Irap, Irish War Cry and Gormley stepped to the front of the Kentucky Derby list with victories in weekend races while Winx continued her winning ways in Australia and Hong Kong saluted a couple of budding stars.
The road to the Kentucky Oaks, meanwhile, saw dominating performances by Miss Sky Warrior and Paradise Woods and a big upset by Sailor's Valentine.
No upset here. We're right into action:
The Road to the Roses
Irap entered Saturday's $1 million Grade II Blue Grass at Keeneland still a maiden after seven starts and exited in the mainstream of Kentucky Derby consideration.
With Julien Leparoux up, the Tiznow colt raced right behind the early pace, took over on the turn and held on to win by 3/4 length over Practical Joke. McCraken, previously undefeated, ran evenly to finish third as he returned from a minor injury that delayed his schedule. J Boys Echo, Tapwrit, It's Your Nickel and pacesetter Wild Shot completed the order of finish.
Irap, trained by Doug O'Neill for J. Paul Reddam, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:50.39 with Julien Leparoux in the irons.
Irap showed promise as a 2-year-old, finishing second in the Grade I Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, and again this year, finishing second in the Grade III Robert B. Lewis. But he continued to fall short in two starts in New Mexico in his most recent starts, most recently a disappointing fourth in the Grade III Sunland Derby.
"He's a son of Tiznow, and he has a ton of ability," O'Neill said. "The fact he was still a maiden was kind of unfortunate, but he's always been a talented horse. Julien gave him a great ride. Unbelievable." About the Kentucky Derby, he said, "That's the plan," adding he will continue to train Irap at Keeneland. "I really believe horses thrive here at Keeneland."
Irish War Cry re-emerged as a leading Derby candidate with an impressive, stretch-running win in Saturday's $1 million Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
With Rajiv Maragh up, the Curlin colt shadowed pacesetting favorite Battalion Runner, got by that one when asked leaving the stretch turn and kicked away to win by 3 1/2 lengths. Battalion Runner held second, another 3 1/2 lengths ahead of Cloud Computing. Irish War Cry finished the 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:50.91.
Irish War Cry won his first three starts, including the Grade II Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, but then finished seventh in the Grade II Fountain of Youth and was sidetracked until Saturday's race.
"It's extremely gratifying to get this horse back on track," said winning trainer Graham Motion. "That was huge. I don't remember having a situation like this, when I felt so much was on the line. I think Rajiv must have felt like he had a lot of horse because he moved to the leaders so confidently."
Gormley won a dramatic, five-horse scramble to the finish in Saturday' $1 million Grade I Santa Anita Derby, scoring by 1/2 length over front-running Battle of Midway. The next three -- Royal Mo, Reach the World and Iliad -- all were separated by 1/2 length.
Gormley, with Victor Espinoza in the irons, raced in mid-pack, came four-wide into the stretch and only made the lead in deep stretch. Reach the World made up significant ground in the stretch after lagging well back through the early furlongs. Gormley, a Malibu Moon colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.16. He scored his fourth win while bouncing back from a fourth-place finish in the Grade II San Felipe in his last outing.
"Today the big difference is that he was ready," Espinoza said. "Something went wrong last time, he was good but not quite where I wanted. I was a little bit disappointed but it seems like today he was on his toes, on his game, and I was really ready for it."
John Shirreffs, who trains both Gormley and Royal Mo for Jerry and Ann Moss, said Gormley "is an evolving horse. He's very precocious and very excitable. I just need to turn that energy of his into positive use. It's a lot of growing pains with a talented horse .... We'll see how he comes out of this race in the morning and if all is well, we'll point to the Kentucky Derby."
Kentucky Oaks preps
Nobody could miss Miss Sky Warrior at the end of Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct. She was the one out there in front -- by 13 lengths. With Paco Lopez up, the First Samurai filly led all the way in the Gazelle, shook off some persistent pressure after 6 furlongs and quickly put the issue to rest. Lockdown and Full House completed the trifecta.
Miss Sky Warrior ran 9 furlongs in 1:51.71, well in hand. She now has won five straight races and promises to make the Kentucky Oaks a competitive affair.
"I didn't want to make the lead but the filly pulled me and I let her go -- perfect trip," Lopez said. "She's a very nice filly. It's up to the owner and the trainer. I hope we can go to the Kentucky Oaks." About that prospect, trainer Kelly Breen said, "That's what it looks like."
Sailor's Valentine chased pacesetting Someday Soon through the early furlongs of Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, got by that one in the stretch and outfinished Daddys Lil Darling, winning by 1/2 length at odds of 22-1. Someday Soon held third and the favorite, Elate, was eased in the stretch and vanned off.
