The field is set for Saturday's 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby and, with a chance of rain during the weekend, the race is well and truly up for grabs.
As usual, Churchill Downs has assembled a stellar program not only for Derby Day but also supporting Friday's Kentucky Oaks. There are 13 graded stakes during the two days, five of them Grade I affairs.
Meanwhile, preparations for the prototype Derby and Oaks -- the ones on Epsom Downs -- reach the boiling point Saturday and Sunday at Newmarket with the QIPCO 2,000 Guineas and QIPCO 1,000 Guineas.
Hong Kong has two international Group 1 events on Sunday at Sha Tin with the potential for some surprises.
But it's no surprise that we start with the:
The morning-line favorite for the Run for the Roses, 2016 2-year-old champion and Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire, drew gate No. 14 in Wednesday's ceremony and oddsmaker Mike Battaglia pegged him at 4-1. After him, Battaglia liked both the Florida Derby winner, Always Dreaming, and McCraken, to the tune of 5-1 and Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry at 6-1. The rest are double-digit odds on the line.
There are some things not to like about all three favorites. Classic Empire's 3-year-old campaign got off to a slow start and features a third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes. Always Dreaming has been a runaway train during Churchill Downs morning drills, requiring a change in riders and modification of his equipment to keep him under control. And McCraken's Derby preps have been interrupted by some minor dings and he was third in the Blue Grass at Keeneland in a catch-up effort.
That said, it's a wide-open race, especially with uncertain weather in Louisville during the weekend. The field also includes UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow, perhaps Sheik Mohammed's best-ever chance to win the Run for the Roses; Spiral Stakes winner Fast and Accurate, a $200,000 supplement; Louisiana Derby winner Girvin; Sunland Park Derby winner Hence; and Blue Grass winner Irap, along with the second- and third-place horses from many of those top Derby prep races.
Many of the likely choices in the 20-horse field show a similar running style -- sticking close to the front to set up a stretch run. But there are some late runners, too, who would benefit from a hot early pace. As always, the Kentucky Derby will be a fascinating race.
Looking forward to the remainder of the Triple Crown series, Belmont Park stands to cash in big on its offer of a $1 million bonus for any Japanese-trained horse winning the Belmont Stakes on June 10. Epicharis, second in the Group 2 UAE Derby behind Thunder Snow, has been confirmed for the Belmont and the New York Racing Association is awaiting final approval of betting in Japan on the Belmont.
Japanese punters are famously supportive of their horses in international competition and the additional wagering should provide significant revenue for NYRA. The arrangement also could presage further international exposure for U.S. racing and encourage additional foreign entries in major American events. The only previous American race made available for wagering in Japan was the 2016 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, where Japan's Nuovo Record finished 11th.
It's worth noting that Epicharis was afforded a guaranteed spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate as the winner of the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby." His connections said he needed more time to recover from the Dubai trip.
The Derby gets all the glitz and glamor but the Kentucky Oaks is just about as important to the industry as an indicator of potential star quality both for racing and breeding.
Fourteen 3-year-old fillies set for Friday's Oaks at Churchill Downs are headed by 5-2 morning-line favorite Paradise Woods. The Union Rags filly has made only one stakes start but it was an impressive one -- an 11 3/4-lengths score in the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks. Flavien Prat will have the mount for trainer Richard Mandella and start from gate No. 4.
The next two picks on Battaglia's morning line are Miss Sky Warrior, winner of five straight races including the Grade II Gazelle, which she took by 13 lengths, and Farrell, who dominated 3-year-old fillies during the winter and spring in New Orleans and also won the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs last fall.
If the predicted rain materializes, Farrell is the most proven commodity among the favorites with two wins from three tries on off tracks. Neither Paradise Woods nor Miss Sky Warrior has set hoof on a wet track for an actual race.
Remember, if you can't get to the track, Horse Racing Radio Network (www.horseracingradio.net) has exclusive live coverage throughout the big weekend. And to help sort through the top-quality races, it's analyst Jude Feld at www.popejude.com.
Detouring to the international scene:
Two Group 1 events at Sha Tin on Sunday are mostly local affairs, with only two foreign runners in the Champions Mile and none at all in the Chairman's Sprint Prize. But Hong Kong's horses are good enough that both races are still top-shelf.
