Saturday's Arkansas Derby not only provides a last realistic opportunity for Kentucky Derby candidates but also caps Oaklawn Park's glorious Racing Festival of the South.
Keeneland continues its own glorious spring meeting in a weekend featuring the Grade I Maker's Mark Mile and the Grade I Giant's Causeway -- not to mention the return of both Lady Eli and Lady Aurelia.
Stellar Wind returns at Oaklawn.
Internationally, Good Friday marks the annual finale of the All-Weather Championships at Lingfield Park in England.
Without further ado:
The Road to the Roses
Saturday's $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby is the last of the Kentucky Derby preps to offer big points to the top finishers -- and, thus, just about the last stop for 3-year-olds hoping to make it to Louisville on the first Saturday in May.
This 9-furlongs event has grown in statue over the past decade and this renewal features the top five from last month's Grade II Rebel -- Malagacy, Sonateer, Untrapped, Petrov and Silver Dust -- as well as Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old champion Classic Empire.
Classic Empire has suffered training setbacks and is playing catch-up after finishing third in his only previous race this season, the Grade II Holy Bull way back on Feb. 4. The Pioneerof the Nile colt has been training smartly for Mark Casse.
Malagacy, a Shackelford colt trained by Todd Pletcher, is undefeated in three outings, all at Gulfstream Park, and won the Rebel with relative ease. But he drew the outside post position for Saturday's race -- not a stroke of fortune at Oaklawn Park. If he wins Saturday, he might be the favorite in three weeks' time.
Sonateer was a 112-1 surprise in the Rebel and remains a maiden after nine starts. Untrapped his been third in three straight races. Lookin At Lee should be flying late and will enjoy the added distance. Conquest Mo Money represents New Mexico.
It's been a brutal season for trainer Bob Baffert's 3-year-olds, with one after another disappointing or falling victim to mishaps. Wouldn't it be something if West Coast, a Flatter colt he trains for Gary and Mary West, could overcome the outside draw to win Saturday's $200,000 Stonestreet Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and then have enough pieces fall into place to get him in to the Kentucky Derby?
It's unlikely as the Southwest offers only 10 Derby qualifying points to the winner and West Coast enters with exactly none. Even if he wins Saturday, at least 10 horses with more points would have to drop off the list to make room. West Coast has started twice in California and won the second time, emerging from a pace duel to win easily at 1 1/16 miles. In truth, though, the race is pretty wide open and most of the 10 entered have a claim.
Saturday's $150,000 Northern Spur at Oaklawn Park is for 3-year-olds not up to the Derby standards. It's a competitive field but California invader Cistron might be worth a look if he can translate his turf form to the Arkansas dirt.
Benner Island is the morning-line favorite for Friday's $400,000 Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park in a race that features several who came close in other recent graded stakes. Benner Island was second in the local Grade III Honeybee. Vexatious was third in the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks. Kell Paso was second in the Sunland Park Oaks. Spooky Woods was third in the Grade III Santa Ysabela at Santa Anita. This is one for the old "hatpin in the program" handicapping technique.
With Miss Temple City still on the sidelines after a minor training mishap, there's no big favorite in Friday's $300,000 Grade I Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland. There is, however, a big and competitive field including the lukewarm 3-1 morning-line favorite Heart to Heart. Handicappers will have to sort through the likes of Bolo, Blacktype, What a View and Inspector Lynley among the dozen hopefuls.
Filly & Mare Turf
Lady Eli, the best feel-good story in recent American racing, is back in action in Saturday's $350,000 Coolmore Grade I Jenny Wiley Stakes for fillies and mares at Keeneland. The 5-year-old daughter of Divine Park battled back from a near-fatal bout of laminitis to finish second in the Grade II Balston Spa last August, win the Grade I Flower Bowl and Belmont and then just miss to Queen's Trust in the Breeders' Cup. She has been idle since but rates as the even-money favorite Saturday. Dickinson, Time and Motion, Illuminant, Quidura and Catch a Glimpse are all good mares but might be outmatched if Lady Eli is as ready to roll as her workouts indicate.
