Gun Runner runs away with Monday's Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park. (Coady Photography/Oaklawn)
Derby talk was in the air worldwide as America celebrated Presidents' Day with a full long weekend slate of racing and venues from Japan to Hong Kong joined in the festivities.
Among the American Derby contenders, One Liner was extremely impressive in winning the Southwest at Oaklawn Park while O Dionysius might have moved a step closer to the Triple Crown races and Zakaroff surprised even his trainer with a victory at Golden Gate Fields.
Japan's big race of the weekend produced horses that could contest the UAE Derby, the Kentucky Derby and/or the Breeders' Cup Classic. In Hong Kong, Rapper Dragon and Pakistan Star put in their bids for consideration for the upcoming Hong Kong Derby.
Meanwhile, Gun Runner dominated the Razorback Handicap in Arkansas, Curlin's Approval and Terra Promessa showed promise in the Distaff ranks and High Ridge Road and Imperial Hint were winners in Laurel Park's classy sprints.
My Bikini Fell Off won in New Mexico and Clothes Fall Off was graded stakes-placed in Maryland.
Before any worse wardrobe malfunctions occur, let us proceed:
The Road to the Roses
One Liner made it 3-for-3 with a classy victory Monday in the $500,000 Grade III Southwest at Oaklawn Park. After tracking the pace set by the favorite, Uncontested, jockey John Velazquez got One Liner going turning for home and he quickly hit the lead.
Petrov, always close, continued to give chase but One Line finally inched clear despite drifting out in the final sixteenth. Petrov held second and it was a long way back to Lookin At Lee in third. Uncontested faded badly through the stretch.
One Liner is an Into Mischief colt owned by WinStar Farm and the China Horse Club and trained by Todd Pletcher. He ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:41.85. One Liner won at first asking at Saratoga in July, then was put away for six months, returning with a win in a 6-furlongs optional claimer at Gulfstream Park in January.
The Southwest was his first try around two turns and he started from the No. 11 post position. Despite tackling those obstacles, Velazquez said his greatest concern was keeping One Liner focused on his task after he settled into stride.
"Once he got close to the horses in front of him, he got competitive," Velazquez said. "For him to keep running the way he did, it looked like he had a lot more left."
He also earned 10 points toward a potential Kentucky Derby start, moving him into ninth place on that list. Thanks to earlier points earned, Lookin At Lee jumped to No. 7 and Uncontested remained at No. 8.
Pletcher said all options are open for One Liner's next start. "We still have time for two more races if that's the path he continues on," the trainer said.
O Dionysus advanced from a striking position turning for home in Saturday's $75,000 Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel Park, opened up in the lane and won by 3 lengths. Everybodyluvsrudy was second, No More Talk third.
O Dionysus, a Bodemeister colt, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.06 with Jevian Toledo riding. It was his third win and followed a pair of seconds in local stakes races.
"I was real happy," winning trainer Gary Capuano said. "Toledo did a really good job. He was settled nice. He did get a little rank down the backstretch but he looked like he had enough horse and he got a good trip. He didn't get in trouble today and it worked out good."
Capuano said he sees the Federico Tesio on April 22 -- a "Win and You're In" for the Preakness Stakes, as a looming goal: "From there, we'll see how good he is and where he takes us."
Zakaroff came running late to post a big upset win in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields. With Kyle Frey in the irons, the Slew's Tiznow gelding rallied from next-last in a field of seven and won by 1/2 length. Ann Arbor Eddie, the favorite and one of a quartet of Southern California invaders, finished second but was disqualified to fourth for lugging out in the stretch. More Power to Him was moved up to place money and Tribal Storm, the victim of the interference, was placed third.
Zakaroff, dispatched at odds of nearly 49-1, finished 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:51.34. The race offered 10 Kentucky Derby points to the winner by Zakaroff is not nominated to the Triple Crown series. It was his second win and followed a fifth-place finish in the California Derby in January. All six of his starts have been at Golden Gate.
