A rich stop on the Kentucky Derby trail and some big days in Hong Kong and Australia provide the gems in the crown of weekend Thoroughbred racing.
It's a big old day of top-flight activity Saturday at Rosehill Gardens in suburban Sydney, Australia, with Winx, Hartnell, Preferment, Stratum Star, Black Heart Bart and the rich Golden Slipper all on the program.
Sha Tin hosts one of the biggest days of the year for locals on Sunday with the best and brightest of the SAR's 4-year-olds lining up for the BMW Hong Kong Derby.
In the United States, the surging Oaklawn Park program -- they just raised purses again! -- features the Rebel for Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
Let's surge right to business:
Winx the super mare goes after her 16th straight win Saturday at Rosehill Gardens outside Sydney. That's just one of the Group 1 events on the day's program.
Winx, co-rated with Arrogate as the world's best horse, is set to go in the Group 1 China Horse Club George Ryder Stakes at 1,500 meters. She will meet, among others, Le Romain and Chautauqua, who finished 1-2, just a nose apart, in the Group 1 Canterbury Stakes at 1,200 meters at Royal Randwick two weeks ago.
Also in the George Ryder field is Hauraki, who finished 2 lengths farther back third in the Canterbury. Winx already has won twice this season, most recently overcoming a waterlogged course in winning the Group 1 Chipping Norton Stakes at Randwick.
Hartnell, who has had a good view of Winx's hindquarters in two straight editions of the Cox Plate, also had a tough go against the super mare in their last start, the aforementioned Chipping Norton Stakes at Randwick, finishing 9 lengths behind the winner. He stretches out from that 1,600 meters to 2,000 for Saturday's Group 1 Ranvet Stakes but runs into Preferment and Stratum Star, among other tough ones. Preferment, however, has been off form recently, reporting last in the Chipping Norton. Stratum Star returns on just a week's rest after finishing fourth in the Group 1 Australian Cup.
More than 230 2-year-olds were nominated for the Group 1 Longines Golden Slipper, a 1,200-meters dash with a purse of Aus$3.5 million, or about US$2.65 million and a proving ground for the youngsters. There are a couple undefeated fillies in the 16-maximum field -- Catchy, a daughter of Fastnet Rock who won the Group 1 Blue Diamond at Caulfield, and Houtzen, a New Zealand-bred filly by I Am Invincible.
The Group 1 Rosehill Guineas has a substantial field including recent Australian Guineas second Prized Icon, Randwick Guineas winner Inference, New Zealand Derby winner Gingernuts and Seaburge. The Group 1 Nathan's Famous Hotdogs Galaxy Stakes at 1,100 meters looks wide open.
At Flemington on Saturday, the Group 2 Incognitus Blamey Stakes at 1,600 meters has Black Heart Bart, Sir Isaac Newton, He or She, Tosen Stardom, Palentino and others.
In Sunday's BMW Hong Kong Derby at Sha Tin, Rapper Dragon will attempt a first-ever sweep of the 4-year-old Classic Series, a program that progresses in distance to Sunday's 2,000 meters. To accomplish that feat and win the race local owners covet the most, however, he will have to overcome what Hong Kong Jockey Club's racing czar Anthony Kennedy labels "one of the strongest Derby fields ever assembled."
"Definitely, he's capable," said John Moore, who will saddle Rapper Dragon and five others in Sunday's race. "He's going to be hard to beat. There's no doubt about it ...
"To win all three legs of the series is very hard," Moore added. "We've seen horses go close before but they've come up short in the Derby. But there is something about this horse."
Rapper Dragon, a Street Boss gelding, won the first race in the series, the Hong Kong Classic Mile, by an easy 2 lengths and the 1,800-meters Hong Kong Classic Cup by 1 1/2 lengths.
The remainder of Moore's Derby contingent includes Eagle Way, a Group 1 winner in Australia last year, and Helene Charisma, winner of the Group 1 Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris at Chantilly in July, going 2,400 meters.
Pakistan Star, purchased from the Hong Kong International Sale a year ago for HK$6 million (about US$773,000) remains a fan favorite with a worldwide following as a result of his dramatic last-to-first victories earlier in the season. His green blinkers and white earmuffs are hard to miss.
Several other imports feature in this cast as well. Limitless won the Brittania Stakes during last year's Royal Ascot, defeating 27 rivals including Folkswood, who currently is racing with distinction in Dubai for the Godolphin juggernaut. Another British import, Booming Delight, was sixth in the Brittania and already has three Hong Kong wins. Gold Mount won the King George V Handicap at 2016 Royal Ascot.