Well, well, well, here's Lady Aurelia back home. The Scat Daddy filly, now 3, won at first asking at Keeneland a year ago, then crossed the Atlantic to win the Grade II Queen Mary at Royal Ascot and the Group I Prix Morny in France before fading to finish third in the Group1 Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket in September. She resurfaces in Saturday's $100,000 Giant's Causeway Stakes for fillies and mares going 5 1/2 furlongs over the Keeneland greensward. She has been working steadily and speedily for trainer Wesley Ward, first at Turfway Park, then at Keeneland and hopes are high. A good showing could be her farewell party prior to another European sojurn. The other 13 in Saturday's field are less accomplished although a few have been running well at much lower class levels than those European races. Rapid Rhythm might be the danger after winning both her starts at Fair Grounds with late moves.
Seven turned out for Saturday's $750,000 Grade II Oaklawn Handicap at 9 furlongs and there's some class in the crowd. Midnight Storm has won five of his last seven starts in California and finished second to Ghostzapper in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap in his last start. Madefromlucky returns from Florida after a third-place finish in the Essex Handicap last March. Texas Chrome was tough as nails in the Midwest last season, including a win in the Grade III Oklahoma Derby, misfired badly in the Breeders' Cup Mile and makes his 4-year-old debut. Domain's Rap has been best of the locals in recent efforts.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Ben Ali at Keeneland got seven takers, most of them seemingly with a chance. Eagle, a 5-year-old son of Candy Ride, is the narrow morning-line favorite off some good efforts in New Orleans. Watershed, Scuba, Bird Song and California invader Conquest Enforcer all rate a look in this 9-furlongs event although the latter tries the dirt for the first time.
Stellar Wind returns to action in Friday's $600,000 Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park for the first time since finishing third behind the breathtaking stretch duel between Beholder and Songbird in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Stellar Wind, a 5-year-old Curlin mare, is the 3-5 favorite on the morning line despite the layoff. Terra Promessa, victim of a brutal trip in her last start, gets another chance here. The 4-year-old Curlin filly was undefeated in five previous starts at the Hot Springs oval but was caught in traffic in the first turn in the Grade II Azeri, boxed in throughout and finished fifth. The Azeri winner, Streamline, also is back in a field of six.
Whitmore has been tough to beat at the Southern Spa this season, winning easily in each of his two starts. He gets some visitors in Saturday's $400,000 Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap, a 6-furlongs affair over the Oaklawn oval. Moe Candy comes from California, where he won three straight before finishing second in the Grade II Palos Verdes. Chief Cicatriz was a terror in New Mexico but finished up the track in his first try at Oaklawn. The others mostly have been chasing Whitmore.
It's another "you pick 'em" in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Los Angeles Handicap at Santa Anita with five set to go 6 furlongs. The oddsmaker couldn't find much to differentiate among Kentuckian, Grazen Sky, Ike Walker, Lord Simba and Eastwood. Nor can we.
Eight are assembled for Saturday's $100,000 (Canadian) Jacques Cartier Stakes as Woodbine returns to action. There are several prospects for the 6 furlongs on the all-weather, including the three favorites, Staked Deck, Pink Lloyd and Puntrooski.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Sunday's $100,000 (Canadian) Star Shoot Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Woodbine, a 6-furlongs dash on the all-weather, has a field of seven. Will She, one of two Ontario-breds, completed her 2-year-old career with a win in the Fanfreluche Stakes. Gilded Lily comes from the Turfway Park all-weather where she most recently was fourth in the Grade III Bourbonette Oaks. Others come from Fair Grounds and Gulfstream Park. Wesley Ward sends Red Lodge.
Sunday's $110,000 Copper Top Futurity is for New Mexico-breds at 4 1/2 furlongs over the Sunland Park track.
Friday is Finals Day for the winter-long All-Weather Championships. The various divisional qualifiers come together at Lingfield Park to scrap for 1 million pounds in purses. The program has grown to provide substantial interest in flat racing during previously dark months. And it has proved a testing ground for horses heading back and forth to Dubai during the winter and early spring.
The first Longines World's Best Racehorses ranking of 2017 contains no surprises. Arrogate, who overcame a disastrous start to add last month's Dubai World Cup to his resume, remains atop the list with a 134 rating. Australian mare Winx is No. 2 with a 132 mark. Tied at 123 are Gun Runner, Hartnell and Jack Hobbes. More on this developing story as the year rolls on.