"I actually entered him in a first-level allowance sprint but the race didn't go so I got stuck running here," said winning trainer Steve Specht. "Not a bad stick. I wasn't out of my league but somebody has to be favored and somebody has to not be ... He's turned out to be a little better than I thought he was going to be."
See the international section for Sunday's Kentucky Derby qualifier in Tokyo.
The Road to the Oaks
China Grove was gathered up by jockey Kendrick Carmouche shortly after the start of Saturday's $75,000 Wide Country Stakes at Laurel Park, stalked the pace until a furlong out, then went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Crabcakes was best of the rest, 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Forever Liesl.
China Grove, a City Zip filly, zipped 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.86. It was her second win from nine starts and followed a sixth-place finish in the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs in her 2-year-old finale last November.
"I had a perfect trip," Carmouche said. "I just wanted (Crabcakes) to maintain ... position by getting out of there and getting in front of me where I could follow him and have a target. That was the only horse I considered the last quarter of a mile who could run with me. I knew my filly had run against better horses."
In other action:
Gun Runner was stuck in New Orleans and couldn't make the Pegasus World Cup last month. He took out his frustration on a field clearly beneath his class in Monday's $500,000 Grade III Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park, leading all the way and winning by more than 6 lengths under a confident hand ride by Florent Geroux. He finished in 1:40.97, just a few ticks off the stakes record.
Hawaakom was second in the first big race of the Arkansas handicap series and Domain's Rap finished third. California invader Blue Tone applied some early pressure but Gun Runner was in complete control all the way while Blue Tone faded badly in the stretch.
Gun Runner, a 4-year-old Candy Ride colt, finished his 2016 campaign with a victory in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. A quarantine of the Fair Grounds backstretch prevented him from joining Arrogate, California Chrome and their supporting cast in the $12 million Pegasus, so the Razorback was his first start in three months.
Trainer Steve Asmussen said the decision to go to the lead was easy.
"Last year we learned to just let Gun Runner be Gun Runner and success would come to him," the trainer said.
But he ducked a question about whether the colt might be headed for the $10 million Dubai World Cup next month.
"We're just very happy to get this race in him," Asmussen said. "We always thought he'd get better with time and, obviously, he has. We're so grateful to (owners) Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys. It's very sporting of them to give us another year to enjoy him."
Filly & Mare Sprint
High Ridge Road rallied through the stretch to catch the favorite, By the Moon, in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Barbara Fritchie Stakes at Laurel Park, winning by a neck. Clothes Fall Off was 1 1/2 lengths farther back in third. High Ridge Road, a 5-year-old Quality Road mare, got 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.70 under Horacio Karamanos. The win in her first start of the year backed up her victory in the Thirty Eight Go Go Stakes at Laurel on New Year's Eve.
"Frankly, the seven-eighths is a little short for her and there were pretty nice fillies that were in front of her. They were going pretty fast and my filly ideally wants to run a little further with a little softer fractions," said winning trainer Linda Rice. "She was struggling to keep up with that pace but it worked out for us in the end ... It's a thrill to win the race. It's a prestigious race and it's been around a long time."
Imperial Hint led all the way to win Saturday's $250,000 Grade III General George Stakes at Laurel Park by 2 1/2 lengths from the even-money favorite, Stallwalkin' Dude. Never Gone South was third with a mild late run. Imperial Hint, a 4-year-old colt by Imperialism, finished 7 furlongs in 1:21.20 with Julian Pimentel in the irons. The Florida-bred now has three straight wins.
Luis Carvajal, who scored the first graded stakes win of his training career, said, "After he won his first race I thought he was going to be a nice horse. We just had a couple little hiccups down the road but now he's doing really well. I have no plans right now. I'm just hoping to go back to the barn and see if he's healthy and we'll go from there."
Terra Promessa had 'em all the way in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Bayakoa Stakes at Oaklawn Park, leading comfortably to a 4 3/4-lengths victory. Power of Snunner kicked late to take second, 2 3/4 lengths to the good of Streamline.
Terra Promessa, a 4-year-old Curlin filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.18 with Ricardo Santana Jr. in the irons. She has won all five of her starts at the Hot Springs track, including last season's Grade III Honeybee and Grade III Fantasy before a 10th in the Kentucky Oaks.
