It's Super Saturday in Dubai and a pretty darn good weekend of Thoroughbred racing all around the globe.
On the Kentucky Derby trail, Irish War Cry is the favorite in Saturday's Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, El Areeb in the Gotham at Aqueduct and En Hanse in the Battaglia at Turfway Park.
Unique Bella, leader in the Oaks division, seeks her fourth straight win Saturday at Santa Anita.
Gulfstream Park also has a talent-laden lineup of stakes on the Saturday card, with an emphasis on the turf.
In other international action, Australia may have Guineas at both Randwick and Flemington, depending on weather. Also at Randwick, one-time world sprint leader Chautauqua will try to get back in gear.
And Saturday is the annual day in the sun for Barbados with the Sandy Lane Barbados Gold Cup on tap at Garrison Savannah in Bridgeport.
Speaking of international, there's a new link between Germany and New York -- see "News and Notes," bitte.
It's Lent now but we're not giving up any coverage so let's get going.
Super Saturday is the dress rehearsal for the March 25 Dubai World Cup meeting at Meydan, with each of the seven races presaging an event on the big night.
The big-deal preview is the Group 1 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 sponsored by Emirates Airline, at the same 2,000 meters as the $10 million World Cup itself. The field of eight includes some proven Meydan performers, including Chilean-bred mare Furia Cruzada, who won Round 2 of the Al Maktoum Challenge in her last start, and Second Summer, an American-bred who was just a nose back in that race.
Jockey Antonio Fresu said after Round 2 that Furia Cruzada was not yet at 100 percent fitness.
"I ride her every day, so I know," he said. "She needed the race so she could have run better. I think she will improve."
Japan-based Lani, winner of last year's Group 2 UAE Derby and a contender in each of the U.S. Triple Crown races, makes his 4-year-old debut after struggling in Japan. Move Up, a 4-year-old British-bred colt by Dubawi, represents the Godolphin operation headed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai and driving force behind the Dubai World Cup. Triple Nine, a Korean-bred 5-year-old, adds some further international spice to the field.
They all await the arrival later this month from Southern California of the world's top-rated horse, Arrogate, who is the likely favorite for the Dubai World Cup.
The Al Bastakiya, sponsored by Emirates Skywards, is a prep for the $2 million UAE Derby on World Cup night. Twelve are set for the Mahab Al Shimaal Sponsored by Emirates Skywards which presages the $2 million Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1).
Postponed, winner of three Group 1 events last season, including the $6 million Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic presented by Longines, makes his 6-year-old debut in the Group 2 Dubai City of Gold sponsored by Emirates Sky Cargo. Postponed also won this race last year en route to victory in the Sheema Classic.
The Group 3 Burj Nahaar sponsored by Emirates Holidays is a 1,600-meters prep for the $1 million Group 2 Godolphin Mile on the big night. The Nad al Sheeba Turf Sprint sponsored by Arabian Adventures covers 1,200 meters on the grass and previews the $1 million Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint.
The Group 1 Jebel Hatta sponsored by Emirates Airline leads to the $6 million Group 1 Dubai Turf on March 25.
The Road to the Roses
Irish War Cry shoots for his fourth straight victory in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Xpressbet Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. The Curlin colt, trained by Graham Motion, won the Grade II Holy Bull by 3 3/4 lengths in his last start and is among the top-level candidates for the Kentucky Derby.
But there's plenty of opposition looking to knock Irish War Cry from the ranks of the undefeated.
Practical Joke won the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga last summer and the Grade I Champagne at Belmont in the fall and makes his first start since a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Three Rules swept the Florida Sire Series at Gulfstream and finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup but was second in the Grade II Swale in his seasonal bow.
Gunnevera was second in the Holy Bull but won the Delta Downs Jackpot last fall in Louisiana and could improve in his second start of the year in the Fountain. Trainer Todd Pletcher gives Made You Look a shot on the main track after six straight outings on the green course, including a victory in the Grade III Dania Beach in January. Looking for a long shot? Mark Casse seems to have the lightly raced Lookin for Eight, a Lookin at Lucky colt, fully cranked after his maiden win in January.
El Areeb headlines a field of nine for Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct. The gray Exchange Rate colt will be looking to extend a four-race win streak that includes the Jerome and the Withers -- both also at the Big A and both won by big margins.
Trainer Cathal Lynch said the original plan was for El Areeb to skip the Gotham and wait for next month's Wood Memorial, a last-round prep for the Kentucky Derby. But Lynch said El Areeb has been training too well for that.
"We won't stand in his way. I didn't know if I really felt like sitting on him for another four weeks if he's going right," the trainer said."
He's the 6-5 morning-line favorite and, on paper, the others in Saturday's field will be running for second-place money. But, as Homer Simpson famously said, "In theory, Communism works."
The others aren't all no-hopers. So Conflated won the California Derby on the Golden Gate Field all-weather course. True Timber and J Boy's Echo were second and third in the Withers, although soundly beaten. So, we'll see.
