McCracken and Iliad each took another big step toward the Kentucky Derby with nice weekend victories, Thunder Snow won the big Derby prep in Dubai and Sharp Azteca earned some more frequent flyer miles with a convincing triumph at Gulfstream Park.
There was plenty of top-shelf turf racing on tap during the weekend from coast to coast and most of it was formful.
In Australia, Black Heart Bart won, Chautauqua didn't and Winx, the world's best horse on the turf, made it 14 straight wins.
And ... 12-year-old Hannah Schlenk already is a winning owner. See "News and Notes" for that cheery story.
What the heck, it's almost all cheerful, starting with:
The Road to the Kentucky Derby
McCraken remained undefeated in four starts, taking his 3-year-old debut in track-record time at Tampa Bay Downs. With Brian Hernandez Jr. up, the Ghostzapper colt repeated the formula that brought his first three wins, lagging behind the pace, circling the leaders and arriving in time to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Tapwrit, winner of the last two starts of his juvenile season, finished second with an inside trip and State of Honor led the way from gate No. 1 and held on for third. McCracken ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.45, erasing the mark of 1:42.82 set by Destin in last year's Tampa Bay Derby.
"He puts a lot of confidence in you, that's for sure," Hernandez said.
McCracken's three wins as a 2-year-old all came at Churchill Downs, which bodes well for a potential Kentucky Derby effort. Saturday's effort gave him 10 Kentucky Derby points, moving him into a three-way tie for second on that list with El Areeb and Gormley. Classic Empire remains atop the list.
Trainer Ian Wilkes wasn't overly bubbly about the Derby points.
"We've got a long way to go. This is not a one-race program," Wilkes said. "I want two more races for him, then the Derby. This is just one stepping stone, and we keep building. Let's pay all credit to the horse. He's taking us there."
Wilkes said Sunday is its "likely" McCracken will return for the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 11.
"You can't lock yourself into one place," he said. "But the timing is good to come back."
In Sunday's $200,000, Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita, Iliad sat just off the pace set by stablemate Blabimir, circled three-wide into the turn and drew off nicely to win by 3 1/2 lengths in the race Nyquist used as a springboard to winning last year's Kentucky Derby. Law Abidin Citizen was second with the favorite, Battle of Midway, all out to salvage third over Aquamarine but 4 1/2 lengths behind Law Abidin Citizen.
Iliad, a Ghostzapper ridgling, ran 7 furlongs in 1:21.62 with Flavien Prat substituting for jockey Rafael Bejarano, who was unseated in the ninth race Saturday and took the day off as a precautionary measure.
"We can all hope and pray for horses like this," his owner said. "I'm glad Iliad came along. I hope he continues to move forward. It's one race at a time in this business, but it looks very promising for now." He said he hopes Iliad can progress to the Grade II San Felipe at 1 1/16 miles on March 11, then the Santa Anita Derby on April 8.
En Hanse led all the way to a 3 1/2-lengths victory over odds-on favorite Star Empire in Saturday night's WEBN Stakes at Turfway Park, the initial local prep for the oval's main Kentucky Derby prep race in March.
With Abel Lezcano up, the gray Hansen colt shook off several challenges before edging away to the clear victory. He ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:15.35 - just a half second off the track record. Hunka Burning Love was third.
En Hanse finished off the board in his last race, the Space City Stakes at Sam Houston.
"We were disappointed in his last race," said winning trainer Mike Maker. "He didn't get away well and he didn't like the dirt in his face. But he vindicated us today."
The local Derby prep series continues with the John Battaglia Memorial at 1 1/16 miles on March 4 and concludes with the $500,000 JACK Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes on March 25.
The Path to the Kentucky Oaks
Tapa Tapa Tapa, making her first start since October at Keeneland, led all the way to a 3-lengths victory over odds-on favorite Elate in Saturday's $100,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. With Jesus Castanon up, the gray Tapit filly was allowed to lope along uncontested and finished the 1 mile and 40 yards on a fast track in 1:39.91.
The odds-on favorite, Elate, tracked the pace but couldn't make up any ground in the stretch and settled for second in her second career start and first of the year. R Angel Catelyn, winner of two straight Tampa Bay stakes, was third, another 4 3/4 lengths back.
Tapa Tapa Tapa won two of three at Woodbine, scoring on both the turf and the all-weather. However, she then was well out of the frame in both the Grade I Natalma over the Canadian green and the Grade III Jessamine on the Keeneland turf.