Seven are set for the Champions Mile and most eyes will be on Rapper Dragon, the first horse ever to sweep Hong Kong's Classic Four-Year-Old series. The gelding is on the leading edge of a 4-year-old crop expected to take over for some retiring veterans during the 2017-18 season. "He's the best horse in Hong Kong," said jockey Joao Moreira, who will ride Rapper Dragon for trainer John Moore, who also fields proven Group 1-level performer Helene Paragon.
Beauty Only, winner of the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile in December, is a threat in the Champions Mile but has been off his feed in the past few starts. The two foreigners are Stormy Antarctic, who will seek to regain his 2-year-old form, and Convey, who has blossomed since being gelded during the winter and produced sparkling wins on the English all-weather courses in his last two starts.
The entire field in the Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize is based in Hong Kong. It's also a strong and competitive field featuring Aerovelocity, a Group 1 winner in three countries and victor in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint last December. Aerovelocity, however, was placed on a vet's watch list Thursday with some lameness issues.
Lucky Bubbles was second in this race last year behind Australian superstar Chautauqua and second to Aerovelocity in December. Peniaphobia was third in the December race. Mr. Stunning, another upward-trending 4-year-old, jumped up to win the Group 2 Sprint Cup last month and isn't handicapped by regular rider Moreira. The others will need to improve to compete in this company. Amazing Kids and Not Listenin'tome have run some good races in Hong Kong but both return from unproductive efforts on World Cup night in Dubai.
The Chairman's Sprint Prize is the fourth leg of the Global Sprint Challenge.
Churchill the prime minister certainly wasn't accustomed to losing and, recently, neither is his equine namesake. The Galileo colt comes to Saturday's QIPCO 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket with four wins from his last four starts for trainer Aidan O'Brien and the Coolmore connections and looks a solid favorite for this race although it's his first start of the season and first beyond 7 furlongs. The waters, obviously, will be tougher yet if Churchill advances to the Investec Derby next month.
O'Brien also fields Lancaster Bomber, who was second behind Oscar Performance in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last fall and then a promising fourth in the Group 2 UAE Derby in his 3-year-old debut.
Barney Roy is 2-for-2 and returns on short rest after winning a key race, the Group 3 JLT Greenham Stakes on April 22 at Newbury with his Godolphin teammate Dream Castle second. Al Wukair is 3-for-3, most recently landing the Group 3 Prix Djebel at Maisons-Laffitte in France. Eminent and Rivet finished 1-2 in the Group 3 Craven Stakes in their last meeting.
Sunday it's the QIPCO 1,000 Guineas with several of the 3-year-old fillies also entered for the Oaks. Notable here: The O'Brien-trained bouquet of Rhododendron, Hydrangea and Intricately.
Back in North America:
Churchill Downs on Saturday
Miss Temple City returns to action as the favorite in the $300,000 Grade II Distaff Turf Mile. The 5-year-old mare, twice a visitor to Royal Ascot, will be ticketed for another visit with Her Majesty the Queen if she performs to expectations here. The competition includes Roca Rojo, who finished second, a nose behind Miss Temple City, in the Grade I Matriarch at Del Mar last December. Neither has raced since that event. Believe in Bertie swept in four starts during the Fair Grounds season but wasn't facing the likes of the top two here.
Finest City scratched from Friday's 1 1/16-miles La Troienne in favor of the $300,000 Grade I Humana Distaff at 7 furlongs on Derby Day and is the morning-line favorite in a field of seven. The distance may be more in her wheelhouse but the competition arguably is stiffer, including Carina Mia, who is 2-for-2 under the twin spires, and Paulassilverlining, who exits a win in the Grade I Madison at Keeneland.
The $250,000 Grade III Pat Day Mile features several 3-year-olds who were diverted from the rigors of the Triple Crown trail. What it does not feature is a clear favorite as oddsmaker Mike Battaglia has Wild Shot as the 4-1 favorite and three of the other 12 listed at 5-1. Wild Shot was third in the Tampa Bay Derby but as a 2-year-old showed promise at Churchill Downs, finishing second to McCraken in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club. The 5-1 offerings are Louisiana Derby third Local Hero, Lexington Stakes third No Dozing and Oaklawn Park invader Uncontested.
Last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner, Oscar Performance, is the morning-line favorite for the $300,000 Grade II American Turf, a 1 1/16-miles test for 3-year-olds. The Kitten's Joy colt faces two who defeated him in his only previous race this year -- Big Score and Holiday Stone, as well as La Colonel, a talented filly who won the Grade III Appalachian at Keeneland in her last start. Several others look capable, too.