En Hanse, a gray Hansen colt, is the early pick in a full field for Saturday's $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park. En Hanse returns to the scene of his sire's victory in the 2011 Kentucky Cup Juvenile, which he used as a springboard to victory in that year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
En Hanse comes to this race off a front-running score in the WEBN Stakes over the same all-weather track. He broke his maiden, however, at Churchill Downs on the dirt. The main threat likely is Star Empire, a Wesley Ward trainee who was second in the WEBN and second last fall in the Grade III Futurity at Belmont Park. Star Empire is by the Australian-bred sire Foxwedge out of an Empire Maker mare.
Saturday's $250,000 Al Bastakiya at Meydan -- see above.
Meanwhile, McCracken, undefeated winner of the Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs last month, will miss his scheduled start in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby March 11 because of a strained ankle, trainer Ian Wilkes said Tuesday. He said that means the Ghostzapper colt will have only one more race before the Kentucky Derby, likely the Grade I Blue Grass at Keeneland April 8. McCracken was the top individual choice in the third Kentucky Derby futures pool, closing at 6-1 and behind only "All Others."
The Path to the Oaks
Unique Bella, likely the best 3-year-old of either gender this year, faces six foes in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Santa Ysabel at Santa Anita and will be a prohibitive favorite to win her fourth in a row. The Tapit filly started her string in November at Del Mar, then won the Grade II Santa Ynez by 7 1/2 lengths and the Grade II Las Virgenes by 8 3/4 lengths. Jockey Mike Smith didn't need to provide much encouragement in either of the stakes wins so it's hard to judge exactly how good Unique Bella is.
A test could come from Noted and Quoted, a Bob Baffert-trained filly by The Factor who won the Grade I Chandelier Stakes at Santa Anita in October. She hasn't raced since finishing a fading seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. There are a couple of recent maiden winners in the field and one former claimer.
Miss Sky Warrior and Pretty City Dancer are the morning-line favorites among 14 entered for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park. The 3-year-old fillies tackle a one-turn mile. Miss Sky Warrior won three straight last fall, including the Grade III Tempted and Grade II Demoiselle, both at Aqueduct, and makes her 2017 debut. Pretty City Dancer also won three in a row including the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga. She finished a close second in the Grade II Forward Gal on Feb. 17. There are several other talented, lightly raced fillies in this.
Golden Mischief is the oddsmaker's choice in Friday's $75,000 Take Charge Brandi at Delta Downs. Golden Mischief won four of her last five starts in 2016 including the Letellier Memorial at Fair Grounds and makes her 2017 debut.
On the grass
Gulfstream has five graded stakes on the green course on Saturday.
The $150,000 Grade III Canadian Turf at 1 mile has a cast of nine, including two runners who have not faced the starter since the fall of 2015. Projected, a Juddmonte Farms homebred son of Showcasing, ran well in allowances and minor stakes in France with his last start on Sept. 5, 2015. He returns as a gelding, with first-time Lasix and under the control of trainer Chad Brown. Interpol, a 6-year-old son of English Channel, won the Grade II Sky Classic and the Grade I Northern Dancer at Woodbine but has not raced since a 10th-place showing in the Grade I Canadian International Oct. 18, 2015. Despite the long vacations, they are 3-1 and 4-1 on the morning line. Heart to Heart is the 2-1 favorite off a fourth-place showing in the Fort Lauderdale Stakes in January. Several others also have more recent, if lesser, form.
Coasted, the long shot runner-up in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, finally returns to action in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Herecomesthebride at 1 1/16 miles for 3-year-old fillies. The Tizway filly is 2-for-3 at the distance and faces six rivals in her 3-year-old debut. She is the 8-5 morning line favorite and Dream Dancing, Happy Mesa and Conquest Hardcandy look like the most likely competition.
Taghleeb stands out in the $200,000 Grade II Mac Diarmida at 11 furlongs on the Gulfstream grass with the remainder of the 12-horse field offering a multitude of prospects. Taghleeb, a 6-year-old son of Hard Spun, has won both his starts at the meeting, including the Grade III W. L. McKnight in his last start. Overall, he is 6-for-7 in the money at Gulfstream. Look for his odds to drop from the 5-1 morning-line projection. The others include Danish Dynaformer, Flatlined, Reporting Star, Wake Forest, Bigger Picture, Twilight Eclipse and Patterson Cross.
Cowboy Culture headlines the $100,000 Grade III Palm Beach at 1 1/16 miles for 3-year-olds. The Quality Road colt won all three of his starts at Fair Grounds. Kitten's Cat comes off a win in the Kitten's Joy over the course. Trainer Shug McGaughey appears to have the Phipps Stable homebred Snap Decision in peak form off his maiden win. Pagliacci won at first asking for Bill Mott and just missed in his return in the slop. And Ticonderoga makes his first start since finishing fourth in the Breeder's Cup Juvenile at long odds.
