 10 lengths. Sheer Pleasure was a flat third in the Grade II Santa Monica. Mike Smith rides Vale Dori for trainer Bob Baffert, starting from the outside gate.
News and notes:
No, it is not too early to be thinking about the first-ever Breeders' Cup World Championships visit to Del Mar. Tickets for the Nov. 3-4 event will go on sale March 6, with a pre-sale opportunity prior to that general release. Details at www.breederscup.com/2017 and, since Del Mar seating will be limited, speed is of the essence.