Kentucky Derby preps in Florida and California highlight the weekend racing schedule, along with "The Big Cap" for older horses at Santa Anita.
Kentucky Oaks hopefuls will be on display at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
Sprinters sprint in the Grade I Triple Bend Stakes at Santa Anita and the Grade III Tom Fool Handicap in New York. There are several promising turf races.
Internationally, Saturday is Australian Cup Day down under, where racing fans are celebrating the elevation of their star mare Winx to a tie with Arrogate at the top of the new Longines World's Best Racehorse rankings.
The Road to the Roses
Every single one of the seven lining up for Saturday's $400,000 Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita has something to prove. But Mastery seems to have fewer questions than the others.
Mastery, a Candy Ride colt trained by Bob Baffert, is undefeated in three starts. He has not raced since winning the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity on Dec. 10 so the three-month layoff is, well, a question mark. Still, he's been working well and having Mike Smith in the irons provides confidence.
Gormley, a Malibu Moon colt, is 3-for-4 but his loss was a seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He won the Grade III Sham over a muddy track Jan. 17 and has been working steadily for trainer John Shirreffs, newly nominated to the Hall of Fame. Did Gormley benefit from the off track in the Sham? Was the BC flop a fluke?
San Felipe question No. 3: Iliad was moved by owner Kaleem Shah from Baffert's barn to Doug O'Neill after the Ghostzapper colt broke his maiden impressively in December. He went from that to a 3 1/2-lengths victory in the Grade II San Vicente Feb. 17. Can he back that performance up against these?
Ann Arbor Eddie has been impressive against fellow California-breds but was unimpressive on the all-weather in the Grade III El Camino Real Derby, not only coughing up a late lead but being set down to fourth for drifting in the stretch run. Can he step up?
The inquisition gets harsher for the other three -- Term of Art, Vending Machine and especially Bluegrass Envy, who ships in from Gulfstream Park still a maiden after five starts with a leisurely work tab.
McCracken misses Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby with what's hoped to be a minor injury. That leaves the 3-year-olds who chased him home in the Grade III Sam F. Davis on Feb. 11 -- in order, Tapwrit, State of Honor and Wild Shot -- to grab for the brass ring in this 1 1/16-miles event.
There are, of course, others. No Dozing was second in the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct in November but sixth in the Sam F. Davis in his 2017 bow. Sonic Mule was third in the Grade II Swale at Gulfstream Park going 7 furlongs and needs to show he can carry his speed around two turns.
After that, this derby tapers off to Zion Valley, a maiden who finished third in a $16,000 claimer in his last start.
The Path to the Oaks
Perfect Wife, who broke through the gate, then finished last as the favorite in last month's Martha Washington Stakes, returns in a field of 11 for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Honeybee at Oaklawn Park.
Also in the field are the winner of the Martha Washington, Chanel's Legacy, and My Sweet Stella, who finished third. Chanel's Legacy also won the local Dixie Belle prior to the Martha Washington. Perfect Wife entered that race off a win in the Trapeze Stakes at Remington Park.
Jerry Hollendorfer imports It Tiz Well from Santa Anita, where she was second -- albeit by 7 1/2 lengths -- to Unique Bella in the Grade II Santa Ynez two starts back. Tapa Tapa Tapa and Elate reappear after finishing first and second in the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs last time out. Someday Soon likely will add some pace pressure off a recent win.
Meanwhile, last year's 2-year-old filly champ, Champagne Room, has undergone surgery to remove an ankle chip and may be retired to be bred this spring.
The Big Cap
Some of the big names that might otherwise contest Saturday's $750,000 Grade I Santa Anita Handicap -- notably, Arrogate and Hoppertunity -- are instead on their way to the Dubai World Cup. That doesn't mean "The Big 'Cap" is devoid of talent, by any means.
Shaman Ghost, who was second to Arrogate in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup, is in this field. So is Imperative, who edged Stanford in the $400,000 Poseidon on the Pegasus undercard at Gulfstream Park. Midnight Storm has won five of his last six starts, all graded stakes on both turf and dirt, but has not won at this 1 1/4-miles distance. Isotherm comes off a win in the Grade II San Marcos, going 1 1/4 miles but on the grass.
Trainer John Sadler again wheels out his workhorse, Hard Aces, who is always dangerous at least to be around at the end.
Trainer Jimmy Jerkens said he likes Shaman Ghost's chances.
