McCraken, seen winning the 2016 Kentucky Jockey Club, will try to earn his way to the Kentucky Derby while headlining Saturday's Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs
The Kentucky Derby picture may snap into a bit tighter focus this weekend with the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Blue Grass all on the agenda.
The 3-year-old fillies have some final auditions for the Kentucky Oaks and there is a lot of graded stakes sprint action, including the Grade I Carter Handicap in New York, on a jam-packed schedule.
Internationally, Winx takes the track again in Australia, Hong Kong prepares for its big springtime sprint events and the Oka Sho, or Japanese 1,000 Guineas, gets top billing.
Up, up and away:
The Road to the Roses
McCraken, undefeated but with his training interrupted, headlines a field of seven for Saturday's $1 million Grade II Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland. The Ghostzapper colt, trained by Ian Wilkes, has won all four of his starts but has not raced since the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 11. And that is his only start so far as a 3-year-old. All three wins as a juvenile came during the Churchill Downs fall meeting, including the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club.
The field lining up to face McCraken includes Tapwrit, the Tapit colt who finished second to McCracken in the Sam F. Davis and won the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby in that rival's absence; It's Your Nickel, a New York-bred colt by Dialed In who won the John Battaglia Memorial on the Turfway Park all-weather course; J Boys Echo, a Mineshaft colt who won the Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct; Wild Shot, fourth in the Sam F. Davis and third in the Tampa Bay Derby; Irap, second in the Grade III Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita but a disappointment in two stops in New Mexico; and Practical Joke, who finished third in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and second in the Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream in his only previous 2017 start.
Saturday's $1 million Grade I Santa Anita Derby provides a chance for someone to show some consistent ability -- a task at which this bunch has yet to excel. Gormley, for example, won the Grade I Frontrunner last Oct. 1, won the Grade III Sham and then finished fourth in the Grade II San Felipe. Royal Mo won the Grade III Robert B. Lewis but then journeyed to Arkansas to finish ninth in the Grade II Rebel. The story was much the same for the Bob Baffert-trained American Anthem -- second in the Sham but 10th in the Rebel. Baffert, by the way, is getting desperately short on Kentucky Derby prospects and needs one of his three in this race, also including the unproven Irish Freedom and Reach the World, to post a top-three finish to have a chance at the Run for the Roses. Reach the World, by Tapit out of the Galileo mare Reach the Stars, shows the potential to be a good one.
Saturday's $750,000 Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct lacks El Areeb, sidelined with a chip in a knee, and is left with a field of eight -- all of them with a lot to prove. The morning-line favorite is Battalion Runner, yet another from the seemingly bottomless Todd Pletcher barn. The Unbridled's Song colt is undefeated after three starts but steps into stakes company for the first time. Pletcher also has Bonus Points, who was second to El Areeb in the Grade III Jerome on Jan. 2 -- but 11 1/4 lengths behind. Cloud Computing, second behind J Boys Echo in the Gotham, also returns for this. Irish War Cry is in from Florida where he won three in a row before tiring badly in the Grade II Fountain of Youth to finish seventh. Mo Town won the Grade II Remson in November but showed nothing in his 3-year-old debut at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. True Timber was second in the Withers and fifth in the Gotham.
Once those races are in the books, only the following weekend's $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby remains among the major preludes to the May 6 Run for the Roses. According to the Oaklawn Park racing department, nine horses are considered "probable" for the 1 1/8-miles Arkansas Derby with the list topped by Eclipse Award winner Classic Empire. He also has had several training issues, forcing a detour from the Blue Grass to the Hot Springs race. Also expected for the Arkansas Derby are the Pletcher-trained unbeaten pair of One Liner and Malagacy, Sonneteer, Untrapped, Petrov, Silver Dust, Lookin At Lee and Conquest Mo Money.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Miss Sky Warrior is the early pick in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct. The First Samurai filly has won four straight races, most recently the Grade II Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park. Lockdown and Yorkiepoo Princess enter off stakes wins at the Big A and must be considered in this 1 1/16-miles test.
Daddys Lil Darling hasn't won in four starts since taking the Grade II Pocahontas in the Churchill Downs mud last September. That hasn't stopped the Keeneland oddsmaker from listing the Scat Daddy filly as a narrow favorite for Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Central Bank Ashland at Keeneland. She has run well in defeat in the interim except when trainer Kenny McPeek experimented once with turf. The opposition includes Elate, Summer Luck, Tapped and Pretty City Dancer, all graded stakes-placed.
Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Santa Anita Oaks features Abel Tasman, who finished second to Unique Bella in her last start, and Majestic Quality, who was second behind Farrell in her previous outing. Neither of those winners is in this race so the runners-up should be viewed with respect. The race also includes It Tiz Well, who won the Grade III Honeybee at Oaklawn Park last month, and Mopotism, winner of the Island Fashion at Sunland Park in New Mexico in her last effort.
