Kentucky Derby and Oaks preps stretch from coast to coast this weekend with major action in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans and a surprisingly strong field in the Mine That Bird Derby in New Mexico.
On the international front: Winx goes for her 15th straight win in Australia, Hong Kong stars shine Sunday at Sha Tin and Qatar hosts the Emir's Sword Festival. England's weekend features the Winter Derby.
On Thursday at Meydan in Dubai, it was another big evening for the Godolphin home team and a bit of an upset in a potential prep for the $10 million Dubai World Cup.
The Road to the Roses
Stakes winners from New York, California and Oklahoma are in the Big Easy to take on local Group III Le Comte Stakes winner Guest Suite in the $400,000 Grade II Risen Star.
The morning-line favorite in a relatively wide-open race is Mo Town, an Uncle Mo colt who has won two of his three starts including the Grade II Remson at Aqueduct in his last start. He makes his 3-year-old debut for trainer Tony Dutrow.
Guest Suite has won three of his last four starts and those who like him also will be inclined to Untrapped and Takeoff, who finished second and third in the LeComte. So Conflated, an Eskendereya colt, captured the California Derby over the Golden Gate Fields all-weather track in his last outing.
Cool Arrow won the $300,000 Springboard Mile at Remington Park in Oklahoma last time he saw action. Those who like Cool Arrow also may consider U S Officer, who finished a close third in the Springboard Mile after two successive wins. Local Hero ran a huge race to break his maiden in his last start over the track.
This isn't the major league roster of Derby contenders -- yet. But a good showing here could boost a few of them into that zone.
Sunday's $100,000 Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico attracted a strong field of 10, bolstered by visitors from New York, Louisiana and Southern California.
The morning-line favorite is Totality, a Tapit colt trained by Steve Asmusssen who finished second in the aforementioned Springboard Mile but then was 10th over a muddy surface in the LeComte. Trainer Doug O'Neill brings Irap from Santa Anita. He finished second in both the Grade I Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity and the Grade III Robert B. Lewis. Trainer Todd Pletcher's plate overflows all the way to the Land of Enchantment in the form of No Sweat, a cleverly named Blame filly who finished third in the Busanda Stakes at Aqueduct in January.
Among the locals, Conquest Mo Money, an Uncle Mo colt, is undefeated in two starts including last month's Riley Allison Stakes.
The Road to the Oaks
Valadorna, second in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, gets her first major test as a 3-year-old in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds. The Curlin filly, trained by Mark Casse, rolled from off the pace to win a month ago over the same track but was all out doing so.
Valadorna's opposition Saturday includes four of the top five finishers from last month's Silverbulletday, which was run over a muddy track. Those are Farrell, winner of the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs last season, Wicked Lick, Gris Gris and Untapped. A fast track would make Untapped one to watch closely. Trainer Doug O'Neill brings Shane's Girlfriend from Santa Anita, where she ran into division leader Unique Bella in her last start -- to her regret.
Yorkiepoo Princess is a lukewarm morning-line favorite among 10 entered for Saturday's Busher Stakes at 1 1/16 miles over the Aqueduct inner track. The Kantharos filly has won three of her last four starts, including two stakes over the Big A's wintertime oval. Full House, a daughter of Discreetly Mine, makes her first start since breaking her maiden with a 13 3/4-lengths victory on Feb. 4 in her first try around two turns.
Sunday's $75,000 Island Fashion Stakes at Sunland Park has an overflow field of 11. Like the Mine That Bird Derby, it includes some potentially talented out-of-towners. Mopotism was third in the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos and second in the Grade II Las Virgenes, beaten only by Unique Bella. Golden Mischief has won two minor stakes in Louisiana.
In other U.S. weekend action:
Saturday's $125,000, Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap has a nice field of familiar foes including Oscar Nominated, Greengrassofyoming, Granny's Kitten, One Mean Man and Western Reserve. None has dominated and the 9-furlongs turf event is there for the taking.
On the Fair Grounds dirt oval, the 2015 Louisiana Derby winner, International Star, is part of a very contentious field for the $125,000 Grade II Mineshaft handicap at 1 1/16 miles. Also in this are last year's LeComte winner, Mo Tom; Dazzling Gem, third in last year's Louisiana Derby; and Eagle, second to International Star in last year's Louisiana.