"She was making it easy," Castanon said. "She was a little fussy in the beginning, but she was able to settle down on the backside and once we got to the top of the stretch, I let her pick it up and she went on. She wasn't really getting tired and I knew she would be tough to beat."
Bill Mott, who trains Elate, wasn't discouraged. "This isn't the end of the season," he said. "I ran Royal Delta in this race and she finished ninth, and she won the Breeders' Cup.
Chanel's Legacy shadowed the pacesetting favorite, Perfect Wife, in Saturday's $125,000 Martha Washington at Oaklawn Park, took over when that rival faded through the second turn and won off by 2 1/2 lengths. My Sweet Stella and Torrent filled the trifecta slots as Perfect Wife, who broke through the gate before the start, finished last of eight.
Chanel's Legacy, an Iowa-bred daughter of Dominus, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.51 for jockey Alex Birzer.
Winning trainer Lynn Chleborad the quick early fractions were "not exactly walking the dog, you know ... I'm like, 'Ooh, I hope she has enough to finish.' She just kept going. But she trains like that. She trains like that in the morning. She was ready for this race, and I feel we had her as good as we could get her. She showed that she can do that."
The win backed up her victory in the Jan. 21 Dixie Belle over the same track and was her fourth from six starts. Perfect Wife's trainer, Kenny McPeek, said jockey Corey Lanerie reported the filly "hit the gate really hard and she busted her mouth pretty good. So maybe in hindsight we probably should have scratched her. She's got a pretty good cut in her mouth. But she'll be fine. We'll regroup."
Tap It All led all the way to a 1 3/4-lengths victory over odds-on favorite Tapped in Saturday's $50,000 California Oaks over the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course. Shari was along to add some value to the trifecta. Tap It All, a Tapizar filly, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.12 with Kyle Fry up for trainer Doug O'Neill. It was the second win for the filly, who took nine tries to break her maiden. Tapped, by Tapit, was fourth in the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos in December.
Setting sail for international shores:
Thunder Snow, with Christophe Soumillon aboard, was far too good for eight rivals in Saturday's featured race, the Group 3 UAE 2,000 Guineas. After working his way to the front halfway through the 1,600 meters, the Golphin runner easily meet a challenge from Bee Jersey and ran on without a lot of encouragement to win by 5 3/4 lengths in 1:38.49.
Bee Jersey, who remains a maiden, held on gamely for second, followed by Capezzano, Qatar Man and the recent American import, Han Sense. Thunder Snow, an Irish-bred colt by Helmet, was making his first start of the season for trainer Saeed bin Suroor. He was a bit slow to show his total promise as a 2-year-old while running against the best in Europe, but finally broke through with a victory in the Group 1 Criterium International going 7 furlongs on the turf at Saint-Cloud in his final juvenile start. Saturday's race was Thunder Snow's first start on the dirt and opens almost any door for the Godolphin brain trust.
"He impressed me when I won on him in France," Soumillon said. "That was very testing ground so I thought he would cope with the dirt here and he has. I was able to get a good position so we have avoided any kickback. But, basically, that was easy ... He should stay further if the connections want to go for the UAE Derby. But he will be a very nice horse back in Europe."
In Saturday's co-featured Group 3 Firebreak Stakes, also at 1,600 meters on the dirt, North America romped home a 7-lengths winner from Ennobled Friend. Lindo Amor was third. North American, a 5-year-old Dubawi gelding trained by Satish Seemar, made it 4-for-4 on the season while rising swiftly through the class ranks.
Confidently ridden by Richard Mullen, North America finished in 1:36.52 -- nearly 2 seconds quicker than Thunder Snow completed the same task two races later.
"That was obviously his best performance so far and he is just getting better," Mullen said. "Basically, I was always happy and was able to give him a breather on the home turn. From there, he has really responded in great style and it gives the whole team a nice problem to consider as where to go next."
Winx ran her winning streak to 14 in the Apollo Stakes on Monday at Randwick, overcoming not only would-be archrival Hartnell but also the weather down under as extreme temperatures forced postponement of the race from Saturday and left the track somewhat choppy.
Still, jockey Hugh Bowman was able to call on the champion's reserves when she needed a late turn of foot and all was well on the inaugural leg of her ambitious autumn schedule. The only concern was a bit of traffic on the turn but by the 300-meters mark, Bowman had Winx in the clear and rolling nicely for the line. She ultimately defeated Hartnell by nearly 3 lengths with Endless Drama third.