"In both of her races this year, she's broke very cleanly and that's where she's been," trainer Steve Asmussen said. "Me and Ricardo talked in the paddock about her confidence level and just to ride the race like a work, wherever that put her. We were concerned with some of the speed in the race, but didn't want it to affect her. I thought Ricardo did a great job just riding her and not worrying about what they did."
Curlin's Approval pressed the pace in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Royal Delta Stakes at Gulfstream Park, took command when given her cue by jockey Luis Saez and drew off to win by 6 lengths. Mo' Green was second, 5 1/4 lengths ahead of Eskenformoney.
Curlin's Approval, a 4-year-old Curlin filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.90. It was her second win in as many starts this year, following the Grade III Hurricane Bertie in January.
Saez said trainer Marty Wolfson "didn't tell me anything but to break and get a good spot and that's what I did. She broke well and was in a perfect spot, right there. At the half mile, she took off. She wanted to go." Wolfson said he's not sure what's next for the filly. "There are so many places ... We'll look around," he said.
Filly & Mare Turf
This is really the "filly & mare off the turf" as Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Buena Vista was moved from the waterlogged Santa Anita grass onto the fast main track with six of the 11 prospective starters taking a pass. Of those left, Wild At Heart, under Flavien Prat, rallied three-wide after a pace-stalking trip to win by 3 1/2 lengths over Lily Pod. Hillhouse High was another 6 1/4 lengths back in third.
Wild At Heart, a 5-year-old Indian Charlie mare, ran 1 mile in 1:36.48. Kudos to the Santa Anita crew for getting the track ready after the area's torrential Saturday rains.
On the international front:
Sunday's card at Tokyo Racecourse produced qualifiers for both the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Kentucky Derby -- although it's not a sure bet that any of those options will actually come to fruition.
Epicharis, a son of Gold Allure and grandson of Sunday Silence, found room along the rail in the final furlongs of the Hyacinth Stakes and got through to win by 3/4 length over Adirato. Hypernova was third and Foggy Night finished fourth after hesitating at the start.
The race was the second of two Japanese qualifiers for the Kentucky Derby and provided Epicharis with 50 qualifying points, putting him 10 points ahead of Mont Saint Legame, who won the initial race, the Cattleya Sho, in November. Under the rules established by Churchill Downs for the "Japan Road to the Derby," Epicharis's owners get first option on a guaranteed spot in the maximum 20-horse field for the Run for the Roses. Should they decline, the opportunity would pass to Mont Saint Legame's connections, then to Adirato's.
Epicharis is undefeated in four starts. Mont Saint Legame finished 10th in the Hyacinth.
A spokesman for Epicharis's owners, the Carrot Club, said "We are considering a possible run in Dubai at the moment, and will take things one race at a time."
The Group 2 UAE Derby on World Cup night, March 25, served as a gateway to the Kentucky Derby last year for Japan-based Lani.
Should Epicharis go to Louisville, jockey Christophe Lemaire said, he "would do well because he has got some speed at the start. Today if I had wanted to I could have been in front and he traveled very easily," Lemaire said. "It is quite important to get a good position early without rushing the horse in the Derby and this colt could do that well I think. Concerning his abilities, he is still undefeated and showed his class in this prep race defeating horses who had already had a start this year. I was very happy with him. Hopefully we'd be able to do as well on American dirt."
(Thanks to Kate Hunter for reporting help.)
Another Gold Allure colt took the day's feature race, the Group 1 February Stakes, also at 1,600 meters on the dirt course. Gold Dream, under Mirco Demuro, hit the front at mid-stretch and bravely survived a stern challenge from Best Warrior before prevailing by a neck. Kafuji Take, the lukewarm favorite in a wide-open race, put in a late run to finish third.
Gold Dream earned an automatic, fees-paid entry in the Breeders' Cup Classic this fall at Del Mar, plus a $40,000 travel allowance through the Breeders' Cup Challenge program.
Gold Dream finished a disappointing 10th in the Group 1 Challenge Cup in December.