The $150,000, Grade III The Very One at 1 3/16 miles for fillies and mares is a challenge for handicappers. The field of nine includes Suffused, recent winner of the La Prevoyante Handicap over the course; last year's winner, German-bred Orlada, who has not raced since winning the Grade III Bewitch at Keeneland last April; Earring, who is only a nose and a neck from being 3-for-3 since arriving from Ireland; and Desiree Clary, another German who ran well in New York late last year.
Catch a Glimpse recorded an eight-race win streak between August of 2015 and July of 2016, then suddenly fell apart with three straight losses. She makes her first start since an eighth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf in Saturday's $100,000 Sand Springs for fillies and mares at 1 mile. Also in the field of eight is Celestine, making her first start since finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.
At Santa Anita, Saturday's co-feature with the Santa Ysabel is the $75,000 Joe Hernandez down the hillside turf course.
In other action
Rapid Rhythm rallied from last of eight to land the Mardi Gras Stakes for fillies and mares at Fair Grounds in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday. The 5-year-old Successful Appeal mare took the overland route, racing as much as seven-wide, before collaring Wheatfield in the final yards to win by a neck. Simple Surprise was third. Rapid Rhythm, with James Graham in the irons, covered about 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:03.73.
Genre is the 8-4 morning-line favorite for Saturday's $150,000 Heavenly Prize Invitational for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the Aqueduct inner track. The 5-year-old Bernardini mare hasn't missed the board in any of her last 10 starts, many of them graded stakes. If not her, then Isabele, a Successful Appeal mare on the way up for trainer Bill Mott.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Fred W. Hooper Handicap at 1 mile at Gulfstream Park drew a tough crowd of eight. Greenpointcrusader was second in the Grade II Holy Bull last season but flopped in the Louisiana Derby and was done for the year. He returned with a sparkling win over the course and distance Jan. 27 for new trainer Todd Pletcher. Other talent includes Pegasus World Cup fifth War Story, Tale of S'avall, Bird Song, Realm and Mr. Jordan.
Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Las Flores for fillies and mares is 6 furlongs on the Santa Anita main course.
Elsewhere around the world
Prized Icon, winner of the Group 1 Victoria Derby last fall, was entered in both the Group 1 Girvan Waugh Randwick Guineas and the Group 1 Australian Guineas at Flemington on Saturday. Trainer James Cummings said Thursday the prospect of off going at Randwick convinced him the Flemington 1,600 meters was the best option. Racing officials, in fact, were pondering whether the Randwick meeting could be run at all if rain continues.
Weather permitting, Chautauqua, winner of last year's Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize in Hong Kong and top-rated international sprinter, will try to get his act back together in Saturday's Group 1 Canterbury BMW Stakes at Randwick. The 6-year-old hasn't won in three starts since the Sha Tin tour de force. While he did finish third in the Group 2 Rubiton Stakes at Caulfield in February, it was without the determination that took him to the top a year earlier. It's not a pushover field, either. Many eyes will be on last year's New Zealand 2,000 Guineas winner Ugo Foscolo.
Saturday's 36th running of the Sandy Lane Barbados Gold Cup has a field of 14 to go 1,800 meters of Barbadian turf. The defending champion, Dorsett, is back for another try. The 7-year-old son of Artie Schiller raced on the fringes of success in graded stakes company earlier in his career and won the Mystic Lake Derby at Canterbury Park in Minnesota in 2013. Ken and Sarah Ramsey, long-time patrons of the event, send two: Keystoneforvictory, who comes off two consecutive wins at Gulfstream Park including the Claiming Crown Emerald Stakes in December, and High Noon Rider, whose career high point was a victory in the Better Talk Now Stakes at Saratoga in 2015. Both are trained by Mike Maker.
If you can't get to Barbados, tune in live coverage of the race on Horse Racing Radio Network (www.horseracingradio.net). Mike Penna and Jude Feld have made the sacrifice to travel to Barbados for the big day.
News and Notes
The New York Racing Association has announced a three-year partnership with Hoppegarten Racecourse in Berlin, to host an intercontinental stakes series beginning this spring. NYRA will offer the winning 3-year-old filly of the Group 2 Diana-Trial, contested at 2,000 meters on the turf at historic Hoppegarten on June 4, a fees-paid invitation to the Grade 1, $1 million, Grade I Belmont Oaks Invitational on July 8. That timing would permit a filly to contest the Diana-Trial and the Belmont Oaks and still return for the Group 1 German Oaks. The agreement also offers a fees-paid invitation to the $400,000 Grade III Belmont Gold Cup Invitational on June 9 to the winner of the Comer Group International Oleander-Rennen on May 14 at Hoppegarten -- a 3,200-meters marathon upgraded to Group 2 status this year.
"As we look to elevate our international presence, this agreement connecting these races made a lot of sense," said Martin Panza, NYRA senior vice president of racing operations. "The timing is ideal and the conditions match." Gerhard Schoningh, owner and chairman of Hoppegarten, said the agreement "offers owners excellent prize money and raises our international profile."