"We know where she is now and she should continue to improve throughout the autumn," said trainer Chris Waller.
Winx is ranked the world's top horse on turf and behind only American dirt runners Arrogate and California Chrome.
The weather didn't prevent racing at Caulfield on Saturday and it was Black Heart Bart the popular winner in the Group 1 C.F. Orr Stakes at Caulfield, rallying wide through the final 100 meters to defeat Turn Me Loose by 1 length.
Black Heart Bart, a 6-year-old Blackfriers gelding, ran the 1,400 meters in 1:22.55 with Brad Rawiller in the irons for trainer Darren Weir. Ecuador was third. Weir also saddled Palentino, who dead-heated with Jameka for fourth and fifth. In his previous outing in the Group 2 Browns Sawdust and Shavings Australia Stakes, Black Heart Bart finished second behind Malaguerra, with Turn Me Loose seventh. Malaguerra finished sixth in Saturday's outing.
In the Group 2 Schweppes Rubiton Stakes, Super Cash bested I Am A Star by 1 1/4 lengths after tracking that one right into the straight. The favorite, Chautauqua, settled for third with a belated run that just fell short. Super Cash, a 4-year-old mare by Written Tycoon, covered 1,100 meters in 1:02.57 with Katelyn Mallyon in the irons.
Back in the U.S.A:
Almanaar raced well off the pace set by stablemate Beach Patrol in Saturday's $350,000 Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, was roused exiting the stretch turn and got by the front-runners in the final yards to win by 3/4 length. Beach Patrol finished second but was set down to fourth for coming out in deep stretch and knocking long shot War Correspondent off stride. That promoted All Included to second and War Correspondent to third.
Almanaar, a 5-year-old Shadwell Stable homebred gelding by Dubawi, finished 9 furlongs on firm going in 1:45.63 under Joel Rosario.
"Everything is in play for these two horses," Brown said. "The Woodford Reserve on Derby Day at Churchill is a Grade I I have interest in with both these horses. Down the road, there are races like the Manhattan at a mile and a quarter. Beach Patrol is already proven at a mile and a quarter in the Secretariat. There are lots of options. Hopefully, they stay healthy."
Dickinson shot through along the rail in the final sixteenth to snatch the win in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Suwanee River Stakes for fillies and mares at Gulfstream Park. Elysea's World came five wide from the back of the nine-horse field to finish second, 1 1/4 lengths back and a head in front of the favorite, Sandiva.
Dickinson, a Darley-bred, Godolphin-owned 5-year-old mare by Medaglia d'Oro, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:45.38 with Paco Lopez up. It was her first stakes win.
"When I asked her to run, the rail opened and my filly went flying through there," Lopez said. "I got lucky this time. Sometimes you have horse and nowhere to go but this time we got lucky."
Inspector Lynley outfinished Kasaqui in the final sixteenth of Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes, winning by 1/2 length. Irish Strait was third and the favorite, Catapult, finished fourth.
Inspector Lynley, a 4-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:40.65 with John Velazquez up. It was third win from 12 starts for the Stuart Janney and Phipps Stable homebred and the first since Grade III Sarnac at Saratoga last September.
"This was his first time against older horses, so it was a big step up for him," said Robbie Medina, assistant to winning trainer Shug McGaughey. "It's one thing to run in restricted company against 3-year-olds and another to try older, more seasoned horses."
Isabella Sings winged it out of the gate in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes for fillies and mares at Tampa Bay Downs and was never challenged, winning by 3 lengths over Light In Paris. Evidently rallied from the back of the pack to finish third.
Isabella Sings, a 5-year-old Eskenderea mare owned and bred by Siena Farms, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm going with Velazquez steering.
"We've talked about slowing her down early," Velazquez said. "But when we tried that she would fight you and throw her head up, so we decided to let her be the way she is."
Ginny De Pasquale, assistant to winning trainer Todd Pletcher, said Isabella Sings might return for the $200,000 Grade II Hillsborough Stakes on March 11 before heading for the breeding shed. Last year, Tepin had all she could do to catch Isabella Sings after the latter opened an 18-lengths lead.
Bolo ran down pacesetting What a View in the final strides to take Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Arcadia Stakes at Santa Anita by a head over that rival. The favorite, Conquest Enforcer, pressed the pace, led briefly and held on for third, 3/4 length farther back and only a nose in front of Ring Weekend.