"In the Champions Cup, he broke poorly and was keen," Demuro said. "He didn't stretch at all. But today he was relaxed even after entering the track. His start was good, he was positioned well and responded beautifully in the straight. He still had a lot left at the end."
Sadly, the double victory came just a day after Gold Allure passed away at the Shadai Stallion Station, reportedly of heart disease. Gold Allure, an important influence especially in Japanese dirt racing, not only was by Sunday Silence but also descended on his dam's side from Northern Dancer, through Deputy Minister and French Deputy.
Rapper Dragon continued his ascent to stardom with a handy victory in Sunday's Hong Kong Classic Cup at Sha Tin, positioning himself for a first-ever sweep of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series.
All that stands before the John Moore trainee now is the Hong Kong Derby and, after Sunday's performance, jockey Joao Moreira opined, "I think I've got the best horse" for that series capper.
"We're going into the Derby full of confidence," Moore added, "and now we just hope the owner can pull a good draw in the Derby and I think he'd be repeating. He's definitely the horse to beat. He's going to be joining the elite brigade in Hong Kong."
Rapper Dragon settled in mid-pack behind a fast early pace in the Classic Cup, emerged well out in the track turning for home and only hit the front with less than 200 meters to run. He quickly opened a clear advantage and held off a dramatic late charge by Pakistan Star to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Seasons Bloom was third and Eagle Way finished fourth.
Terravista edged Spieth with a late burst of effort in an unusually wide-open rendition of the Group 1 Black Caviar Lightning Stakes on Saturday at Flemington -- the first leg of this year's Global Sprint Challenge. Star Turn was third and the favorite, Flying Artie, could do no better than seventh, beaten 2 1/4 lengths. With Corey Brown up for trainer Joseph Pride, Terravista finished 1,000 meters in 57.26 seconds.
The race was marred by an incident at the gate as The Quarterback reared and flipped, affecting the horses on either side. That one was scratched as a result, along with Faatinah and Orujo, although all of them appeared to escape serious injury.
Terravista, a 7-year-old gelding by Captain Rio, finished second in last year's edition of the Lightning, behind only Chautauqua. His form since then had been erratic.
The Global Sprint Challenge offers a US$1 million bonus for a horse winning three of its 10 races in different jurisdictions. The next race in the series is the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night at Meydan in Dubai. The Al Quoz Sprint distance has been increased from 1,000 meters to 1,200. The change makes the series entirely turf-based. Inaugurated in 2005, the bonus has yet to be won.
The finals of the All-Weather Championships are creeping ever closer and the list of remaining fast-track qualifiers is growing shorter. Qurbaan was the decisive winner of one of the foreign qualifiers on Saturday at Cagnes-sur-Mer in France.
The 4-year-old beat his Francois Rohaut stable companion, the filly Cersei, by 1 1/2 lengths, eased down at the end, and gained a place in the Sun Bets Mile on Polytrack at Lingfield Park on All-Weather Championships Finals Day on Good Friday. Qurbaan, ridden by Francois Xavier-Bertras, has won all five of his starts on Polytrack.
Rohaut said he will have Qurbaan ready for Lingfield if his owner, Sheik Hamdan, chooses to go there.
"We know that Qurbaan is a very good horse, especially on Polytrack," the trainer said. "But he could probably win a Group race on good to firm ground (on the turf)."
Around the ovals:
Pacesetting Bawlmer Hon must have known Winter was coming in Saturday's $75,000 Maryland Racing Media Stakes for fillies and mares as the latter ran by to the lead turning for home and then kicked away to win by 4 1/4 lengths. Bawlmer Hon held second, 3/4 length ahead of Love Came to Town. Winter, a 4-year-old Awesome Again filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.95 with Trevor McCarthy in the irons.
Bodhisattva rallied from last of nine to take Saturday's $75,000 John B. Campbell Stakes by 3 3/4 lengths over odds-on favorite Page McKenney. Charitable Annuity finished third. Bodhisattva, a 5-year-old son of Student Council, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.78 with Carlos Quinones up.