The prestige value of a Derby victory is so great that in the minds of local owners, it eclipses even the purse money for Sunday's race -- HK$18 million, or about US$2.3 million.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
The Road to the Roses
Trainer Bob Baffert's Kentucky Derby hopes took a big hit last weekend when Mastery was injured while winning the Grade II San Felipe. He will try to stay in the game Saturday at Oaklawn Park as he sends out American Anthem and jockey Mike Smith as the 2-1 morning line favorite in the $900,000 Grade II Rebel. Yes, $900,000, guaranteed.
American Anthem, a Bodemeister colt, is making just his third start and first since finishing second, a head behind Gormley, in the Grade III Sham over a sloppy Santa Anita track in early January.
There's plenty of competition in the Rebel, perhaps starting with another California invader, Royal Mo, who won the Grade III Robert B. Lewis in February for trainer John Shirreffs. Untrapped finished second in a pair of graded stakes at Fair Grounds in his last two starts. Petrov was second in the Grade III Southwest over the Arkansas oval in his last outing.
A lot of Oaklawn Park eyes, however, will be on a Shackleford colt named Malagacy. He won at first asking at Gulfstream Park Jan. 4 -- by 15 lengths -- then returned to win an optional claimer by 7 lengths last month. Trainer Todd Pletcher sends the chestnut colt around two turns for the first time with Javier Castellano in for the ride and he might bring joy to the hearts of those who bet "all others" in the Derby futures wager.
Saturday's $100,000 Private Terms at Laurel Park often is seen as a preview of the Preakness Stakes more than the Kentucky Derby and that could be the case again since the seven who will face the starter are better described as promising than as accomplished.
O Dionysius is the 9-5 morning line favorite for the Private Terms off a win in the local Miracle Wood. But he has been trading blows with High Roller, who also is in this field. Twisted Tom invades from Aqueduct, where he has beaten fellow New York-breds, and Hashtag Alex is in from Parx with a nice win in his last start. Keep this one in mind on May 20.
The Road to the Oaks
Jenda's Agenda is the heavy favorite among eight in a light turnout for Saturday's $100,000 Caesar's Wish at Laurel Park. The Proud Citizen filly, bred, owned and trained by Larry Jones, won both her starts at Fair Grounds while stepping up nicely from 6 furlongs to two turns. Shackleford's Lady also is 2-for-2 with both wins coming at Penn National at 6 furlongs. Among the locals, Star Super is a stakes winner and could step into the national picture with a good effort. Crabcakes and Forever Liesl have shown promise.
The Classic division
Mor Spirit visits from the West Coast to play the favorite in Saturday's $250,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park. The 4-year-old Eskendereya ridgeling comes off a second-place finish behind Dubai-bound Hoppertunity in the Grade II San Antonio at Santa Anita, going the same 1 1/16-miles trip. This will be his third start since a 10th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and trainer Bob Baffert seems to have him on the upswing.
From the other direction comes Madefromlucky, a 5-year-old son of Lookin at Lucky who finished third in the Poseidon Handicap in January at Gulfstream Park for trainer Todd Pletcher. Dazzling Gem has posted two sparkling efforts in his last two settings in New Orleans and was a good fourth in last year's Arkansas Derby. Shotgun Kowboy and Domain's Rap have excellent local records but may be overmatched against the visitors.
Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Azeri at Oaklawn Park appears to be Terra Promessa against a half dozen striving for place money. Terra Promessa has won six of nine lifetime starts, including all five of her outings at Oaklawn. Her only disappointing effort was in last year's Kentucky Oaks, where she faded from the lead to finish 10th. She has won both her starts at the current Oaklawn meeting, most recently the Grade III Bayakoa, and the second- and third-place finishers from that event are among the challengers Saturday. Eskenformoney and She Mabee Wild have run some good races and the latter could provide some needed pace pressure on the favorite.
Filly & Mare Sprint
How about an exacta box with Hot City Girl and Clothes Fall Off in Saturday's $125,000 Correction Stakes at Aqueduct? They're the 9-5 and 2-1 morning-line favorites in the 6-furlongs dash. Hot City Girl, a 5-year-old daughter of City Zip, has been extremely consistent throughout her career and comes off a win against fellow New York-breds in the Broadway Stakes last month. Clothes Fall Off is a 5-year-old Daaher mare who has been operating at a slightly higher level, finishing third in the Grade II Barbara Fritchie at Laurel in her last outing. Disco Chick could complete the trifecta.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Inside Information Stakes at Gulfstream Park is 7 furlongs and features Curlin's Approval as the odds-on morning line choice among eight. The lightly raced 4-year-old Curlin filly has reeled off back-to-back victories in the Grade III Hurricane Bertie and the Grade II Royal Delta.