Sailor's Valentine, a Mizzen Mast filly trained by Eddie Kenneally, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.45 with Corey Lanerie in the irons. She won at first asking at Keeneland last fall but had not had her picture taken in four intervening starts.
"We knew she liked the track," Kenneally said. "She won here in October very impressively. She came back here in late March and had a really good work over the track. We just decided we'd take a shot in the Ashland, mainly because she loves this track and this is a very, very good track." Daddys Lil Darling's trainer, Kenny McPeek, said he also was pleased with his filly's performance and will head for the Kentucky Oaks.
Paradise Woods, in just her third career start, ran away with Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Santa Anita Oaks, leading most of the way under Flavien Prat en route to an 11 1/4-lengths victory. The odds-on favorite, Abel Tasman, rallied from the rear to finish second, 2 1/4 lengths ahead of It Tiz Well.
Paradise Woods, a Union Rags filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.53. She finished second in her career bow, then dominated a 5 1/2-furlongs maiden event last month.
"I have always been high on her," said winning trainer Richard Mandella. "I wasn't that confident, but I fully expected her to run well. I didn't think she would do this ... She is a young filly. She has only had three starts, so we'll see about the Kentucky Oaks and how things develop. She was really nasty to saddle today, but she ran great."
Green Gratto scored the weekend's biggest upset with a 54-1 victory in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct. The 7-year-old son of Here's Zealous broke sharply from the inside gate and was not challenged until the favorite, Unified, came with his run in deep stretch, only to fall a neck short. Tommy Macho was third. Green Gratto, with Chris DeCarlo in the irons, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.25. The New Jersey-bred was second in the 2015 Carter but eighth last year. He did, however, win the Grade III Toboggon Stakes over the same track two starts back in January.
Awesome Slew outfinished the favorite, A.P. Indian, for a 1 1/2-lengths victory in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland. Awesome Slew, a 4-year-old colt by Awesome Again, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in a quick 1:22.31 despite brushing the gate at the start and getting away last of nine. Joel Rosario had the mount for trainer Mark Casse. It was his first win since the Grade III Smarty Jones at Parx Racing last September.
Long Haul Bay, making just his second start for trainer Chad Brown, overhauled pacesetting long shot Even Thunder without much effort a furlong from home in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Bay Shore Stakes for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct and drew off to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Even Thunder held second by a neck over You're To Blame. The favorite, Theory, mounted a brief stretch run but faded to finish fourth. Long Haul Bay, a Quality Road colt, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.15 with Manny Franco up. He won at first asking over the same track in February.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Paulassilverlining, making her first start of the year, was along in the final sixteenth to take Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Madison Stakes for fillies and mares at Keeneland by a neck over Constellation. Paid Up Subscriber was another 2 1/2 lengths back in third. Paulassilverlining, a 5-year-old daughter of Ghostzapper, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.68 with Jose Ortiz up. Chad Brown trains for Juddmonte Farms. She finished third in last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and earned her first Grade I win in her first start at the Lexington oval.
Highway Star outfinished Indulgent in Sunday's $150,000, Grade III Distaff Handicap at Aqueduct, winning by 1/2 length. Clipthecouponannie was third. Highway Star, a 4-year-old Girolamo filly, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.25 with Angel Arroyo up. It was her first race since Jan. 17. "We know her ability and took her time to bring her back and you see the result," said winning trainer Rodrigo Ubillo.
Illusion Artist rallied along the rail in the stretch run to win Saturday's $150,000 Carousel Handicap at Oaklawn Park by 1 1/2 lengths over pacesetting Chanteline. The favorite, Athena, was third with a late bid. Illusion Artist, a 4-year-old Drosselmeyer filly, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.41 with Richard Eramia up.
Big Score split rivals in deep stretch in Friday's $150,000 Grade III Transylvania Stakes for 3-year-olds and went on to defeat pacesetting Holiday Stone by 1/2 length. Makarios was third and the favorite, Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner Oscar Performance, tired to finish fifth in his first start of the year. Big Score, who was fifth in the Breeders' Cup, also made his 3-year-old debut, finishing 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:43.23 with Javier Castellano aboard. "I had a wonderful trip, Castellano said. "I really like the way he did it today -- very relaxed, very comfortable, good rhythm all the way through the race. I kept track of the pace. The way he did it was phenomenal."
Holding Gold survived a long stretch battle to post an 18-1 upset win in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Shakertown Stakes at Keeneland. Green Mask missed by a neck and Hogy was third, another 1 1/2 lengths back. Holding Gold, a 4-year-old colt by Lonhro, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:02.29 under Joel Rosario. Mark Casse trains the colt.
Filly & Mare Turf
Hillhouse High waited behind a breakaway leader in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Royal Heroine Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita, took over turning for home and edged away late to win by 1/2 length over a late-running Mokat. Juno was third and the favorite, Harmonize got home fourth. Hillhouse High, a 6-year-old Exchange Rate Mare, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.61 for jockey Corey Nakatani.