"I think they'll have to go fast early and if they come back, a mile and quarter is a great distance for my horse," Jerkens said. "If any horse fits the distance, it should be him."
Another big name missing from The Big Cap: Bob Baffert. He's saddled the winner of this event five times, thrice with Game On Dude. Charlie Whittingham saddled nine winners, from Corn Husker in 1957 to Sir Beaufort in 1993.
Also in the handicap division, the aforementioned Stanford heads an interesting field of seven in Saturday's $100,000 Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Stanford, a 5-year-old son of Malibu Moon, has been first or second in five of his last six starts. Blofeld has looked helpless in his last three starts including the Poseidon but won the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap a year ago and makes his second start for new trainer Rusty Arnold. Idolo Portendo, a multiple Group 1 winner in his native Argentina, makes his first start since finishing second in the Grade III Pimlico Special last year.
Send It In will shoot for his third win in a row in Sunday's $125,000 Stymie Stakes at 9 furlongs at Aqueduct. The 5-year-old son of Big Brown has won six of his last seven starts.
Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Triple Bend at Santa Anita features Masochistic, making his first start since finishing second to Defrong in the Breeders' Cup Sprint last fall -- then being stripped of the purse money after a positive drug test. If the 7-year-old Sought After gelding is right -- and his trackwork indicates he is -- the other six have their work cut out for them.
Masochistic made only two starts in 2016 before big race, winning an optional claimer at Santa Anita and then blowing away the opposition in the Grade II Pat O'Brien at Del Mar, earning a 110 Beyer Speed Figure.
Kobe's Back makes his 6-year-old debut in the Triple Bend, certainly has shown the ability to compete and attracted Javier Castellano to Southern California for the ride. Silent Bird, a 5-year-old son of Summer Bird, makes just his seventh career start and takes a huge class jump. But he has won five straight races and beaten some decent opponents.
The field for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Tom Fool Handicap at Aqueduct is so closely matched that the morning line has five of the eight pegged between 3-1 and 6-1. This bunch also is a little long in the tooth with Spartiatis, Green Gratto and Chief Lion all 7 years old and none of the contestants younger than 5. Could the Wesley Ward-trained The Great War finally pick up a graded stakes win in this one? He's been getting caught and passed by better than these.
On the turf
Dortmund, moved from Bob Baffert's care to Art Sherman, shows up on the grass for the first time in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita. Dortmund, third behind American Pharoah in the 2015 Kentucky Derby, was last seen as a fading fourth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Before that, he finished behind Sherman's now-retired star, California Chrome, in three straight two-turn events, finishing in the money each time.
Sherman said the alternative was to send Dortmund in the 7-furlongs Triple Bend on the dirt and that looked like a more daunting prospect.
"Breeding-wise, I always wondered why they never tried the grass with him," Sherman said. "This looks like an opportune time to try it."
Others in the Kilroe field include the top four from last month's Grade II Arcadia at course and distance -- Bolo, What a View, Conquest Enforcer and Ring Weekend. Bal a Bali and Flamboyant complete the field. In this race last year, What a View, Bolo and Bal a Bali were the trifecta. Ring Weekend won the 2015 edition.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Hillsborough for fillies and mares attracted the top four from last month's Grade III Endeavour over the same course -- Isabella Sings, Light In Paris, Evidently and Emerald Pond -- the top two from last month's Grade III Suwanee River at Gulfstream -- Dickinson and Elysea's World (Sandiva was third) -- and the last-out winners of the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf, Family Meeting, and the Winter Memories Stakes at Aqueduct, My Impression.
For all of that, Juddmonte Farms homebred Swiss Range is one to watch in her first start since October. The 4-year-old Zamindar filly raced with distinction against the best company in Europe last summer and could be let go at a decent price in the Hillsborough.
Compelled, winner of last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, is back in action in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs. It's her second start of the year, following a hard-fought second-place finish in the Grade III Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park. Daddys Lil Darling, fifth in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, makes her first start as a 3-year-old and first on the turf. La Coronel makes her first start since finishing a closing sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvennile Fillies Turf, where she started from the No. 13 gate. Several of the others have shown speed in recent wins, including Dynatail, who has scored in three in a row.