Thursday evening was another good Carnival outing for the home team as Godolphin took down three of the Thoroughbred events, including two of the Group 3 features.
Etijaah, enjoying a significant weight advantage, upset Mubtaahij in the Curlin Handicap at the World Cup distance of 2,000 meters. And Nomorerichblondes took down the Group 3 UAE Oaks.
Trainer Saeed bin Suroor saddled two of the Godolphin winners, Beautiful Romance in the Group 3 Nad Al Sheeba Trophy at about 1 1/2 miles on the turf and Top Score in the Meydan Classic -- a turf sprint. Charlie Appleby sent out the third winner, Viren's Army, who captured the Al Naboodah Harley-Davidson Trophy at 2,000 meters on the grass.
Even more intimidating, Godolphin horses finished 1-2-3 in each of the first two Thoroughbred races on the program. A closer look at the big ones:
Etijaah, with Sam Hitchcott up for ever-dangerous trainer Doug Watson, slipped through along the rail turning for home in the Curlin while last year's World Cup runner-up, Mubtaahij, took the overland route around the early leader. It probably made no difference as Etijaah clearly had more stuffing in the final 200 meters, winning by 2 1/2 lengths. Alabaster was third. The 2,000 meters went in 2:03.96.
Etijaah, a 7-year-old gelding by Dahaar, finished second behind Alabaster in their last outing on Feb. 9.
"This is such a great horse and a proper dirt performer," Hitchcott said. "He is just so genuine and is happy to face the kickback which makes my job so much easier as I was able to follow Mubtaahij, knowing he would give me a tow into the race. I was then able to pull inside and pass him when I wanted after which, with our low weight, I was never worried."
Mubtaahij, trained in Dubai by Mike de Kock, was making his first start since finishing fourth in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park last October. He has not won a race since in the 2015 UAE Derby.
Nomorerichblondes, an American-bred filly by Hard Spun, pressed the pace in the Oaks, moved to the lead as the field turned for home and then grittily pulled away to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Midnight Chica was along late to snatch second from Complimenti, whose early-stretch challenge wilted in the final 100 meters.
Nomorerichblondes, with Antonio Fresu in the irons, finished 2,000 meters in 2:01.85 -- more than 2 seconds faster than Etijaah in the Curlin. The hard-working filly scored her second win of the Meydan season in her fifth start since Dec. 1. She was second in the UAE 1,000 Guineas.
"We were unlucky last time in the Guineas but I knew this extra 300 meters would suit her," said Fresu. "She is still a bit green and learning about the game because she had a good look around when we hit the front ... She should improve from this and maybe even deserves a crack at the UAE Derby over the same course and distance."
Beautiful Romance sat well behind a glacially slow early pace in the Nad Al Sheba Trophy, swung wide into the stretch to take the lead and held off Vazirabad to win by 1 1/2 lengths despite drifting out in the final 100 meters. Sheikhzayedroad ran evenly to finish third as the Longines timer almost ran out of ticks before stopping at 2:58.45.
Beautiful Romance, a 5-year-old daughter of New Approach, has been a globetrotter in the past few months, traveling to Australia where she finished seventh in the Group 1 Melbourne Cup on Nov. 1. She then landed a Group 2 event at Sandown before departing from Down Under.
"I was keen to be positive on her and went for home a long way out because I knew she would just keep galloping and find plenty if I asked her again," said winning rider Oisin Murphy. "That was a good performance because it was a strong field so Saeed and the team have done a great job to have her ready for this tonight."
It wouldn't seem there's much in the way of Australia's latest super mare, Winx, as she shoots for her 15th straight win in Saturday's Group 1 Chipping Norton Stakes at Royal Randwick. There are nine rivals, including Hartnell, who was second to Winx in the Group 2 Apollo Stakes earlier this month. Australian bookmakers, however, are offering only prohibitive odds on Winx in the 1,600-meters event. A victory would edge her winning streak past that of the legendary Phar Lap, who recorded 14 straight triumphs.