Sircat Sally led from the first jumps in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita and carried on, winning by 2 1/4 lengths, ridden out by Mike Smith. You Missed it was second -- for the fifth time in six starts -- and Emphatically was third. Sircat Sally, a Surf Cat filly, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:48.77. She is undefeated in five starts while moving quickly up the class ladder from state-bred competition.
Send It In tracked pacesetting Tu Brutus through most of Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct, then got by that one in the final 70 yards to win by 1/2 lengths. It was another 14 lengths back to Doyouknowsomething in third. Send It In, a 5-year-old Big Brown gelding, ran 1 1/4 miles on a fast track in 2:02.07 with John Velazquez in the irons. It was his third win from his last four starts.
Winx just keeps on rolling along. The 5-year-old Street Cry mare won her 17th straight race on Saturday at Royal Randwick, romping home 5 1/4 lengths to the good of old foe Hartnell in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Sense of Occasion was third. Damien Oliver, who finished fourth on The United States, claimed foul against Hartnell but the stewards nixed the claim. Winx, with Hugh Bowman along for the usual stroll through the park, toured 2,000 meters of soft turf in 2:07.22. The race wrapped up Winx's Australian season and the big question now is when the rest of the world might get to see the super mare.
Also on Saturday's card at Randwick:
New Zealand Oaks winner Bonneval franked the quality of that race, scampering to a 4 1/2-lengths victory in the Group 1 James Boag's Premium Australian Oaks. The New Zealand-bred Makfi filly scored her fourth straight win. Perfect Rhyme and Lasqueti Spirit were close together in second and third. The co-favorite with Bonneval, Nurse Kitchen, settled for fourth. Bonneval, with Bowman doing the honors, ran 2,400 meters on soft turf in 2:36.37.
Foxplay not only won the Group 1 Coolmore Legacy Stakes by 1/2 length over Zanbagh but also, by virtue of the victory, earned a spot in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf through that group's international Challenge Series. Foxplay, with Kerrin McEvoy up for trainer Chris Waller, got 1,600 meters -- about 1 mile -- on soft turf in 1:39.65. The 3-year-old Foxwedge filly has been well in the mix in most of her races but broke through at the highest level for the first time.
The 3,200-meters Schweppes Sydney Cup was abandoned.
Rapper Dragon emerged to the lead 300 meters from home in Sunday's Group 2 Chairman's Trophy at Sha Tin and went on to win by 1/2 length over Beauty Only. The victory set up the Street Boss gelding, already the first to sweep Hong Kong's Four-Year-Old Classic series, for a shot at Group 1 glory in the Champions Mile a month down the road. "Now I'm convinced that he's the best horse in town," said winning jockey Joao Moreira. "Obviously, that No. 1 spot was open and there to be taken, and he looked like he was going to be the one." Winning trainer John Moore, who saddled Able Friend to victory in the 2015 Chairman's Trophy and Champion's Mile, agreed Rapper Dragon could be a worthy successor. "If he wins the Champions Mile, there'd be no doubt at all," Moore said. He added the Champions Mile might be the final race of the season for his new 4-year-old star.
In the day's co-feature, the Group 2 Sprint Cup at 1,200 meters, Mr Stunning came from near the back of the field to catch Peniaphobia and win by 1/2 length, establishing himself as a contender for next month's Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize. The 4-year-old scored his seventh win from 10 Hong Kong starts, also with the benefit of a Moreira ride. "There was always a natural query about whether he could compete with the top horses," winning trainer John Size said. "That's the case for any horse stepping out in that class for the first time. But he couldn't have done any better there."
In other racing action:
S Y Sky, making her first start, stalked the pace in Saturday's $200,000 Evening Jewel Stakes for state-bred 3-year-old fillies, assumed the lead in the lane and drew off to win by 5 1/2 lengths over Radish. The odds-on favorite, Miss Sunset, settled for show money. S Y Sky, a Grazen filly, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:17.52 with Joe Talamo up.
Mr. Hinx battled head-to-head with B Squared throughout Saturday's $200,000 Echo Eddie Stakes for 3-year-olds, finally putting a nose in front of that rival at the right moment. Tribal Storm rallied from last to get show money. Mr. Hinx, a Ministers Wild Cat gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:17.09 with Tyler Baze riding.
Racer took back early in Saturday's $100,000 Arkansas Breeders' Stakes for state-breds, surged to a big lead in the stretch and coasted home first by 1 1/2 lengths over Mallard's Bro. Chantmeupbaby was another nose back in third. Racer, a 4-year-old Jonesboro gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.37 with Jon Court riding.