Eight fillies and mares are set to go 9 furlongs in Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Ana at Santa Anita. Argentinian Group 1 winner Pretty Girl drew the rail. Goodyearforroses has won both her local starts since arriving from Woodbine last fall. A pair of French-breds, Kenriya and Sweet Charity, show promise, as does Irish-bred Evo Campo. Another Irish product, Responsibleforlove, makes her first start outside Italy and is not impossible. So ... a wide-open race for the sharp handicappers.
Casting off for other shores:
A field of 12 is set for the 2,000-meters Group 1 Australian Cup on Saturday at Flemington. Trainer Darren Weir will saddle three of them, including well-fancied Stratum Star, winner of three straight. The race does look ripe for the picking, however.
Co-feature is the Lexus Newmarket Handicap at 1,200 meters. Terravista and Spieth are featured off their 1-2 finish in the Group 1 Black Caviar Lightning Stakes on Feb. 18. Sheidel returns from victory in the Group 1 Oakleigh Plate at Caulfield two weeks ago.
It's still a week farther down the road but not too soon to be looking forward to this year's edition of the BMW Hong Kong Derby. It's for 4-year-olds at 2,000 meters on the Sha Tin turf, with a purse of HK$18 million, or a bit more than US$2.3 million. The priority-to-run list starts with Rapper Dragon, rated at 114 and a prospective Hong Kong star for years to come. He will be attempting a first-ever sweep of the three races in the 4-year-old Classic Series.
Also near the top of the list are Pakistan Star, who came to international attention with his dramatic last-to-first runs earlier in the season; EagleWay; and Beauty Generation, who got a needed wake-up call in a trial earlier this week. Trainer John Moore's name is attached to six of the 14 on the list and he is high on British import Booming Delight with Ryan Moore booked to fly in for the ride. More on this event next week.
Racing continued Thursday at Meydan with seven events over the dirt course but attention is riveted on World Cup night, two weeks hence. The $10 million World Cup itself, set to feature several American runners including the world's top horse, Arrogate, will be televised live to the United States by the NBC Sports Network. And Australian star Sia will entertain the crowd after the races.
Captain Joy, winner of the 2016 All-Weather Mile Championship, will try to tee up a repeat performance by winner a Fast-Track qualifier Friday at Dundalk. Captain Joy, now 8, won the corresponding race last year before going on to a 1/2-length victory in the Lingfield Park final. Trainer Tracey Collins said a dismal last-of-11 finish behind Red Avenger in an earlier Dundalk race was the result of a 27-pounds weight swing because no other race was available. "It's hard to say whether he is at the same level as last year because he is that bit older," Collins said of Captain Joy. "But he is well. We will know more on Friday but hopefully we can get him qualified again for Finals Day. Red Avenger may be in Friday's field but at equal weights. The 10 entries also include Another Story, unbeaten in two starts at Dundalk, and recent Chelmsford City Marathon Fast-Track Qualifier third Pique Sous.
On Saturday at Lingfield, My Target will contest the 7-furlongs Fast-Track Qualifier for the Mile Championship on finals day. The 6-year-old is well set for the finals as the winner of five Class 2 handicaps over 1 mile at Lingfield -- the most recent just a week ago -- and currently leads the All-Weather Horse of the Year standings. "My Target is thriving," said trainer Michael Wigham. "We are not worried about running a week lager. He is doing well, eating well and telling me he wants to run.
News and Notes:
The Longines World's Best Racehorse rankings released Thursday find Australian mare Winx now tied with Arrogate at the top, each rated 127. Arrogate's rating, of course, comes on dirt while Winx's is on the grass. Hartnell, another Australian, is rated No. 3 and Japan's Satono Crown No. 4. There is a logjam at No. 5 involving horses from as far afield as Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Argentina, South Africa and Dubai -- all of them rated on turf performances. The second-ranked dirt runner is Hoppertunity. Arrogate and Hoppertunity, both trained by Bob Baffert, are part of a large American contingent headed for the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 25 at Meydan. Winx will seek her 16th straight win in the Group 1 George Ryder Stakes March 18.
This year's Hall of Fame ballot includes four first-time nominees: jockeys Javier Castellano and Robby Albarado and trainers Mark Casse and John Shirreffs. Holdovers on the human side are jockeys Victor Espinoza, Craig Perret and the late Garrett Gomez and trainer David Whitely. Equine nominees are Kona Gold along with first-time nominees Gio Ponti, Goldikova and Kona Gold. A maximum of four will be selected from all of those contenders.