Denman's Call and Masochistic, the first two finishers from the Grade I Triple Bend at Santa Anita in March, top a field of 14 for the $500,000 Grade II Churchill Downs at 7 furlongs. Awesome Slew and Limousine Liberal arrive after finishing first and third in the Grade III Commonwealth at Keeneland.
The $500,000 Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic is a wide-open affair with a dozen set to go 9 furlongs on the grass. Beach Patrol, World Approval, Bal a Bali, Conquest Panthera and Divisidero all rate a chance on their recent form. So do the top three finishers from the recent Grade II Muniz Memorial at Fair Grounds -- Enterprising, Kasaqui and Oscar Nominated.
Churchill Downs on Friday
Paid Up Subscriber is the favorite among eight fillies and mares entered for the $300,000 Grade I La Troienne at 1 1/16 miles on the dirt. Paid Up Subscriber hasn't won for a while but is 3-for-3 at Churchill Downs including the Grade II Fleur de Lis last June. Don't overlook Streamline and Eskenformoney, the first two finishers in the Grade II Azeri at Oaklawn Park on March 18. Finest City, winner of the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint last fall, also was entered here but instead will run on Sunday.
The $400,000 Grade II Alysheba at 1 1/16 miles serves as a comeback race for American Freedom, last seen finishing second as Arrogate vaulted to stardom in last summer's Grade I Travers. Granted, he was 13 1/2 lengths behind Arrogate. But he did beat Gun Runner by 1 1/2 lengths that day and Gun Runner certainly is no slouch. Also here are the likes of Honorable Duty and Breaking Lucky, the first two across the line in the Grade II New Orleans Handicap; Bird Song, winner of the Grade III Fred Hooper at Gulfstream Park; last year's Louisiana Derby winner, International Star; and French-bred Behesht, who makes his first start on the main track as a total question mark.
In the $150,000 Grade III Twin Spires Turf Sprint, Pure Sensation makes his first start since finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint last fall. Holding Gold and Green Mask come to this after running 1-2 in the Grade II Shakertown at Keeneland. Why Two has been idle since winning the Green Flash at Del Mar last August but has been working well for his comeback. A baker's dozen entered for the 5 1/2 furlongs.
A field of 14 is on hand for the $200,000 Grade II Eight Belles featuring 3-year-old fillies going 7 furlongs on the main track. The morning-line pick is Ghalia, a lightly raced Todd Pletcher-trained filly who won the Sunland Park Oaks in her last start. Union Strike comes from California with some plusses and minuses and Florida Fabulous looked fabulous in Florida, winning both her starts, but steps way up in class. Many of the others -- notably Pretty City Dancer, Let It Ride Mom and Cajun Delta Dawn -- have turned in quality performances at one time or another.
The $150,000 Grade III Edgewood for 3-year-old fillies is slated for 1 1/16 miles on the turf. The heavy favorites are an entry of La Colonel and Dream Dancing, both graded stakes winners on the lawn. After that, it's wide open. And it's worth noting none of the 13 entered for this has any meaningful experience on turf other than firm.
Odds and ends:
The Churchill Downs juggernaut overshadows everything but there are some nice turf races on tap this weekend, too. Belmont Park on Saturday has the $200,000 Grade II Sheepshead Bay at 11 furlongs for fillies and mares and the $150,000 Grade III Fort Marcy at 9 furlongs. At Santa Anita, 3-year-old fillies go 1 mile on the grass in the $100,000 Grade III Senorita.
Belmont also has the $200,000 Grade III Vagrancy for filly and mare sprinters on Kentucky Oaks day and the $200,000 Grade III Westchester on Saturday. The latter is a traditional prep for the Met Mile on Belmont Stakes day.
Catching up a bit: Kiriaki earned a spot in this fall's $2 million Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff with a victory in Monday's Group 1 Gran Premio Criadores at Palermo in Buenos Aires. The race was part of the International Breeders' Cup Challenge and the victory earned entry fees and a $40,000 travel allowance should the owners opt to accept the guaranteed spot in the Nov. 3 race at Del Mar. Kiriaki, who was second in last year's Gran Premio Criadores, wore down Hispanidad in the final yards to take the tight win Monday, finishing the 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.46. It was her second straight Group 1 win with the previous victory coming on the turf.