The weekend tab down under also features the Blue Diamond Stakes for 2-year-olds at Caulfield. After a couple of late scratches, fifteen would-be future stars are entered for the 1,200 meters. Being undefeated is not a distinguishing characteristic in this bunch but among the more intriguing are a Fastnet Rock filly, Catchy, who has won all three starts; Property, a Starcraft gelding who has won two since a runner-up showing behind Catchy in his initial outing; and Muraahib, a Shadwell homebred by Reset. Watch and learn.
The Caulfield co-features are the Group 1 Oakleigh Plate at 1,100 meters and the Group 1 Futurity at 1,400 meters. The Futurity attracted a stellar group including Black Heart Bart, Turn Me Loose, Lucky Hussler and the Japanese-bred Tosen Stardom.
Two Group 1 races on the Sunday program at Sha Tin showcase some of the biggest stars on the local scene, including the reigning and 2014 Horse of the Year titleholders.
Werther, the incumbent Horse of the Year, heads a three-horse entry for trainer John Moore in the Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup and Moore is high on the 5-year-old, who makes his second start back from an injury. On the plus side, he has two major victories over the course at the 2,000-meters distance.
"There's no doubt he has a bit of improvement to come but, looking at the field, I think he has enough about him," the trainer said of Werther. Moore also saddles Designs on Rome, who needs a serious reversal of form to return to his 2014 glory.
Among the others, Secret Weapon returns to what may be his best distance as evinced by his excellent second to Maurice in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup last December, and Blazing Speed will seek a return to form that could replicate his win in the 2015 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup.
The Group 1 Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup is run at 1,400 meters and attracted the first three finishers -- all trained by Moore -- from the Group 1 Stewards Cup last month. Helene Paragon, Joyful Trinity and Able Friend all will be well supported in a field of eight that also contains last year's winner, Contentment.
Emir's Sword Festival, one of Qatar's two big annual events, runs Friday through Sunday.
Saturday's $1 million Emir's Trophy at 1 1/2 miles drew a field of 16 including Noor al Hawa, trained by Andreas Wohler in Germany and an impressive winner in last December's Qatar Derby. Wohler said in the week's buildup to the race that Noor al Hawa is training well. "The biggest concern we have at the moment is the step up in trip (to a mile and a half)," he said. "But he won well (in the Qatar Derby) over a mile and a quarter so we are hopeful as he's in fantastic shape." The field also includes Royal Albert Hall, who comes off a close third-place finish in January at Santa Anita as well as runners placed in pattern races in England and France and local favorite The Blue Eye.
Ten are declared for Saturday's Group 3 Betway Winter Derby over the Lingfield Park Polytrack, a Fast-Track Qualifier for the Betway Easter Classic over the same course and 10-furlongs distance on All-Weather Championships Finals Day on April 14 -- Good Friday.
The sponsoring bookmaker has Mutakayyef as the 5-4 favorite as the 6-year-old exits a successful 2016 career over the turf. That included third-place showings in both the Group 1 Juddmonte International at York and the Grade I Woodbine Mile in Canada. The field also includes Grendisar, a Marco Botti trainee who won this last year and went on to take the Easter Classic, and Battalion. Battalion and Grendisar finished third and fourth in the Winter Derby Trial.
"Grendisar hasn't quite had things go his way so far this winter," Botti said. "He has been running decent races and the Winter Derby Trial was a very competitive race last time. Luckily, the winner and second have taken a different road and are going to Dubai and Qatar. But William Haggas's horse, Mutakayyef, sets a very high standard on Saturday ... We are happy with Grendisar and, to be honest, I think he is in better shape now than he was going into the Winter Derby Trial."
Saturday's seven-race card at Lingfield Park also features the Betway Hever Sprint Stakes at 5 furlongs, a Fast-Track Qualifier for the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championships over 6 furlongs Finals Day. The Charlie Appleby-trained Pretend and Lancelot Du Lac, handled by Dean Ivory, are the virtual co-favorites.
On Wednesday at Kempton Park, Winterlude qualified for the Betway Marathon on Finals Day but winning a 2-mile conditions stakes. The 7-year-old son of Street Cry also has been a winner over hurdles during his career, which started with Godolphin.