Other major races:
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct came up a little light but very contentious with seven set to go 1 1/4 miles. The NYRA oddsmaker essentially threw up his hands, with five of the seven listed at single-digit odds. Send It In is the nominal, 2-1 morning-line favorite.
If ever there were a "horse for the course", Mongolian Saturday is that horse and Keeneland is the course. The 7-year-old gelding is back for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Shakertown Stakes at Keeneland, going 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass. From six starts over the course, he has four wins and two seconds and the victories include the 2015 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. The worthy rivals include Hogy, Green Mask and Rainbow Heir, all of whom also have good local records and good recent form.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Royal Heroine at Santa Anita drew a tough bunch including the likes of Sweet Charity, Prize Exhibit, Lady Valeur, Pretty Girl, Harmonize and Hillhouse High. All of them have been knocking heads in graded stakes.
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita has the undefeated Sircat Sally; You Missed It, appropriately named with four seconds from five starts; and some improving youngsters.
Unified, whose only loss came in the Pegasus World Cup in January, returns to sprinting in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct and is a solid favorite among nine. The 4-year-old Candy Ride colt rebounded from a fifth-place finish in the world's richest race to win the Grade III Gulfstream Park Sprint Feb. 25, defeating Dubai hero-in-the-making Mind Your Biscuits. Others fancied here are Tommy Macho and Awesome Banner.
A.P. Indian returns to action for the first time since finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Commonwealth at Keeneland. The nine-horse field also includes Ami's Flatter, Limousine Liberal and Awesome Slew. A few others have been racing well but move up to tougher company.
Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Bay Shore at Aqueduct attracted a field of six 3-year-olds to tackle 7 furlongs. The morning-line favorites are Theory, who lost his undefeated record with an 11th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and has been idle since, and Long Haul Bay, who makes just his second start after an impressive maiden win in February.
Filly & Mare Sprint
One of the neatest things about Keeneland -- as with Saratoga -- is that its race meetinghs bring together horses from all over the country, with attendant handicapping challenges. This quality is on full display in Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Madison at 7 furlongs out of the backstretch chute. Among the nine entrants are fillies and mares whose last starts resulted in in-the-money finishes at Aqueduct, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita, Laurel Park, Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs -- and even at Keeneland, during the fall meeting. Paulassilverlining is the 3-1 morning-line favorite but by the time the gate opens, there will be generous odds on the likes of Clothes Fall Off, High Ridge Road, Constellation, and Paid Up Subscriber, among others.
Saturday's $150,000 Carousel Handicap at Oaklawn Park at 6 furlongs has a field of seven with Athena the morning-line favorite, followed by Marquee Miss and Chanteline. Athena has two straight wins over the Hot Springs track including the American Beauty Stakes in her last outing.
The fun continues in this divisions with Sunday's $150,000 Grade III Distaff Handicap for fillies and mares at Aqueduct, 7 furlongs, and Sunday's $150,000 Grade III Adena Springs Beaumont for 3-year-old fillies at Keeneland, about 7 furlongs.
On the international front:
Saturday at Randwick, Winx is set for the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at 2,000 meters headlining a rich card that also includes Group 1's The Sydney Cup, Australian Oaks and Queen of the Turf Stakes.
Sunday's Sha Tin program includes the Chairman's Trophy, a 1,600-meters prep for the Champions Mile on May 7, and the Sprint Cup, a 1,200-meters audition for the Chairman's Sprint Prize that same day in May. Helene Paragon, with two Group 1 events to his credit already this season, is the highest-rated among 10 in the Chairman's Trophy. Lucky Bubbles is Hong Kong's highest rated horse at 128 and a likely choice in the Sprint Cup -- and perhaps for his first-ever Group 1 next month.
This week's second entries for the Group 1 Investec Derby include Godolphin Racing's promising Thunder Snow, winner of the Group II UAE Derby on World Cup night last month and also a late nominee to the Kentucky Derby. Although his victory in Dubai came on the dirt, the Helmet colt also won by an impressive 5 lengths on the Saint-Cloud turf in the Criterium International last Ocober. Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor also added Best Solution and Leshlaa to the Investec Derby potentials at a cost of 9,000 pounds each. The other Godolphins making up half of the 10 second entries are Syphax and Best of Days, who finished first and second in the Group 3 Acomb Stakes during the Ebor Festival at York last August. Best of Days carried on to win the Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes at Newmarket in October.
Other late nominees are Akihiro, a son of Deep Impact and from the family of star miler Goldikova, owned and bred by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer; Cracksman, a Frankel colt owned and bred by Anthony Oppenheimer; Salouen, who established a course record at a mile at Windsor in August and finished third in the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy; Dubawi Prince, a maiden winner at Doncaster April 1; and the unraced Unite The Clans.
The second entries bring the number of Derby eligible to 136. The remaining opportunities are winning the Derby Trial April 26 or an 85,000-pounds supplemental fee at the five-day confirmation stage, May 29.