Tampa Bay Downs
Tiger Blood stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Pelican Stakes, dueled for the lead into the stretch and finally prevailed by 1 length over early leader Springmeier. Sonoma Crush was third. Tiger Blood, a 4-year-old Cowtown Cat colt, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.42 with Pablo Morales up.
Spanish Concert led from the start in Saturday's $50,000 Minaret Stakes for fillies and mares and extended the margin through the stretch, winning by 3 1/4 lengths. My Mertie was second, 1 1/4 lengths better than Southern Ring. Spanish Concert, a 7-year-old Concerto mare, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.63 with Ronald Allen Jr. aboard.
Conquest Farenheit stalked the pace in Monday's $100,000 Baffle Stakes for 3-year-olds down the hillside turf course, got the lead late and won by 1 1/2 lengths, ridden out by jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. Rockin Rudy and Elwood filled the trifecta slots. Conquest Farenheit, a Scat Daddy colt, ran about 6 1/2 furlongs on good turf in 1:12.83.
Cuddle Alert put a head in front of Late 'n Left at the end of Sunday's $100,000 Spring Fever Handicap for California-bred fillies and mares. The odds-on favorite, Sunday Rules, settled for third. Cuddle Alert, a 6-year-old Bedford Falls mare, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.86 with Agapito Delgadillo riding.
Caledonian and Even Thunder thundered past the early leader Monday in the $100,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes for 3-year-olds and dueled to the wire with Caledonian winning by a head bob. Sal the Turtle took the lead briefly but settled for show money. Caledonian, a Concord Point colt, ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:12.19 under Eric Cancel.
Wilburnmoney, at 20-1 odds, rallied three-wide to take the lead in Sunday's $100,000 Franklin Square Stakes for New York-bred 3-year-old fillies and drew off to win by 2 lengths. Bluegrass Flag was second, followed by Luna Rising. Wilburnmoney, a Wilburn filly out of the Yes It's True mare Lady in the Money, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.88 with Angel Arroyo up.
Hot City Girl pressed the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Broadway Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares, got by the leader and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Jet Majesty. She's All Ready was third, another 1 length back. Hot City Girl, a 5-year-old City Zip mare, ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:11.57 with Manny Franco up.
Golden Gate Fields
Quick and Silver was quickest out of the gate in Monday's $65,000 Lost in the Fog Stakes, opened a daylight lead and got home first by 3/4 length over a late-running Star Student. Chips All In won a three-way photo for third. Quick and Silver, a 6-year-old Dunkirk gelding, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.18 with William Antongeorgi III in the irons.
Rumpole was quickly on the lead in Saturday's $65,000 Jim's Orbit Stakes for 3-year-old colts and geldings nominated to the Texas Stallion Stakes, then dominated the stretch run, winning by 6 1/2 lengths. Contrarytoordinary was second and Imma Wild Bling was third. Rumpole, a Too Much Bling gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.75 for jockey David Cabrera.
Archer City took the companion $65,000 Two Altazano Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 3 lengths over Kat's Infatuation with Too Much to Bear checking in third. Archer City, a daughter of Silver City, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.47 with Deshawn Parker up.
My Bikini Fell Off rallied seven-wide into the stretch in Sunday's $85,000 Peppers Pride Handicap for New Mexico-bred distaffers and was just up in time to beat Sunday Rose by 1/2 length. Desert Stepper was third and the favorite, Zasha, was a fading sixth. My Bikini Fell Off, a 6-year-old Elusive Jazz mare, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.28 with Ry Eikleberry in the irons.
Howdy Kingkowboy said adios to seven rivals midway through Saturday's $50,000 Turf Paradise Derby, rallying by the early pace and on to a 5 1/4-lengths victory. He's Munnie was best of the rest with Factored in third. Howdy Kingkowboy, a Kodiak Kowboy gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a sealed, wet-fast track in 1:43.95 with Scott Stevens up.
Gulfstream seemed to want a stakes race for each of the presidents on Presidents' Day but could only squeeze in nine, all starter events, restricted to horses that had started for a claiming price.