Bolo, a 5-year-old by Temple City, ran 1 mile on good turf in 1:34.51 with Mike Smith in the irons. It was a nice comeback from his last two races of 2016 -- 10th in the Grade I Turf Classic at Churchill Downs in May and ninth in the Grade II Eddie Read at Del Mar in July. His last win came in this same event last season.
"It's his first race back and it's his first time wearing a rubber bit," Smith said. "I had a bit of trouble. He's so strong. It's like pulling on the barn. If you give him daylight, he'll just run off with me, which he's done before."
Sharp Azteca was even sharper than required in winning Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Hardacre Mile Gulfstream Park Handicap, emerging from an early pace battle to win off by 4 1/2 lengths. Awesome Slew rallied to finish second and Tommy Macho was third.
Sharp Azteca, a 4-year-old Freud colt, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:34.55 with Edgard Zayas in the irons for trainer Jorge Navarro.
"It worked out perfect for him," Zayas said. "I was a little worried because I didn't really want to go to the lead because he needs a horse to be a target. He's a grinder. He's a one-paced horse and he just doesn't stop."
It was Sharp Azetca's first start of 2017 after a late-year odyssey that took him to Louisiana Downs in August, Laurel Park in November and a close second in the Grade I Malibu at Santa Anita in December. He'll get more frequent flyer miles as Navarro said he plans to take the colt to Dubai for the Grade II Godolphin Mile on World Cup night before returning to tackle the Grade I Met Mile at Belmont in June.
"He's the most beautiful animal I've ever seen in my life," Navarro said.
Vale Dori pressed the pace through the first few furlongs of Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Maria Stakes for fillies and mares, then took over and went on to win by a comfortable 1 3/4 lengths. Show Stealer was along for second with Autumn Flower third.
Vale Dori, a 5-year-old daughter of Asiatic Boy, ran 1 1/16 miles on a wet-fast track in 1:43.19 with Mike Smith up, shaking off a gate incident that caused some early concern. It was her fourth straight win and fifth from her last six starts.
"She's just gotten good," Smith said. "There's not a Songbird or Stellar Wind in there, so that certainly helps. But she's climbing the ladder. At some point she's going to deserve a chance at them."
Vale Dori's sire won the 2007 UAE Derby and finished second in the 2008 Dubai World Cup. Vale Dori herself was second in last year's Group 3 UAE Oaks and fourth in the Group II UAE Derby at Meydan. Bob Baffert trains the mare for Sheik Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum but indicated no interest in a return to Dubai.
"We're definitely looking at the Santa Margarita next," he said. "That's the plan." That $400,000 Grade I is on March 18 -- a week before World Cup night.
Miss Sunset led the way down the hillside turf course in Sunday's $75,000 Sweet Life Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and held off the favorite, Miss Sugars, by 1/2 length at the wire. Go On Mary was another 1 length back in third. Miss Sunset, a daughter of Into Mischief, ran the about 6 1/2-furlongs distance in 1:13.09 with Edwin Maldonado in the irons.
Send It In, a prohibitive favorite, bobbled at the start of Saturday's $100,000 Haynesfield Stakes for New York-breds, recovered to stalk the pace and was just up in the final jump to win by a nose over pacesetter Fox Rules. Repent Twice finished third. Send It In, a 5-year-old Big Brown gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on the fast inner track in 1:43.83 under Manny Franco.
Candid Desire outfinished Celtic Chaos and Drama King in a battle of stretch-runners in Saturday's $100,000 Hollie Hughes Stakes for state-breds. Candid Desire, under Antonio Gallardo, won by a neck over Celtic Chos with Drama King 1 1/2 lengths farther back in third. The winner, a 5-year-old gelding by Yes It's True, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.19.
Stallion Heiress jumped right out to a huge lead in Saturday's $50,000 Joseph E. Spanky Broussard Memorial for 3-year-old fillies, avoiding a traffic jam shortly after the start, and cruised home first by 7 3/4 lengths. Hotshot Anna and Rum Go completed the trifecta. Legallini bumped a rival and was checked in the first furlong, causing a chain reaction that affected everyone but the winner. Legallini was pulled up and walked off. Stallion Heiress, an Exchange Rate filly, got about 1 mile on firm turf in 1:37.28 with Mitchel Murrill riding.
Magna Breeze was just out for a little breeze in Saturday's $50,000 Houston Turf Stakes for state-breds -- or at least that's how it looked as the 7-year-old Magna Graduate gelding led all the way to a 3-lengths victory. Sing It Up rallied wide to beat the others with Mav Master third and the favorite, Can't Be Wrong, sixth. Magna Breeze, with Iram Diego up, got 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:45.27.
Union Jackson dueled to the lead through a fast pace in Saturday's $50,000 Sam Houston Sprint Cup, then left eight rivals well in his wake, winning off by 8 1/4 lengths. Bravura and Meme Jo were second and third. Union Jackson, a 5-year-old son of Curlin, went to the post as the heavy favorite and finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.21, also with Diego riding.
In the final weekend before Spring Training starts to vie for attention in the Phoenix area, Chief Cicatriz set a pressured pace in Saturday's $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup, then kicked away to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Saturdaynitelites. Ankeny Hill was third. Chief Cicatriz, a 4-year-old Munnings gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.47 with Daniel Vergara in the irons. Owned by his breeder, Roy Gene Evans, the colt remains undefeated after five starts. He raced last year in New Mexico, where he won the KLAQ Handicap in December before moving to Arizona. "He's perfect so far," said winning trainer Shawn Davis. "We want to see how good he is so his next race, we'll be at Oaklawn Park for a stakes in March."
Louisiana Premier Night rewarded the state-bred steeds with a clutch of races from sprints to routes. The track was blessedly fast.
Mobile Bay took the lead in the $150,000 Championship, shook off a challenge from The Picket Factor and inched away late to win by 1 length over that foe. Fort Pulaski was well back in third. Mobile Bay, a 5-year-old by Lone Star Special, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.81 with Diego Saenz in the irons.
Big World attended the pace in the $100,000 Distaff, took over in the lane and drew off to win by 4 lengths from Illussion Artist. Pacific Pink was third. Big World, a 4-year-old Custom for Carlos filly, got 1 mile in 1:38.91 with Gerard Melancon up.
Icy Gentleman led all the way to an upset win in the $100,000 Sprint, beating C U Tiger by 3 lengths. Jorge Guzman rode the 4-year-old Yankee Gentleman gelding, completing 5 furlongs in 58.46 seconds. In the $100,000 Matron at the same conditions, Sunny Oak tracked the pace, took the lead turning for home and kicked away to win by 3 1/2 lengths over Sarge's Daughter. Miguel Mena rode the Giant Oak filly in 58.30 seconds.
Underpressure had only one rival beaten halfway through the $100,000 Prince for 3-year-olds but passed all the others in the final half mile to win by 2 lengths over Magic Vow. With Saenz aboard, the Birdstone colt ran 1 mile in 1:40.47. Mr. Al's Gal dueled for the lead in the $100,000 Starlet for 3-year-old fillies, took command late and won by 4 3/4 lengths from Our Millie. Richard Eramia piloted the Salute the Sarge filly over 1 mile in 1:40.89.
Redneck Humor led most of the way in Sunday's $75,000 Budweiser Handicap and kicked away at the end to score by 4 1/2 lengths. Toews On Ice was best of the rest, 1/2 length ahead of Indexical. Redneck Humor, a 6-year-old gelding by Da Stoops out of the Nurevey mare Dame Sylvieguilhem, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in track-record time of 1:07.42 under Miguel Perez.
African Rose tracked the pace in Sunday's $75,000 El Diario Handicap for fillies and mares, came to the lead five-wide entering the stretch and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over K P Wildcat. Bryn's Fancy Pants was another 1/2 length back in third. African Rose, an 8-year-old Bwana Charlie mare, got 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.99 with Perez aboard.
News and notes:
Royal Delta died Friday in Ireland of complications after delivering a Galileo filly. The filly is the only surviving offspring of the multiple champion mare, who was trained by Bill Mott. Royal Delta was retired in 2013 with 12 wins from 22 starts, three Eclipse Awards, two victories in the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic and earnings of more than $4.8 million. The earnings figure likely would have been significantly higher if her two attempts at the Dubai World Cup had not been run on Meydan's old Tapeta surface. Royal Delta was bred to Galileo three times, failing to conceive in 2014, aborting the fetus in 2015 and finally carrying this year's filly to term. Coolmore Ireland reported the filly is going well.
On a much brighter note: Twelve-year-old Hannah Schlenk got her first win as an owner Friday at Turfway Park when her 6-year-old gelding, Rous, got the best of a photo finish in the third race. Hannah inherited Rous from her mother, Jayme Tewell, who passed away Sept. 1. The Granite City, Ill., sixth-grader's father, Damon Schlenk, is a groom for Rous's trainer, Vernon Obermeier. She took out her owner's license in December and Rous won on his fourth try in her name.